Office Mum stories – Alison O’Connor

“Sometimes I think that the only way this would be properly addressed by society is if women announced they were not going to be involved in any further reproduction until the system was change to make life easier afterwards”

This week’s interview is with Alison O’Connor, who is a columnist with The Irish Examiner. Her work as a journalist and broadcaster involves regular commentary on current affairs on radio and television, as well as guest presenting the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme on TV3. She is a feminist. 

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

I have two girls aged 8 and 5.

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 am a freelance journalist and have been since the birth of my older daughter. Once she arrived in 2007, after a long time waiting for a baby, we decided that we’d like to have a more flexible approach. I took a year off and then began to do some freelance work. Now I do a weekly political column for the Irish Examiner which is published on a Friday, and I also do regular work on the radio and television as a pundit, mainly on political matters. I am also an occasional presenter on the Tonight with Vincent Browne programme.

What kind of hours do you work?

My week’s vary and can be busy or quieter depending on what is going on politically and how much extra broadcasting work I get asked to do. The requests can be very last minute, and can involve considerable juggling, especially if it is to do something for television and I feel the need to go and get a blow-dry! Of course when it’s busy it feels intolerable and when it’s quiet I worry that work is drying up! There is a referendum on same sex marriage coming up in May and that will make things busier, but the real deal will be the upcoming General Election, which only happens every 5 years or so, but in my political anorak world is like the Olympics.

Are you office-based or do you work mostly from home?

I work mainly from home although regularly go into studio in RTE or TV3 or Newstalk for the broadcast work that I do. I also get out and about to meet people, but most of my work life is spent at my desk in the attic at home.

What kind of childcare do you use?

I have a childminder a few afternoons a week.

Is your childcare solution working well for you? We have had the same childcare arrangement in place since my older daughter was a baby and we’ve been exceptionally lucky that it’s turned out so well.

Our minder started with us very soon after my older daughter was born and she is a treasure. The girls adore her and we are so lucky that she has stayed with us all this time. Their school also does aftercare and this can be really handy when something unexpected comes up.

Now that your children are in school, has that made balancing work and home easier or more difficult?

Since September both of my daughters are at national school with my youngest starting junior infants. I really did feel the difference for the first few weeks but then took on some extra work and it was just hectic. We went through a 6 week period of everyone in the house (including the dog) being sick, so it was awful trying to get through that and arrange last minute child care on the mornings that I was working and one or other of the girls was off sick. In the middle of it all I had a frozen shoulder, which was really sore. We just kept going and got through it. 

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

Even though I get to spend a considerable amount of time at home and get to collect the girls from school I still feel maternal guilt – which is pointless I know but is lodged in my psyche. They also sense it and exploit it giving out if they think that I am as they say “off gallivanting”. (I wish).

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 an optimal solution. Each family has different needs. The key is to try to have flexibility, especially when they are small and this usually involves having family members close by which we didn’t. I do have a wonderful mother in law who is a great help. However she lives over two hours away.

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

I love my work and love being a journalist. I just wish the juggling bit was easier and the pay better. The media industry is not currently in good shape and particularly poor if you are freelance.

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 believe there is definitely a glass ceiling for women and a refusal on the part of society to acknowledge the juggle that exists for parents in trying to raise small children. Sometimes I think that the only way this would be properly addressed by society is if women announced they were not going to be involved in any further reproduction until the system was change to make life easier afterwards. It’s important that women speak about these issues because all too often we pretend we are not having a problem coping. I’ve been guilty in the past of being on the telephone on a work call and pretending that my children are not there because I felt it made me seem unprofessional.  I don’t do that anymore because I realised I was being ridiculous. If my husband takes a work call at home I hear him announce proudly to whoever is calling that he is caring for his kids. Go figure!

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

It’s much better if you can be organised although it is not essential – as I have proven on too many occasions to count. One of the toughest things about going back to work is wondering if you’ve still got “it” and working to get your confidence back up.

Thank you Alison for taking part. I love the idea of women announcing they’ll no longer be involved in reproduction if the system doesn’t change! I suspect that part of the problem (in general) is that before kids, many of us don’t realise just exactly how challenging it will be to manage work and home. So we’re not working on changing anything until we’re in the middle of it – juggling babies and laptops – and then we’re in the worst possible frame of mind to try to fix it – we’re just too busy!

I agree absolutely that it’s important that we speak out, but your point about the phone-call stopped me in my tracks. While I do speak out about how challenging it is – here, online, in real life, I don’t tend to do it in the world of work. In fact, I spend a lot of time pretending that I’m coping perfectly well at work, and yes, I too am guilty of being mortified over a crying child. I think there’s a huge fear that someone at the other end of the line is thinking “She’s not up to this” and that is particularly true for any kind of freelance work. 

On that note, it’s very interesting to get a glimpse of your life as a freelance journalist – before I started to do this series, I had assumed that freelancing of any kind was the holy grail of working motherhood. But having spoken to some writers and journalists via this series, it’s clear now that it’s not as straight-forward as it seems.

Thank you Alison for taking the time to do this, and I look forward to continuing to hear your views on feminism and working motherhood in print and on the airwaves – we all need more of that.

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4 thoughts on “Office Mum stories – Alison O’Connor”

  1. ‘If my husband takes a work call at home I hear him announce proudly to whoever is calling that he is caring for his kids. Go figure!’
    Great point – exactly what happens here!

    1. I wonder is it because we don’t want to fit the stereotype – the mum who is not coping because she’s trying to mind the kids? When of course we should be saying “Look how amazing I am – I can answer your questions and mind kids at the same time!”

  2. Great article, even though I’m a stay at home mom and everyone knows I am if I take a call I will hush the girls or run to a quiet spot in the house just so it doesn’t sound manic in the background, silly really when I think of it..
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