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Here's Who Really Suffers When Parents Get Sick

Photograph by Twenty20

Recently, I was in the hospital for back pain, which ended up being a myriad of unrelated medical issues, and the solution to all of them was antibiotics, pain medication and rest—lots of rest.

It all sounds reasonable until you realize I am the primary caretaker of two children, ages 5 and 2. You might as well prescribe me some elixir of unicorn horn and leprechaun tears because rest and pain medicine that knocks me out? That's not going to happen.

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My husband took off work for a few days; we made it to the weekend and these past few weeks have been cobbled together by kind friends, wonderful neighbors and my husband's flexible schedule. But even then, I can't take my pain meds when I'm with my kids, because being zonked out on Valium is not an option when my 2-year-old knows how to escape out of a locked back door and start the car.

When a friend of mine showed up to feed my kids and let me take a nap, I almost sobbed with gratitude. This friend has two children and her own share of medical problems. "Don't worry about it," she said. "When a mom is down for the count, life gets hard."

Being sick in America is expensive and financially crippling.

And she's right, with stagnant wages, inflexible work schedules, lousy work policies that are unfriendly to parents and well anyone who might find themselves suddenly ill or injured, and the rising cost of childcare, the pressures on parents can often feel insurmountable.

And statistics bear this out. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 5.7 million grandparents live with their grandchildren and half of those are primary caretakers. But what is even more troubling is that in a recent report by the American Psychological Association, "A large number of children and adolescents, referred to as caregiving youth, are also serving as caregivers for sick or disabled siblings, parents or aging relatives. Nationwide, there are approximately 1.3 to 1.4 million child caregivers who are between the ages of 8 and 18. Of the 28.4 million caregiving households that have a child 8 to 18 years of age living there, 3.2 percent, or 906,000 households, include a child caregiver."

It's not just parents and grandparents bearing the brunt of illness and poverty and the inadequate medical coverage in this country. It's children. Do you see that? Children are performing the function of primary caregiver to their parents when they are sick or disabled. Why? Because parents can't afford help. Because being sick in America is expensive and financially crippling. Because getting the help you need as a parent especially a sick one is really, fucking hard.

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I don't even have a right to compare myself to other families in situations with ill or disabled parents. My pain is going away. My medical bills, which while expensive (despite our reasonably decent health care coverage) won't break us. I have good friends who had the time to give us help and food and check in on me. But even in my privilege I am still struggling. The other day, after picking my children up from school and collapsing on the couch my 5-year-old brought me yogurt and fruit, "You probably haven't eaten yet today, so here you go!"

It was sweet and kind and broke my heart. Adult pain should not be a child's burden. And if we don't do something, America will break.

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