Science Careers Blog

September 13, 2012

A Controversial Solution to the Sick-Child Problem

How's this for the ultimate in work-life balance? 

Stuck with a sick baby and no good back-up daycare on the first day of class, anthropologist  Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C., took the child to class.  While she lectured--aptly enough on "Sex, Gender and Culture"--she kept an eye on the crawling baby.  For part of the time, Pine's teaching assistant went beyond her job description, overriding Pine's insistence that she didn't have to help out, and held the child.  Finally, Pine quieted the baby by breastfeeding as she taught.

Pine's impromptu solution to a very common problem has sparked controversy on the campus, reports the Washington Post. A request for an interview about the incident from a reporter at the student newspaper prompted the professor to publish an Internet essay expressing her dismay that "this would be considered newsworthy."  

The university, which Pine acknowledges is a "family-friendly setting" that has been "nothing but supportive during ... my difficult first year as a parent,"  took a public-health approach to the issue of sick children in class.  In a statement, it urged professors "faced with the challenge of caring for a sick child in the case where backup childcare is not available" to use "earned leave" or "arrange for someone else to cover the class."  It also suggested that expressing breast milk for future use might have been better solution to a need to feed a child in class and emphasized the need to "maintain a focus on professional responsibilities in the classroom."

Student opinion appears divided on the propriety of mid-lecture nursing, the Post reports, and the student newspaper has not yet published a story about the incident.

But any parent who has faced the sick-child dilemma--and what working parent hasn't?--knows that the real problem is the dearth of resources available for solving a problem that comes up frequently and urgently but without warning.  As the cold and flu season approaches, working parents know with almost complete certainty that some morning soon they will be frantically trying to solve it for themselves. 

The likelihood of coming up with someone ready to give just the lesson a faculty member had in mind for the day seems vanishingly small, and cancelling class with no notice or planning can do violence to any well-designed syllabus, and use up limited sick leave if the university uses a leave system.  Some people have a handy friend of relative willing to stay with the child, but many do not.

This suggests that employers who want to support family life ought to give some thought to possible solutions.  It's been decades since this reporter struggled to cobble together solutions on a hectic morning, and it's dismaying that apparently there has been so little progress.   What about emergency sick-kid drop-in facilities, sort of an on-campus temporary infirmary, staffed by people trained to care for the ill?  Or how about an agency--something like a homecare service--that can provide people qualified to care for sick children in their homes, available on short notice?

Clearly the problem is not simple, but it is important enough to merit serious attention and  some creative out-of-the-nursery thinking.

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