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Man down: Calling in reinforcements for the stay-at-home parent

When a stay-at-home parent is unexpectedly down for the count, who steps in? A mom realizes that a day away from her kids in an emergency means not only calling in backup, but figuring out exactly who that is.

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    In this Aug. 31, 2014 photo, Iyumary Buroz wears a walkie-talkie, her main tool as a guard, as she stands at the entrance of a residential complex on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela.
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In a recent episode of his popular web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld’s guest is television personality, Ali Wentworth. Because their children attend school together, Ms. Wentworth and her husband, journalist and political advisor George Stephanopoulos, have become good friends with Mr. Seinfeld and his wife Jessica. Much of the episode’s conversation, therefore, revolves around marriage, communication, and family life.

Wentworth relates a story over lunch about a recent accident and injury that kept her hospitalized and unable to care for her family. The two joke about the complications of what happens when mothers are out of commission. Wentworth describes the conflict she has with her husband over how to handle the situation.

Seinfeld is amused by her tactical description. He says, “This is all cop / drug unit talk, by the way, ‘I’m down’ ‘need backup.’ Do you have, like, a walkie in your house?”  

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I recently faced this dilemma myself. I needed back up, and a lot of it. It wasn’t too serious – just a minor, but emergency, dental surgery. However, for me, daily in charge of two small dependents, I had to round up my reinforcements.

As absurd as it may seem, I needed one person to drive me there and back due to sedation, one person to take my infant son, and another to take my 4-year-old daughter after school. One day and one night and I needed a three person arsenal to handle this simple situation.

I faced this for one day. What must this be like, I wondered, for single parents, parents whose spouses are deployed in the military, or work overseas? I can only see how fortunate I am to work from home and to have not just family, but also friends who will help me when I need them most. Still, for me and for most other parents I know, a “sick” day looks pretty much the same as a regular day – slogging through as best you can under whatever circumstances you’re facing. It isn’t unlike what Wentworth described and sometimes takes as much on-the-fly strategizing as any of us can muster.

Once in recovery, I basically had to let a lot of things slide: cereal for lunch, snacks my preschooler could get by herself, and quite a bit more than the average amount of “Handy Manny” and “Wild Kratts” on Netflix. Thankfully, my infant son naps a couple times a day and my daughter saw this as a fun exercise in learning a little more independence. Standards had to be utterly lax for me to survive those couple of days and remain a responsible caregiver, and for my offspring to survive, as well.

This is why the, sometimes cliched, phrase “it takes a village” makes so much sense. It’s unnerving to be this person, always in charge of the kids, no matter the circumstances. I’m sure it’s equally unnerving for my husband to be our primary breadwinner. I’ve seen him go to work sick to his stomach, injured, exhausted. As an independent contractor, if he’s out for even one day our carefully tuned budget falls apart. Neither of us get days off – there really isn’t such a thing anymore when you have kids.  

Without a significant support network, even in two parent households, a day off of work can mean a day or more of lost wages for one or both caregivers, in addition to the expense of the situation itself. Childcare costs are an enormous factor, with few large companies supporting parents with in-house daycare facilities that might make the work / life balance easier. A study released last year found that the annual cost of daycare exceeded the cost of in-state college tuition in 31 states. For many parents, the cost of childcare also outweighs the potential of a second income when time, commute expenses, wardrobe and other attendant expenses are factored together.

An astounding example of this happened about a year ago, when Yahoo, Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer banned employees from working from home while simultaneously paying to have a nursery installed in her office suite. Her human resources department cited many reasons why this was a shrewd move on Mayer’s part business-wise, but doubtless, it caused a lot of distress for employees and their families and the double-standard of Mayer’s position allowing her proximity to her child while denying others theirs, seems not a little cruel.

When our first child was born and I was working full-time, we stumbled through a couple of iterations of the childcare arrangements (me at home postpartum with the new baby on unpaid leave, then my husband at home for three months when I had to go back to work, then both of us working, with Grandma as daytime caregiver).

We moved to a cheaper location hoping to cut costs, hoping we could have one of us home full-time, and we eventually found a formula that worked well for us: My husband would work full-time in the day, I would work part-time as much as possible from home at night, on weekends and any other time I could find. Sure, we probably don’t sleep much, but it is the best option for now. Family members help us when they can or when they want to. A close network of friends in our small town help each other out when childcare is necessary and one or the other parent can’t provide it.

A dear friend of mine who home-schools her children just accepted a job that will add some much needed income for her family. Wisely, she sent out a Facebook message, effectively setting herself up for success in the support department by proposing a kind of babysitting exchange for the days when her husband or her father can’t cover her. Imagine the cost of a babysitter for three kids while one is trying to rebalance the home budget with a side gig. Even with much-needed recent rise in the minimum wage in some states, without family or friend support this would be a zero sum game.

Even for someone like Wentworth, who can afford an arsenal of paid assistance, she alluded to the fact that she hadn’t put in place a proper plan for the eventuality of being indisposed. The fight with Stephanopoulos about the situation, she said, was mostly due to his anxiety about how the family would cope with her gone.

Money can lubricate a situation, making it a little easier to deal with, but it doesn’t remove the emotional and physical fact of a parent’s absence, even for something minor. Our daughter spent the time we were gone with her grandmother, having a fun overnighter. Even though we’ve done this with her several times before, she asked me multiple times when I was going away again and for how long. She made it clear that she didn’t like it and didn’t want it to happen again.

It’s one thing to need support during family emergencies. What we don’t hear a lot about in the childcare debate are those times when a parent’s own emotional well-being is in need of a boost, perhaps with a little time away from the many and layered demands of parenting.

More than one mother I know considers a solo trip to the grocery store akin to a vacation (just strolling the aisles, no one screeching for a juice box or bag of cookies? Heaven.) This is to say nothing of taking time for one’s self for a much-needed yoga class, friend date, or adventure alone. The guilt alone is sometimes prohibitive but more often it’s time constraints, logistics, and financial considerations that stop most parents from getting the sanity breaks they really need.

Is it wrong I liked the extra hours of sleep I got after returning from the dentist, especially when you factor in months of lost sleep I’ve experienced caring for my infant? No, it’s not, but having no choice is not the best excuse to get a little shut-eye.

In the end, I was grateful for the excellent professional care I received, family support and the brief window of time I got to just lie down. It gave me a few minutes more than I usually have to be quiet and helped me realize that I need to introduce more balance into my life, somehow. Wherever possible, a shred of time for me before the little voices start calling my name.

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