Helen O’Beirne was born and raised in Blackrock in Dublin, and is the youngest in a family of four kids. She met her husband Donal in college, and they have three children together. Helen is Global Head of HR for Morgan McKinley, a professional services recruitment firm.
Helen, thank you for taking part in this interview series for Office Mum – so let’s start with the basics – could you tell me about your family?
I have three energetic and fun kids, two boys aged three and five, and a girl aged seven. My eldest is in first class and my boys are in Junior infants and preschool. Life is so busy but things are definitely starting to get a bit easier as they move from the baby and toddler years to the school going years!
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 started working at Morgan McKinley straight after college. It was 2001, I thought ‘I’ll give this a go for 6 months’ and 16 years later I am still here! I was lucky to join a progressive company with ambitious growth plans and therefore great career opportunities. My current role is global head of HR so I am responsible for driving the people agenda and talent strategy for our global business of circa 800 employees.
What kind of hours do you work?
I work Tuesday to Friday and my hours vary. I generally do either 8.30-5 or if I am on school drop off I will work 9.30-6. I’m so lucky to have this flexibility , to be honest it means more to me as a parent than any other benefit or perk.
Do you have the flexibility to work from home?
I do on occasion work from home especially if I have a lot of project work on and I need head space to think. Generally however I prefer to work in the office as my role is so people-focused and I have lots of face to face and team meetings.
Do you have to travel for work?
I travel about once a month – usually only to Cork or London for a day or two. I did spend a week in our India office last summer and that was a really interesting experience!
What kind of childcare do you use?
I’ve tried almost every type of childcare out there bar an au pair – that’s next on my list! I’ve had the kids in crèche from a young age which I found great. Then after I returned to work after having my third I had a childminder in the home, she was amazing and it gave me great freedom and flexibility – although you can never work from home with this arrangement! Now the kids are with a childminder and are minded in her house. This works really well too – however the logistics in the morning can be challenging getting everyone up and out and then rushing to collect on time.
Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself, apart from being a mother and an employee?
Yes, and I think this is so important. Often when you work outside the home you feel you need to spend every waking moment with your kids, often forgetting about ‘me time’. I try to get out one evening during the week even if it’s just popping down to my parents, meeting a friend for a walk or coffee, or simply going grocery shopping alone! My brother has a wine bar in Terenure so I also try to squeeze in some ‘wine appreciation’ every now and then!
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
I have come to the conclusion that you can’t have it all. A tidy house, happy kids and your sanity. I wouldn’t win any ‘homemaker of the year’ awards, that’s for sure, and there is almost always a mountain of laundry somewhere which I am forever putting off sorting! There are times when work is really busy and you could do with spending a few more hours in the office, but it is just not practical so you have to prioritise your time and tasks like an army sergeant.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
I think everyone finds it challenging to some extent and I’m no exception! As the kids get older, they want to have more play-dates and have you collect them from school etc. – that’s when they start to question why you are not around more, and it can be tough. But, I enjoy my job and the kids understand why I work. I think I have as good a balance as is possible in my role. The time I get to spend with the kids I try to make as quality as possible, so I try to keep the phone out of sight until after their bedtime, hard as it may be to remove it from my person!
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 we need to stop thinking about motherhood and start talking about parenthood. It takes two to make a baby but often the childcare arrangements become the responsibility of one! In Ireland extortionate childcare costs make it difficult for both parents to work and that is definitely an area that needs some consideration. Men and women should both be afforded the same flexibility options and it needs to become more acceptable and normal for fathers to seek flexibility in the workplace. There is so much talk about the gender pay gap at the moment and this is an important topic to explore. We can’t ignore the fact however that the time women need to take out of the workplace to have and care for children plays a significant factor in this. For me, shared parenting responsibilities is a big part of finding a good balance – although a cook, cleaner, personal shopper and driver would also be amazing!
If you could do any job, what would it be?
I really enjoy my job so I don’t think I would change it but if I won the Lotto (well the Euromillions!) I would love to do something in the charity sector. We do a lot of CSR work in Morgan McKinley and it is so rewarding. Seeing the positive impact our fundraising efforts have on those who really need it puts things dramatically into perspective and I find the time spent coordinating for these kind of events time well spent.
Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?
That’s a tough one. It depends on the day really! There are times I wish I could be at home more but I don’t think I would want to be at home full-time. I enjoy my career and I have enough flexibility and autonomy for it to really work for me. I admire women (and men!) who take time out of their paid careers to take on a full-time ‘stay at home parent’ role. It is one of the toughest job out there, but with the best benefits obviously!
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?
It depends on the job. There are some positions that you just need to put in the hours to get the job done and this is the case with many senior executive roles. So if you want to have flexibility you cannot always have the ‘big job’ because you might not be able to meet the demands of it without it impacting on your home life. Late evenings, business travel and corporate events outside normal working hours all eat into family time and many women opt out of these career paths because the sacrifice is too much.
That being said, I think organisations are becoming more flexible in general – not because of mothers but because of millennials! Employees are now looking for flexibility for a variety of different reasons from team sports, to volunteering commitments. People want their impact to be measured on output not presence. With this in mind I think the glass ceiling is becoming thinner as we begin to react to the broad demand of flexibility for all.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
- Don’t be hard on yourself. Tell yourself ‘I am the best person for this job’ whether it is your job as a mum – or in the workplace. if you don’t believe it no one will!
- I will not give any tips on great homemaking – but getting a slow cooker was one of the best (if a bit boring!) presents I ever got!
- Try to manage your time well in work. Don’t schedule a meeting at 5pm if you know you need to race to the crèche or childminder at 5.30, you will be distracted during the meeting and clock watching for the last few minutes. Returning to work after any period of extended absence can be overwhelming, so accept all offers of support you can get to ease yourself back in.
Thank you Helen! I love this quote so much:
“I think we need to stop thinking about motherhood and start talking about parenthood. It takes two to make a baby but often the childcare arrangements become the responsibility of one!”
I think even in homes where both parents work similar hours and take a good, equal chunk of responsibility for childcare and housework, it’s very often women who do the emotional labour – organising costumes, writing the note to the teacher, answering the birthday party invitation, and worrying that everything that goes wrong is down to us and our choices. (Maybe that last one is just me!)
And I’m fascinated with the idea that workplaces might become more flexible because of millennials – how ironic would that be, and how perfect too. It does seem as though there’s a shift away from the culture of sixty-hour weeks, and employees want a better balance overall, regardless of whether or not they have children.
It sounds to me like you have a great balance with a career you enjoy, happy kids, good childcare, and some time to yourself too. As for the house, I won’t look at your laundry mountain if you don’t look at mine 🙂