My family and I came back from our holiday in Mexico in July, 2022 with mild sunburn, kitschy souvenirs and a 101 fever. By the next morning, two pink lines emerged on our at-home COVID tests.
I was grateful that my husband, our one-year-old, our three-year-old and I all seemed to have mild cases, but our positive tests meant 10 days of no childcare.
I am a part-time stay-at-home-parent, and, like 36 percent of employed Americans, I’m also a gig worker. If I don’t log my hours writing content at the educational tech company where I work, I don’t get paid. Had I been an employee of my company, instead of a contractor, New York State law would have required that I receive sick leave. But my status as a gig worker means that I don’t have such protections.
My earnings are modest, but in normal times, they’re enough to cover our mortgage. The past few months, though, have been anything but typical, and I’d have more luck buying myself a few nice dinners with my paycheck than making any mortgage payments. Fortunately, my husband’s job gives us a stable source of income, but we’re still left with thousands of dollars less in our budget than we had expected.
Working with Covid
I emailed my boss to let him know we had caught the virus, but that I would be fine to continue working.
Despite my message’s “No biggie. I got this” tone, I was panicking. How was I going to care for a sick toddler and baby with a pounding COVID headache myself, and manage to still do my job at the same time? I was far from the first parent to face this predicament in the past two and a half years, and I knew in many ways I was lucky. I had a husband with job flexibility who was an equal partner in parenting.
For the next 10 days, we “hot potatoed” the children between us. When my kids napped, instead of resting my own feverish body, or showering, or putting away the seemingly hundreds of Legos that appeared to be mating and reproducing overnight, I fetched my laptop and, surrounded by tissues, attempted to catch up on work.
My contract was for 25 hours a week. The week we were quarantined, I managed a meager eight.
By the end of our time in quarantine, I was plastered in snot, glitter, playdough, and tears. Meanwhile, my inbox was overflowing with unread emails, and the spreadsheet we use to track our tasks was filled with yellow “Ready to Start” boxes, when by the end of the week, each box should read “Done.”
A few days after we were released back into the world, my Slack dinged—it was my boss politely asking if I wanted to give a piece of my project to another person on our team. I assured him that we were all healthy now. With my kid’s school year about to start, I should have plenty of time to get my work done.
It seems comically naive in retrospect. Sure, our COVID infections were behind us, but what I didn’t realize was that we were barreling head on into a so-called “tripledemic” (COVID! Flu! RSV!)
Navigating the “tripledemic”
Two weeks into the start of the school year, I was laughing as our one-year-old showed off her new-found baby trick—giving high fives. But as she reached out her hand for the gazillionth time, my eyes narrowed. Between her tiny thumb and pointer, there was a red bump. I grabbed onto her hand, turning it from side to side.
After a quick Google search, I found those blisters were what I suspected: foot and mouth disease, a viral infection that spreads in preschools faster than butter on hot toast. I immediately remembered a half-read email from the school nurse earlier in the week. Seven out of 15 kids in my son’s class were currently out with the virus. That morning, I had noticed a pimple on my toddler’s lip—but I now realized it was no pimple. It was the “mouth” portion of hand foot and mouth disease.
I sent another email to my boss. “Just a heads up that we’re under the weather again here. I’ll still be working, of course, but there might be some lag time!” I wondered if my boss would detect the bitter undertones of my “of course”.
Then a week and a half after my son was back at school again, I strolled into his classroom at pickup, and a tiny masked human threw his arms around me. I looked up and saw a sea of similarly covered miniature faces. I silently groaned. We’re all for face coverings, but at this point in the pandemic when your preschooler’s teacher masks up their classroom, it only means one thing.
“They’ve all been coughing,” his teacher informed me.
He wasn’t allowed to step foot in school again without a doctor’s note, so we pleaded our way into a next-day appointment at our pediatrician. A quick nose swab later, we got our verdict: our toddler had RSV.
Back to the keyboard I went. “Wanted to send you a quick note that we’ve caught another bug. I’ll still be working, but if I’m a bit slow to reply, that’s why!” I was starting to feel like I needed a thesaurus just to write my I’m-Sorry-I-Can’t-Do-My-Job-Because-We’re-Living-Through-A-Tripledemic messages.
My boss replied, “No worries! Hope everyone feels better.” I was relieved to have a compassionate boss, but still it couldn’t change the fact that I needed to work if I wanted to get paid.
Implications for my career
Three weeks later, my phone buzzed with a message from my toddler’s school. Teachers rarely relay favorable information at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. I read the dreaded words, “Please pick your child up immediately.”
For once, it wasn’t illness. A teacher had left a child in the playground. As a result, the Department of Health closed the school for two weeks to review security procedures.
This time I didn’t bother to send a note. My team was so used to my being “a bit slow to respond,” I didn’t even think they would notice.
In all, my toddler has missed more than one out of every four days of school since the academic year started. In addition to feeling physically and emotionally depleted, I have made a fraction of my expected earnings the past few months.
I’ve also slept little, and my husband and I have bickered more. My patience for my kids has been low and our takeout bills have been high because at the end of our long days, no one has had the energy to cook dinner. We used to go to open houses on the weekend in hopes of getting a bigger place for our growing family. Now that dream feels just a little more out of reach.
Our three-year-old has been back at school for seven glorious days now. Sitting at our dining room table, I can get more work done in a few hours than I was getting done in a week when my son was home. I am relieved to see my work spreadsheet filling up with green “Done” boxes. And not only have I been able to get my work done on time, but I’ve also re-gained luxuries like sitting down for lunch and taking a shower every day.
I know it’s only a matter of time before illness strikes again but I also know we are still fortunate. While I don’t have sick days, I have an understanding boss and never worry that I’ll get fired if I need to take time. We are also a two-income household, and even with my diminished earnings, we’ve never had to worry about making mortgage payments or putting food on the table.
Still, when the Department of Health finally cleared our child’s school to reopen the week before winter vacation, my husband and I did a little shimmy as we left his classroom after drop-off. We had survived the two-week closure, and he was back at school. At least for now.
Lindsey Lange-Abramowitz is a writer based in New York. For more information, visit her website: lindseylangeabramowitz.com
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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