The Secrets to a Smart Backup Plan
"Many arrangements self-destruct because parents aren't prepared," says Michelle LaRowe, author of Working Mom's 411. "You'd be surprised how many people don't think about the what-ifs ahead of time." In an ideal world, you'd head straight to a center created especially for mildly ill kids (see "Sick-Child Day Care? Yes, It Exists!" at right). But most parents will need to consider these strategies.
Create your own village. You may have more available connections than you realize. Ask family members or friends who have a part-time job or a flexible schedule if you can work out a reciprocal arrangement when a backup plan is needed. Chat up other moms at school drop-off, birthday parties, sports events, or church about organizing a backup co-op. And then get everyone together first, of course, to make sure you're comfortable with one another's parenting style and to hammer out specific requests and availability.
It's obviously not easy to ask a parent to care for your sick child -- and thereby risk infecting herself and her own family -- but if she's ever been in your shoes, she'll likely be willing to help. Take the steps you can at home to help prevent the spread of illness: Have plenty of tissues and antibacterial gel on hand for your sitter; offer disinfectant sprays for germ-catchers like doorknobs, faucets, phones, and remote controls; urge your child to sneeze and cough into his elbow.
Instead of relying on other mom friends, many of whom also work full-time, Melinda Villagran, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, took advantage of the perks of her college town. For her backup care, she hired four undergrads who share a dorm suite. "Our agreement is that one will show up when I call," says Dr. Villagran. "I use them regularly. They're all great, so I don't mind which one comes. They like the flexibility, and I have the coverage."
Barter. A single mom for many years, Cathy L. Greenberg, Ph.D., coauthor of What Happy Working Mothers Know, discovered that old-fashioned trading was her lifeline. Since she often traveled for business, on the days her daughter was ill she?d offer to switch sick-child pickup and care for Saturday carpooling to sports practice. "And one time, I even negotiated for dessert," says Dr. Greenberg. "One mother watched my daughter and I later picked up 24 cupcakes for her child's birthday party."
Do triage. At 7 a.m., when you and your spouse are scrambling to get to work, a conversation about who will stay home can easily slide into a confrontation. "Fathers often assume that mothers will be the ones to skip work," says Jessica DeGroot, founder of The ThirdPath Institute, a national organization based in Philadelphia that helps people find solutions to work/life conflicts. Defuse a power struggle by discussing your concerns and restrictions ahead of time. Beth Brandt, the director of a small charitable foundation in Broomall, Pennsylvania, had a much more flexible schedule than her husband, Lee, an air-traffic controller. "When the kids were young, we'd try to make an educated decision the night before if we suspected that one of them wouldn't make it to school the next day," recalls Brandt. "If Lee wasn't working the morning shift, he'd stay home. If he had to work, I'd hold meetings via conference calls." Can you and your spouse split the day, with one of you going to work late and the other coming home early? Can either of you work over the weekend instead? What about telecommuting? If so, what equipment do you need?
Make your home work-friendly. If you've cleared it with your boss to occasionally conduct business from your house, be prepared for the challenges. "I can't just take the day off when one of my kids gets sick," says Josephine Geraci, a mother of three children, ages 4, 6, and 8, who works from her home in Huntington, New York. Try her solution: She sets up an air mattress in her office and makes a cozy retreat for her kids. "I provide a stack of books and an activity box so whoever is sick can have an 'office' in the corner of my office," says Geraci. Stock a "surprise box" with new markers, books, puzzles, stickers, and more for your own stuck-at-home child.
Be ready with the details. When you're rushing to make last-minute arrangements, it's hard to recall all that goes into caring for your child. So keep an up-to-date file, including your child's daily routine and a list of prescription or OTC medications he takes (with correct dosages), as well as a written medical-authorization release form. This allows a doctor to treat your child if you're not there. Laws vary from state to state, so check with your physician about proper wording.