How to manage the impossible: Being a working parent with a sick child

06 December 2023

The first year of crèche is a horror. Little people catch every bug going and runny noses never seem to stop. More importantly, they have to stay at home and parents still need to show up at the job that pays for food and shelter.
So how do you manage?

1. Call grandma!
Oh wait, grandma lives hundreds of kilometres away, not an option for most of us.

2. Take paid leave
You have lots of leave you can take at short notice, an understanding boss, no urgent deadlines and lots of energy? Great!

3. Take unpaid leave
It is possible to take up to 10 days of unpaid leave in the Belgian system to deal with a serious illness or an emergency. If an employer won’t give you an alternative (see points 2 or 5), this could be a last-ditch option.

4. Garde maladie/thuisoppas zieke kinderen
Ok, ok, this is the best option for most of us – that a qualified and caring babysitter comes and looks after your child in your home while you go to work.
If you’re registered with a Belgian health insurance company (mutuelle/mutualiteit) find out what they offer to care for sick children. Many will help arrange for a babysitter to come to your home to watch the child while you go to work – and some/most of the cost will be covered by the insurance company. If you work for an EU institution or have diplomatic status, you can also register for Belgian health insurance and avail of this service.

Pros:The cost can be as low as €3 an hour; check what rate your mutuelle
The ladies (always ladies in my experience) are often extremely good at engaging with small children who don’t know them. One had my suspicious 2-year-old happily doing craft projects within 10 minutes.
They keep careful notes on the child’s temperature, symptoms and what he or she ate, far more than any other babysitter. They usually bring their own lunch so you don’t need to do anything beyond laying out what the child will need for the day. It’s fine to call them during the day to check how everything is going.
Cons: They’re in demand during cold and flu season and you are not guaranteed to get one! If you think you’ll need a garde maladie for the next day, call the mutuelle or agency as soon as you can to book one. Then book a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible (for the afternoon/evening or early morning) as you will need the medical certificate for the garde maladie.
The ladies in Brussels are usually French-speaking; don’t expect them to be multilingual but no harm to ask, you may get lucky. My daughter didn’t speak any French and we only rarely managed to get someone who spoke one of her languages – but she and the lady usually coped just fine.
The garde maladie ladies have their own rules to follow: don’t expect them to work overtime – usually they can’t exceed 10 hours a day – and don’t expect them to do housework. Pre-corona, they had strict rules that didn’t allow a parent to stay at home while the garde maladie was present; those have changed as working from home became more common but do check carefully with the agency what their conditions are.

5. None of the above?
I’m sorry, it happens that you can’t get help, you can’t get time off and your child needs to stay at home. You won’t be the first parent to be ‘working’ at home and handling a tired, grumpy, sick child. If you’re lucky, an employer can be understanding and allow you to work remotely and lighten your schedule: some bosses are human and have been there too.

If it’s any comfort to you, the first year of a child being hit by an avalanche of new viruses usually only happens once as their immune systems start to gear up. Please know that you’re not alone and most of us have been there: it will get better!

By Aoife White BCT Working Mums Group Organiser,

This article was first published in the spring 2023 edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.

Aoife is the organiser of the BCT Working Mums’ Group which has an active WhatsApp chat, Twizzit newsletters and meets at least once a month for lunch. This spring they are trying to increase these lunchtime meetings to twice a month as the members enjoy it so much.
If you are a working mum, the group is an excellent way of sharing tips and ideas on how to juggle being a busy working mum in Belgium as well as a busy parent.

This article is about: parenting | sick child | working mums

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