Andrea Mara

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Office Mum stories – Helen O’Keeffe

“I’m a big believer in reinvention and now that my baby-making years are over and the child-rearing stage picks up a pace maybe I’ll completely turn things on their head.  Or just win the Lotto and sit around knitting, eating cheese and slugging champagne for evermore”

This week’s interview is with the lovely Helen O’Keeffe, a Dublin based mum of three. A qualified Civil Engineer and Town Planner she works in a planning and environmental consultancy and is currently on maternity leave.  Helen writes a craft, parenting and food blog at thebusymamas.

Thank you for taking part Helen! Could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?

Office Mum photo: Helen O'KeeffeThanks Andrea.  I love reading your interviews – and only hope that I’ve anything of interest to add to the discussion. I’ve three children – Ruairí (nearly 5), Méabh (3) and Dathaí (12 weeks).

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 work as a Planning Consultant in a town planning and environmental consultancy. I mainly work on engineering and infrastructure developments, and community projects.

I’ve been working as a Planner for 14 years and with this firm for most of that, though my role has changed. Four years after joining, I set up a sister company with two colleagues. Seven years on, when I was expecting my second baby, we restructured the company and my role changed from being a Company Director to an employee.  At the time I chose between trying to keep the business as it was or changing the ownership and taking a senior position on my return from leave.  I chose to let my ownership of the firm go, enjoy my time at home, and return to work as an employee.  It was a tough, but very good decision that worked out best for me, my colleagues and my family

What kind of hours do you work?

At the moment I’m on maternity leave but my normal working week is 4 days.   I actually started working a 4-day week before I even had kids.  I was working on a part-time Masters and when it was finished I stuck with working four (very) long days and having a Friday to myself. Now I just work four regular days from 9.15 to 5.30 (ish!). Occasionally I need to tweak my hours for an evening meeting but as I arrange these myself I have good advance notice.  If I had an oral hearing for a major project that could mean I have long days and full weeks but again I’d know about that well in advance.

Do you have the flexibility to work from home?

Yes.  Our IT network in the office was set up so we all have remote access to the server. I maybe work from home one or two days a month and generally when I have a deadline and need to knuckle down and get something done.  Also, if I am at a meeting at either end of the day I’d often work the rest of the day at home.

Do you have to travel for work?

I may have one or two trips out of Dublin a month but there are generally day trips for site visits and I tend to start early and get back in the early afternoon or evening.  Sometimes, I need to work evenings outside Dublin which can mean I get home late, but I may have ten of these a year.  Road trips –without the melodrama of toddlers fighting in the back, is a nice perk of the job!

What kind of childcare do you use?

We use a small local crèche three days a week, with me and my husband at home one day each.  For my maternity leave the youngest two are at home, and Ruairí is just finishing up his free preschool year this month ahead of starting National School in September. When I go back to work next year things will likely change as we juggle school, crèche and work but our childcare will continue to be part-time and hopefully in the same crèche.

Is your childcare solution working well for you?

Our crèche is the only childcare we’ve used and we like it.  We know all the staff well and it’s been a great way to get to know other families in the area.  As it is nearby we can walk or cycle to it so it fits well with our own trips to work.  So far the crèche have been great at facilitating part-time places for us. I hope we are make arrangements with them next year that help us to minimise the kids’ hours.

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

Both my husband and I are naturally very organised and I think this takes the main stress out of our working lives. Undoubtedly the fact that we are only trying to get everyone out the door three days a week has made things easier.  On those days where we both work, we have dinners ready to walk into as this makes everything easier in the evenings. It also means we can have the bulk of our jobs done by the time they go to bed – freeing us up for the couch (and knitting!).

My work days are fairly routine in terms of hours and I also have good backup in work to arrange jobs and clients in the best way possible. That makes life a lot easier. That said it can be hard to balance work demands and the pressures at home.  Increasingly clients want me to be available outside office hours and that’s one thing I struggle with.  Taking work calls and checking emails after hours is exactly the thing I’d have done for an hour or two each evening when I was self-employed but, as an employee and with three kids in tow, I don’t have the time.  I do however try to get a jump on the day by catching up on calls on my walk into work so I don’t start the day on the back foot.

The hardest part of balancing work and home though is when the kids are sick.  I dread looking at flushed toddler cheeks and snotty nose at the start of a jam-packed working week and trying to figure out what can be cancelled.  And – as you well know, it’s really hard to head into a busy day at work with only a few hours sleep to your name, but at least there’s coffee.   It speaks volumes that we were relieved the three kids recently had chicken pox. It’s honestly easier to juggle two sick toddlers with a new-born in the house than sickness when we’re both working.

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

I find it stressful but, to be honest, I don’t really feel guilty.

It’s stressful because of the inherent uncertainty of family life.  The sickness, the appointment you get late notice of, the afternoon when you’re asked to take a meeting but were meant to be off. Juggling those conflicts is hard – and being organised is my only remedy.

The reason I think I don’t particularly feel guilty is that I feel the kids honestly have the best of both worlds – and probably the best of us.  We always wanted to minimise our childcare and I’m happy that between us we have a good balance where they are home the majority of the time being looked after by one, or both, of us.  I’ve always used my maternity leave to take them out of childcare altogether and have them at home so they’ve had long blocks of unstructured time in the pre-school years.   It’s a balance that’s hard to maintain but I reckon the kids fare the best out of it.

All this said the next year though brings big changes for us.  First, there’s school and all that it brings with afterschool activities and homework. Second, I’m about to face reality as we’re not having any more babies and there is no more maternity leave! By the time I go back to work next Spring, I’ll have spent nearly 3 of the previous 6 years on leave, but when I go back this time I expect a deep dark depression to set in as I finally realise ‘this is it’!  Let’s see how I feel about work and family then!

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?

The bottom line is that there is an optimal solution in every family but what it is totally depends on when each partner wants for themselves and their family – in terms of time, money and lifestyle.  It’s unlikely there’s a ’perfect’ balance though because, like everything, it’s all about swings and roundabouts!  All of the solutions – full time at work; parent at home; part-time work, have advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to be objective about them all.  I just think it’s important that parents (not just mothers) weigh up their options and the realities of their lives, and do what works for them. And then not feel guilty about it.

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

I’m conflicted on this.  On the one hand I love what I do.  There’s one part of my job that’s really technical and appeals to my engineering brain, whereas there’s another side that’s more focussed on community planning and appeals to my more creative side.  Also I get to indulge my crafty side with the community crochet and knitting I organise and on my blog, and I get a fair bit of time at home. That’s a nice balance! That said, if I won the Lotto in the morning, or simply if it ‘cost’ me to go to work I’d pack it in and either stay at home or do something completely different.

There’s another part of me that loves being at home. That part has lived in a bubble for the last few years as I’ve always known that I’d be disappearing again on another maternity stint- and generally quite soon!  That’s the part that’s going to find the next stage really, really hard.

I’m not really giving you an answer here Andrea, am I? But I think that’s because I honestly don’t know!  I’m a big believer in reinvention and now that my baby-making years are over and the child-rearing stage picks up a pace maybe I’ll completely turn things on their head.  Or just win the Lotto and sit around knitting, eating cheese and slugging champagne for evermore.

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?

I think there are two sets of limitations – a gender based glass ceiling and a fear in most workplaces of flexibility.  The reality is that in most cases both of these present as obstacles to working mothers.

In reality I think it is often the case that a female candidate for a job has to prove herself to be better than her male colleagues. It’s not something I have personally experienced but in reality I think this is often the case.   I’ve heard from colleagues of conversations about  the ‘risks’ of hiring females in their 30’s who are likely to have children, and am surprised how narrow-minded people can be.  Yes, it’s true that women have babies and (thankfully) this involves maternity leave, but are we seriously saying that a gap of a few years out of a working life of, say, 40 years, is career suicide? Seriously, it just doesn’t stack up.

I think it’s madness that flexibility in the workplace is such a big issue. I’ve seen it from both points of view – as an employer and an employee, and offering a work setup that includes flexibility is smart.  Whether it’s because people have children or maybe other family demands or simply a hobby or interests, offering concessions from the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, model is the way forward!

First, as a small company recruiting personnel – particularly senior staff, we’ve seen that salaries alone don’t attract the right people and flexible working arrangements offered as part of an overall package have let us compete with larger companies with bigger budgets. Secondly, a little flexibility doesn’t equate to less productivity – quite the opposite I think.  Thirdly, let’s talk about loyalty. I have a great deal of experience in what I do.  If my employer wasn’t willing offer me flexibility – particularly at this time in my working life when I have small children, he would short-sightedly drive an experienced employee from her job.  Luckily I work for a very level-headed and frankly humane guy who has three kids himself.  He knows the value in keeping senior staff on-board and also the added efficiency of an employee who will work to a deadline because she has somewhere else to get to. Knowing the flexibility that is built into my job I can honestly say I’d be unlikely to up sticks and move, even if a more significant salary was offered elsewhere. Proof if needed that if you treat people well, they will return the favour.

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

Be organised. Get a second freezer, batch cook, use the timer on your oven – do anything to make sure weekday family dinners are as easy and hassle free as possible.  Try to do certain jobs on weekdays so you keep your weekends for family time and not an endless stack of chores. Even better – if you can afford it, get a few hours of cleaning help to keep things ticking over. Set your routine up to make life as easy as possible.  Use local facilities such as nearby crèche, GP etc. so you can do the necessary trips as easily as possible and so you’re bringing kids the least possible distance from home.

Be honest. Be honest with your partner about how you feel returning to work, about your feelings about childcare arrangements and about the jobs and things that need to be done at home. Don’t be a martyr – share. If you can, be honest with your employer.  Don’t promise to do things that you can’t do or to be places that you can’t.  If things are piling up, don’t cover it up and wait for disaster to strike.  Take the stress out of the situation and avoid disaster.

Work exercise into your day, it will keep you sane when everything else is crazy.  I used to be a fan of lunchtime or after work yoga classes but as life has gotten busier the only way I can be guaranteed my daily exercise is by cycling or walking into work.  I crazily even did a stint where I’d bring my running gear in and I’d jog home in the evenings (a closing crèche is one hell of an incentive). If you can’t do a class bring your runners into work and get out for a lunchtime stomp.  If you don’t carve out this time for yourself, no-one else will!

Any other comments?

Whatever you decide, be happy.

Helen! I want to be you when I grow up. You’re one of the most chilled out, relaxed, funny people I know. I had no idea you had this super-organised work-life going on in the background. I am now forever going to picture you dropping your children to crèche then striding to work in your runners, doing your morning calls, running gear in the bag for the jog home 🙂

Your set-up with both you and your husband working a four-day-week sounds perfect. I find that for me, my working mother guilt decreased from an eleven out of ten to maybe a two after I changed to a four-day-week with one day at home, and I do think more flexibility leads to less guilt. You are living proof of that theory. And yes, I completely agree with what you said about the madness of flexibility being such an issue. Parents who can work at times and from places that suit them are of course likely to be happier and more productive than those who are forced to work a five day week in the office – if they’re not happy to do so. And while it might not suit every role, it does work for so many, and employers are just too afraid to give it a go.

And yes, writing off women because they might take a few years out to have children is wrong and sad and short-sighted. We’ll have to keep saying that though; it’s taking time for it to sink in with employers.

Thank you Helen for taking part in the interview – I’m so happy that between our toing and froing we finally got it done 🙂





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