Emily O’Reilly: biology has ‘hardwired’ mothers to lives of children

European Ombudsman speaks of balance between work and family life

Emily O’Reilly pictured in her office during her last week as Ombudsman last year.  Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Emily O’Reilly pictured in her office during her last week as Ombudsman last year. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES


The fact that biology has “manacled” them to the lives of their children needs to be acknowledged if mothers are to find “psychological peace” in the workplace the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has said.

Speaking at the Women’s Executive Network’s Ireland’s Most Powerful Women: Top 25 event in Dublin on Thursday night, where she was honoured alongside women including Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland, O’Reilly said a mother’s “biologically determined inability to compartmentalise her children” should not become for employers a barrier to achieving professional success.

In a well-received speech the mother of five spoke of being elected Ombudsman last year: “The first question I was asked by a reporter was ‘what about the children?’ She was mildly irritated by this at first not believing Enda Kenny or Barack Obama would be asked the same question.

However, she realised afterwards that what the interviewers were asking was only what she was asking herself. “My own visceral sense of the difficulty of being separated from my children was reflected in the interviewer’s intuitive understanding that this was going to be an issue. It wasn’t an issue because they were misogynistic, it was an issue because it was an issue."

O’Reilly smiled while recalling dealing with a domestic incident concerning one of her teenage daughters just before one of her first important meetings with the secretary general of the European Commission, Irish woman Catherine Day. After that and other incidents she remembered what former governor of Mountjoy prison John Lonergan had said in an interview about the difference between male and female prisoners. “Male prisoners, he said, leave their world outside the door. They know someone is taking care of their mammy or that the wife or partner is taking care of the kids and now all they have to worry about is getting through their sentence. Female prisoners, he said, bring their families on in with them right through the gates of the jail.”

This went to heart of the matter, she said. “It was not a question of being superior to men when it came to nurturing and minding, of being a better parent, it is simply biology has hardwired us, manacled us to the lives of our children and we bring them with us wherever we go and whatever we do. And for us women who are also mothers to find personal psychological peace in the workplace, that plain fact has to be acknowledged."

She referenced Senator Susan O’Keeffe who she said was sneered at by some for missing a key senate meeting because she “wanted, no needed” to support her child through the first days of her Leaving Cert.

“I recall Susan’s own hurt and bewilderment as she defended her actions wondering no doubt how something that to her had seemed such a normal and necessary thing to do had provoked such hostile criticism."

“The acknowledgement of the reality of a mother’s biologically determined inability to compartmentalise her children, cannot become for us or for those who might employ or promote us, a barrier to achieving professional success,” she added.

In the speech O’Reilly also reflected on the mother-and-baby home controversy which she said showed how previous generations of Irish women and girls were treated when they crossed the line that divided “the good girls from the bad”.

“The good girls married and stayed at home or else remained single and therefore were allowed to continue to work, while the bad girls were banished, sometimes with their babies more often without.”

She said it was ironic that at a time when we are beginning to see the “full flowering” of women in the public sphere, we were being confronted “with the reality of the lives lived by women just like us, but condemned by the fact of being born too soon”.

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