“Me, who had always had a title – Travel Agent, Teacher, PRO – now found myself with the title of Housewife? And I wasn’t going to call myself that for a minute. Only because it is a very stupid title – I never married a house”
Back after the holidays, the weekly interview series resumes with Barbara Scully, who is a freelance writer and broadcaster, writing mainly opinion pieces for The Irish Independent, The Irish Times and The Examiner. She presents a weekly women’s radio programme called The Hen House on Dublin South FM and is a regular panelist on TV3’s Midday, as well as occasional newspaper reviewer on Tonight With Vincent Browne. Barbara’s weekly blog, From My Kitchen Table features her unique view of life as seen from her office (otherwise known as her kitchen) deep in suburbia. She’s a mother of three, and has had a varied career inside and outside the home.
Thanks for asking me. I left school in 1979 and although I loved school I knew I had had enough of books and studying and I wanted to go to work. I was also very definite about wanting to work for Aer Lingus… as ground crew in Dublin Airport. I did some aptitude tests over the summer which I must have failed spectacularly as they resulted in a ‘Dear John’ letter. So in October I began what was termed ‘a business linked commercial course’ and hated every minute of it. Luckily a few weeks later I went for an interview with the holiday company JWT and was offered a sales job. I began my working career in their Head Office in Baggot Street on the 3rd of December 1979. It was the start of a happy 9 years in the travel business. I spent most of that time with JWT, including two winter seasons working in the Canary Islands.
And could you tell me about your family?
I have three daughters which is most fortuitous as I grew up with three brothers and desperately wanted daughters. My eldest is almost 27 (how the hell has that happened?). Carla emigrated with her boyfriend to Perth WA three years ago. I miss her every day but she is very happy with a great lifestyle and along with missing her I envy her. She will be home for holidays this month….. and THAT’S VERY EXCITING!!! My other two daughters are Roisin aged 15 who has just finished her Junior Cert and Mia who is 13.
Did you work outside the home when your children were young?
When I had Carla I was a single parent so I had no choice but to work. However I realised that the travel business was going to be difficult with long hours and the commute into the city. So I didn’t return to my job after maternity leave and instead began working with my mother who had just set up her own business offering computer training (word-processing mainly) to both individuals and companies. I got my teaching diploma and worked with her for about 5 years and I hated it. The hours suited me with a young child and a lot of the work was from home but I wasn’t happy. I then got offered a temporary job with The Alzheimer Society helping out with some admin. After a month of that I was offered a newly created position of Public Relations Officer and for the next ten years I relished my role with the society. I loved my job… and it changed my life.
The very first assignment I was given as PRO was to work with an English group of fundraisers who were cycling a 21 seater bike from Dublin to Cork – via Limerick (?) in order to raise funds. The first person I met from the group when they arrived in Ireland was Paul Sherwood, whom I married in 1996 and thereafter gave birth to my two youngest daughters.
By the turn of the millennium life had become very busy and rather complicated. My youngest was born 6 weeks premature and had breathing problems. My father was dying of cancer. I had a toddler and a teenager and was due back at work in job I still loved but didn’t fit always into a 9-5 routine. I went back initially part time but six months into that experiment I was exhausted and felt very definitely that I was not doing either parenting or my job properly. So I decided to take a year out – in order to get Mia up and running and to regroup after the death of my father.
Did you have the flexibility to work part-time or from home when your children were small?
I tried part time for a while. But my job wasn’t part time and I found trying to do it in two thirds of the time very, very stressful. So although the charity was very accommodating the job needed full time commitment.
Did you have to travel for work?
Ha – here’s the gas. I worked in Dun Laoghaire. I lived in Shankill, a distance of maybe three miles. It took me an hour to get from my house to my desk after dropping eldest to school, the babies to crèche and myself to work. I used to share an office with a male colleague who was always the picture of sartorial elegance. I used to arrive in, dishevelled and wrecked, feeling like I had already done a day’s work.
What kind of childcare did you use, and did that childcare solution work well for you over the years?
When they were small they all went to a crèche… the youngest only for 6 months. We paid for the best one we could find which was akin to having a second mortgage. I convinced myself that it was great for them – very social and the place was great. But if I am honest I was never more relieved that they day I handed in their notice to quit. There was always a voice in my head that said babies and toddlers spending most of the day in the one room was not a good idea.
Did it become easier or more difficult when your children started school?
It is much easier when they start school… And as I was at home I used that time to study Reiki, make new friends (neighbours and other moms) and write. I edited our Parish Newsletter (before I finally left the church); I was chairperson of the Residents Association. I feel very strongly that if you are going to spend time parenting fulltime you must do stuff that is not related to your kids… otherwise I think you run the risk of going mad. Most of the stay at home mothers (and one father) I got to know had a myriad of skills to offer in a voluntary basis to the community. They are the most hidden resource. These parents keep our schools, our local sports clubs (GAA etc) and our communities together and working and they are largely invisible.
On a practical level, what did you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
Here is what I found hard… Actually I can do hard… Here’s what I hated…
Being against the clock from the moment I got up. I think the main words my children heard in the morning were “hurry up”, and “eat up”, Leaving the house looking like a bombsite after breakfast. Putting sleepy heads into the car way too early on cold dark mornings. Prevaricating about leaving the office in the hope that my husband would get home first and so begin the post breakfast clean up. Arriving home with cranky tired kids to the breakfast detritus. Feeding the girls something quick so there would be time for bath and story before bedtime Eating my dinner with himself at about or after 9pm Hanging out washing anytime before midnight. Having a very important day in work and rousing the baby to find she has a fever. The sheer panic over what you should do. It would be fine if they were very ill (well it wouldn’t – but you know what I mean) but just peaky – when you know they are incubating something is awful. Driving to Cork for work and getting a phone call as you approach the city from the crèche – baby has what looks like chicken pox. There is nothing like the guilt of a call like that.
How did you find the transition to being at home?
I was very worried about leaving work. I cried buckets of salty tears the day I packed up and left. I had always worked. ‘Retiring’ was possibly the scariest thing I had ever done. I remember feeling very ungrounded when I found myself at home. Who was I? Me, who had always had a title – Travel Agent, Teacher, PRO – now found myself with the title of Housewife? And I wasn’t going to call myself that for a minute. Only because it is a very stupid title – I never married a house.
Anyway I insisted that we bought me a desk which I put in the corner of the lounge. I place where I could write and ‘be me’ somehow.
I also needed a mobile phone because the one I had was a company one. So one day I found myself in Blackrock in the phone shop. The baby was in the buggy and the toddler was rearranging the window display. A young man was filling in my application form for the phone contract. It was all going swimmingly till he asked me my occupation. I stared at him for a moment and then I rambled…. “em, well, em… I am a em… I don’t know… a housewife I suppose… but until last week I was PRO for a National Charity.” I don’t know who was more mortified him or me.
Did you encounter any surprised reactions or were people supportive of your decision?
That’s a good question. In general people were supportive but there were definitely a lot of surprise that I was giving up work. And many thought I wouldn’t last the year at home – never mind ten years.
And what did you most enjoy about your time at home – tell me all the good stuff!
When I think back my life has been like a serious of chapters – each one of roughly ten years. The decade I spent at home was probably the happiest. I honestly thought that once the year was up I would be just dying to get back to work. I thought I would go mad at home. I am not a huge fan of children.
But I found I loved it. Along with stuff I did for myself when they went to school I also learnt to cook a larger repertoire than I had previously. I learned to bake and I loved that. We got a dog and too many cats.
Most surprisingly of all was that our quality of life as a family went up and my relationship with my husband improved. When we were both working and earning about the same there was the constant tension as to whose job was most important. Days when I had to work late and he had also taken an evening job often resulted in a kind of Mexican standoff as we both insisted that we couldn’t let colleagues or clients down. Suddenly we were both very clear on what our roles were. He was hunter gatherer and I was in charge of all on the domestic front. It was great. I was a very happy feminist stay at home mammy.
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?
Our problem today is that women are trying to find their place and compete in a world of work that has been designed by men for men who traditionally had wives at home looking after all the domestics and childcare. This problem is compounded by women’s biology. We are the ones who have kids and to borrow a phrase from Emily O Reilly, we are also hardwired to care and nurture. They way I see it women will never achieve true equality until we live in a society that values the work of caring. That would mean that women (or men) who chose to care for their own children should be paid – at least until the child goes to school.
The mistake feminism made was seeking equality in a male centric world instead of first seeking to change that world. That is the job we now have to do. This is why it is vital that we have more women at the top in business and also more importantly in government.
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 have never experienced a glass ceiling. I also don’t believe that there is a conspiracy by men to keep women from power. I really don’t. There may be some men uncomfortable with powerful women but in my experience most men are happy to have women onboard if they are capable of doing the job. But women’ lives unfold in a very different way to men’s because of childbirth. And many women take time out, or just move out of the fast lane in order to try to accommodate their caring responsibilities too.
Along with valuing the work of caring we must make workplaces – all workplaces – more family friendly. Shorter hours, term time working, and much more flexibility which will suit all workers – whether they are parents are not. As we all live longer there is going to be a huge problem of caring for ageing parents. And personally I don’t think nursing homes are the answer… but I guess that is another debate altogether.
What do you see as the greatest difference between the experience women had when your eldest daughter was small, and the situation for mothers today?
I think it has all got so much more complicated for women. I also think there is so much judgement of women’s choices and often that’s by other women. We need to stop trying to prescribe how women should live their lives. True equality is about choice. And whatever choice a women makes is perfectly valid. We need to stop telling women how to be… along with stopping telling them how to look!!!
Do you have any advice for mothers who are torn – who want to maintain careers but want to have time with their children?
I consider myself very lucky. A collision of circumstances in my life caused me to re-evaluate my life and my priorities. This also coincided with the rise of the Celtic tiger and so when I retired my husband was free to work longer and harder. But what I would say is this. Children are only young for a relatively short period of time. If a woman’s heart is broken at having to go back to work after maternity – think about it. Do the maths. We were paying so much in childcare and when we reallocated the tax allowances to my husband we were only down by relatively little.
So listen to your inner self – if you really want to be at home it just may be possible –with financial sacrifice. If you want to have a career then good childcare – and in my opinion a good childminder is a great option – is essential along with a support network just in case.
I try to live in the moment…. as much as I can. The lasting legacy of our decision for me to give up full time work in 2001 is that we have no financial security. But sure after austerity we wouldn’t have had any anyway. We can’t always plan for the future…. but I do believe in making the best decisions you can for you and your family today.
Only time will tell if I am a big fool
Any other comments?
On the day I left work one of my colleagues gave me a card. In it she wrote: Dear Barbara Good luck and have lots of fun making memories with your children. And I did and those memories I treasure more every day as my little darlings move into being grumpy teenagers. I also have no plans to retire. I am relishing what Julie O’Neill calls my encore career and I love the freedom I have now to pursue it with a gusto I hadn’t got when the kids were little.
Thank you very much Barbara for sharing your insight and experience with us – it’s fascinating to read about the various transitions – particularly from working mother to stay-at-home-mother (I won’t use the H word 🙂 )
I found it really interesting that you said that your decade at home was your happiest time – I think there are many of us who, even if we could do it financially, would be very anxious about giving up work and losing ourselves somehow. But you obviously stayed very busy and engaged and involved in life all around you. I like what you said about the importance of having something that has nothing to do with children going on.
I also found it very interesting that your relationship with your husband benefited after you left work – I have always wondered if the balance shift (if I was to give up work) would be a challenge. At the moment, my husband and I are equal in terms of who is expected to take care of the house and the kids – in a hypothetical future situation where one of us is at home, that changes significantly and I’ve always felt that this would be a negative change. So I found it very heartening to hear that you found it made life easier when you had different roles. And I really like what you said about feminism :
“The mistake feminism made was seeking equality in a male centric world instead of first seeking to change that world. That is the job we now have to do. This is why it is vital that we have more women at the top in business and also more importantly in government”
That’s something that really struck me when I read it – something I hadn’t fully considered before. Perhaps the politics side is something you’ll consider yourself sometime! In the meantime, I look forward to continuing to read your articles and blogposts, as I have been doing for many years now – than you very much for taking part in the interview.