My baby comes first

I left my child in hospital, so I could get to work on time. Never again, says Jojo Moyes

It was 8am in the office. A colleague glanced at my pale, dishevelled appearance and joked: "You look rough. Been out on the tiles, then?" Actually I had just left my 18-month-old daughter in a hospital bed.

A fever had turned into a fit, which turned into a 4am hospital dash, which turned into a night on an observation ward, spent waiting anxiously as her temperature crept down. At 7am my husband had brought me fresh clothes. At 7.15 I had washed in the ward toilet with paper towels and soap, and at 7.45, I dragged myself from her bedside and caught a taxi to work. It was not that I am callous; it was just a day I knew I couldn't take off.

You can get used to sleepless nights, arriving at work so tired that your speech slurs like a drunk's; running round the supermarket in your lunch hour while colleagues are at the pub; and scheduling working hours with the precision of a stormtrooper in order to pick up the children on time. However, illness disrupts every tightly run schedule in the end. If it's not the emergency hospital dash, it's the clinging 'flu victim, insisting that only mummy will do, or the tummy ache sufferer, fiercely resisting daddy's attempts to persuade him that he'll feel better once he gets to school. And unless you are one of the rare few with sympathetic non-working relatives who live close by, and are always ready to drop everything, something has to give.

Every working parent is familiar with the following unhappy equation: need of child versus need of office. Shortly followed, in two-parent families, by another: whose job is more flexible? Or dare one say it, important? An unscientific, but highly representative, straw poll of working parents reveals that faced with such a situation, at some point most parents simply call in sick themselves. "My back's gone" or "I've got terrible food poisoning" somehow sounds so much better than "My child's got a sore throat". Some of us, therefore, will be fascinated to see how the new parental leave measures, unveiled last week, affect national sick day rates. It legislates for family sick days, and should mean that bunking off is no longer necessary. Alone of a raft of measures, it was widely welcomed as helping redress the balance between work and family life.

"Hopefully this will bring back some of the honesty between employer and employee," says Sarah Jackson, the chief executive of the organisation Parents at Work. "It also means that parents can take their child to the doctor and be at work in a couple of hours, if they're OK, instead of having to take two days off to make it look convincing."

But even as I restocked my bottles of Calpol, I wondered how much difference these measures would really make. In a land of "downsized" companies, where everybody counts, there is often no one left to take up the slack. And in an insecure environment of short-term contracts and high unemployment, who is going to be brave enough to call in and tell the boss that Timothy's chicken pox has to come first?

Ms Jackson believes that despite a raft of new family-friendly measures, professional parents will still feel compelled to put work first. "In the real world, if you're working in a high-pressure, client-driven profession you will still find it difficult," she says. She blames an "unforgiving" workplace culture that assumes everyone, male or female, has a "wife" at home. And as if working parents didn't have enough to worry about, there is a backlash brewing. American author Elinor Burkett is about to publish an inflammatory new book in which she states that people without children have to work harder to accommodate those with, because of parents' needs for flexibility. "People feel threatened when you say that... but it's just a simple fact," she says. "Nurturing children is in the interests of all society but why should I, as a childless woman, be responsible for it?"

In a recent BBC radio phone-in on the same subject the responses were polarised and ferocious. Virtually spitting with pent-up frustration, callers detailed lists of outrages perpetrated upon them by working parents; leaving early, not turning up at all, insisting on priority holidays. Among those people, the Government's measures will simply fuel their sense of injustice.

So what should a parent do? Keep phoning in sick, and pretending the children don't exist? Occupational psychologist Cary Cooper is among those who believes change has to come. "Do (managers) truly believe that flexible working arrangements and family-friendly policies encourage a wimps' paradise?" he says. "The macho and inflexible manager of the 19th and 20th century is not what working human beings need for the 21st century." Sarah Jackson observes: "It will take some time to change the culture of organisations so that parents will feel not just that they have a right, but also the ability, to use it. And if parents use their rights responsibly, hopefully it will help counter some of the backlash."

I wouldn't leave my daughter in hospital again. But until we can also change workplace culture, so that time off is not automatically viewed as a form of skiving - by both managers and fellow workers - I can't guarantee that the next time it won't be me who is supposedly suffering the temperature.

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