I don’t take my Father’s Day for granted, and it’s for a good reason: mine almost didn’t happen.
It started like so many days before. My wife received a call from our daycare after lunch, saying our six-month-old son had a fever and should be brought home. Like parents all over the country, she left her job to go and pick him up, and brought him to the pediatrician’s office. They gave him an exam, said he probably just had a bug, and other than to keep an eye on him and get him to drink more fluids, just let him rest. But when we got him home, his lethargy became worse, his fever rose, and it was clear something was not right. So we brought him to Wake Med Children’s Hospital, fearing a spike in temperature. As it turned out, things were going to get much, much, worse.
Within the course of two hours, he was given a spinal tap, diagnosed with meningitis, and moved to the pediatric ICU. His fontanelles swelled to the size of a baseball do to his rapidly swelling brain, and before long you could scarcely find his tiny body beneath the maze of tubes and wires. We were informed that we very likely were infected with whatever had infected his brain, so we could remain in the room, but everyone else who entered had to wear protective clothing and masks. Needless to say, it was a very long night.
It took about 24 hours for the battery of tests to come back and verify the diagnosis of meningitis, almost a week before we knew the particular strain of bacteria that had attacked his brain, and another week after that before we were permitted to bring him home. This was all, as you can imagine, a lot to deal with. My wife stayed in the hospital for almost two weeks straight, and I left only to sleep and feed our neglected dog. And for months and year after he was discharged, we had dozens of follow-up appointments, with immunologists, ENT’s, and communicable disease specialists. We were warned this he would almost certainly lose some (or all) of his hearing, and would likely have life-long learning disabilities, all as a result of the infection and the necessary treatments.
The entire process was absolutely exhausting, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And had either my wife or I worked for almost any other employers, it would have been financially exhausting as well. Not only for the actual medical care, but for the weeks of time we were at the hospital and very much not working. But because we both had paid leave, we were able to concentrate on caring for our son, not on our jobs. You know, the way it should be.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of working people in the United States do not have paid family leave through their jobs. In North Carolina, even unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act is inaccessible for 64 percent of working people. This means North Carolinians face impossible choices when new children are born or adopted and when serious personal or family health needs inevitably arise.
And that’s an important detail – the bit about adoption. Because while my son is now my son, he was legally a foster child at the time this all happened. If my wife and I were relying on federal law to protect our jobs when we were staying at the hospital, we would be completely unprotected. And that would just be the hospitalization – we still took off time from work for the follow-up appointments.
When I think about all the ways this country makes having children difficult, from the insane price of hospital birth, to the withering cost of quality childcare, to the highly inequitable distribution of public education funding, it is perhaps this more mundane challenge – simply having the time and resources to care for a sick child or family member – that is the most maddening. None of us are immune from the need, but we only penalize those who can least afford it. If my wife and I had been working hourly, minimum wage jobs, there is a good chance my son’s illness would have broken our family. And that reality is simply not acceptable.
If Father’s Day stands for anything, it stands for the proposition that being a parent is a noble and essential duty that deserves to be celebrated, if only once a year. And every year we spend money on bad ties, silly mugs, and “#1 Dad” baseball caps. But I assure you that the promise of guaranteed paid leave in order to care for their families would be significantly more important to fathers everywhere, and it’s something we can do – seven other states and the District of Columbia already have some form of paid sick leave. Let’s resolve that this is the last Father’s Day anyone in North Carolina has to worry about their job when someone in their family is sick.
I’ll drink to that (in my “#1 Dad” mug, of course.)