A plague on both your houses

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One of the hardest things about parenting are the sick days. 

All working parents are likely to feel a chill at this time of year – not of cold, but of dread. Waking up and preparing breakfast only to find that your adorable little sprog has metamorphosed overnight into a thermonuclear reactor producing industrial quantities of mucus. If you’re lucky, the symptoms will be confined to a high temperature and a runny nose; if you’re not, and there’s vomiting and diarrhoea involved, then there’s probably a week’s worth of laundry about to be generated in the next few hours – bedsheets, pillowcases, and clothing.

And that begs the question – who stays home with Prince(ss) Snottynose?

If you and your partner are trying for a 50-50 split of household responsibility instead of a 1950s model with one homemaker and one breadwinner, that means you’re going to be dividing up a lot of sick days, especially at wintertime.

It’s a problem for all working families, but also possible that scientists have it (slightly) harder. Given the international nature of the job, it’s less likely that there will be relatives nearby who are able to babysit the invalid – the nearest family member may well be in a different country, if not a different continent. Similarly, the expat lifestyle means that things like doctors appointments (never something to relish), prescription collections etcetera may have to be handled in a second language. (It’s a trivial point, but one that still presents an activation energy barrier).

It’s also the case that children are often not the only dependents that a working scientist has – there’s cell culture too. Taking an unscheduled day off to nurse a child may not just mean cancelling meetings, resetting deadlines, and shunting the quotidian workload on by a day – it may mean your cells die! That then means you need to revive new cells and get them happy before repeating the experiment you meant to do in the first place. A single badly-timed sick day can mean weeks of work are lost or compromised, unless coworkers are able to step in (which is not always the case, especially if there are multiple strains with complex nutritional or selection requirements).

As with most intractable problems, time is the only solution. Children’s immune systems are works in progress, and bugs abound in the winter months – but that’s scant comfort for the parents ducking streams of vomit at home.

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