Flu season, carers' leave and the career stumbling block we don't speak about

This article was first published elsewhere in June 2023.


No matter how big or small, every business owner sometimes gets the urge to throw it all into the bin and get a “normal” job. While this happens only occasionally for me, I recently had the unsettling revelation that this option isn’t available to me right now. Not because of some virtuous reason of “serving families” or “doing my life’s work” but, depressingly, because my kids and I are sick too often for me to hold down a regular job.

man holding white and gray bottle
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As autumn arrived, I wrote on Instagram about how the cool evening air brought with it an unsettling, visceral feeling of dread. Fear about the upcoming winter curdled in my stomach and set me on edge. It had been around this time last year, with me already in the nausea of the first trimester with my second baby, that our run of 13 viruses and bugs began, the grand finale of which was a bout of gastro at 40 weeks and 5 days pregnant (10 out of 10 do not recommend). After the pandemic-induced isolation of previous years, with me in my relatively immunosuppressed pregnant state and my then 3 year old in her first winter of child care, she and I caught what felt like anything and everything going – colds, flu A, flu B, Covid, RSV, hand, foot and mouth, Covid again, the works.

This year, with that first year of daycare onslaught under our belt and me no longer pregnant, I am hoping for better, but the start has not been a promising one. In the weeks that followed my nervous-about-winter-bugs post, my now 4 year old’s childcare attendance record read as follows: absent one week, present the next, absent again the following, present again. I’m hoping she’ll string together a few weeks in a row sometime soon but who can predict the timing of such a fantastic feat?

Which brings me back to my original point – how the heck are parents of small children meant to keep a “proper” job with a “proper” boss?

Here in Australia, permanent full-time employees have a right to 10 days paid sick and carers leave (lumped together as “personal leave”) per year, and part timers receive a pro-rata amount. The FairWork website notes:

“From 1935 to the 1970s,  paid sick leave and annual leave were gradually introduced into federal awards until 10 days sick leave and 4 weeks annual leave became standard.”

For context: women in the public service were still expected to retire their position upon marriage (let alone having a child!) until 1966, and formal child-care wasn’t available at all until the 1970s, a time when “working mothers were considered controversial”. Considering women were still fighting for equal pay for equal work in this decade through courts and trade unions, one can safely assume policies related to sick leave were being drafted with the needs of male workers (not females, and most certainly not mothers or Default Parents) in mind.

Fast forward to 1980 and 40% of Australian Male/Female-couple-with-dependent-children families had both parents working. Leap forward again to the 2022 data and the rate stands at 71% of M/F, two parent households, with fathers remaining more likely to work full time and earn more than the mother.

If we really zoom in by age group, we see that in 1967, women (regardless of motherhood) aged 25-34 were employed 35% of the time and 40% of the time if aged 35-44. Now it’s 78% of 25-34 year olds and 80% of 35-44 year olds. Don’t worry too much about remembering the stats - the take home points here are that more mothers are working than they have been in generations past, and they are returning to paid employment when their children are younger than working mothers in previous years did too.

With these demographic changes in mind you’d hope that leave allowances for parents might have been updated sometime in the half century since their inception, but apparently no one in parliament has bothered to do so.

In my household, we have found ourselves following the current normative social script: Dad works full time, I work the equivalent hours of a day or two per week. If I worked two days a week for an employer (rather than myself) on a permanent part-time contract, I’d be eligible to a whopping (/sarcasm) four days of combined sick and carers’ leave per year. These four days would’ve been used up in the first three weeks of April alone, assuming I had them to spare in the first place.

So how do parents manage more structured work participation when their kids are sick?

[Before I go on, I want note that as with most things parenting, the data available on this topic is representative of the narrow lenses of the gender binary and nuclear family model. Sorry if you don’t see yourself represented here - you and your parenting matter.]

Beyond having a grandparent figure who is trustworthy, robust enough, in striking distance and willing to bathe themselves in your child’s secretions as a sacrificial lamb while you trot off to work, the options are slim.

For close on half the M/F couple population, I suspect the answer appears to be “my wife handles it”. In her book, The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives, Annabel Crabb notes that “wives are a cracking professional asset". Similar to my definition of the “Default Parent”, she argues that ‘wives’ can be of any gender, defining them as follows:

“A wife, traditionally, is person who pulls back on paid work in order to do more of the unpaid work that accumulates around the home (cleaning, fixing stuff, being around for when the plumber doesn’t turn up, spending a subsequent hour on hold to find out why the plumber didn’t turn up, and so on). This sort of work goes into overdrive once you add children to the equation, and the list of household jobs grows exponentially… Many wives work but they do jobs that are either part-time or offer sufficient flexibility for the accomodation of late-breaking debacles.”

While political journalist Crabb likely refers to “late-breaking debacles” of the ‘breaking parliamentary news’ kind, I would argue that an equally urgent debacle requiring immediate and rolling coverage is suddenly sick children who, by virtue of being actual humans not tamagotchis, need other, larger humans to both care for and comfort them.

two babies and woman sitting on sofa while holding baby and watching on tablet
Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

Crabb notes that 60% of Australian families with kids under 15 have a father working full time with a mother who plays the role she defines as “wife”, while only 3% have a mum working full time and a dad who’s filling the “wife” role. Men get wives, and when they do, they are the ones with the “serious career”, the one upon who’s wage the family is most reliant. In this situation, although they may be the ones with greater available sick and carers’ leave (likely the ten days available annually to full-time employees), they are less likely to use it for risk of employer retribution, non-promotion or both.

Expectations remain that men will prioritise employment and career, while women will prioritise (or at least be the default providers of) unpaid child care. One mother I spoke to while researching for my book recounted how the father of her children was hauled over the coals at an annual performance review due to number of carers’ leave days he’d taken that year. Despite working the same contracted hours, in the same work team, and using an equal number of days carers’ leave, he was roasted for his lack of commitment, when the amount of leave taken by the mother wasn’t questioned at all.

It’s not exactly a peer-reviewed, gold standard study, but this article reports on a poll from Essential Baby where mothers were primary carers for sick kids 41% of the time. 48% of respondents indicated parents shared caregiving responsibilities between two parents, leaving a mere 11% to be shared across everyone else - not just fathers but grandparents and paid caregivers too.

This sample of 900 parents also indicated that mothers were double as likely to take unpaid carers’ leave to care for sick kids. While paid leave accrues both more leave and superannuation, unpaid leave does not, and mothers are drawing the short straw here too. Men, it seems, are (sometimes) willing and able to share care whilst taking legislated paid leave, but they, their employers or both consider unpaid time off to wipe noses a perplexing affront to the disappointingly still financially focused job description of “family man”.

With this in mind, I will reword my original question: How do primary caregiving parents, the majority of whom are employed mothers, manage it when kids are sick?

“In rushed panic” are the words that spring to mind. The second most commonly-reported challenge by working parents in Australia (again, I suspect mostly mothers and birth parents) after “the financial costs of child care” (49%) is “finding care for a sick child” (35%).

“With great guilt about sending them to childcare, even when they should really be at home” would be another fairly common response. Clearly this is not possible when a vomiting bug is in full swing, but different child care centres have different rules regarding what degrees of snottiness is acceptable, and parents who work outside the home find themselves treading a much finer line on this than those who don’t. This spins the cycle of kid sickness to the next families, and the educators too (who I might add, are mostly mothers and/or Default Parents themselves). Give it a month or two and those working parents who sent their sick kids to care will inevitably see a variation on those same germs land back on their own doorstep, but without additional support options and workplace understanding, what choices do they have?

Again, the answer is “not many”. Some mothers can wrangle working from home as a temporary sickness response or permanent solution to a lack of child-care. While this sounds marvellous (hello, zoom meetings wearing pyjama pants), it’s not exactly coming up roses for women. If you cast your mind back to lockdown when we saw a mass exodus of mothers from the workforce, it becomes obvious that working from home while caring for kids is not nearly as easy as simply plopping them in front of the telly and walking away.

In 2021, journalist Joanna Partridge penned an article for the Guardian, aptly headlined  “Flexible working: ‘A system set up for women to fail’”. She reported mothers are more likely to request working from home than men (23% more likely, according to this poll), yet those who are physically present in the office are more likely to feel part of the team, attract and keep contracts, and be promoted. Unless all employees are working from home, Partridge argues, women working from home are left behind, even if they are working more productively and/or at a higher intensity than those in the office due to simultaneous care work.

Another less-spoken-of strategy amongst mothers juggling kids and employment is to adjust the type and timing of work they do. This might mean working nights or weekends, or it may be about the type of contracts they negotiate or accept.

Currently, the majority of Australian working mothers do so under “non-standard” employment contracts. According to the Melbourne Institute:

“Women are overrepresented in three out of the four most common types of nonstandard employment: fixed-term contracts, casual employment and permanent part-time work.”

These kinds of jobs makes up 61% of female jobs, compared to 37% for males.

Casting my mind back to previous health care, disability, retail and hospitality workplaces, I can recall many mothers shrugging their shoulders while explaining they turned down offers of permanency so they could cancel shifts (as casuals, this is theoretically without penalty) at the last minute in case something came up with their kids, because care inevitably fell to them.

Unfortunately, the flexibility that many working mothers seek comes at a cost. The same report tells us “non-standard forms of work also typically lack the stability and employment benefits that are offered by traditional forms of employment.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how reduced workforce participation is linked to reduced opportunity for promotion and job insecurity, but also bigger safety concerns like women and children’s poverty, difficulty breaking free of domestic violence, reduced superannuation accumulation and elder female houselessness.

Even with all the juggling in the world, sometimes mothers find it’s just not possible to make work, well, work, at least not when illness is in the mix. It’s tough to say this when I value economic safety and following our dreams and all the supposedly empowering things, but are times when we might just need to step away.

Last year, in the midst of our relentless run of viruses, I made the difficult decision to contact a postpartum client, explain how I didn’t feel capable of properly supporting her, and offer a refund on the remainder of our doula sessions. I felt like I was letting her down, yet also recognised both my limits and the financial privilege I had in being able to offer a refund and walk away from that contract.

Clearly, for some parents, particularly single mothers (67.3% of whom work overall, and 51.7% when the youngest child was aged 0-4), the option to walk away from work is not on the table for financial reasons, or is an absolute last resort. For mothers and parents with disabled children, children with additional needs or a chronic illness impacting many levels of life beyond the barrage of seasonal sickness, this might be the only way for your child to receive adequate care. This again risks significant financial strain. If you find yourself in one or both of these camps, I’m sorry our society doesn’t properly value your contributions, and that our woeful welfare systems don’t come close to providing the resources you need to live well.

Before sharing my proposals for a fairer way forward, I wanted to touch on one final way we manage sick children as mothers and primary parents, which is spending a lot of time sick ourselves. This article and many others discuss finding care for sick kids and alternative work arrangements as easily manoeuvrable pieces of a logistical puzzle to keep on in employment ourselves, yet this ignores the reality is that when kids are sick, their adult caregivers are more likely to be sick too.

Following that thread a little further, when mothers are doing more caregiving in male/female parent households and single parent families, I surmise it is mothers who wind up getting sicker more often than fathers. This extends to Default Parents everywhere. Kids need to build up an immune system in their early years and will inevitably get sick, but by pitting (primarily) mothers and birth parents as default carers during this time, we are essentially signing off on the state-sanctioned depletion of a marginalised group already ravaged by undersupported pregnancy, forgotten postpartum and ignored early years needs.

a woman holds her hands over her face
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

With the problem laid bare, where do we go from here?

This isn’t an election pitch, but if it was, here’s what I’d propose we do on a societal level:

  • Tax the rich and ensure everyone had a Living Wage (also known as a universal basic income, or UBI) that actually covered the cost of living rather than driving people into poverty if they miss work. [We know poverty is linked to a whole stack of other health and social issues, so this would reduce state expenditure on health care, policing, prisons etc. It’s totally doable, poverty is a political choice.]

  • Implement a four day working week as standard full-time employment (the benefits and logistics of the 4 day work week and the concept of the UBI are discussed in this excellent episode of Upstream podcast, recommended on Kate Bullen-Casanova’s Family Centred Rebellion substack].

  • Return payment of paid “personal leave” (which includes sick and carer leave) to the government rather than individual employers, as happened when COVID-19 measures were in place, to reduce employer perception of a job candidate’s motherhood or Default Parent status as a personal liability to their business.

  • Immediately increase personal leave from 2 weeks to 3 weeks per year FTE for parents and primary carers of vulnerable people (FTE stands for Full-Time Equivalent, so 8 days under the 4 day work week model, or 10 days under the 5 day work week model). This is in recognition that they will likely be sicker more often than non-parents and that the pandemic is, contrary to the economically-fuelled messages we are hearing, not over.

  • Each child be allocated 2 weeks (again, 8 days under the 4 day work week model, or 10 days under the 5 day work week model) of paid leave connected to them which any parent or close regular caregiver can take and be paid for. This would be separate from the personal leave for each FTE employee as described above, and give more options when parents are ill themselves to support recovery.

  • Employers be required to publish annual statistics reporting how much paid and unpaid leave or flexible work options were taken by parents to care for children, and seek to positively influence workplace culture to actively remedy any gender-based disparity.

In reality we are unlikely to wake tomorrow to this utopia, so having the hard chats at home and work might make the issue more visible and get small tangible results. These chats might include, but not be limited to:

  • Discussing why the father or non-default parent has paid leave available while you are taking unpaid leave, if indeed this is the best way forward for your family and brainstorming how to make it feel fairer.

  • Encouraging the men in your work team to work from home (if possible) or take carers’ leave when they have sick kids and/or the mothers of their children are sick themselves. If they decline, this is an opportunity to discuss why they feel it’s difficult to do so. (Crabb’s The Wife Drought notes how cis men often think they and their interrupted focus at work is irreplaceable, yet have never considered how their boss would absolutely find a way to replace them for an entire year if they were the ones who grew babies and required maternity leave).

  • Suggesting more flexible job sharing, casual staff or a move to diffused leadership models within your organisation to reduce pressure to be at work (or attempt working from home) when there’s illness in the house.

  • Talking with other single or solo parents about the possibility of creating “care bubbles”, similar to those in place during lockdown, where you can schedule regular care swaps when well and discuss the potential for inter-personal support of various kinds if either parents or children are sick.

  • Getting really clear on what you are entitled to under your contract, and calling it out if your employer is breaching their obligations (being a union member often helps here too.)

  • Reminding your local MP that throwing money at childcare won’t miraculously solve the problems mothers and Default Parents face in accessing paid work, and that parents performing paid work shouldn’t be required for children to live above the poverty line.

Kids get sick, someone needs to care for them, and in 2023 Australia, that ‘someone’ is usually their Default Parent, who is usually their mum. The fact it’s taken six weeks, near continuous snotty noses and a bout each of croup, gastro and conjunctivitis since starting work on this article to completing it is testament to that reality. More than any other time of year, the slide into flu season reminds us just how literally fully sick modern motherhood is, and how much Default Parents are taken for granted under capitalist patriarchy.

There is so little we can control about this season of year and of child-raising, and the dread of impending illness ahead still grumbles about inside me. If you are in that anxious place too, I absolutely, totally, completely get it. And yet, although self-care can never replace true community care, I would also like to remind you, dear reader, that as the world tells you to push on, you are deserving of rest and care, and that even if that care has to come from being kind to yourself, it’s still worth doing.

Whether your household is well or ill, keep your feet warm, dig out your scarf and sit with your back to the sun. Ignore Wim Hoff and his ice bath ludicrousness and revel showers so hot the steam rises from your skin as you reach from your towel. Move if you want to, snuggle if you don’t, sink into mountains of blankets. Drink tea, eat soup, and go to bed with a book as early as you can.

Yes, take action when and where you can, yes, take care of others, and most of all take care of you. This too shall pass, at least until next year.

Sending immune strength, self-compassion and seeds of sweeping social revolution,



Want to chat more about this article, share your experience as the Default Parent with others, or ask me your questions? You might like to join my low-cost online membership community or book a one on one motherhood support session with me.


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