‘We are not just on the scrap heap’. Going back to work after kids

The ‘I’m useless’ mindset can blight stay-at-home parents trying to get back into the workplace

Elaine Russell with her daughters Grace (11 months) and Laura (8)  at their home in Foxrock. Elaine has brought the UK organisation ‘Women Returners’ to Ireland and is pioneering the concept of ‘returnships’ with companies here. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Elaine Russell with her daughters Grace (11 months) and Laura (8) at their home in Foxrock. Elaine has brought the UK organisation ‘Women Returners’ to Ireland and is pioneering the concept of ‘returnships’ with companies here. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

“Children are young for such a short time” is an argument used both for and against the idea of a parent taking time out of the workplace to stay at home.

It can either mean why wouldn’t you try to spend a few of those special years at home during a lifetime of work? Or, why would you jeopardise your career by quitting a job just because it’s tough to juggle everything for a relatively short period?

A temporary loss of income is not the only worry for parents contemplating a career break. There’s also the fear they won’t be able to get back into the workplace, a concern that festers as the years go by.

The lack of professional confidence – the “I’m useless” mindset – is the biggest obstacle to returning to work, says Elaine Russell, who saw it herself at the school gate after she stepped out of a high-powered corporate job last year.

A chartered accountant, she worked across financial services before becoming chief executive of Tesco Mobile.

“I left there in 2016 and, at the same time, I found out I was pregnant, which was wonderful because my eldest daughter is eight – the baby is now 11 months.”

‘Returnships’

She was doing some consulting when she decided earlier this year to approach the business-coaching organisation Women Returners in the UK, with a view to extending it to Ireland. 

Women Returners partners with companies in running paid “returnships” at a senior level for professionals who have been out of the workplace for some years, with the aim of an ongoing role at the end. The “returners” are mentored by a Women Returners coach to ease their transition.

Fidelity International, a global investments company, was the first to launch a returnship programme in Dublin earlier this month. Due to start in January, the programme will run for 20 weeks, offering management-level roles that are targeted at people with previous experience of financial services and are coming back from an extended career break.

Women should start working on themselves and building up their confidence before they go out looking for jobs

While Russell is personally interested in coaching, “there is a bigger societal reason to do this”, she says. She hears from women how difficult it can be to get back into the workplace, while some companies struggle to maintain a gender balance at senior level.

Russell suggests women start working on themselves and building up their confidence before they go out looking for jobs, because if they are not prepared, knockbacks will be harder to take. Even if you don’t avail of professional coaching, at least talk to a friend who is out working.

Ciara Garvan, who was at home for three and a half years before setting up WorkJuggle.com in September, identifies with that issue of diminishing self-belief.

‘Your confidence goes down’

“Your confidence goes so quickly. You start pushing out CVs and you are not really sure what it is you want and, if you don’t get the reaction you want, your confidence goes down again.” It’s not just a problem for women – although most parents taking time out to raise children are mothers.

“I was talking to a guy recently – they have adopted a son and he had been at home with the child for a year and he had the exact same issues – ‘are my skills still valuable?’, ‘I don’t know if I can manage...’”

Garvan took a package when on maternity leave with her third child so she didn’t return. However, when that son was three she started a full-time contract but the daily M50 trips soon became unbearable.

“I was commuting from Malahide to Sandyford and I just couldn’t do it – I kind of thought I could but then I realised.” Despite a very good employer, she says, “I was miserable and the kids were miserable”.

It was this that gave her the idea for WorkJuggle.com, which aims to match flexible employers – mostly in tech and marketing – with people looking for the autonomy that flexible, remote working provides.

Try to stay involved . . .You then have something to talk about when you go to an interview

With her children now aged 10, eight and five, Garvan is still doing a fair bit of juggling herself to grow the business.

Her advice to people taking a career break is to “try to stay involved, whether it is being on the parents’ association or being involved with a political party, or volunteer work. You then have something to talk about when you go to an interview.”

For parents looking to return to the workplace, there are more and more training opportunities.  It is significant that the free Springboard+ courses were opened to “homemakers” this autumn. These are co-funded by the Government and the European Social Fund (ESF), as part of the ESF programme for employability, inclusion and learning 2014-2020, and are aimed at upskilling jobseekers.

Garvan mentions Women ReBOOT, led by technology companies, that offers supported routes back to work. Her own company runs WorkJuggle Re-entry Workshops for those who might not know where to start, with the next sessions on November 6th and 13th.

Back to work: three mothers on how they plan to return to work

‘Anything beats changing two nappies at once’
Edel Foran (43) was pregnant with her second child when she went back after her first maternity leave to her full-time job with the Bank of New York, based in Cork Airport Business Park.

But with a toddler at home, a husband also working full-time and her commute of up to two hours from their Waterford home, it wasn’t long before she decided it was all too much. She resigned in April 2015.

“Having the children and throwing them into a creche all day – it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she says. Although she left with mixed feelings, having been there for more than eight years, she has no major regrets.

“It comes to a stage when you have children, your priorities change. I had to do what was right for the children and for myself and for everybody else.”

However, “I always knew I wasn’t going to sit at home and be a homemaker”.

Unusually, perhaps, she soon saw taking time out when her children were young as a chance to advance her career rather than sabotage it.

After working a couple of short-term contracts closer to their home in Dungarvan, she looked at ways of furthering her education. Thanks to the Springboard+ programme she could do a post-graduate diploma course at DCU, free of charge, which is leading to a Master’s in Management of Operations.

“I have a lot of skills and experience. My aim was to get a more relevant qualification.”

She has finished the four modules sponsored by Springboard+ but has deferred the final dissertation module until September 2018 while she studies for her Qualified Financial Advisor exams. As one income had been taken out of the household, it was a “huge help” that the Springboard+ course was free.

“With everything else you would be paying for, you wouldn’t go and do it yourseIf. It would be great if they paid for the last module as well, but they won’t do that.” She is paying €1,800 to bring her new qualification up to Master’s level.

With two young children, Alex (4) and Ruby (3), “full of go”, it requires discipline to do these courses, all online, and the under-performing broadband services in rural Ireland don’t help.  

However, she has not found studying a chore. “When you have been at home for a while with children – and especially when they are so young – anything beats changing two nappies at once!”

Foran wants to go back into a workplace, rather than be self-employed, when she has finished her Master’s. However, she knows there is no point in going back to a full-time job that involves hours of commuting.

“It has to be sustainable and has to work for everybody,” she adds.

‘I haven’t been living in a kitchen for the past 12 years’
Lucy O’Reilly (46) has been searching for a job since July and while she has had had some interviews, she has yet to hear “you’re hired”.

She gave up full-time work outside the home when her eldest child, Zac (14), was born and her employer was folding anyway.  At the time she was working in event management in Paris, to where she had moved after graduating from Trinity College with a degree in French and Spanish in 1992.

Lucy O’Reilly: ‘I feel this is my time’
Lucy O’Reilly: ‘I feel this is my time’

Zac was two when she and her husband returned to Dublin in 2004 and they had two more children, Adam (11) and Sami (9).

In 2010 she started doing “serious volunteer work” – PR and marketing of Dún Laoghaire Choral Society, of which she is a member, after David Brophy took over as musical director. She did similar work for the parents’ association of her children’s school.

The self-taught web and graphic design she did for the choir inspired her to study for a diploma in multi-media at Blackrock Further Education Institute. “I loved that and decided to do that work on a freelance basis.”

Having separated from her husband, there is a financial imperative to find steady employment, but she is also keen to enter a new phase of life now the children are older: “I feel this is my time – I acquired a load of experience before the kids were born. The events I did in Paris, I travelled the world, it was just brilliant. I managed clients, I managed accounts – that all still stands to me.”

She has also learned lots of new skills in the past seven years.  “I feel I am a returner and not a returner – I have been doing a lot of things.”

While she welcomes the introduction of returnships, she is not sure she needs one herself.

“I feel totally operational,” she says with a laugh. “I am articulate, loads of energy, loads of ideas” – yet getting back into the workplace is proving difficult, “for whatever reason”.

O’Reilly is unsure how to position herself and believes that is part of the problem.

“The first few jobs I went for, I went straight back to events because that is what I know. I had one woman who said to me ‘you are just too way qualified for this’.” She was also getting the “what age are your children?” questions.

What they were thinking, she says, was that if they needed her for an event on a Tuesday at 7pm, would she be available? However, she wonders if men were asked this too.

“I can be flexible but I would like it to work both ways. I have done so much of my best work over the past few years at night.”

She hates being asked about salary expectations because she is not sure at what level to pitch.

“I would love to go to work for a forward-thinking, innovative American company – then I read the job description and I can hardly understand the language.” Anyway, they just seem “to want 20-somethings and 30-somethings straight out of central casting”, she says. “It is hard to know where I sit.

“I feel like I need somebody to take a risk with me, yet I don’t feel like I am a risk at all. I am completely capable.

“Yes, I took those 10-12 years off. Was that a mistake? I don’t think so,” she says, acknowledging she was lucky to be able to make that choice. She reckons there are thousands of women in a similar position with loads of potential.

“We’re not stupid; I feel pretty digital savvy. I am aware of what’s going on out there. I haven’t been living in a kitchen for the past 12 years.”

After only three months of job-hunting, O’Reilly refuses to be disheartened.

“I am really working at it so hopefully something will come up.” If not, “I will create it,” she adds. “I will make it work.”

‘We are not just on the scrap heap’
Lisa McAuley (56) started planning her return to Ireland after her two sons, who were born and raised in France, came here to pursue their third-level education.

Once she was sure they were settled, she was happy to sell their house near Grasse in Provence and she came back at the end of July.

After almost 30 years out of the country and separated from her husband, “I need to set up connections and networks and get into the whole Irish feel for everything again”, she says. It was her sister, with whom she is staying, who told her about the Springboard+ programme.

A Springboard+ counsellor suggested an entrepreneurship course, since she had combined time in the home with running her own TEFL business. McAuley liked the look of the Advance Certificate in Management Practice course, which is run by Irish Times Training and accredited by Ulster University.

She started the one-day-a-week course in September with two or three ideas for a business in the “baby boomers”, 50-plus market and these notions “are being developed and changed” as she goes along.

“At the moment it is all very exciting and new. I am looking in to extending my work life” – into her 70s. It is “brilliant”, she says, that Springboard+ courses are now open to homemakers, so she doesn’t have to pay.

“It means they are investing in the 50-plus. I think that’s very important – we are not just on the scrap heap. I feel I do have things to offer – but even just trying to get an interview is quite difficult. I have to make my own opportunities.”

She has also signed up with the Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange (ISAX), to do their “ingenuity” programme. That is two nights a week for eight weeks and will cost €250 but the potential for networking attracts her.

“It is really quite an exciting time to be back. I am feeling quite positive – except for the housing situation.”

She has put offers on a few places but is frustrated by the need for second-guessing. “In France it is more transparent – you have the number and you negotiate around that number.” Whereas in Ireland, people seem to have that number “but it’s in their heads”.

However, “apart from that, I have had no regrets in coming back. I think I have done the right thing.”

  • For more information see: springboardcourses.ie; womenreturners.com; workjuggle.com; softwareskillnet.ie; irishtimestraining.com; isax.ie

swayman@irishtimes.com

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