“I knew that our wages would not cover a second child in crèche so I saved enough money to pay the second child’s crèche fees, for the 9 months until my older daughter starts the free preschool year this September.
I’m hoping by then the burden might ease off a bit. It’s not easy, but I try to see the bigger picture, it’s only for a few short years, I like my job and I’m good at it.”
This week I speak to Nicola Sheehan, a legal executive, mum of two mighty girls, and self-confessed Janeite.
(I didn’t know what that was and had to ask – for anyone else who was confused: it’s a Jane Austin fan 🙂 )
Thank you very much Nicola for doing this interview series – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?
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’ve been working as a Legal Executive for the last ten years for one solicitor in Cork City. It’s something I kind of fell into. When I finished my Degree in Social Science all I wanted was a career in the Civil Service, which never materialised. While on a term-time replacement one summer at Cork District Court, the porter there knew my contract was finishing, and recommended me to a solicitor who was looking for a secretary. I finished up there on the Friday and started with him on the Monday. Been there ever since! I gradually worked my way up from being a legal secretary to qualifying as a legal executive, seven years ago.
What kind of hours do you work?
I work three full days a week since my first daughter was born, Monday to Wednesday, 9.30am to 5.30pm. Previously, I was full-time.
Do you have the flexibility to work from home?
No, it wouldn’t be an option really, and to be honest I don’t know how well that would work out with two small kids at home!
What kind of childcare do you use?
My girls are in crèche two days a week and my mum looks after them one day each a week. As she is already minding my sister’s toddler on a Monday she takes my older daughter then, as they are closer in age and easier to manage together, then she takes the baby on a Wednesday. So one’s in crèche on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I do a lot of driving around before work.
Is your childcare solution working well for you?
It is what it is. Ideally if I was able to afford it I would have them both in crèche three days a week and let my mum just be their Nana as opposed to their childminder, as I know how exhausting it is for her on the days she’s minding the girls.
If you could change anything about your childcare situation, what would that be?
Definitely something needs to be done to help parents with their childcare costs or give them a benefit in the early years if they want to be stay at home parents. I started a Facebook page called Parents before Profit back in 2013 after watching the Prime Time investigation into childcare. I came up with the idea of a working parents benefit, which would benefit those who paid into the PAYE system for years and give them a payment to go towards staying at home in the early years or towards crèche fees. Unfortunately I’ve let the page slide while out on maternity leave but I feel that whatever the Government decides to do in the next few years, it should benefit those who want to work and those who want to stay at home.
It is so often the case that there are those who would love to work but can’t because of the high crèche fees and there are those who would do anything to stay at home but they can’t because a mortgage taken out in the boom-time has to be repaid.
When we decided to have a second child, I knew that our wages would not cover a second child in crèche so I saved enough money to pay the second child’s crèche fees, for the 9 months until my older daughter starts the free preschool year this September.
I’m hoping by then the burden might ease off a bit. It’s not easy, but I try to see the bigger picture, it’s only for a few short years, I like my job and I’m good at it. I’m lucky that I have a boss who does value me and is letting me work 5 mornings a week come September so that once my girls eventually start school I’ll be there at the school gate every day.
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
I think without my amazing husband I’d be lost! We are definitely a team when it comes to looking after the girls and the home. I do the drop offs in the mornings while he goes into work early so he can collect the girls at 5pm on the days I work as I don’t get home until after 6pm.
He does all the cooking, seven nights a week, and while I put the girls to bed, he does the washing up and walks the dog. So usually by 8pm the bulk of everything is done. He’s not able to do any overtime on the days I work which means he does have to do longer hours on a Thursday and Friday but we both have the weekends off which is great.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
Before I had children, I always thought I wanted to be a stay at home mother and after my first was born it killed me to go back to work. I still remember the first day back on a rainy April day and nearly breaking down outside the office door because I didn’t have a key to get in and I was soaked walking the short distance from the car. When I went back in January this year, it was another rainy day but all I could think of was that I’d have an hour break to myself and could make myself a cup of tea whenever I wanted! There was no guilt this time around; I couldn’t wait to get back! The guilt I feel now is not spending as much one on one time with my older daughter, I adore the half hour I get to spend with her in the evenings snuggled up in her bed reading books and she loves me telling her everything that we did that day. She’s growing up too quickly.
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 don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect balance but I love working 3 days a week, I feel I get the best of both worlds.
If you could do any job, what would it be?
I’m happy with my current situation and the flexibility I have going into the future with regards to hours of work. Sure we’re living off our savings, so in effect I’m not earning anything but that will change.
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?
I think it’s all about the choices you make really. In an alternate universe I would be qualified as a solicitor by now but instead of completing the exams I got engaged, married and pregnant all in one year and poured our savings into raising our children instead of paying for exams, the course etc. I can most definitely say that having children has negatively impacted on my career but I wouldn’t change a thing and do not regret any of the choices I have made. In 20 years time I could still qualify as a solicitor and go on to have a good career for 10/15 years if I wanted to. That said, a lot of the time I am doing the work of a solicitor without it being reflected in my wage and that’s hard.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
Have a routine in place, I think that makes it easier on everyone. Our evening routine hasn’t changed since I’ve been on maternity leave and I feel that benefits the girls.
Give yourself a break – this is your time away from your children so enjoy that tea-break! Get out and use your lunch time to catch up with friends if you can.
Try not to feel guilty, I know that’s a hard one, but what good does it do? It just eats you up. Instead focus your energy on the quality time you get to spend with your family and savour it.
Any other comments?
As a mother to two young girls, I hope there are better options for them when it is their time to raise a family. Employers need to be more flexible and parents need support with childcare costs. I know nothing major is going to happen during my child-rearing years but we need to act now to ensure the next generation of parents (especially mothers) don’t suffer the way this generation has.
Thank you so much Andrea for asking me to take part. I really enjoyed this!
Nicola, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us so candidly.
I have to admit, I welled up at one point – where you explain that you saved up to send your second child to crèche, knowing that your salaries wouldn’t cover two in childcare. Particularly the line “it’s only for a few short years, I like my job, and I’m good at it”
It’s the reality for so many parents – struggling through the childcare years, in order to hold on to a career for when it all becomes financially easier. And doing it because we like our jobs and we’re good at our jobs – you put it so simply and succinctly. But of course, it’s absolutely ludicrous that you have to save in order to work. It makes no sense, and yet, I completely understand why you’re doing it, and I admire you greatly for doing it.
And I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about those who would love to work but can’t because of the high crèche fees while others would do anything to stay at home but they can’t because a mortgage taken out in the boom-time has to be repaid. It’s such a catch-22 and there’s no one-size fits all solution – not everyone wants to work and not everyone wants to be at home (I suspect most people want to work part-time but that’s another conversation)
Nicola, I admire you immensely, and I think your story epitomizes everything that is wrong with the childcare model in Ireland today.
See also The Impossible Economy of Childcare: parents can’t pay, childcare workers are underpaid, and childcare facilities need money in order to provide high quality services. What’s the answer?