In North America, Only ‘Merica Doesn’t Do Sick Days

27 Mar

My immediate boss at work is Canadian, which is absolutely relevant when it comes to all kinds of cultural stuff. I mean, Canadians grow up with things like universal health care and gun control. Radical stuff like a year’s paid maternity leave, you know- social policies that set people up to have a good life. So even though I believe in all those kinds of things, sometimes it’s glaringly obvious that I was not raised in that kind of culture. It’s the same reason that no one can say, “Race doesn’t matter.” When you live in a culture permeated by racism, it can’t not affect you greatly.


Hehehe… (Missing some commas in this meme, though.)

It was one of those glaringly obvious moments when I went in to work yet again with my ragingly snotty nose, sore throat and cough. My mommy immunity had finally failed me after the kids had had an almost month-long cold and cough thing going on. It was the first thing in the morning, and I was in the bathroom using up all the toilet paper on my nose. My boss heard me as she walked in. “Julia, is that you? Are you sick?”

“No, it’s nothing.” I told her. “Just a little cold. These damn germ magnets of mine, you know. They finally gave it to me.” Cough, cough, sniffle.

“You sound like you’re pretty sick. You can’t be feeling good. Why don’t you go home?”

“It’s not that bad. It’s just a cold.” This is not just something I said. This is a mantra in my family. I can totally hear my mama’s voice, repeating, “I don’t feel like crap. I just have a cold. I don’t feel like crap. I just have a cold.” It’s part of the mind-over-matter prescription we give ourselves. That, along with gargling with warm salt water, is all you really need to take care of a cold. Rest? Pshaw! There’s no time for rest! That stuff’s overrated, anyway.

“Seriously. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Even if it’s a cold, it doesn’t feel good, and it’ll get better faster if you rest.” What? Did she not get my mental memo? Rest is not necessary for illness. I brought tea to work.

“And you’re not doing anyone else any favors, either.” She continued with her logic. “You don’t want to pass it to all your students. We complain about them coming in and hacking all over us, so you should set a good example.” Damn. She got me there. “Plus I don’t want to get sick. Vacation is coming up in a couple of weeks and I don’t want to spend it in bed.” Double damn the guilt! Especially when it’s all reasonable-sounding like that.

“Okay. You’re right. I’ll think about going home.” Years of stubbornness can’t be reversed with a 5 minute conversation, even if there’s good logic and guilt involved. But it’s not the first time I’ve had a conversation like this, and the thing is, I know that my attitude is absurd. Well, not the mind-over-matter or the salt water gargles part. But the idea that we should go ahead and go to school or work or whatever your regularly scheduled program is, despite whatever illness.

And the culprit in that part of my attitude is definitely my country’s culture. In part it’s that work-a-holic, can’t-rest-because-the-world-NEEDS-ME attitude. We’re all so damn important (eye roll, ‘Merica). And part of it, of course, is because most of us there don’t get paid leave. So if you’re sick but not actually on your death bed you might as well go to work. You might even get fired if you don’t go, so just pretend you’re not sick as best you can, guys.

Thanks to U.S. policy and culture, and the way I internalized those beliefs, I have taught classes despite losing my voice from illness. I’ve attended classes because I didn’t want to miss them (in college, not high school, mind you). I’ve walked around with pneumonia because I was too busy and broke to go to the doctor and get diagnosed until it reared its ugly head and put me into bed forcefully. I’ve gone to the hospital for a urinary tract infection that turned into a kidney infection because I was too busy to get it treated for real, and wished it away with copious amounts of water. I’ve waited tables with colds and fevers, because I couldn’t get a sick day. This is what U.S. culture looks like. We don’t need universal, free healthcare. We don’t need paid leave. We like our cooks and servers to snot all over our food, because that’s better than giving poor people benefits. People being in debt for hospital bills because they didn’t have access to preventative medicine, or better still, people dying from something curable, is preferable to changing our system. This is what the U.S. system looks like. It looks like not getting the care that we need. It means believing that you don’t deserve to rest and take care of yourself.

When I stop and look it all like that, I feel a bit sheepish about my attitude. Sure, I don’t want my students to miss class. But they’ll be thrilled about it! And it’s not going to make or break their entire language practice if they skip a couple days of class. Goddess knows they do it for themselves all the time. Repeat to self: I am not all-important. Everything will be fine if I am not there. I am important enough to deserve to rest when I am sick.

And we get paid sick days here. This is Mexico, folks- the part of North America that the U.S. treats like its Cinderella-style stepsister. The part of North America that’s “underdeveloped.” This is where I had to move to get maternity leave, sick days, and my first ever paid vacation time (5 weeks a year, thank you very much). I had to move down here to get reminded by a Canadian to take advantage of my rights here in Mexico.

So I drank my tea and assessed my situation. I decided that it was, indeed, a good idea to rest, even though it was “just a cold.” Imagine what it would be like to have constant access to tea and kleenex all day long! How it might feel to lie down! I might, indeed, actually get better faster.

The only thing standing between me and my bed was the insurance company, IMSS. I needed a note from IMSS to take off for two days. (It was Thursday already, and I was sure even 1 day would help, but I wanted a whole day to sleep past five in the morning.) IMSS is my nemesis here. I pretty much prefer death to IMSS. And the process is so slow and bureaucratic, and so many of their staff so incompetent, that death is certainly possible there, although it might start off as just a cold. Plus, as the secretary at my work informed me, I was not going to get an appointment that day. I can only get an appointment for the same day if I arrive before 7AM (preferably around 6AM to get a good spot in line for their opening at 7). Emergency services won’t see me without a fever or some other type of emergency.

Thus, IMSS was a no-go (disaster averted). I could go to a private doctor and that would buy me a paid day off, but only for one day. So I’d still have to go to IMSS at 6 the next morning in order to get off the next day. I decided to power through the Thursday (sorry, boss, coworkers, students, for sharing my germs).

I vowed to take Friday off, however. And I did! I slept in, thanks to going to a pharmacy doctor! I laid down for an hour in the middle of the day! I drank unlimited tea! I didn’t have to talk for hours on end. I rested much more than I would have at work, although I still did too much at home. It will take more than a day for me to really, truly convince myself that I deserve to rest when I’m sick. That I deserve to take care of myself. I don’t want a martyr complex. I don’t think any job I do needs me so much that I can’t rest when ill. I know I’m not irreplaceable. In theory I know this. But the idea that I deserve to rest is not what my country believes. It’s a powerful cultural message that I’ve been breathing in for 32 years. I did not grow up in Canada, although from now on, I’m going to try to pretend that I did. Let’s all try it, dear compatriots of mine, and maybe someday we’ll succeed in changing our culture and ourselves. Someday we can truly believe that we all deserve to rest and be well, and we’ll demand the paid sick days and insurance with which to do so. And hopefully the insurance will be better than IMSS.

2 Responses to “In North America, Only ‘Merica Doesn’t Do Sick Days”

  1. lee1978 March 27, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

    Oh I hear you. I too have worked with pneumonia because I used all my sick days for children. We get 5 paid sick days a year. Which is way better than none, but they go quickly with kids and drs appts for said kids. And I am greedy enough to want my vaca time to be a vacation. Not a date with my bed and a kleenex box!

    • exiletomexico March 29, 2016 at 8:20 am #

      Yes, some paid sick days is better than none. But the whole idea that there are a limited number of days per year that you might be sick is a bit absurd. Here there are jobs that don’t give you paid sick leave but I think it makes much more sense the way they do it at my job- no set number of days, you just turn in your justification when you or your children are sick. It makes so much sense! And yes, I wouldn’t want to use my vacation for illness, either. The only negative of my 5 weeks of vacation here is that it’s mostly at the exact same time as everyone else’s; we don’t get to choose when we take it. But I can’t complain about 5 weeks paid vacation!

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