Mother reading a book to her daughter at home
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Stop Telling Moms To “Get Some Rest” When They're Sick

No one can cover this shift.

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There's a very particular, resigned dread that sets in when I feel a cold coming on. I know that as the parent of two little kids, illness doesn't mean rest; it means everything will be slightly harder than it already is for three-to-ten days. I start gobbling zinc and vitamin C, swap my evening beer for tea, and get into bed by ten. That's about all I can do. No matter what, from the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., I am a caregiving machine. I have to be. I have help, from a spouse and a glorious nanny, but no one can really cover my shift. The mom shift stands alone. As all of my fellow moms know — on an all-too-visceral level — moms don't get to rest when they're sick.

My 4-year-old can be somewhat self-sufficient, but to get a break from his need cycles means getting him to school, which means packing lunches, finding all of his gear and driving him over there. From his 15-month old sister, there is no real break. She's too little for TV — not that I haven't tried. It holds her attention for about five minutes and then she's back to hunting the house for ways to injure herself and things she could choke on. Mornings begin — illness or no — when I hear the big kid scream that his OK-to-wake light is on. If I’m sick it just means I pop some DayQuil and churn on, pushing and pushing even harder through the 14-hour march towards the other side of bedtime.

Who cares for the caregivers? Why did I never wonder this before I became one?

"It doesn't matter if it's Covid or a cold because regardless you should rest for five days and isolate,” the doctor said. Hilarious.

The fact that no one cares for the caregivers, the primary bearers of the mental load, is one of the scarier things I contemplate. I generally try to confront my fears — to mindfully observe them, and other healthy, functional things like that. But, the fear of being unable to do the gazillion little things I do every day to facilitate the lives of the three other people in my household is an idea I wholeheartedly avoid. It is a fear I smash down, old-school denial-style. What would happen if I stopped doing all the things I do for my kids, for my spouse for more than a day or two?

What If I stopped my constant tending of this tenuous barrier against the chaos that lurks in the corners of everyday life for two working parents and their two tiny children ? What if I forgot to pack a lunch, or wasn’t there to find the very important Hot Wheels car or the floppy, dingy bunny that the baby can’t sleep without or to know what we’re having for dinner or what we need from the store or that we’re out of bubble bath. What if I wasn’t there to reassure everyone that they were OK? That the things that felt so enormous in the moment would soon pass, that sleep or a sip of water or cuddle was the answer to most of life’s small disasters.

During cold (and flu and RSV and, now, Covid) season, I think all the time about this woman I saw on a TV talk show once — I’m guessing it was Oprah or The View but it’s been too long to know for sure — and the topic was something like “I didn't know I had a heart attack.” This woman was so totally caught up in work and caring for her three kids and she had non-traditional (but still severe and uncomfortable) symptoms of a heart attack for almost a week. And she just went around like that, in a lot of mysterious pain, for days. She didn't stop caregiving or working, because, I assume, she felt she couldn't. I was childless at the time and I thought this story was completely absurd. An extreme one-off, surely. Now, two kids later, I find it wholly relatable and imagine that this kind of thing happens all the time.

No one understands the feeling of dread I experienced as I crawled into bed recently with the undeniable beginnings of a scratchy throat. No one, that is, except for other parents of small children. With two kids under 5, we are fully “in it,” and when this recent scratchy throat began its slow burn, we had just gotten keys to a new house. The move was seven days away, and I knew as I fell asleep both that I was coming down with something and that I wouldn’t be able to make any changes to what the coming days might demand of me.

There used to be a languid pleasure in coming down with a cold and having to stay home.

I woke up with a raging sore throat the next day. I hurried to an urgent care, hoping for a positive strep test and for the quick, mildly problematic magic of antibiotics. A faster and easier fix than what I really needed, sleep. Take my blood, swab my throat. I can pop a pill. I cannot rest. The 20-something doctor who saw me was perfectly nice, but didn’t think the PCR test I asked for was totally necessary. "It doesn't matter if it's Covid or a cold because regardless you should rest for five days and isolate,” he said.


There used to be a languid pleasure in coming down with a cold and having to stay home. When I was a kid, I had this cottony, dark purple dress that was so soft and stretched out that it was almost pajamas. It was my sick day outfit. I remember slipping into it after being picked up from school and getting into a little nest on the sofa to sip Sprite and watch too much TV. Before becoming a parent, I didn’t relish being sick, but it happened rarely and I found some comfort in binging TV and padding around the house for a few days, hiding from work and friends. Rest was assured, threatened only by my ability to resist the siren song of happy hour.

My strep test performed by the “you should rest for five days” doctor — ha! I didn’t even do that when I had the flu two years ago, you childless ding dong — was negative. I left with nothing but the same angry throat I’d come with. In the muck and grind of packing and moving with kids, the cold got better, and then much worse, and I finally got the antibiotics I wished for.

Sick in the midst of a move with two small children, I fielded texts from a well meaning relative telling me to “be sure to rest!”

Who cares for the caregivers? Why did I never wonder this before I became one?

Notably, these messages didn’t come from other moms. The moms don’t tell you to rest. They ask how they can help. A grocery run, a park date, a soup delivery. They bring you the hippie honey tonic that helped them survive the last virus that tried to take them down, or remind you that it’s OK to let your kid watch bottomless amounts of iPad right now.

Five years and one pandemic into the parenting journey, I finally see who cares for the caregivers. I can’t rest, but I do feel tended to. Not even the most helpful person in my circle can lift the burden so I can lay in bed for a week. But with every sympathetic text message and offer of help, the parents that walk alongside me find a million little ways to make it easier for me to push through to one more bedtime, through one more virus, through until springtime comes, and cold season is behind us.

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