Keeping it Together: Staying Strong For Your Sick Child As A Single Parent.
My baby is sick again and it is eight o’clock at night.

Every time she gets sick it goes straight to her chest. I listen to her wheezing away and bite my nails, wondering when and if I should take her to the hospital.

It’s evenings like this when I really feel the lack of a partner in the house.

Someone to talk it back and forth with. “Should we take her to the hospital? Or not? Should we put her in bed with us? I’ll watch her for a while then you can take over.”

If only. But that’s not my life. I have to make the decisions, and usually that’s just fine by me. But right now the responsibility is weighing heavily.

She’s sleeping but I know that as soon as I put her down she’ll wake herself up trying to catch a breath. It’s time to get help.

But now I’m worried that she might get into breathing difficulties in the car on the way to the hospital. And do I really want to take her out into the cold, and drive through the dark, unfamiliar streets of my new hometown, feeling shaky with tension and lack of sleep?

I could ring my friend. She’s always said she was just a phone call away, that I could call anytime. But I don’t like to disturb her, she has her own kids, her own life. Besides, it’s a work night.

Fighting with myself, I finally call her.

She comes over and sits in the back of the car while I drive. When we arrive at the children’s hospital I feel suddenly better just being near medical help, and I insist that she goes home and gets some sleep. I can take it from here. I call her a taxi and give her a spare cab voucher and she laughs at my stubborn independence and wishes me well.

Thank goodness, there aren’t many people waiting. The triage nurse calls me up fairly quickly and I explain it all.

“She’s got another cold, and is struggling to breathe. She isn’t eating or drinking at all now, just trying to breathe all the time, you know?” The triage nurse barely glances up but writes something down and tells me to sit down.

An hour passes.

An hour!

By now my daughter is starting to cry in that weak kitten cry that tears at your heart. How can they leave us to wait like this? She is twisting and writhing in my arms, trying to get air and I’m about to have a panic attack. I stand up and head to the desk but before I get there my name is called.

I am shown into a little office where a medical student asks me what’s wrong and I suddenly lose it, barely able to get any words out through my sobs. She gathers enough to leave the room and returns with a doctor. Fortunately I don’t have to say much as he examines my daughter and talks soothingly to the student who takes notes. My little girl is quieter in his arms and I have a chance to regain my composure.

“Let’s get her on some oxygen and monitor,” he says to the student who disappears out the door. Then he turns to me.

“I’m so sorry that you had to wait,” he says. “We’ll get your daughter the help she needs right away. Unfortunately the triage nurse miscategorized you as low priority. If we had realized how bad your daughter was you would have gone straight in.”

It turned out the nurse had written nothing more on her notes than “reduced feeds.” Nothing about breathing difficulties at all. Even now, three years later, I shake my head in bewilderment at it.

Of course, I was furious. Relieved, now that my daughter was being taken care of, but also so angry. And of course, a lot of my fury was directed at myself. I knew she was sick. Why didn’t I speak up earlier? Why didn’t I listen to my instinct?

From the distance of time, I know the answer. It was partly my deeply rooted trust of the medical profession, the assumption that they know more than you and you should trust them even over your own instinct. And it’s a good assumption to make, most of the time. The media loves to talk up the tragic cases of misdiagnosis, but they are only remarkable because they are so rare.

The other reason I didn’t speak up was because I only had my own voice in my head telling me what to do, worrying at the problem, trying to come to a solution. When you have someone else to bounce things off, it helps you so much to clarify your thoughts and lead you to the right course of action.

Single parents just don’t have that luxury.

When my daughter was ready to go home, the doctor told me that I had done absolutely the right thing, and that I should always trust my instinct. I should come to the hospital every time, and never agonize over whether or not to come. “We’d much rather see a child who doesn’t need us than see a child we can’t help because they came in too late,” he said, and those words have stayed with me.

As single parents, we need to keep it together for our sick children. We need to fight to be heard and we need to trust our instinct instead of our negative thoughts about being soft or overreacting unnecessarily.

But we also need to be easier on ourselves. We can cry if we need to. We can ask our friends for help and not feel like a burden. And we absolutely can seek help for our children the instant we feel anxious. That’s our great privilege in this land of free health care and we should make the most of it.

Emily is a consultant to parents, businesses and schools. She helps parents understand scientific information and expert opinions on various parenting topics, to help them make the best decisions they can. She helps businesses understand the value of their parent workforce and parent customers and helps them to make their businesses more parent-friendly. She also works with schools to improve parent-school relationships.

Emily’s podcast, Parents in the Know, is available on iTunes, Stitcher and through her website,, along with other great resources and books for parents.