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Mary Kenny

Downside of working remotely, as many are finding, is that there's little to divide work and home life

Mary Kenny


Balancing act: trying to work and look after the kids can prove to be a little chaotic

Balancing act: trying to work and look after the kids can prove to be a little chaotic

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Balancing act: trying to work and look after the kids can prove to be a little chaotic

Balancing act: trying to work and look after the kids can prove to be a little chaotic

Balancing act: trying to work and look after the kids can prove to be a little chaotic

When my children were small, it became obvious that it would be more practical for me to work from home rather than go to an office daily.

It even seemed like the ideal solution for a working mother. The daily rush to get the kids to the childminder, or then to the nursery school; the elaborate arrangements for picking up on time, or boxing and coxing with other parents to collect their children in fair exchange for reciprocal arrangements - always a stress.

Simple solution. I was a journalist and writer and I could work from home. Unlike other women I knew who needed to be present at their place of employment, I had that choice. Wasn't I lucky? And that was how I proceeded from there on.

It was a useful option - and today, with communications so much more developed through electronic media, it can be for many more people. Yet to be honest, I really did miss the office, especially at the beginning.

I missed the presence of colleagues. I missed the jokes, the camaraderie, the banter, the interchange, the feeling of collegiality. I missed having somewhere else to go on a routine basis.

Newspapers, before the technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s got going, were often noisy places. The clatter of typewriters filled the air.

The 'back bench' - a desk of men, and the occasional woman, which commanded the proceedings - seemed shouty and agitated, hollering peremptory orders like "splash sub!" and "replate!". The yelling would probably nowadays be called 'bullying', but I liked all that - the sense of urgency, of meeting the deadline, of getting the edition away. A newspaper office throbbed with life itself.

I loved the collaborative element of working alongside other people. Even the editor, who was always right (even when he was wrong), would sometimes wander through the open-plan place and ask a lowly reporter: "What do you think of this picture for the front page?"

It was useful to be able to seek a colleague's advice or draw out an idea over the rather filthy stuff that passed for coffee in those days. It was enjoyable to be part of a gossip circuit - though perhaps not always so enjoyable to be the object of the gossip.

And then there were the pubs, which were part of the working scene. Granted, they were to contribute to my downfall on more than one occasion, but they were a terrific part of the collectivity of a working life. In London, it was El Vino on Fleet Street; in Dublin, Mulligan's on Poolbeg Street, or the Pearl Bar. Great conversations were had with the folks you worked with (even leave aside the illicit romances).

And there was a learning element to those work-pub sessions too. We younger journos sat with older men and women who told instructive and often hilarious stories of the profession - no, journalism has always been called a 'trade' - in times gone by. There was a terrific left-wing writer, James Cameron, whose legendary expenses sheet after a foreign assignment read: "For taxi to Waterloo Station: five shillings. For hire of camel: £2,000." We loved to hear that story.

Among the Bedouin people, apparently, the younger members of the tribe sit around the camp fire and listen to the elders' tales. That is how a sense of identity and remembrance is preserved. It was all something like that.

But when you have young children, you have to adjust your way of life anyway. There isn't time for a parallel existence outside of home responsibilities. You need to focus on priorities. And I did adjust to working from home - as so many people are doing now in the present coronavirus emergency.

There are many benefits too. You can arrange your own timetable. If there's an extra workload, you can always rise earlier. You don't waste time commuting and you don't have much opportunity to waste time gossiping with colleagues anymore.

It isn't always as easy to get down to work at home, rather than clocking in at a specific time at the office. But the Somerset Maugham rule for writers can be useful for all: the muse, he said, appears at 9am. Actually, there is no muse, but a professional writer sits at his desk at nine in the morning and starts writing.

The downside, as many are discovering, is that working from home means there is little division between work and home life.

There was a moment, I do recall, when the children were bawling their heads off, and I was pounding away at a typewriter, meeting some deadline, my husband remarked sarcastically: "You might try practising family values instead of writing about them!"

The image now appears to me like a Punch cartoon about how the world will go to hell in a handcart if mothers don't attend to their proper duties.

Actually, I argued - to myself and others - it's a good thing for children to watch their mothers, and fathers, at work.

Before the Industrial Revolution, and even in agricultural life, families formed their own cottage industry, working together.

Everyone pitched in. In some respects, the future may come to uncannily resemble the past.

Belfast Telegraph