“They think when you are on your laptop that you are not really ‘working’.”
The interview series returns with Sarah Slattery – the mother of two and former Sales and Marketing director of Skytours travel agency started her own business in 2014, setting up thetravelexpert.ie, a blog that offers travel advice to Irish holidaymakers heading abroad.
Thank you Sarah for being the first interviewee of 2016 – so let’s begin with your family – could you tell me how many children you have and their ages?
And now could you tell me a little about your work – what do you do and for how long have you been working at this?
I have a travel blog called thetravelexpert.ie and I spend most of my time writing. I write articles on places I have been, special offers and travel tips in general. I also publish a weekly post with the best travel deals from various tour operators, travel agents and airlines. I previously worked as a travel agent for 24 years before deciding to start my own business in November 2014. I also work part-time for a travel trade magazine, Irish Travel Trade News, covering events and writing articles.
What kind of hours do you work?
I have a childminder two to three days per week who collects my children from school so I always have at least two full days’ work and three half days. This was the plan but inevitably I end up working at night-time and weekends too.
And is this something you can do from home – or perhaps is almost always from home?
Mostly from home although I do cover travel events, on average one per week. These vary from lunches or evening events.
And beyond that, do you have to travel much?
I have travelled twice this month but generally three to four times per year. I try to limit it to weekends, possibly Friday to Monday, mainly for childcare reasons.
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
School holidays are tough, camps are expensive and most finish very early. My hours are irregular and events can crop up at short notice so it can be difficult getting a minder sometimes. Luckily for me, my sister has stepped in on a few occasions but there have been times where I’ve had to ask parents at school for playdates! Not an easy thing to do, but needs must!
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!
I find it difficult to switch off, the days of sitting in front of TV in the evenings are long gone, with emails on my phone and my laptop beside me, I can’t seem to resist it.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
I definitely prefer working from home. I love the variety and being my own boss! The main problem is if you are on a business call or have a deadline and the kids are at home with you. They may just want to ask a simple question and can’t understand why you don’t have time for them. They think when you are on your laptop that you are not really ‘working’. The ironic thing is that working from home is supposed to give you more time with your kids but somehow that hasn’t really happened. Yes you can do the school runs and activity drops but most of your ‘free time’ is spent doing this. The idea of popping off to the park or the beach for the afternoon is more a dream than reality. This summer I tried to take Fridays off and for the most part this did happen but somehow once they were back in school, this stopped. I do plan on reintroducing this; hopefully I will succeed!
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?
You need discipline and you HAVE to turn off the computer and not check your phone for periods during the day or evening, we all need downtime. As this is a new business perhaps I am working harder than I should but hopefully this will change as my business grows and I delegate work to partners and colleagues. Personally, I need time to get out of the house regularly, either a business meeting or meeting a friend for a chat. I make a point of going out at least one day during the week. I worked in a busy office with girl friends for 24 years so the quiet house was a big change. Ideally if your husband / partner can help with drop offs or pick ups that can take some of the pressure off. I was lucky that my husband did this for a long time but as he has just started a new job, so it’s not as easy for him to do anymore.
If you could do any job, what would it be?
I actually really like what I’m doing now and honestly there is nothing else I would rather do. Ideally I would like to delegate some of the mundane tasks and of course make more money, but who wouldn’t?
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?
No. I think if you are ambitious and determined to make something work, it will work. You might have to put in long hours and literally your heart and soul but if you want it hard enough, it is attainable.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
The school drop off / pick ups and activities are not as important as you might think. If your minder will bring them to school or swimming, let her. You are better to get a full day solid work done and take an afternoon off later in the week and spend ‘quality’ time with your kids.
If working from home, take some time to get out of the house, at least once a week for yourself. When someone says we must meet for coffee, say ok ‘when?’ instead of walking away without a definite date planned!
Make friends with other mums at school and arrange to have playdates, bring kids to activities etc. Most of the time there will be other people going to the same classes, football, parties etc. If you can alternate these it will save you so much time.
Any other comments?
Life is too short to be doing a job that you don’ t like. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ time; it will never come. If you believe in something strongly enough, you will make it work, just go for it.
Thank you Sarah! So much of what you said here resonated with me. Especially “They think when you are on your laptop that you are not really ‘working’” – to that I nodded vehemently! I find I am borderline defensive with my kids every time I’m online, explaining to them that it’s work – though I have read a really good article that says it’s a good idea to do exactly that; explain what you’re doing when you’re plugged in.
I think your tip about making friends with other mums is great – it’s critical to have people you can rely on to do pick-ups when you can’t, and it’s lovely to have a local network of mutually supportive parents.
I also very much agree with the ironic side – the fact that working from home in theory means more time with the kids but in practice, it’s not as idyllic as it sounds. But on balance, if you’re doing something you love – which you clearly are – and getting to spend some time with the kids, it has to be a good thing.
And I think if you’re working at night and happy to do it, it’s a sure sign that you’re doing what you love, and despite the challenges, you’re making it work. Now all that’s left is for you to please tell us all where we can go to get away from this incessant rain!
For more, see Sarah’s gorgeous, sunny blog thetravelexpert.ie