Office Mum stories – Liz Cullen

“I love working . . . ideally I would love to work three days a week in a less stressful job but these types of jobs are very hard to come by and financially I’m not sure that we could afford it. . . . I’m also very aware that psychologically I’m just not suited to being at home full-time even if it were an option.”

Liz Cullen is a mum of three who works full-time as a senior manager in social services. She lives near the sea in Wicklow, and when she’s not working, she likes spending time with her family, reading, running, travelling, and meeting up with friends for a good chat.

Thank you Liz for taking part in this interview series – so let’s start with the basics – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?

I have three children; two girls aged nine and six, and a boy who is four. 

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 for a government agency as a Senior Social Services Manager

What kind of hours do you work?

I work full time five days per week – Monday to Friday officially!

Do you have the flexibility to work from home?

My boss is quite flexible and understanding so happy to let me work from home if the need arises occasionally but there is no definite arrangement. I tried taking some parental leave but my workload didn’t decrease so I found I was doing the same amount of work for less pay!

Do you have to travel for work?

Yes, I am up and down the N11 and M50 nearly every day but my actual office is two minutes drive from my house so I can’t complain. I have occasional short trips either in the country or to the UK. 

What kind of childcare do you use?

From last September we only have paid childcare for my pre-schooler two to three afternoons a week. This has been magic! His childminder is his preschool teacher…he goes home with her after school and he loves it. My husband works shift so we use our mums and my sister to plug the gaps for the girls which requires a lot of forward planning but believe it or not, this is the least stressful childminding arrangement we have ever had. The summer will definitely be a challenge…I m already working on that and I will need to take two weeks parental leave or so but it is manageable with planning.

Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself, apart from being a mother and an employee?

No, and that’s nobody’s fault but my own as my husband is very supportive. I keep meaning to actively plan me time but something always gets in the way. Couple time is harder again – the logistics!

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

I like a clean, organised house and I like order both in work and at home. I’ve had to lower my standards so much. Things can’t be as organised or clean as I’d like them to be and I do find that stressful and at times overwhelming. I do at times feel I’m doing half a job with both but I have to accept this is the way it is for the moment. I would like a Mrs Doubtfire if I could find her and afford her!

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

I love working . . . ideally I would love to work three days a week in a less stressful job but these types of jobs are very hard to come by and financially I’m not sure that we could afford it. I do feel guilty at times and the girls tell me it impacts on them; fewer play dates for example. However, I’m also very aware that psychologically I’m just not suited to being at home full-time even if it were an option. I think we have a good balance despite what the girls say – their father ‘minds’ them on his days off – he works shift so for instance they are with him three mid-week days this week and he is working the weekend so they have me! I drop them to school on the days he is working and I am generally home by 6pm. They get up on a school day at 8am – I know friends of mine have to get their children up and out for as early as 6.30/7am and aren’t back until 7pm at night. I think we are currently doing the best we can with what we have.

I also strongly believe that I am a strong role model for my daughters. I enjoy working and I enjoy the challenges it brings (most of the time!!). I know that if things went horribly wrong in my life I could financially provide for my children. I have a professional qualification that I worked hard to get and I am on an equal footing with their father in every way. We are very balanced in terms of our parenting roles, and yes Daddy can parent equally as well as Mammy! I think it is important for the children to have that in their lives. Children learn what they live.

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?

No, I don’t think there is a ‘one size fits all solution’. I do think that the government need to provide enhanced tax-free allowances where both parents are working and allow them to use the additional money to subsidise the type of childcare they need and want for their children. If that happens to be the children’s granny as their childminder then so be it. What the government are providing at the minute is not working for most families and state-run facilities for children (whether direct or indirect) have historically not met the needs of children in this country. I think that maternity leave and unpaid maternity leave could be ‘signed over’ to the child’s father if that is what works best for a family and I do think that paid maternity leave should increase to at least 9 months.

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

I would love to work in project management that involves people – anything with a beginning, middle and end to it, three to four days a week, locally 9-3pm.

Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?

No, unless I had a childminder a few days a week and a cleaner and could afford to lunch out every day!! 

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?

Yes there is – 90% of the people who work in my organisation are women. The majority of top jobs go to men. Having said that some of the hours they put in are crazy and I just wouldn’t want to make that sacrifice. Maybe other women don’t apply either for that reason.

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

  • Ask for help from your family and friends.
  • Make sure your partner pulls his/her weight.
  • Try be as organised as possible – get uniforms ready at the weekend and batch cook for the week ahead and do a shop to see you through.
  • Don’t try to be all things to all people – say no!
  • Lower your standards – you’re not superwoman!
  • Get a cleaner even one day a month if you can.
  • When you go back to work, start as you mean to go on. If you need to finish at 5pm every day , finish at 5pm every day. If your boss is demanding a level of flexibility that you cannot sign up to tell him/her. Be clear and assertive. If you are a boss and staff feel you are at their beck and call 24/7 then they get used to that and when you try to change it, you will have an uphill struggle so set your boundaries from the get go and calmly and assertively keep to them.

Any other comments?

Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up. Walk away from the people who tell you you’re doing it all wrong or are full of advice on how ‘you’ could do it better because they assume they ‘know’ better. (This is really hard to do but keep trying!) Guilt and worry are futile exercises. We are all just trying to the best with the hand we have been dealt.

Thank you Liz for sharing your story – I love how specific you are about your dream job and that you know precisely what you want! I think you are all the more likely to get there when you know what it looks like. 

Your childcare set up sounds absolutely wonderful – it’s great that you’ve found something that works. And I think no matter what you do, children tend to pick holes every now and then. Mine still ask for a childminder from time to time, whereas when I was working full-time they used to say they wished I was at home more. I think a lot of it is kids being kids. 

And you’re absolutely right when you say “Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up” – we all spend so much time worrying that we’re not doing our best, that we’re not getting the right balance, that we’re not giving 100% to work or 100% kids. The reality is, most kids are going to grow up saying “My parents were brilliant” – just like we do now about our own parents, whether they were at work full-time or at home full-time or anything else in between.

I wish you continued success with your career, and I hope some day you find your very own Mrs Doubtfire!

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