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Whose turn is it?

Which parent draws home duty when a child is sick -- and why the tug of war?

(Illustration by Kyle T. Webster for The Boston Globe)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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Nicole Russo calls it “the battle of the BlackBerrys.’’ It’s what happens when one of her girls needs to stay home sick or their school announces a snow day. Russo and her husband, of West Roxbury, whip out their schedules, each trumpeting important appointments in an attempt to win the season’s biggest spousal competition: Who gets to go to work today?

Russo, a public relations executive with O’Neill Hospitality & Entertainment, plays up TV shoots or new-client meetings. But her husband, Jay Russo, not only started a new business recently, he also helps at his father’s Roslindale funeral home.

“How do you say ‘no’ to a funeral?’’ she says. “That always wins.’’

While the tussle is never easy, this year has been particularly challenging. Most schools in Massachusetts closed for more snow days this winter than they have since 1995, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. And emergency room visits for gastrointestinal illnesses for children under age 5 are up this year over 2010, according to Ann Scales, director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission.

For many couples, those numbers translate into more anxiety — and contests — over who has to make the dreaded call to the boss.

Tony Crowley, 37, a systems analyst from Fitchburg, said his first thought upon realizing his son, Aiden, would need to miss school on a recent Monday was that he was going to lose any spousal debate: his wife, a fund-raiser, had taken a vacation day the previous Friday.

“I’m going to get stuck staying home,’’ he said to himself, wishing he had a meeting he absolutely needed to attend. “It’s stressful.’’

The lousy economy and mothers’ increasingly high-powered participation in the workforce have combined to heighten the tension over something as simple as a child’s sore throat or a few inches of snow. As veteran human resources consultant Cornelia Gamlem, president of the Virginia-based Gems Group, explained: “People are really concerned that when companies are looking to cut back and make downsizing decisions, if they’re not physically in the office, is that what will be remembered when the company does the analysis of who stays and who goes?’’

The increased economic pressure comes at a time when almost three quarters of mothers are working, according to a report released this month by the White House, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being.’’ From 1975 to 2000, the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under age 18 rose from 47 percent to a high of 73 percent, the report said. This rate fell to about 71 percent in 2004, where it has remained through 2009, the study found.

Perhaps it’s time to tweak the wedding vows: “in sick days and in health,’’ “in snow days and in early release.’’

For some couples, deciding who goes to work involves a complicated set of decisions: if dad’s an hourly worker and he stays home to baby-sit, that’s income the family loses right away. But if mom’s a salaried executive and she takes sick duty — even though telecommuting means she may be able to get work done — her lack of face time could, down the road, erode her success, leading to a lower family income.

Even couples with more flexible work schedules say the pressure to be present in the office weighs on them. Crowley, the systems analyst from Fitchburg, worries that the winter snow days, and now his son’s illness, will make him seem unreliable. “No job is worth my son getting sicker,’’ he said, “But you don’t want to be overlooked for a promotion because they think his reliability isn’t up to par.’’

Perhaps no one is better positioned to see the stress caused by a child’s sick day than Marie DeSisto, a past president the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization, and director of nurses for the Waltham Public Schools.

She’s had instances where a child comes to her office sick and needs to be picked up quickly. When DeSisto reaches the child’s mother, mom asks DeSisto to call the father. Then, when she reaches the father, he asks her to call the mother back. At which point DeSisto lets the parents wrangle over logistics.

But she’s sympathetic. “Some parents have a lot of pressure on them. They have to work. They have to be at their job. They don’t have any sick time. I’ve had cases where people ask me to speak to their supervisor’’ to verify that the worker’s child really does need to be picked up immediately.

The sick day tension can also be heard on the phone lines at Parents in a Pinch, a Brookline-based provider of backup child care. “They call and say, ‘I absolutely need a sitter for tomorrow because neither my husband nor I can take the day off,’ ’’ said president Davida Manon. “They are a little frantic.’’

There are no statistics on who wins the daily battles, but observers — and participants — say that often it’s the mother who ends up staying home, either because she works part time, or has a lower paying job, or simply feels she should, said Mimi Licht, a clinical social worker.

“In spite of the fact that people think that so much more is shared between men and women, in actuality people fall back on what they saw their parents do,’’ said Licht, who sees clients in Brookline and Wayland. Many couples do not even argue about who is going to stay home, she said. “I think there is implicit, not spoken, agreement between them’’ that the mother will cover it.

“Even the most enlightened couples tend to go back to what they saw as kids, so women end up juggling two jobs.’’

Rather than get angry, Jenny Anderson, coauthor of “Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage and Dirty Dishes,’’ suggests couples do a “coldhearted, realistic cost-benefit analysis. You have to figure out where the family can afford it the most.’’

“The most important thing is not over-weighting fairness,’’ she said. “Don’t say, ‘Well, I stayed home yesterday, so you stay home today.’

“It seems counterintuitive to everything we’ve learned about marriage, but if you have a marriage that’s predicated on love and respect, then it will balance out in the end, and I don’t mean the end of the school year, but the end of your life together.’’

She also recommends “reframing’’ the issue. “Yes, you’re losing a day of work, your boss may be angry, or your coworkers disappointed. But you are gaining a day that you will probably remember much longer than whatever meeting you would have been doing.’’

And yet, sometimes people just cannot help themselves. “You don’t want to keep score, but every married person knows you are keeping score,’’ said Marcy Poole, an account executive at WCVB, and the mother of a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old. “You got six hours of sleep in a row, and I only got four.’’

But, Poole said, you do what you have to do to work it out. “In the end, you brought these kids into this world and you can’t leave them home by themselves.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

Tony Crowley, his wife, Tanya, and their son, Aiden, at their house in Fitchburg. Aiden was home sick from school. (Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe) Tony Crowley, his wife, Tanya, and their son, Aiden, at their house in Fitchburg. Aiden was home sick from school.