I can completely identify with BBC NI’s Sarah Travers, who has just announced that she is quitting her job, with its 120-mile daily commute from Portstewart to Belfast, to spend more time with her family.
Believe me, as a mum of three boys, who for some years held down a job as a journalist in a busy newspaper office, I know all too well about the pressure of trying to find the ideal balance between work and family life. I’ve been there, read the manual and tried it every way possible since the birth of my first child 13 years ago.
I’ve worked full-time, part-time, been office-based, worked from home and been a stay-at-home mum, all in the hope of finding the best solution.My conclusion, after years of frantic juggling and guilt? There’s no right way to do it, there is only the best way for you and your family at any given time.
Like Sarah, I gave up my work — the first time as a journalist and then on two occasions stepping down as a PR director — to be at home with my family. But each time I ended up longing to be back in the workplace.
Why? Because being a journalist is a huge part of who I am. There’s also the fact that I worked long and hard to establish a career — journalism knows it’s a hard profession to break into and the work, while often rewarding, is also demanding. And yet for all the anti-social hours, the rush home to start cooking, washing and homeworks ... as soon as I quit work, I missed it. Without interviewing people, writing copy and, yes, enjoying the social side of a busy office, I didn’t feel complete or fulfilled, which meant I wasn’t being a very good mum either.
My husband Tom and I have three sons, Jesse (13) Korey (11) Teo (8), and the first time I decided to give up my job was when Teo was 10 months old. All three boys were in nursery three days a week while I worked at the time as a journalist on this newspaper and my nursery bill had soared to more than £900 for one month. I was working to pay for childcare.
That attempt lasted for six weeks before a consultancy role within a PR company turned into a job offer and I found myself (gratefully) back in full-time employment. Going to playgroups, making Rice Krispie buns and watching Bob the Builder had been fun...but the novelty wore off.
Yes, I wanted to be there for them but I also found that I missed getting dressed up to go out to work to spend the day with other adults and be creative.
I did feel guilty about not trying staying at home for long enough but my new post had a degree of flexibility and I could work from home when needed. Plus, I always ensured I was able to attend parent/teacher interviews, school plays and sports days.
I also loved the challenges of learning a new profession and feeling valued for my skills which made me a happier person all round — at work and home.
In fact, I became the main breadwinner during those years, with my husband Tom taking more time out from work to be at home.He was on hand to take the boys to school and often there to prepare a home-cooked meal (something which never happened even when I was at home.)
Alas, fate had other plans. The recession hit and I was made redundant. By this time Jesse was in P7 and studying round the clock for the dreaded AQE. Life as the boys got older didn’t get easier, it just got busier. If anything, they needed me more so I realised that maybe my new job was to be at home and so I got on with helping Jesse.
That, dear reader, is where I’ve been for the last few years. And I can honestly say that being a full-time mum has been my toughest job, if also the most rewarding.
Happily, I was still able to write occasional articles which helped me to maintain contacts in the industry and keep the grey matter ticking.
I never did learn to cook but instead largely stayed at home to enjoy precious time with each of the boys. I was there to pick Jesse up from the school bus and see him settle into life in secondary school, to taxi him to and from all his extra-curricular activities and increasingly busy social life. More recently I have seen Korey through the transfer test which will decide his future.
And yet ... that desire to work never left me. Last summer I realised my fingers were getting twitchy. I missed my keyboard and the camaraderie of the workplace and the feeling of having something that I knew I was good at outside of family life.
I wanted to wear something smart, not just my usual jeans and Uggs, I wanted to go out and interview people.
I often wonder if the whole dilemma would have been different if my parents had been around to help out with childcare. As a journalist himself, my late dad [sports writer Bill Ireland] was always very proud of my chosen career path, so I knew he probably would have wanted me to continue to work.
My late mum, who gave up work the second she found out she was pregnant with my older brother Michael and who didn’t go back to work for 22 years after that until I was 15, also knew how much I loved what I did and would no doubt have supported me any way she could.
Sadly, their untimely deaths — I lost mum when Jesse was just one and dad when Korey was only a few months old — meant that was never an option. I’ve felt I’ve had to kind of stab in the dark at this, with some right and wrong moves along the way.
I love being a mum but I love being a journalist too and with modern technology, I don’t think I have to choose between the two. I’ve returned to my first love of writing and can work around the boys and all their needs.
Days like today are a case in point. Teo had forgotten his lunch and I had to break off from writing this copy to race down to school — something that would be more tricky if I were in an office.
Sarah’s news yesterday struck a chord with me. I’m sure she did much soul-searching before making up her mind. I wish her all the best and hope she finds the demands of family and work easier from now on.
My advice to her? I’m not sure that women can’t have it all — the job, the family, the life! I think they just have to make up their own rules in order to do so.
A career isn’t everything and for many, being a mum and homemaker is their true vocation and they’re brilliant at it.
The rest of us? We just have to find what works.
At different times in our lives this will mean different things but right now? Well, I wouldn’t mind grabbing a coffee and having a chat with some female colleagues across the desk to find out what they think.
A woman’s work
- A study by Penn State University last August revealed that mums who work full-time are healthier than those who stay at home.
- Last year Tory MP Louise Mensch resigned her position to devote more time to her family.
- A further recent survey by Workingmums.co.uk revealed that half of working mums don't consider themselves a good role model for their children.
- Celebrities who balance successful careers with being a mum include Katie Price, Holly Willoughby, Amanda Holden and actress Kate Winslet.