Friday, August 24, 2012

Juggling Employment and a Preemie

Every family has a different dynamic – in some, both parents work outside of the home. In others, it may just be one of the parents. In my little family, I have the 8-5 job outside of the home while my wife, Jessi, works as Jack’s caretaker. Whatever your particular family situation is, being a parent with a job outside of the home presents some unique challenges.
If you’re not self-employed (i.e. your own boss) or the head cheese, you are accountable to someone higher up the ladder than you. Maybe it’s a supervisor, a manager, or the big dog at the top. You may not have flexibility in your schedule. The work may not be getting done if you’re not there. There is this ever-present pressure looming over you as you deal with a significant family situation.  
You probably first encountered this when you found yourself unexpectedly in the hospital as you were told you were about to become a parent much sooner than you anticipated. Depending on how early your bundle arrived, you were then faced with the prospect of a long NICU stay, perhaps even at a hospital far from your home. The distance alone can make it impossible for you to maintain any normal work schedule and be there for your spouse and newborn.
In our case, my wife, Jessi, was flown to a hospital 120 miles from our home so our 23-weeker preemie son, Jack, could be born in a NICU that could handle such an early arrival. When faced with the prospect of a four to five month hospital stay (if Jack made it) far from our primary residence, I knew I had to modify my work schedule to be there for my family. Luckily, I had a very supportive, concerned employer who gave me a lot of flexibility throughout the NICU stay to perform work out of the office and take large chunks of time off, especially in the beginning.
But for us, the NICU was just the start of a completely altered life centered on our medically-fragile son. After four months in the hospital, we were able to take him to our home 120 miles away. That was the beginning of the doctor’s visits, therapy appointments, and test after test after test. Within the first year, he had two more surgeries requiring hospitalization. To this day, Jack often has appointments with specialists where both Jessi and I want to be present. Usually these required trips at least two hours both ways as we tried to find the best doctors in our rural state.
It’s hard to give specific advice to any parent who works outside of the home because every job is different. Coming from someone who has done everything from fast food to retail to government to non-profit to business, I know that I can’t speak to every situation. You may have a great boss, you may have a jerk for a boss. You may be able to do some of your job duties from anywhere, or you may have to be in a specific location. Having said that, here are a few suggestions to consider as a parent to a new preemie:
1.       Communicate with your employer:  As long as he or she will listen, there is no more important thing you can do for your work situation than to explain your family’s circumstances to your boss. You may need to go into great detail about how serious the medical problems may be. I knew next to nothing about preemies before Jack was born, and it’s safe to assume that most people won’t automatically know everything that you are going through. Throughout Jack’s NICU stay, I included my boss and co-workers on the latest email update so they knew the good, the bad, and the ugly. Bottom line – keep the boss in the loop.
2.       Ask for leeway:  Don’t assume your employer will automatically and instinctively think to give you a little flexibility with your schedule or job duties. Ask them to cut you some slack, at least temporarily.
3.       Ask about certain work policies:  Depending on the size of your employer’s business or organization, there may be legally mandated policies regarding family medical leave and time off. In addition, there may be internal, corporate or employee handbook policies regarding your situation. As time goes on, and your baby is out of the NICU, you may want or need to take additional time off for medical emergencies or doctor’s visits. Find out what it will take to make that happen. Some employers may let you use your own sick days for such occasions while others may make you go without pay or use your vacation days.  
4.       Don’t let your quality go down:  If at all possible, don’t let your work product or service go down the drain. You may be spending more time away from work, but when you are at work, make it count. Your mind is probably elsewhere, but you still have a job to do. That job is probably helping to pay your bills and maybe even paying the health insurance bill that has become increasingly important for your family.

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