“We’ve crunched the numbers and it’s actually going to cost us a fairly substantial amount of money for me to stay in my current job over the next five years but we’re going to try to find a way to finance it as I don’t want to stop working”
Anne-Marie McKenna is a software engineer and mum of two from Cork, with a third baby on the way. She chats here about the challenges of childcare during school holidays, focusing on the positives, and continuing to work after her upcoming maternity leave – even though childcare for three will cost more than she earns.
Thank you Anne-Marie for taking part in the series – so let’s begin with the kids – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?
I have two children with a third on the way – Sarah is almost five and will be starting school in September, and Matthew is almost three. I’m going to be adding a newborn to the mix at the end of April, all going well!
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 Software QA Engineer for a multinational computing company – I’ve been in the industry for 18 years now and have been with my current employer for 11 years.
What kind of hours do you work?
Since my first child was born I’ve been taking parental leave for one day per week – I stay at home with the children on Wednesdays and work 8-5 for the other four days. This has been a lifesaver and I don’t know how I’m going to cope (logistically or emotionally!) when the leave eventually runs out!
Do you have the flexibility to work from home?
Working from home on a regular basis is not really something that’s part of the culture in my organisation but I’ve never had an issue when I’ve specifically requested to work from home occasionally. If I’m taking care of sick kids I tend to use annual leave instead, as it’s practically impossible to get any actual work done when they’re both there!
Do you have to travel for work?
I have travelled occasionally with work in the past but it’s not something I’ve volunteered for since having children! So the extent of my travel currently is the 30 minute commute to and from the office, which suits me fine 🙂
What kind of childcare do you use?
Both children are cared for in our local crèche for four days a week – the crèche also provide preschool and after school services so hopefully this arrangement will continue for the foreseeable future, despite the considerable financial burden it will place on us when there are three kids to drop off each morning! I think it’s important to give them a sense of continuity; they’ve both been there since they were ten months old. It’s like a second home to them now, and as everything is local a lot of their friends and neighbours will be progressing to the national school with them when the time comes.
Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself?
Not anything outside the home right now – by the time the kids are asleep at 8.30 I‘m in my pyjamas and ready for bed myself! However, I am an avid reader and set aside an hour every night before bed where I can immerse myself in alternative worlds (if I don’t fall asleep first :)).
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
My employers are very understanding when it comes to my need to leave the office at 5pm every day to collect the kids (my husband does drop-offs in the morning as his working day starts later than mine), so that side of things generally runs quite smoothly. We need to provide hot meals to the crèche for lunch every day which requires a lot of forward planning, and generally the house looks like a bomb has hit it by the end of the week as there just isn’t the time (or the energy) to keep up with all the housekeeping! As long as we’re all clothed and fed I don’t worry too much about crumbs on the carpets and messy counters, and we make an effort to catch up a bit at the weekends. I’m definitely not going to be winning any ‘housewife of the year’ awards though!! I’d really love a cleaner….
Another thing that’s looming next year is the school summer holidays – financially that’s going to hit us quite hard as all three kids will be in full-time care for four days each week and it will end up costing more than what I earn each month – our parents don’t live close enough for us to have the option of asking them to help out. We’ve crunched the numbers and it’s actually going to cost us a fairly substantial amount of money for me to stay in my current job over the next five years but we’re going to try to find a way to finance it as I don’t want to stop working – in the high-tech sector you’re obsolete after a year or two if you don’t keep up with all the latest developments and it seems a shame to have to sacrifice all the effort I’ve put in to get here – it will all balance out again eventually and benefit us in the long-term.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
I think being a stay-at-home mother is one of the most challenging and selfless jobs there is, so in some ways working outside the home feels like the ‘easier’ option and that’s a big contributor to my feelings of guilt – is it selfish of me to pay someone else to take care of my kids so I can go and sit in an air-conditioned office?
I do find it extremely difficult to leave in the morning sometimes – when one of the kids is sick or when they’re crying as I close the front door at 7.30am I feel like I’m being torn in two. Thankfully that doesn’t happen too often and in general they’re fine with our routine – it’s all they’ve ever known. They’re both reasonably happy and contented and they run into crèche every morning, so that eases the guilt somewhat. Having one day at home with them during the week is also lovely.
I try to focus on the positives – I’m proud to be a role model for my daughter, I want her to see that it’s possible for a woman to have a career in a sector that’s traditionally regarded as ‘male’ and that it doesn’t necessarily need to stop once kids come along. It’s good for my son to see it too!! I also think they’ve benefitted socially from interacting with other children their age.
My husband and I do the same job (in different companies) and he’s very supportive – he’s seen how different our career trajectories have been since we started our family (I’m in the same role and earning the same as I was 6 years ago whereas he has progressed significantly in his career) and he’s encouraging me to get back on the career ladder again – but I don’t think that will happen in any meaningful way until my parental leave runs out in 2019! I’ve made a conscious choice to have that little bit of extra time with my children while they’re small, as those home days are precious and help me deal with the inevitable feelings of guilt when they come.
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 it’s different for everyone and it changes over time as well. Three days (or job sharing) sounds great to me right now but it’s not really an option with the type of job I do – even the four-day week is hard to accommodate. All my salary would still be eaten up with childcare costs anyway – that dynamic wouldn’t change!
I guess if my job allowed I would just stay at home until the kids were all established in school and then go back to the same role – but I think I’d really struggle to get back into the IT job market after stepping away for five years and I’m not willing to take that risk right now.
If you could do any job, what would it be?
To be at home during school holidays would be great from a childcare perspective – but I could never cope with teaching so that’s out!
Realistically I’m happy where I am – I’m good at my job and I find it challenging and interesting. I can’t ask for much more than that really.
We’d ideally like to have our families closer so the kids could spend more time with them but even if they lived next door I wouldn’t really expect them to get involved in the childcare side of things on a regular basis.
Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?
I don’t think so, not in the long-term at least – to be honest we’d be no worse off in the short-term if I stayed at home once number three arrives! Maybe because I didn’t become a mother until my mid-thirties I can’t really imagine a life without working outside the home – it’s been a part of my identity for so long I’d find it really hard to adjust. I do periodically evaluate the situation but so far I don’t feel ready to stop working… but that might all change when I’m a mum of three. I’m very lucky to have that choice.
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?
This is a tough one. I think that the way things are currently structured in the multinational corporate world (which is the only experience I have to go on), in a way it’s an individual choice that has to be made. If a woman is focused on her career then, in my experience in the IT sector at least, there are no barriers to that. I’ve witnessed mothers who have been incredibly successful – but that comes with extended periods of travel, early morning/late evening conference calls, networking effort, volunteering to take on extra responsibility etc. This obviously has an impact on the amount of time and energy you have to spend as a caregiver for your children.
For every woman I have seen take this path and thrive, there two or three others who decide to take their foot off the career pedal for a while and prioritize their evenings with their children, take additional unpaid maternity leave, parental leave, etc. This is what I’ve chosen to do – during my working day I give 100% but I’ve set my own limits. I don’t think I’m going to look back in 30 years and regret that decision. There’s no doubt that taking the extra leave and turning off the email at 5pm does limit your opportunities somewhat – maybe this isn’t how it should be in an ideal world but I‘m comfortable with the decisions that I’ve made when it comes to my own work/life balance so far.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
I wish I had a good answer to this….
Try to plan ahead as much as possible – make sure there are clean clothes/uniforms for at least one day ahead and that you have supplies for the lunch boxes. Nothing more annoying than realising at the last minute that you forgot to take dinner out of the freezer the night before or that there are no clean trousers left 🙂
Talk to your employer as soon as you return to work so they understand the logistics behind your daily routine – if you need to leave at a certain time to get to the crèche before it closes, call this out ahead of time and suggest alternative options for any potential conflicts – for example, if an important conference call is scheduled for 5.30, could you leave the office earlier, collect the kids at 5 and then dial into the meeting from home? (Pro tip – make sure you ALWAYS put the phone on mute in this situation – I’ve unwittingly treated colleagues to the sounds of me feeding my baby daughter her dinner in the past). It’s much easier to talk about these issues in advance rather than waiting for them to crop up.
Most importantly, cut yourself some slack – sometimes it all feels a bit overwhelming, especially at the beginning. I found returning to work after Matthew even harder than it was with Sarah, it takes about 3 months before you start to feel even marginally in control of your life again but things DO settle down and get easier!
Any other comments?
Thanks for including me in this series – as a working mum just muddling her way through I’ve found it incredibly interesting to read how other women manage in a range of different situations – it’s genuinely eye-opening and I’m happy to contribute my experiences!
Anne-Marie I love this interview so much – I felt like you were in my head, reading my thoughts! Particularly in relation to glass ceilings – that’s the question that gets a different answer each time – some people say there’s no glass ceiling, so are emphatic that there is. My own opinion is exactly as yours – it’s absolutely possible to thrive (certainly in Financial Services) if you put everything into it and are prepared to do all the hours and all the travel. The glass ceiling comes into play if you want part-time or flex options. And I think lots of us make the very valid decision to, as you say, take a foot off the pedal. I think where it can go wrong, is when every kind of flex option is seen as “less than” and people are mommy-tracked unnecessarily. There are some jobs that absolutely require the long hours, and many that don’t. But yes, I agree – it depends.
And I was also really interested in what you said about working outside the home being part of your identity – I can relate to that too. So many of us had long careers before our kids arrived, and it’s difficult to imagine switching off from that, all of a sudden.
It’s very inspiring that you’ve done the sums regarding the lack of financial benefits of working over the next five years but you’re still focusing on the positives, and the fact that it’s a means to an end (it reminds me of Nicola Sheehan’s interview last year). These years when childcare costs are huge are relatively short and once you’re out the other side, it will be easier.
And lastly, I love that you can be a positive role model for your daughter, in a male dominated industry. I hope all our little girls can grow up knowing that anything is possible for them.
Thanks for taking part Anne-Marie and best wishes for the new baby’s arrival!
PS, to answer your question: No, it’s not selfish to pay someone to mind your kids so that you can go and sit in an air-conditioned office – you’re doing a job you enjoy and one you’re good at, and all in order that you can still have a career when your kids are older, so no guilt allowed.