Andrea Mara

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Office Mum stories – Emily Hourican

“If the whole world worked part-time – three days a week, or five mornings/ afternoons – we would all be much happier, and less judgemental about each other!”

I couldn’t agree more. This week I meet journalist Emily Hourican who is the author of the recently-published How To Really Be A Mother, a book about having babies, making friends and trying to ignore all the things society says we mothers ‘should’ be doing.

Office Mum interview: photo of Emily HouricanThank you so much Emily for taking part in this interview series for Office Mum – I’m a big fan of your writing! So could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?

Three – 10, 6 and 3. Two boys and a little girl

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’m a journalist and an editor, and most recently author of a book about motherhood, How To Really Be A Mother.

What kind of hours do you work?

My working life is slightly erratic, because I edit a magazine that is published every two months, Hospitality Ireland, and I write freelance for the Sunday Independent and other publications. Usually, I work every morning, until 1pm, either in the office or at home, and then I do a few hours late in the afternoon or after the children have gone to bed, and sometimes at weekends. Most weeks, things work fine like that, but there are times when I don’t have enough childcare for the amount of work I need to get done, and that’s pretty stressful. And sometimes I have too much childcare and not enough work, and that feels extravagant.

So you have the flexibility to work from home?

Sometimes too much… there are days when I long for even the stupidest bit of office banter, because it’s so dull here on my own. And I’m often still in my pyjamas at ten to one. Which is pretty squalid.

Do you have to travel for work?

Almost never, although I am off to Russia for five days next month.

What kind of childcare do you use?

The older two are at school until 1.20 and 2.20, and the youngest has a minder, who she shares with a cousin of the same age, until 1pm.

Is your childcare solution working well for you?

Yes, because the minder has some flexibility so that if I need her to stay longer, she can do that. I have never used a crèche full-time, but I can’t wait for the youngest to start Montessori next year, because costs will be far less. However, she will also be finished at 12.30, so that might be a bit tricky…

With two of your children in school, has that made balancing work and home easier or more difficult?

Easier, though it hasn’t made a huge amount of difference. Because I don’t usually work in the afternoons, I can do all the different pick-up times, afterschool stuff and so on. I just wish the school would schedule swimming lessons so I didn’t have to do that particular nightmare! Plus I’ve met loads of amazing mothers through school, which means there is always someone to take a kid or two if I’m really stuck, and other times I can do the same for them.

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

Being a freelance journalist means never saying no, basically, so if I am asked to do a piece at very short notice, I will always say yes. Then sometimes I find myself tearing my hair out because I don’t have anyone to watch the kids while I do it. That, I’m afraid, is when favours are called in, family begged, TV turned on and major bribes offered… school holidays are usually ok, because the minder can look after all three of them until 1pm, although it does make the house insanely noisy, and hard to get any work done. That’s when I try and head to the library for a few hours.

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

As long as the balance of work mornings, home afternoons, stays as it is, I feel fine about it. I love my work, I love getting out of the house. Days when I have to dress up for meetings are especially fun after a week or two in PJs or tracksuit, and I love having other things going on in my life that I care about. But, when the balance tips too much in favour of work, so that I have to stay in the office until late in the afternoon, or work too much at weekends, then I feel stressed and not entirely happy. I know the children miss me, because they say so. There is nothing stoic about my children… After my first child was born, I went back to work fulltime when he was five months, and that was heartbreaking. I was utterly miserable, and I’m sure a rubbish employee. I don’t know why society makes this necessary. By the time that child was one, I was actually happy to work again, but until then, I absolutely hated leaving him, my work was not up to the standard it should have been, and the child was unhappy too. I feel tremendous guilt, even now, if I have a busy couple of weeks and see less of them. As a result, I’m terrible at ever going away for a night or a weekend without them. I very rarely do.

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?

I think part-time work is perfect. It is great to be able to do something other than mind children in life, and use all our wonderful experience and education on tasks that are not laundry or cooking, but being away from home a full five days a week is, I think, too much. If the whole world worked part-time – three days a week, or five mornings/ afternoons – we would all be much happier, and less judgemental about each other!

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

I love my work. Ideally, I will write more books, and balance this with journalism. And I would love to carry on with working in the morning. An au pair would make my life a lot easier, because that would be the perfect extra flexible bit of childcare I need, but my husband is totally against the idea! He doesn’t want to have to share the TV.

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?

There is a glass ceiling, and whether it is constructed by women themselves or not, is immaterial I think. So what if we make it ourselves by ‘self-selecting?’ We only do this because the alternatives are too tricky. No woman should have to choose so completely between her career and her family. That is cruel.

And for as long as things remain like that, in most of the traditional corporate world, then many women will choose to remain under the glass ceiling. Childcare needs to be a 50-50 thing, not predominately women’s responsibility, and governments need to make it possible for women to be at home more, particularly when children are very small (up to age 5, I would say), without setting back their careers.

If the world would just get behind the idea that this is really only 10 tough years, in a working career that can easily span 40, and be more flexible, tolerant and imaginative, as well as fully involving fathers in the deal, there is no reason at all why having babies and having a stellar career shouldn’t be totally possible. The Dutch do it, the Scandinavians do it. It’s not impossible. But the US, UK and Ireland can’t seem to solve what is a pretty simple problem.

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

Nothing is forever. You can change you mind and find different arrangements if you are unhappy. So give it a go, but keep in mind that nothing is set in stone. Equally though, don’t feel guilty if you enjoy being back at work. It is entirely possible to feel like that and still be a devoted mother.

Your childcare arrangements are paramount. If you feel your child is happy, you’ll be fine, if you don’t, you won’t. I have experience of both, and somewhere in between, and I know it makes all the difference in the world to wave goodbye to a smiling child, and a crying one. Consequentially, don’t be afraid to change the arrangements if you feel they aren’t working. Disruption isn’t great, but neither is sticking to a plan that isn’t delivering results – ie, a happy baby.

Do your very best to negotiate a deal that will help you ease back in – an extra month off, a four-day week, finishing at 3.30 etc. If you don’t succeed, smile very graciously, say ‘thank you so much for considering the possibility,’ and make plans to ask again in six months time. Do not give up. Meantime, obviously, perform like the most dynamic employee ever seen, do not confide to co-workers that you feel miserable (unless you are totally certain you can trust them), do not keep dozens of photos of baby on your desk, and bide your time. Once you have demonstrated commitment, that you are still a valuable employee etc, Management might be more inclined to consider seriously the possibility that you can do your job in four days (as we all know very well that we can!)

Any other comments?

I think the biggest thing with all this is not to judge each other – ‘working mums’ and ‘stay at home’ mums. Only other mothers know the realities of what we do and feel, so we need to not allow society to set up a dichotomy between us. We all do our very best, within the circumstances of who we are and our lives, and we should respect that in each other. Mostly, I find, we absolutely do!

Emily thank you for taking part – there’s so much in this that made me want to shout “hear hear”. I agree absolutely that we often create the glass-ceiling ourselves but that it shouldn’t be a choice we are forced to make. Women are more than capable of working flexibly and achieving at work, yet employers keep pushing us into difficult choices by not allowing part-time conditions.

You put it very succinctly when you suggest that the world should get behind the idea “that this is really only 10 tough years, in a working career that can easily span 40, and be more flexible, tolerant and imaginative, as well as fully involving fathers in the deal” We’re still a long way from it I think, but that’s a very clear way to express it. 

I love your advice about asking for flexibility, putting effort into demonstrating commitment, and then asking again.

And yes, I think women don’t judge one another anywhere near as much as we’re led to believe. Most people are far too busy worrying about their own families to spend time judging others. And anyway, we all know what it’s like – it’s hard whether at home or at work!  





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