Deirdre Spillane first featured in the Office Mum interview series in May 2015 – almost five years ago! – you can read her original interview here. Back then, Deirdre was working in commercial finance in the telecommunications sector, doing a busy four-day-week job, and taking parental leave on Fridays. She had two children at the time. Since then, things have changed significantly for Deirdre, and she has kindly come back to update her story:
You took part in the interview series before – can you tell me a bit about what has changed since then?
We had a third child, after a gap of five years, so we now have a boy, ten, a girl, eight, and another boy, three. The smallest had a stroke when he was two weeks old so I ended up taking carer’s leave to nurse him through the after effects. He is a very healthy child, now, thankfully, but it turned our family’s world upside down and really changed our outlook on a lot of things.
When I went back to work after three years, I took one look around and had my CV updated by the end of the week. I left four months later, after 17 years with one company (albeit through four ownership changes). I now work a condensed week: four days in the office and a hands-off Friday where I keep an eye on my mails on my phone. I am around if deadlines require it, but I am not sitting at my laptop.
What prompted you to look for that change?
I had outgrown the role I went back to, I couldn’t see any opportunities within the company and I didn’t want to continue having my life ruled by the DART timetable. I was really afraid that if I settled in too much after such a long period off that it would become ‘the devil I know’, and it would be too much to re-juggle commute, childcare and so on for a new role.
Also, while I was off, my husband had changed jobs and we were both working in town, so we had over four hours of commutes between us. It was not sustainable.
What is going better for you now that you’ve done it?
The commute! My husband bought a moped the week I changed jobs and our combined commute is now an hour and a half. We didn’t realise how stressful it was until we removed it. Because I work much closer to home, the mornings are easier, and we both have remote access so we can leave on time and log in later.
I really enjoy my new role: it’s challenging and varied and intense. The subsidiary I report into is based in the UK, but they have a lean operation in Ireland. So the role is in a small office but for a huge company with all the benefits of each; it’s the best of both worlds.
Are there any downsides?
I’m nearly over the ‘new girl with ten thumbs’ feeling, so no.
Was it difficult to make the change?
It was difficult to go back to work after a long period off (I had lost a lot of confidence in myself) but it wasn’t difficult to decide I wanted a change. I was very clear in all my interviews that I had worked a four-day week for the last nine years, and it was a deal-breaker on my side to be expected to be in the office five days a week. I didn’t apologise for looking for this; I had made it work and was able to demonstrate that.
Has your new role improved day-to-day life for you and your family?
My husband works from home one day a week, I am around on Fridays and we are generally both home by 6-ish, so we are just ‘around’ a bit more when the kids are awake and have to tell us all their stories. We also both have remote working so can catch-up in the evenings. It makes for exciting pillow talk, both of us tapping away, chatting about finance (That’s a joke, accountants can make jokes :))
How did your kids react?
Having to be outside the crèche at 7.30am was soul-destroying. Waking up children from a deep sleep so early was awful, and tired children = stress. They went from having one parent at home full-time, to barely seeing either of us for a few months. They really found it a difficult transition but they are happy with the arrangements we have in place now. It’s a good balance (okay, no more accountancy jokes).
Did it cause a balance shift with your husband, in terms of expectations about who does what?
Yes, there was a, ahem, period of transition when I went back to work. After my three years off, he was used to working in the door to his dinner, with all housework and washing done, and evenings were fairly calm. They were NOT calm for the first while, and really didn’t settle down until I changed roles and became a bit happier in myself. The extra time that the commute change gave us back alleviated the pressure and a lot of the energetic ‘discussions’ resolved themselves, plus I catch up on a lot on Fridays. We have a fairly even split of housework and general family admin across our availability and that works for us.
What would you say to other parents who are considering changing hours or role or seeking flexibility?
You can only be told no if you ask, but no one is going to tap you on the shoulder and offer it to you. So do it but decide what suits YOU: every family is different, every child and adult has different needs and personalities so don’t be influenced by what others tell you SHOULD do. No one I know has our exact arrangement but it works for us.
What would you say to employers who feel that those who don’t work full-time are not ambitious or fully committed?
LOL & get your head out of the sand. Working mothers are the most efficient people on this planet. Presenteeism is such a blind and bland way to measure employees’ output. I have seen in so many teams over the years (and I would have done it myself!), that when you don’t have a time you HAVE to leave the office by and you have the same amount of work to complete, you end up taking a few more coffee breaks and spend a bit more time chatting. If I had to leave the office at 4.45 to get the crèche before it closed, I damn well put my head down and got my work done, but then I was frowned upon for leaving ‘early’. You do have to have responsibilities like children outside of work to understand that though. Where I work now, most people have children so the attitude is completely different, and we are trusted to get the work done, even if it isn’t all between the hours of 9 and 5.
Is there anything further you’d change? Would you give up work if you could?
I wouldn’t change anything at the moment but life is constantly evolving. I could give up work if I had to and I know I would be okay, but I probably won’t. I had always assumed I would hate being at home until I had no choice, and it turned out I did like it on a day to day basis, but I struggled with feeling I wasn’t using my education and experience. I could also see the children’s attitude towards me as a person evolve as the years went on. I became someone who was there only for them, while the person who went out to work was a parent AND a person. I didn’t like that.
Any other comments?
I would never wish a similar experience with a sick child on anyone but I always try to find the upside in everything. So now, I am happy to be good enough at my job, and good enough at being a mother and wife, and content that I will never set the world on fire. I spent years putting pressure on myself to have everything as perfect as possible when the older two kids were young and it really doesn’t achieve anything. They aren’t running around like feral creatures (I have some standards!) but I don’t sweat the small stuff; I just don’t care about it as much anymore.
Wow, Deirdre, I can’t help wondering if you’re ever thought about politics – I found this so inspiring. I love everything in this interview. I love what you said about presenteeism being a “blind and bland” way to measure output. I wholeheartedly agree that we all let work spread to fill the space and time we have – we are never as productive as when we have to pick up kids from creche.
I think the experience you’ve had with being more “around” is something many of us don’t realise until kids start school. Tiny changes make a huge difference then – being able to work from home, or taking two afternoons off instead of one day parental leave, or changing childcare, or reducing the commute. It’s that thing of being there for their stories, as you say, whether that’s at breakfast or after school or teatime. And I think it’s only when we make those tiny changes we understand their huge impact. I felt the same when I started working one day from home after my third maternity leave – it sounds like an exaggeration, but it was life-changing.
I am interested too in your experience being at home and how the kids saw you – “I became someone who was there only for them, while the person who went out to work was a parent AND a person. I didn’t like that” – that’s something I’ve struggled with sometimes in the five years since I started working from home (in particular the time I asked my youngest what he thought my job was, and he said, “a cleaner?”). I think it’s good to acknowledge that there are positive and negatives to being at home, likewise to working outside the home, and that it’s okay to admit that. But it sounds like you’ve found the perfect set-up now and your happiness rings through so clearly in your words. I’m delighted for you, and delighted your little boy is healthy and well, and very glad you came back to update your story!