Office Mum stories – Jennifer Riddall

“I’ll be in the middle of writing a feature, trying to meet a deadline, but thinking, “I should really put a wash on, or do the dishes”

Freelance journalist Jennifer Riddall moved to Ireland last year from the North West of England and is currently in the process of returning to work after maternity leave. When she’s not busy writing for magazines, blogging or being a new mum, she loves running and being by the sea (preferably combining the two!). She blogs at NifNafNotes and you can find her on Twitter @JenRiddall

Office Mum: Jennifer RiddallThank you for joining the series Jennifer – could you begin telling me how many children you have?

Thanks for asking me to take part! I have one daughter, Esme (my little beach babe), who is eight months old.

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 have been self-employed as a freelance journalist for the past two years. Before that, I spent six years working as an editor on various magazines, including a parenting title (it was my first ‘proper job’ and I hadn’t even thought about having children of my own at that point).

When I first started out as a freelancer, I wrote a lot for the gaming industry because I used to edit a B2B gaming magazine. But I’ve moved away from that now and have been working on women’s lifestyle magazines (parenting, wedding, health and beauty, etc), which I am much more suited to!

What kind of hours do you work?

I am slowly returning to work after maternity leave and have two days a week assigned to working at the moment, but this will increase as Esme gets older. Also, the more work I have on, the more hours I work. For example, last week I worked evenings, nap times and at the weekend (on top of my two days) to meet deadlines. Such is the nature of freelance work.

And is this something you can do from home – or perhaps it’s always from home?

I have always worked from home as a freelance journalist, but am open to working onsite for shifts. I sometimes miss being in an office environment with other people.

Do you have to travel for work?

No. I used to travel a bit when I worked on the gaming magazine and I enjoyed it (especially at first because it was a novelty), but that was before my baby days and I would struggle to go away for work now. Not only would I miss Esme too much, but I also hate packing. (Having to pack a changing bag every day is enough!).

What kind of childcare do you use?

Until recently we used crèche two days a week but we’re now looking for a childminder. In the meantime, I rely on the odd bit of help from family here and there, or I try to fit work in around naps, or during evenings and weekends.

And is that working well for you?

Crèche worked well at first but we decided after a little while that a childminder would probably suit all of us better for now. I am open to this changing though as Esme gets older or my work evolves. I’m definitely looking forward to sorting the childcare; juggling everything can be a little crazy at times.

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

Working from home, I find it difficult to separate the two and struggle to shut the door on the rest of the house. Quite often, I’ll be in the middle of writing a feature, trying to meet a deadline, but thinking, “I should really put a wash on, or do the dishes.” There would be more to balance if I worked in an office (in terms of drop-offs etc), but it would force me to be more organised with home life. Plus, I wouldn’t feel the need to do as much around the house because I wouldn’t be able to. Although I probably wouldn’t get away with wearing pyjamas at my desk.

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!

It’s definitely harder to switch off – when I’m working I’m thinking about the housework, and on my days off I’m thinking about work – but the flexibility that comes from working for yourself is a massive advantage. I’m lucky to be able to edge back into work slowly after having a baby, rather than being forced to jump in headfirst.

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

I think that feeling guilty comes with the territory of motherhood, but the Working Mother Guilt takes it to a whole new level! As Esme only started crèche a month ago, I am just discovering this and still battling with it, despite wanting (and needing) to work. I don’t think it makes a difference whether you work from home or work in an office – you still feel The Guilt.

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?

Everybody’s optimal solution is different. While I take my hat off to the mums who manage to work from home with their children under the same roof (on paper this looks like the ideal – working but still with the children), for many, it’s not feasible. I also think the optimal solution changes depending on your child’s age and your working situation, so in that sense, flexibility is key. A role that lends itself to that and one that can evolve with the role of a mother is ideal, but does that exist?!

An ideal world for my family would probably see my husband in the role of stay-at-home dad (he is a big kid at heart and has the patience of a saint), while I would work a three-day week. Sadly, this isn’t financially viable for us!

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

I was the one kid in primary school who knew what they wanted to do in the future and actually ended up doing it. Writing is my passion and I love being a journalist, so I wouldn’t be anything else. In an ideal world though, I would work for a magazine two days a week (somewhere like IMAGE would be great, thanks) with one day a week at home dedicated to freelance work or writing my book, and the rest of the time with Esme and my husband.

On a more realistic note, I will probably start to look into working in an office for a magazine after Esme has turned one, next year. But for now, our setup works just fine.

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’s hard to comment on this as I’m only just returning to work after maternity leave, but I have witnessed the struggle between employers and working mothers when I worked in an office and among friends of mine.

A lot of mum friends have said that although they have been given more flexible working hours, they have noticed a definite shift in their employer’s attitude towards them since they returned to work after maternity leave (i.e. not being taken as seriously). Some have also said that while their request to work less days has been granted, in actual fact they have ended up doing the same amount of work (and often the same hours) but over less days and for less money. I would like to think that employers don’t take advantage in this way but I’m not sure as I am hearing it more and more. I can also see why working mums would be afraid to say anything to employers for fear of ruining their current setup.

I believe that work opportunities are there for the taking if women want them but quite often it is to the detriment of home life. Although I do think that working for yourself helps in this respect. I have a good friend who seems to perfectly balance a very successful business with two happy children, while her husband also works full time. (Or maybe she is just very good at juggling!)

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

When it comes to childcare and work, do what is best for you and your family and stick to it. Try not to let others influence you or make you feel bad about your decision. We already have enough guilt on our plates as mothers!

Reach out to other working mums. Talking to like-minded people is very cathartic and has really helped me whenever I have had a wobble. A problem halved and all that.

Never stop striving for your optimum solution.

(I just need to take my own advice now!

Any final comments?

I think it’s really important for working mums to know and believe that going to work doesn’t make you a bad parent. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to parenthood and whatever makes your family happy is what’s best for you.

Jennifer, thank you for taking part – as someone who thinks working from home as a freelance writer would be a dream job, it’s great to see the pros and the cons laid out so clearly!

And as dream jobs or optimal jobs go, I think you make a very good point about how this varies depending on, among other things, the child’s age. A perfect job when a child is one might not work so well if there are two children at school and one in pre-school. I love the idea of a job that evolves with your needs – I think that’s known as a completely stable, financially rewarding, non-stressful freelance job – loads of them out there I’d say 🙂  

And I think you are spot-on about mothers who are afraid to question anything once they’ve been granted flexibility – any flexibility we get is tenuous, and nobody wants to rock the boat – I totally get that.

Lastly, I would really like the set-up you describe too – a stay-at-home dad and a three-day week. We can dream!

Thank you for taking part and best of luck with your transition back to work!

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