I had to take an unexpected sick day last week. I had an eye problem that I planned to call the doctor about … eventually … but one morning, I described it to my husband and he, never the hypochondriac, urged me to see the doctor right away. So I did.
All was fine, thankfully, and the doctor was able to squeeze me in (after I kept a morning meeting, of course). But he had to dilate my eyes. I have never had my eyes dilated before, and it’s kind of trippy. For hours, everything was a little blurry, definitely expanded, and I was really unable to concentrate, write, or do very much.
So what does one do? Put one’s feet up and watch a mini-marathon of Sex and The City, of course. (Which really doesn’t hold up very well in these austere times -- remember the episode where Lexi falls out the window because her Manolos get caught in the curtain? Today she’d be wearing Easy Spirits and Candace Bergen’s highflying loft party might be a pot luck.)
Needless to say, by the time the kids came home and my eyes had shrunk back to normal size, I had had a hour-long phone meeting with my boss, prepared dinner, worked on a social studies project with my son, driven soccer carpool and spent an hour after everyone went to bed responding to a flurry of emails about a situation at work.
So much for taking a sick day.
The sick days of our youths are long gone by the time we get to be adults. No longer can we beg our mothers to let us stay home, snuggle under the covers, watch oodles of tv and eat saltine crackers because our tummies are upset. In fact, given that I have the good fortune to have pretty healthy kids, the number of times any of them have had a day like that is relatively few.
As a mom who has always worked outside of the home, I have had a tug and pull with my children when they have been sick over the years. There is a part of me that loves the excuse to stay home with them, to nurse them (if they’ll let me) to envelop myself in the same feeling of submission to the lack of purpose for the day. Feed them tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I always have harbored a secret fantasy of becoming a nurse, and taking care of a sick child is about the closest way I’ll ever get to that.
But then there is the reality. Work responsibilities. Who can afford to take the time to stay home? (99% of the time it’s me.) But what if I have a really important work day that can’t be moved? And my husband does too? How do we deal with the intrusion -- because that’s sadly what it feels like -- of a sick child?
Not to mention the thousands of women and men who work in jobs that don't offer sick leave, and staying home with sick child puts them at risk of losing their jobs.
I hate that more often than not over the years, the lovely fantasy of being home with my sick child and nursing him or her back to health was supplanted by this darker, stressful, juggling act between work and home responsibilities.
Then there is the question of what happens when you are home for a sick day. Clearly, from my description above of my surprise day “off” (and granted, I wasn’t really sick, just a little disabled for a while), sick days for adults no longer mean crawling into bed and being sick. Not only do we have multiple responsibilities that go on regardless of whether we’re sick or not, technology has made it so that we never really have to leave the office.
I love that technology allows me to work from home, and cobble out a flexible schedule. But it also enslaves me. I am never away from my work. Emails fly all day. Cell phones ring, and texts come in, whether I’m sick or not. I can choose to ignore them, which I would do if I was really incapacitated, or I can respond to the best of my ability, which is what I generally do even when sick. And I know it is the same for many of my colleagues, who often send this kind of sick day message to the office:
“Am home with (fill in the blank – terrible head cold, migraine, stomach flu, etc.). Available by cell and email.”
When I know my colleague is sick, I will do anything I can to avoid bothering them. But the door is open, and I know that they are home, propped up in bed, with the computer on for most of the day, just as I would be, so that the barrage of emails won’t be so bad once they’re back on their feet and emergencies (and there are emergencies everyday with technology) can be handled properly.
Of course, there IS one more kind of sick day I haven’t yet mentioned. That would be the old-fashioned mental health day. The kind where you wake up, realize that you just can’t cope with another day of work, know that your plate is pretty clear for the day (or have already sneakily prepared it to be that way) and decide that the day is yours for the taking. In the old days, you would call your boss right after 9:00, put a scratch in your voice, claim illness and say you were heading right back to bed. Today, emails will suffice, and no acting job is necessary.
Then, all of a sudden, you are free. If you were smart, and you pre-planned, it is a beautiful fall day, with leaves crunching under your feet and a sparkly blue sky. The world is your oyster. You can take a walk, see an exhibit, read a book, or my particular favorite, go to the movies alone in the middle of the day. You turn off your phone, your email, your texts. You must relish every minute – it is, frankly, well deserved.
I am a strong believer in mental health days, as we all need them to recharge and retool. Presumably, we return to the real world the next day (or, if you’re a parent, by 3:00 when the kids get home) feeling decadent and a little guilty, but thoroughly refreshed and happy to have had a few delicious hours all to yourself.
I think I feel a sniffle coming on.
Photo by Brian Reid Furniture via Flickr