Andrea Mara

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Office Mum stories – Debra McNamara

At the start when I worked full-time and my oldest started to get upset going into crèche, massive guilt set in. Myself and my husband wondered if we were ‘choosing’ to send him to crèche or could we afford for one of us to give up work.” 

This week I interview Debra McNamara, mum of three, and actuary in an insurance company. She talks about her flexible work set-up, the struggle to make school holidays work (how timely as we start the longest Easter holidays ever known to mankind!) and why more men need to take parental leave.

Thank you Debra for taking part in this interview series for Office Mum – so let’s start with the basics – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?

Debra McNamara - Office MumI have three boys (no pink or glitter in our house!) ages 7, 4 and 16 months

And now could you tell me a little about your job – what do you do and for how long have you been working at this?

I am an actuary in a multinational insurance company. It’s basically fancy number crunching. I am with them over six years, there were just over 20 people working there when I started, now there are over 300 so it has changed a lot!

What kind of hours do you work?

I am taking parental leave in the form of four half days per week. I started taking parental leave over two years ago when my oldest started school. Originally I was working two full days a week and taking three half-days, and used an after-school facility in the crèche where my son started. But my son wasn’t happy about going to after-school as after a day of school he just wanted to come home and play with his own toys rather be in another environment where he had another “teacher” telling him what to do, which is something I completely understood. The crèche are fantastic and he got on well with all the staff but I changed my parental leave arrangement after I came back from my last maternity leave so as to avoid needing the after school facility. On my one full day a week my husband takes leave to cover that afternoon.

Do you have the flexibility to work from home?

I am allowed work from home, this is the benefit of working for a multinational company, all of us deal with colleagues in many different countries so a lot of my meetings are teleconferences and some day-to-day interactions may only be via email. I only started working from home when I started taking parental leave. I come in for one full day and one other day a week. I am very aware of how fantastic my arrangement is, even more so when I read other Office Mum stories and hear other people’s ideal working arrangement.

Do you have to travel for work?

Thankfully no, the Dublin office is the hub for the European operations so it is my international colleagues who have to do more travelling to us.

What kind of childcare do you use?

I have always used the same crèche. Now my two younger boys are in five days a week until 2pm. If anyone is sick then my first port of call is my parents as they live nearby (which is no happy accident, we chose our location to be near them!). Then if they are away, which happens more frequently now, and if I am due into the office, I can go into the office on a different day and work from home, which works fine if one of the older boys is sick as they can entertain themselves (or the TV can!) while I genuinely work, but if the youngest is sick then I just have to take annual leave.

Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself, apart from being a mother and an employee?

There is a pool near my office so I go through phases of having a swim at lunchtime but now I am only in the office once a week for a full day, that lunchtime more often is spent shopping or meeting friends! I think once my youngest is sleeping a bit better and bedtime runs more smoothly I will try to get out one evening a week and do something.

On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?

School holidays are the pinch point for me. Between midterms, Easter, Christmas and other random days off, all my annual leave is used up never mind summer holidays! For the short midterms and one-off days, I can work from home and keep my son at home, but next year when I have two in school that won’t be possible as no doubt I would be spending all my time being referee! For Easter and summer, myself and my husband will take different days off to cover this as well as together for a family holiday. In the summer I also use camps to cover any shortfall and even if I wasn’t working I would probably send them to a few camps for the extra activity. But it is stressful trying to arrange the leave for the right time periods especially if it doesn’t suit work. And I am only able to cover it all right now because I have parental leave, which won’t last forever. So I will probably have to look into a child minder type arrangement in future years.

And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?

At the start when I worked full-time and my oldest started to get upset going into crèche, massive guilt set in. Myself and my husband wondered if we were “choosing” to send him to crèche or could we afford for one of us to give up work. But then we would have had to make some adjustments and cut back on the non-essentials and once he started school then I could go back to work in the mornings. But it would be nearly impossible to get back in to my type of work on a part-time basis. 

Do you think there’s an optimal solution out there – a perfect balance that enables a mother to have a fulfilling career while being there for her children?

My current arrangement is pretty great, I like working part-time and then being there most afternoons but I’ve had to redefine fulfilling; from career advancement to just enjoying the work that I do. The icing on the cake would be to only work term time and have one morning a week to myself to catch up on laundry etc. but I know that is pie-in-the sky.

If you could do any job, what would it be?

I’d love to do something more creative like interior design but I’m sure the reality of that could be very stressful so I should probably stick with what I know!

Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?

I like working and problem solving. I studied for quite a few years as part of my job so I feel I shouldn’t let that go to waste. But if money really wasn’t an issue then of course I’d stop working but once the kids are all in school in a couple of years I’m sure I’d look for something to do either voluntary or on the creative side.

Do you think there’s a glass ceiling for women, or is it a perception based on the fact that mothers often look for flexibility or part-time hours, which in turn limits their opportunities?

Yes exactly, the flexibility issue is definitely an impediment to progressing. In my company there are quite a few women in very senior positions but they work full-time. I was told if I go back full-time then I could have more responsibility. I did wonder if I could take on more responsibility and continue part-time but I don’t think it works where you have junior staff who need full-time support or deadlines which require bursts of longer hours in the run up to them. I wish I had an answer to this but I don‘t and I think I just have to accept that my career will stall for a few years. I enjoy what I do and having had more responsibility in previous roles I know the extra headaches it can bring so I am happy to continue as I am.

Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?

Initially for me when my kids were in crèche full-time the big thing was meals as I had to supply the crèche with a light meal for the afternoon, so I batch cooked at the weekends or one evening a week and had the freezer stocked. Also try to do the same meal for everyone rather than “kids” meals and “adult” meals – it’ll halve your workload.

This is more for when your kids start school; make friends with other mums from your kid’s class, especially ones living nearby, and try to co-ordinate after school activities with others in the class so you can share drop offs or pick-ups. I’ve started to build up a circle of other school mums who have been invaluable, they really helped me out when my youngest was just born so I didn’t have to do so many school pick-ups and I’ve been able to reciprocate by looking after their kids for an hour here and there if they had doctor appointments etc. 

Oh and enjoy the fact you can drink a cup of tea with two hands and maybe even finish it before it gets cold!

Any other comments?

I would like to see more fathers take parental leave, they are entitled to the same as mothers and it would mean everyone with kids would be on a level playing field and maybe companies would have to adapt as flexible working would be the norm rather than the exception which may solve the career progression issue.

Debra, I’m so delighted you did the interview – as someone who knows you in real-life, I was very much looking forward to hearing how you manage and about your take on glass ceilings and guilt.

Your flex set-up sounds great – a very creative use of parental leave! It’s fantastic to work for an employer who supports it – there are still so many out there who will only allow block leave.

And it’s refreshing to hear that your husband covers one afternoon each week – in almost seventy interviews I’ve published, I could count on one hand the number of families in which dads are covering any element of childcare on a regular basis. As you say yourself, until more men start to take parental leave, we can’t move away from the “mommy track” idea, or the notion that childcare is a woman’s issue.

Thanks again, and good luck to all of us trying to manage the Easter holidays :)






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