Office Mum stories: Nicola Finnerty

Late night in front of the TV with a glass of wine is often where I get my best work done…and don’t ask about cleaning, laundry or grocery shopping… that just happens on an as needed basis!”

This week in the Office Mum interview series, I meet Nicola Finnerty, who is a Qualitative Researcher for TNS in San Francisco, where she has been based for the last thirteen years. A UCD graduate from Dublin, she lives with her husband and three children.

She provides an interesting perspective on life as a mother working outside the home in the United States, in a job that sometimes involves working 70 hours per week!

 Nicola Finnerty & boys Oct 13

When I asked Nicola about the glass ceiling, I loved her answer:

Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ is an interesting read and probably directed a bit more at those societies where the men haven’t quite evolved enough to know how to make dinner and prepare the lunches for the kids, but to be honest, sometimes I just want to lean out!”

“I’m also somewhat disappointed by any of the role models in my industry. None of the top women have kids, so it’s hard to see how to make it work.”


And when I asked her if she feels working-mum guilt, she answered:

“Absolutely! I’ve felt it since I went back to work when my first was four months old and it just didn’t feel right. I hated it when I tried to juggle the travel and the breast feeding, when I’m not there to volunteer in the art room every week, when I forget that it was crazy hat day and sent him off without anything.”

So despite an Atlantic ocean separating the two countries, one element doesn’t change – the ever-present guilt. To hear more about the differences and similarities between Ireland and California, read on…

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

I have 3 boys, aged seven, five and three. (Two in primary school and one still in Preschool)

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 Qualitative Researcher for a global market research company called TNS. I have been with them for 12 years now. I work for a range of client companies from consumer goods to finance and technology research. We are methodological specialists and do a lot of fieldwork such as focus groups and in depth interviews with our target consumers.

What kind of hours do you work?

I’m full time.  But that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways! I’ll mostly do a 40 hour week, but sometimes it can range from 30-70 hours with a good bit of travel in between. I tried the four day week after my second child but I only stuck with it for six months as I felt like I still had five days worth of work to do and was getting paid 20% less, so I said I’ll take my 20% back please. Then the condition of my maternity leave after my third was they’d give me a bit of extra time off as long as I came back full time!

Do you have the flexibility to work from home?

Yes, and that is the key to managing the full time schedule. My boss is three time zones away from me and I definitely use the time zone shifts to my advantage with clients in all sorts of time zones. It doesn’t matter where I get my work done as long as deadlines are met. And thus, late night in front of the TV with a glass of wine is often where I get my best work done! I’ll often work out of coffee shops too to change it up a bit and try to get a little more creative.

Do you have to travel for work?

Yes. It’s fairly regularly. I’ll typically go on 3-4 night trips at least once or twice a month, although I’m trying to minimize it to just once a month. That seems much more manageable…on everyone in the family.

What kind of childcare do you use and does it work well for you?

At this stage I feel like I’ve tried them all. The first two went to a local family home daycare before preschool at age two. Then by number three I’d figured out I really needed someone at home, so I did a nanny share with a neighbour who had a kid just a few weeks younger than mine. That worked out the best. She would do a brilliant job of minding the two boys and then she’d clean the house while they were sleeping! I had two years of a spotless house and folded laundry but then had to make the switch to send him to preschool by two years old as it made more sense financially. We love our preschool, (8.30-4.30pm) it’s on my way downtown to work and really helped with potty training when they first started. It has after care until 6pm if needed. Then once they turned 5 it was time for big school and that starts at 7.50am, but goes till 3pm which is great, and then it’s after school care which is available till 6pm if we want it.

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

I actually think once our eldest started in Kindergarten three years ago it was a massive adjustment for me with work/life balance. I found the new hours were ok but the involvement and commitment to knowing what was going on in the school, what cheque needed to be written, when was it a non-uniform day, what volunteering needed to be scheduled, homework to be done, lunches to be made (we’re spoiled in our preschool with fabulous lunches and snacks provided each day) it was completely overwhelming.

He also had more random days off than ever before when the preschool stayed open. So there was a bit of scrambling there.

I also felt a lot of that mummy guilt… as I saw the ‘Lycra Mums’ drop off the kids each morning and then head on to their work out. I was jealous. I wanted to head off for a coffee after drop off, sure, but no, I was always racing to make it into work for a meeting or to jump on a call the minute I got back into the car. But now that number two has joined the ranks in big school I feel more prepared and knowledgeable about the schedule and what’s expected of us parents.

On a practical level, what do you find most difficult about balancing work and home?

Logistics – who’s dropping who where and when and what happens when there’s a change in the schedule how do we manage at the last minute. Having early morning conference calls or having to get a flight on a Sunday or anything that involves being ‘on’ for work when you need to be available for the kids.

I’m lucky enough in that my work offers a benefit for back up day care in our office building. So I can book them in for those random holidays or for a couple of weeks over the summer when I don’t have a summer camp booked. I’ve also become quite experienced with the summer schedule spreadsheet now, although this year will be the first for managing two of them off for several weeks. Trying to find the right camp, in the right location so drop offs aren’t all over the city and they offer extended care past 3pm.

My husband and I keep it all in our work outlook calendars – we block off time that we need to be there for the kids so we don’t double book work appointments as best as possible. We will put our awkward meetings on the other’s calendar so they can’t book a work meeting at the same time so someone can manage the kids! And don’t ask about cleaning, laundry or grocery shopping… that just happens on an as needed basis. Often I can juggle those on the days I’m working from home and try to be efficient with my day.

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

Absolutely! I’ve felt it since I went back to work when my first was four months old and it just didn’t feel right. I hated it when I tried to juggle the travel and the breast feeding, when I’m not there to volunteer in the art room every week, when I forget that it was crazy hat day and sent him off without anything.

But I look at it this way, we’ve chosen to live in a very expensive city and really enjoy it here.

I also really enjoy my job, I love what I do, it really stimulates me on so many levels. It’s consulting work, so it’s not something that I can leave behind on the desk for the next day, deadlines don’t magically disappear, but I do wish I could manage the volume a bit better and I do fantasize a bit that when number three enters Kindergarten in two years I’ll perhaps scale back a little and try being a ‘lycra mum’ for a little bit, even if only a few hours in the day so I can be there for pick ups and help them with their homework more. Not that it’s any easier, but certainly different.

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?

Well, the only way we’re managing some sort of a balance now is because both of us are full time, but both of us have very flexible schedules and can be there for the kids as much as possible. We’ve both coached sports teams after school, we volunteer as much as we can, we take time off for some field trips and we try and stay on top of the schedule. I do think perhaps working for myself or scaling back to just certain projects might help me manage the day a bit better. And part of me believes that having all three in the one school with one drop off and one pick up will help with logistics. But that may just be wishful thinking… the logistics of three separate after school soccer trainings and any other after school activities may just get harder!

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

In my fantasy world I would be a travel correspondent reviewing exotic locations around the world for some big network! But I’ve had that one since pre-kids, so it’s not very practical now! I also thought about the medical or EMT/fire fighting field – those guys can’t take their work home with them at night! But then again, I hate the sight of blood so that won’t work. So I guess I’m going to stick with my current field of work, but imagine that I only work 10am-2pm each day, only travel a few times a year and still get all the interesting projects! I’d be there to drop off and pick up the kids from regular school hours, be home to sit with them through homework and manage to take them to sports and parties and other after school events.

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?

This is a big question, been debated for decades now since the women’s liberation movement opened the doors, but when we enter through those doors and look up, do we see that ceiling? I honestly think that each to their own, there is no right or wrong answer here. Those that want to reach for the top certainly can in this environment. Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In‘ is an interesting read and probably directed a bit more at those societies where the men haven’t quite evolved enough to know how to make dinner and prepare the lunches for the kids, but to be honest, sometimes I just want to lean out! I have definitely shifted my career aspirations, I’m not aiming so high anymore, I’m just happy to get through the day and feel fulfilled by work. I’m also somewhat disappointed by any of the role models in my industry. None of the top women have kids, so it’s hard to see how to make it work. I think you have to work out what’s most important for you and ultimately it’s always been about balance for me and trying to find the right situation and that can change from one month to the next.

Do you see differences between the US and Ireland, based on what you know of Ireland now, or when you worked here before your move?

When I left college and was working in Dublin (circa 1997-2000), and I started out in Market Research with IMS, we had quite strict working hours during which we were expected to be in the office… to ensure we could answer our phone if a client called, most of the time we had client meetings face to face. I did have a random odd few days of working from home… pre laptop days so this was on paper using pens!! We didn’t have smart phones or remote email access, sure we barely just got email access for everyone in the company before I left.

Fast forward in my career by 16 years in market research and switch continents and it’s a whole different situation. I’ve technically got working hours (8.30-6pm), but I rarely pay attention to them, I get on a plane to travel to my groups, and I do use coffee shops, quiet conference rooms, my living room, our family room office, the back garden and any other number of places to get my analysis and reporting done.

I’m contactable 24/7 and respond to clients emails within the hour generally speaking, so the notion of having a typical ‘working day’ isn’t there anymore.

I’m not sure this is a total progression as I feel like the pressures never quite go away and the volume of work only increases, but having the ability to drop everything in the office and pick up a child from summer camp to take him to hospital with a broken arm… and continue to get my work done while waiting forever for the specialist to come and fix it and he watches movie after movie in his hospital bed is kind of handy.

So, yes, in that sense I believe the US is quite different from Ireland, but I don’t know what it’s like now back home. I also think the nature of my work may contribute to the flexibility. I have a good few friends here who are lawyers and they notoriously work long hours and are slaves to their clients, but I know a good few who have managed to make it work – both parents taking on the responsibility of drop offs and pick ups, shifting schedules to help the other out when needed and generally working when you can to fit it all in.

But then again, I have a few other friends who would say it didn’t work out for them and have left the corporate scene. So it’s hard to say. The size of the States, the various time zones, the technology perhaps more readily adopted to enable remote working and a dedication to client service at whatever cost is at the heart of it all.

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

1. Love your childcare situation; feel happy and confident leaving your children each day and enjoy their stories of what a great day they had when you all get home… and be thankful someone else is willing to do those messy art projects with your kids!

2. Don’t sweat the small stuff – it’s ok if your previous cleaning standards have to slip or if that pile of washing doesn’t get folded for a few days, you’ll get to it when you can.

3. Focus on efficiency in work. No time for faffing around or allowing anyone else not to value your time, get it done and get on home!

Any other comments?

I think partnership is the key to success. I’m very lucky in that my husband is an equal partner in this and both our jobs are viewed as equally important and none overshadows the other. There are no pre-set expectations over roles and responsibilities, we’re both in this together, it’s tough but very, very rewarding.

Thanks Nicola – you’ve given me some really interesting insights there to life in San Francisco.

My own impression has always been that it’s tougher there than here in Ireland, mostly because of the lack of maternity leave – it doesn’t send a very mother-friendly message! But your answers here have shown that there are upsides too, and I would agree that there is less flexibility in Ireland. I know many mothers who would love the opportunity to work from home for part of the week but employers often won’t allow it.

Regarding what you said about looking for role models within top women in your industry; I think this is a universal experience – we look to successful women for inspiration, to see how they do it, and discover that in fact they don’t have children, or have a stay-at-home partner (or a nursery attached to the office like Marissa Mayer!)

When you can’t find examples of mothers who are successfully balancing full-time work and family, it leads to the fear that it’s just not possible. That’s why I’m very glad that you took the time to chat here and show that it really is doable, albeit with huge effort. As you said yourself, it’s tough but very, very rewarding. 

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2 thoughts on “Office Mum stories: Nicola Finnerty”

  1. Great interview! What a busy life… I feel tired just reading about all that Nicola fits in to her days! Loved hearing how Nicola and her hubby planned out their work times together and around the kids! Another great post and lovely to get a glimpse into how another family balance life!

    1. It is busy isn’t it – I think the travel must make it particularly challenging but somehow they make it work!

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