Andrea Mara

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Office Mum stories – Tracy Gunn

Recently I was asked how I can say ‘no’ to work (which as a freelancer can be scary). My mantra is ‘every time I say yes to doing additional work, it means I’m saying no to being with the boys’. It makes the decision much easier”

Originally from Scotland, Tracy moved to Ireland six years ago having fallen in love with an Irish man.  She’s a freelance Trainer and Coach and runs her own business ‘Being at your Best’.  At the end of last year founded a new venture ‘Mumager’ along with two colleagues.  Mumager is aimed at working mums, offering workshops and coaching with the aim of helping them to manage their work and home lives.  She has two little boys and works part-time, and she is this week’s lovely interviewee!

Office Mum: Tracy Gunn Mumager photoThank you Tracy for taking the time to answer these questions – could you begin by telling me how many children you have and their ages?

I have two little boys – Euan is 3 ½ and Logan 18 months.

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

Ten years ago I was living in London and was Head of Leadership Development for Marks & Spencer.  I’d always dreamed of working for myself so took the decision to set up on my own, with the view to ‘seeing how things went’.  I’ll be celebrating my 10-year anniversary in January – so here’s to the next 10 years.    I design and deliver training courses on management, personal development, and health and well-being.

Last year I was reflecting on my own experiences of returning to work after my second maternity leave.  That prompted myself and two colleagues to set up Mumager. Mumager was born from the three of us wanting to do something practical to help mums manage their return to work.  Our aim is to share practical advice and tools that help to manage that transition, so that everyone – parents, children and bosses – benefit.

What kind of hours do you work?

I work two days a week.   Once a month I extend that to three days a week, for longer leadership programme that I deliver overseas.

And is this something you can do from home – or perhaps is almost always from home?

It’s a bit of both.  Before having the boys I used to travel a lot for work.  I knew that this wasn’t going to be compatible with having a family so I had to redefine how and where I worked.   Fortunately companies are increasing looking to technology as a way of delivering training so a lot of my work is now done over the internet using WebEx.   Unfortunately for me (and maybe the participants too) I have to use Webcam – so I can no longer work in my PJs and bed-head!  But that’s the only down side.  I still do lots of face to face work – here in Ireland, the UK and to far-flung places like China and Moscow. So lots of variety!

And how to you manage the travel?

When I do travel I often take the red-eye to London for the day.  Those are long days – leaving the house at 4.30am and getting back around 10.30pm.  Once a month I’ll go away to deliver a leadership programme for three days.  I learnt my lesson last year when I came back from maternity leave.  I took on too much – I was away every week for eight weeks in a row delivering 3-day leadership programmes. By the end of it I was miserable.  I was so tired from all the travelling, and was feeling run down from being on so many aeroplanes.  I hated being away from the boys and it went against all of my values.  From that point on I decided that I would only go away once a month.  Its means that I sometimes turn down work that on paper sounds quite exotic (trip to Australia or Indonesia anyone?) but I know it’s the right decision for us as a family. Recently I was asked how I can say ‘no’ to work (which as a freelancer can be scary). My mantra is ‘every time I say yes to doing additional work, it means I’m saying no to being with the boys’. It makes the decision much easier.

What kind of childcare do you use?

We have a child-minder who comes to our house.

Is your childcare solution working well for you?

Yes – with the odd and sometimes long hours I work when I’m away, it’s a better option for us than a crèche.

Are your children in school and has that made balancing work and home easier or more difficult?

Euan will be starting his ECCE place this year so he’ll be at Montessori 5 mornings a week.  On the days I’m not working this means I’ll have more 1:1 time with Logan – which he’s never really had up to this point.

As for when they are in school, well I guess that’ll be a whole new ball game. My plan when they are in school is to work term-time only.

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

Deciding to only work two days a week definitely makes things feel squeezed.  I have a lot to fit into that time, which means I have to be really focused and switched on all of the time.  It can also be hard to manage client expectations.  As a rule I try to maintain the boundaries I’ve set, but there are times I have to check emails at night or take an urgent call.

And then there’s my own expectations – I can be my own worst enemy.  By nature I like things to be neat and tidy – keeping on top of everything in the house can be a full-time job in itself.  I’ve got better at prioritising and relaxing my standards (though I’m not sure my husband would agree!).

Do you think that working for yourself makes it easier or more difficult to balance work and home? I imagine there’s more flexibility but that it’s also difficult to switch off!

Yes and no. Yes in that I feel lucky to be able to choose when I work.  I have a lovely balance between a job that I love and being able to spend loads of time with the boys.

No – in the sense that it can be hard-working upstairs when I can hear the boys downstairs having fun – or getting upset.  I try to squirrel away in the office and not come out when they are around because if I do, they want to be with me.  This is especially true for my littlest boy and it’s not fair on him or our child-minder.

Also I could work all night every night as there’s always something to be done.  But I’ve gotten pretty good at switching off.  When I close the office door I leave the phone on the desk.  When I do have to do some work in the evening I try to be downstairs by 9.30pm at the latest so my husband and I can have a bit of down-time before turning in for the night.

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

This is one of my favourite topics!  The working mum ‘g-spot’ as I call it.  Yes, I’ve been guilty as charged.  I think the worst moment was when Euan was taken into hospital with pneumonia whilst I was overseas and I couldn’t get home to him until the next afternoon. I felt awful!

I’ve worked hard on these feelings of guilt because at the end of the day it only makes you feel worse. I wrote a short blog about it called ‘Get a grip on your G-Spot

I think it’s worth exploring why you feel guilty in the first place, so that you can do something about it.  Rather than viewing it as one big cloud of guilt – what’s it really about?   When I first went back to work I had some notion that I was the only person who could look after my little boy properly.  I also found it really hard to be physically separated from him.  Talking to friends who had been through all of this before helped to change my perspective.  Being with other people who care for and love them – be it minders or family – can enhance your child’s life immensely.  What it did prompt me to do was to make some changes that made me feel happier. For example I cut down my hours to two days a week – this has meant that I’ve taken a cut in salary, but I’m happy to forgo certain luxuries to be at home more (I’m now an expert in DIY beauty treatments!)

I find it really interesting that men (I’m generalising I know) tend not to use the ‘G’ word.  They might say things like ‘I wish I could see more of my kids during the week’ but they tend not to feel guilty about it.  I do see it as more of a thing that women seem to talk about.    I think we give ourselves an awfully hard time and I’d love to see this change in the future.

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 the optimal solution looks different from family to family – there is no one best way.  I would hope that employers will begin to support more family-friendly policies that allow both mums and dads to have flexibility.

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

I’m doing it – I love my job.  If I could change anything it would be to have the superpower of tele-transport – no more airports. 

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?

Being self-employed I can’t say it’s something that I’ve personally experienced.  However talking to the women that I work with, and friends, I do think it is something that exists.  Whether that’s a reality or a perception is another matter.

The reason that I say perception is that many women (me included) have said that when they returned to work their confidence was lower.  I think we pick up so many new skills when we become a parent – patience, multi-tasking and negotiating to name but a few.  Going back to work we forget how good we were, and still are.  So without even realising it, we may be holding ourselves back.

I also know women who have continued to rise in their careers whilst having a family.  I think it comes down to being really clear about what you want.  If you want to earn x amount or reach a certain position – you’ll have to ‘lean in’ and work for it (whether or not you have children).  And that’s ok.  Or you might want to ‘lean out’ and stay where you are for a few years whilst your family is growing up.     Personally I think I’m ‘leaning sideways’ at the moment.  I have goals that I want to achieve but I realise that it’s going to take me a bit longer to get there. And I’m okay with that.

A growing trend that I’ve noticed is the expectation that to be seen as good at your job, and committed, is that you should be online 24/7 – checking email at home and working out of hours.   I think it’s a habit that we’ve got into and it has to stop. Instead of being judged by the hours we clock in, I’d love for people to be measured on their outputs.     This is an issue that I think affects both mums and dads and affects the quality of family time.

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

  1. Have some ‘you time’ whether it’s a class you do once a week, or a monthly night with your book club girls.  Something that you look forward to and do just for you (and don’t feel guilty about it – its not selfish to have some you-time).
  2. Stop.  Breathe.  Remember that you’re doing great.  Avoid comparing yourself to other mums.  We are all just doing the best that we can and none of us gets it right all the time.
  3. Come on our next Mumager workshop to get a whole host of new ideas from how to set boundaries, share responsibilities with your partner, handle tricky conversations with your boss or colleagues…and meet other mums… (I had to get that in there!)

Any other comments?

Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this series Andrea.  I love reading these interviews – its great to get some different perspectives whilst reassuring us that whatever our situations we’re not alone in the challenges and joys that face.

Tracy I’m delighted that you took part in the interview series – having been on the Mumager workshop, I’m a huge admirer of yours! I was fascinated when I first spoke to you and realised that you work for yourself but only two days a week. As you say yourself here, turning down work is a scary prospect for any freelancer. I love that you have the confidence to do that and that you can take away the fear element by seeing it as not saying no to the boys.

On the G word; I fully agree that men don’t seem to feel guilty the same way that we do. They get on with whatever they’re doing at a given moment in time, whereas as women, we tend to agonise over what we should be doing, what we have to do next, and whether or not our kids will be in therapy because we spent too much time apart from them (or maybe that last one is just me)

I think we’re programmed differently, and there are also different societal expectations – women are seen (often incorrectly) as having a choice about working, and as soon as we have a choice, we open ourselves up to self-doubt and guilt.

I was also interested in what you said about the end of maternity leave and feeling that nobody else could look after your child properly; this came up elsewhere recently and I’ve just been writing down my own memories of that time. It’s like a physical pain! I think it’s a very common feeling and there’s no way to by-pass it, but you’re right, talking to friends who have been through it definitely lessens the trauma.

And lastly, I love what you said about leaning in, leaning out, and leaning sideways. And perhaps for many of us who are fluctuating between worrying about our careers and worrying about our kids, we need to step back and take stock – work out what exactly we want and put the rest to the side, rather than trying to do everything. Most of us agree that we can’t “have it all” in the traditional sense, but I think sometimes we’re still struggling with that on a day-to-day level.

Competition time!

Office mum: Mumager

Tracy, Alex and Carmen from Mumager have very generously given me a place on their upcoming workshop for a reader giveaway. I’ve been to their first workshop, and came out on a high – not just from the coffee and pastries 🙂

A day sharing thoughts and tips with like-minded women, learning from inspirational trainers, and taking time out to focus on what’s really important about your own work and family balance – it’s a rare and valuable treat.

The next course takes place on Wednesday November 19th in the Castleknock Hotel and Country Club, and to be in with a chance of winning, just comment below to let me know you’d like to enter, or comment on the Office Mum Facebook page, or retweet the post on Twitter.

I’ll draw a winner on Wednesday October 1st.

Good luck!






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