“I don’t suffer from guilt about working because I know that I’m providing a great environment for my kids – both in terms of seeing their mum with a successful career, and being able to provide what they need”
Jenny Lawler was born and raised in Dundrum in Dublin, and is the eldest in a family of four kids. She met her husband during her PhD studies, and is a chemical engineer originally, now specializing in membrane separations and environmental research. She has three children and lives by the beach in South County Dublin. She is passionate about breastfeeding, babywearing and baking!
Jenny, thank you for taking part in this interview series for Office Mum – so let’s start with the basics – could you tell me about your family?
I have two lovely little girls and one cuddly baby boy; Clíodhna who is just five, Aoife who is two and a half, and Rossa who is two and a half months. We are raising our family through Irish, so we speak as Gaeilge at home – Clíodhna goes to a Gaelscoil and Aoife will start in a naíonra in September.
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?
My job title is “Lecturer in Bioprocess Engineering”, and I’ve been at Dublin City University for six and a half years, where I am the Head of the Membrane and Environmental Technologies Lab. My job is very varied – it involves theoretical and practical teaching to undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervision of research students and staff, and devising, implementing and managing a variety of small and large research projects. Plus all the administration that goes with all of that, including applying for grants and funding for research, publishing scientific papers, reviewing manuscripts for journals, correcting exams and assessments, the list goes on!
What kind of hours do you work?
I work full-time, but I have a lot of flexibility in my job, in terms of what I do, where I do it and when I do it, which is one of the things I love about it. Of course that also often means that I’m working late into the night, and I tend to start work at 6 am.
Do you have to travel for work?
I travel for work a few times a year, usually for conferences or meetings with project partners; and I keep it to short trips as I don’t like being away from my family for long. Luckily I can generally control what trips I do or don’t do.
What kind of childcare do you use?
I’ll be going back to work in September after maternity leave, so Rossa will go to a crèche in the village where we live and Aoife will go to the local naíonra. My husband does all the drop-offs in the morning, as I start work at 6 am so that I can be at home most days to spend the afternoons with the kids and do homework (and playdates!) I’m very lucky to have that flexibility.
Do you have any regular “me-time” or do you have something that you for yourself, apart from being a mother and an employee?
I try to get some exercise in the gym when I can, in work, and I get out by myself one or two evenings a week – I’m part of a ciorcal comhrá (conversation circle) where people with all levels of Irish get together for a chat and a cuppa (sometimes in the pub!), and I share an allotment with a friend who has three kids as well. I am also a scuba diving instructor and keen surfer, and I get out for the odd dive or surf, particularly on weekends away to the west of Ireland. For me-time I love painting my nails and knitting, but to be honest my life does very much revolve around the kids. But hey they’re only small for the blink of an eye!
On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?
The most difficult thing for me is trying to stay on top of everything, but still feeling like a human being instead of an overworked robot! It’s also quite hard to relax when there’s so much flying around in my brain all the time, between work related things and home related things. I have to force myself to say, “OK, just sit down and do your colouring mammy!” Sometimes I’ll find it hard to sleep because I’m mulling over a research question in the middle of the night.
And psychologically, do you find it challenging or stressful to work outside the home – do you suffer from working-mother guilt?
I don’t suffer from guilt about working because I know that I’m providing a great environment for my kids – both in terms of seeing their mum with a successful career, and being able to provide what they need, including being able to spend time with them. I feel more guilt about having “me time” – for example doing something on my own at a weekend and leaving them with my husband – I hardly ever do that because I feel that is our family time and I hate taking away from that.
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 think it’s different for every person, every family dynamic and every career. Personally even if I won the lotto I’m not sure I’d give up my career, and I am very lucky to have that bit of flexibility that will allow me to do what I want to do. I know it’s very rare that I’ll ever have to stress over managing to get to a parent teacher meeting or a sports day and that is invaluable. But maybe being able to hire a cook, a cleaner and a personal assistant would really help get the perfect balance!
If you could do any job, what would it be?
I’d have to say the job I have, although higher pay and less of a commute would be nice! It’s also quite a stressful job in terms of bringing in funding for research, and that has been very difficult in the financial climate we’ve had. So, my current job, but down the road from my house and with two pots of gold, one for research and one for me!
Would you be a stay-at-home mother if there were no financial considerations?
No! I think I would be bored. Although I am enjoying maternity leave immensely!
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?
The opportunities in my area can be limited by the amount of time that you can devote to working. I simply can’t work 80 hours a week or stay in the office 10 hours a day, and people who can – and believe me, they do – can be more productive sometimes. Maternity leave also has a huge impact on projects, and I’ve never had a proper maternity leave where I didn’t actually work, because there’s no cover for your research as it is solely you that drives it. So I do believe it’s more difficult for women than men, and that belief is supported by the disparity between the numbers of women and men at professorial level.
Do you have three top tips that you could give any mother returning to work, to make her life easier?
- Batch cook and freeze, get a slow cooker/use your oven timer so that dinner is ready when you get home and you don’t have to think about it. Try to only cook max three times a week.
- If you are breastfeeding, don’t think that you will have to wean just because you’re going back to work, even with a small baby! I went back to work when my eldest was five months old and my middle child was ten months old – both self-weaned during pregnancy at just under two years. Our bodies are amazing, and will adapt to nursing only when you’re with your child, for example, mornings, evenings and weekends. So don’t stress about it, something will work out. If you are planning to pump, get a really good double pump and avail of whatever supports your workplace has.
- Get all the clothes ready the night before – including your own! And delegate the jobs in the mornings – in our house, I pack the lunches and my husband dresses the kids.
Thanks Jenny, it’s so interesting to hear about your career, which is something very different to what many or most of us do. Starting at 6am sounds tough but it is lovely that it allows you to have afternoons with your children.
I can very much relate to what you said about me-time – I also really dislike being away from the kids at the weekend and always feel guilty and even anxious if I am, despite being there for school pick-up and homework all week! (Perhaps what I need is a weekday escape…)
But I also love your approach to guilt in general – you’re absolutely right – you’re showing your children what it looks like to have a successful career and you’re providing for them. I imagine that being able to be there for them most afternoons helps too, even if it’s no doubt exhausting sometimes.
And I really love your advice on breastfeeding. When I was about to go back to work after my first maternity leave, I mentioned to my GP that I was dreading weaning. She told me I didn’t need to – that I could still breastfeed my daughter morning and evening, and my body would adapt. I had never heard of this before and her chance comment changed everything for me. Going back to work was much easier without the pressure to wean, and I did the same for my next two babies too. I’d love to think even one person who reads this will have an easier return to work as a result.
Thank you for taking part in the series and enjoy the rest of your maternity leave!