The state of affairs is absurd and is worth saying out loud: I've been led by a sexist culture to believe that men don't take care of sick kids. That's what Moms do.
But here was my son clinging to my legs, crying, and lifting his arms to me like I was the only person in the whole world who could make him feel better. And, for these few days at least, I was.
So I sucked it up and took some time off to take care of the kid. My wife and I juggled our jobs and emails and editing assignments along with our kid's sickness and each other's precarious mental states. And it was really hard. Goddamn it was hard. We are worked.
But as I sat at the park with him today, the little guy recovered enough to bounce up and down with joy at the sight of a dog chasing a ball, but not quite recovered enough to go scooting after the animal, my wife texted.
"I am feeling a lot of guilt about you having to reconfigure your day so much," she said. "Is it ok? Can I release the guilt?"
And I realized I was holding onto some guilt, too. Like I had abandoned my work, which I care deeply about, for a sick kid. Then, it suddenly seemed crazy that we were both feeling guilt over working and taking care of a kid. Of course it was okay for both of us to be doing exactly what we were doing.
So I sent back a picture of him, his hair sticking up in the back like Alfalfa and I said, "What could be better?" And, I added, "We both work: this is the reality of it."
And she said, "I’ll admit there’s something kind of—I don’t know what the word is, but it’s a good word—about juggling this together as a team."
It had seemed like a hassle, but it was the point that we do this negotiation. That's both the cost and the payoff of breaking out of the gender roles that make these decisions both automatic and invisible. We get to do what works for us, for our kid, for our family, but in return, we have to juggle and manage and figure it all out on the fly.
There's a lot of policy work that needs to happen to keep women not just in the workforce, but thriving there. Let's start with paid maternity leave. Paternity leave, too. And there are binders full of best-practices that most companies don't implement.
But no policy solution could have intervened in our situation. The variables were few and personal: two parents, two jobs, one sick kid. The default of the culture is to value the man's work over the woman's.
So, we had to make the conscious decision to treat our work equally and let Dad lead the child care while Mom worked. Because that's what made sense for our family.
My hunch is that if enough dads stopped leaning on their partners in these situations—talk about unacknowledged male privilege—the culture would change. The problem of caring for sick kids would be seen as a universal necessity for the continuation of the species, instead of a site of concessions to working mothers.
He's asleep now. He ate well. He played at the park. The rash is fading. We feel less staggered by anxiety and exhaustion. Peace has returned.
And for what it's worth, the normal order of things has been restored, and Grandma has arrived and Grandpa is due next week, much to the relief of everyone.