“One of the key drivers for my moving job was that my previous role had very little flexibility and only allowed working from home in very special circumstances and on a temporary basis.”
This week’s interview is with solicitor, blogger, and mother of three Sinéad Fox. She talks guilt and glass ceilings, presenteeism and batch cooking, and her 160km round trip daily commute…
You can find her gorgeous blog at Bumbles of Rice.
Thanks Sinéad for joining the interview series – so 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 work as a solicitor in-house in a financial institution and have recently changed employers to a very similar role for a different company. I qualified as a solicitor in 2002 and worked in-house until 2006 when we left Dublin and moved to Wexford. I worked in a small legal practice in Wexford for 5 years but was made redundant after my second maternity leave in 2011. At that stage I went back in-house and faced a 180km round trip commute every day.
What kind of hours do you work?
I currently work 4 days per week from 8am – 4pm, and take Wednesdays off. I’ve had all manner of work arrangements, after my eldest son was born the office cut my hours to three days a week, then two days a week, but after I was made redundant I went back full-time to my new job. Then, after my third maternity leave I took parental leave one day and week and I’ve continued my four-day week in my new role.
So you have the flexibility to work from home?
One of the key drivers for my moving job was that my previous role had very little flexibility and only allowed working from home in very special circumstances and on a temporary basis. I did work from home one day a week for six weeks last year and found it a fantastic way to catch up on work, but I do think that going into the office is good for the social interaction. Working from home on a regular basis is very much the norm in my new employer and I hope to start doing it more often when I am up and running in my new role.
Do you have to travel for work?
No, I just travel to work, my pet hate. For the last 3 years I’ve spent up to 4 hours a day doing an 180km round trip. My new job is only about 10km closer to home but cuts out about an hour a day driving.
What kind of childcare do you use?
I’ve been very lucky to have had the same childminder since I went back to work from my first maternity leave when my eldest was seven months old. She’s fantastic and really is like one of the family, and she treats us like her family too. My husband drops the kids to her house in the mornings and I pick them up, and she and her husband bring them to and from school and to activities too.
Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself, apart from being a mother and an employee?
Well, there’s the commute, 3-4 hours a day of only me, the radio and the traffic. I use that time to catch up on personal phone calls, and I do find that I’ve left the work stress behind me by the time I get home (although it sometimes is just replaced by the commuting stress). That’s not what you mean though is it?
For real “me-time” I’ve a few outlets. A friend and I started a monthly book-club nearly 5 years ago, as we needed to get out of the house some evenings. It’s a group of mums meeting for a chat in the foyer of a local hotel (so that nobody has to tidy their house!), we often read the books, but always have a chat and a cuppa in a child-free environment, it’s great to check in with everyone and delegate bedtime.
Most of my me-time is spent writing my blog (did I mention I have a blog?) or attending blog-related events, we often get invited to launches and I recently got a day-trip to London from a company I work with on the blog. I really need to start finding more time for me on a regular basis, but my husband does too, it’s hard to balance it all.
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
Where to start?
There’s the guilt. It’s overwhelming sometimes. I’m glad it’s my husband that does the morning drop-offs as one of my kids finds it very hard to leave me and there are often tears if I do, or if I’ve left in the morning before he does.
There’s the stress of having so many things to remember, the work stuff, the bag for the childminder, the money in the envelope for school.
There’s the work-guilt about not being able to work late as I’ve kids to collect.
There’s the fear of missing out when work colleagues go for an impromptu pint on a Friday.
There’s the stress I put myself under to have everything just right, or as right as I can get it.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
Yes, I suffer from it I think every working mother has pangs, whether they admit it or not, or whether they try to call it something else. I try (often unsuccessfully) not to succumb to it. I make the best of what I have, the time I have with the kids and try to get as much out of our time. I juggle my leave days to cover events that I don’t want to miss. I’ve been lucky that so far I’ve been able to do that and not miss any really important events, but I dread the first one that I do miss.
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?
When I went back to work after my first maternity leave my full-time job was cut to three days a week and it worked fabulously. My baby was only seven months old so it was great for me to know that he was with me more than he was with our childminder. After my second was born I went back to working five days and with the commute, two small children and then being pregnant I found it incredibly difficult but I got through. Right now my four days, hopefully with one from home is perfect (but if anyone is interested in matching my salary for three days with one from home do get in touch)
I think that different things suit different people. I have parked my career in a sense, and taking 2.5 years out on maternity leave in 4.5 year period will, I think, obviously have that effect. I get frustrated sometimes that I haven’t progressed more but I think I’ve made the right choices for me, and that there is nothing in my family life I’d be willing to sacrifice to change my career so that makes me realise that I’m doing pretty well really.
If you could do any job, what would it be?
While I dream about being at home with the kids I know that it’s better for all of us if I work outside the home, and not just because I need to financially.
I’d love to be paid to blog or write and dream of sitting at my desk with words flowing from my fingers between school runs, but I’m in denial about the reality of being a writer I think.
When the kids get bigger I’d love to be able to work while they’re in school and be at the gates to pick them up and do their homework with them.
Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?
I’d like to say yes but hesitate. I think if I could get paid to write a bit so that I was contributing financially and having my own identity then I would love to be, but I know how hard it is too and I do think that working suits me. So, is “possibly” an acceptable answer here?
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 if a woman wants it badly enough they can get to the top of any career so there’s no glass ceiling really, but the difference is that mothers put their kids first rather than their careers and this has a big impact.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
- Give yourself a break and ease yourself in. Don’t plan much for the first few weeks or weekends. Try to go back in a short week and get used to it again.
- Fill the freezer – my stomach and my kids’ stomachs are always my primary concern, if you have freezer stocks of dinners made in advance then that’s one thing taken care of. It’ll be one thing you feel in control of.
- Prepare in advance. Lay out the clothes for the week on a Sunday, have the lunches made the night before. Every little helps. From the work end of things have a chat with a colleague before you go back about the work gossip you’ve missed while on leave, it’ll make you feel like you never left.
Any other comments?
I am a big believer in flexibility in the workplace and a huge opponent of the “presenteeism” culture that pervades so many workplaces. I really think that until everyone is offered and looks for four-day week, working mothers (and yes, mothers rather than parents) will be penalised. If it’s open to everyone then the working mothers don’t get (unfairly) labelled as slackers and can be seen for the productive employees that they are.
I also think that the culture across Irish workplaces when it comes to pregnancy and family life leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve heard so many horror stories of the treatment of pregnant women or women who approach their employers looking for flexibility. Ireland really isn’t a family friendly place to work.
Thanks Sinéad! I’m going to start at the end – it’ so sad but so true, Ireland just isn’t a family friendly place to work. We’re so behind the rest of Europe in terms of flexibility and paid leave, and everyone is just muddling through, trying to hang on to any flexibility they’ve been given. I think leaving your job to get something that works better for your family was a very brave and very admirable thing to do – I’m so glad that it worked out well.
I agree with your glass ceiling assessment too – for any woman who wants to get to the top, it’s absolutely doable, but the trade-off is often too much. Men are perhaps better at putting in the long hours without the guilt, but then the question is of course, are those long hours always necessary in the first place. Presenteeism is rampant and nobody wins.
And I know exactly what you mean about the stay-at-home question – I think lots of us desperately want to be at home when we can’t, but the reality of being there full-time with no income and the potential loss of identity is quite frightening when it becomes a concrete option. I speak from experience 🙂
Thanks for doing the interview, and I wish you continued success in your new role, your shorter commute and your flexible conditions – now we just need to convince more employers to follow suit!