Motherhood and work: 'I was going to be constantly making decisions I didn’t want to make'

Women take the plunge into start-up businesses to find a better work-family balance

Tom and Norma Dinneen with their children Áine, Tadhg and Méabh.

Tom and Norma Dinneen with their children Áine, Tadhg and Méabh.

 

Norma Dinneen knows exactly the moment she realised the combination of her high-flying career as an electrical engineer and motherhood was no longer going to work for her.

It was during the first week back in her job with a US multinational company after the birth of her second child, when she was asked to make a trip to Shanghai. Her immediate thought was: “No, this is not right – I am not going to be able to keep any kind of work-life balance.”

Within six weeks, she had left the company. “I needed more flexibility, I needed to be able to set my own schedules,” she says. And not only did she wish to avoid frequent overseas travel, she wanted to eliminate the daily commute of up to three hours from her east Co Cork home to offices in either Cork or Limerick.

Instead, she took the plunge into pursuing a dream she and her husband Tom had of diversifying the farm at their home in Ballynoe, near Fermoy.

Five years later, she is a farmhouse-cheese-maker, qualified dairy farmer and mother of three – with two-year-old Tadhg joining his sisters, Méabh (7) and Áine (6) to enlarge the family during the time of great transition.

“I did love my job, it was very rewarding and it was the last career move my colleagues, I’d say, would have expected,” she laughs. But, “I knew if I continued on that line, I was going to be constantly making decisions I didn’t want to make”.

Tom & Norma Dinneen with Áine, Tadhg and Méabh.
Tom & Norma Dinneen with Áine, Tadhg and Méabh.

She knows balancing work and family is something many other parents struggle with. But she has found that starting her own business with Tom, producing Bó Rua Farm cheese (boruafarm.ie), “has been super” in that regard.

Yes, it can mean working late after taking time out for a school concert, or whatever, but “it is doable”, she explains. One major advantage is that her commute is now just the two minutes it takes to walk from the house to the dairy, which they opened on the farm in August 2018, after initially using a pilot cheese-making plant in Teagasc’s food research centre in Moorepark, Fermoy.

A significant step for Norma in developing the business was being accepted for a free, peer-led support programme for female entrepreneurs in rural Ireland, Accelerating the Creation Of Rural Nascent Start-ups (ACORNS), which is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Over six months, established female entrepreneurs in different locations around the country lead monthly, day-long, round-table sessions with groups of women who have been running a business for less than two years, or are about to start one.

“You are learning from other people’s experiences and of course the lead entrepreneur is a successful person in her own right,” says Norma, whose initial group was headed by Caroline McInerney of the HR Suite. Focusing on different topics each month, such as marketing, sales, finance and employment, discussions cover “all the pieces of the jigsaw you are going to need to successfully set up a business”.

‘Positive peer pressure’

Norma also found it extremely helpful in setting goals, with “positive peer pressure” being a motivation to get something done in time to report on it at the next meeting. In the day-to-day running of the household and the business, you can get bogged down in the details, she explains. ACORNS provides the chance to take a step away, talk to other women and they might say “have you tried this . . . ?”

It’s like having your own little board of directors, adds Norma, who structures her week around three core working days, during which she has childcare organised and would clock up about 36 hours. The other days, she juggles work tasks around children’s needs – “all depending on whether they have a camogie match here or a piano lesson there. But being my own boss is great – I can just go with the flow.”

More than 200 female entrepreneurs have taken part in ACORNS (acorns.ie) to date and the closing date for the next round, ACORNS 5, is September 20th. The programme will run over six months from this October to April 2020. 

On average, 850 women are starting a new business every month in Ireland, says Paula Fitzsimons, founder and managing director of Fitzsimons Consulting, the company that developed the ACORNS initiative. The rate of early-stage entrepreneurial activity increased among women here last year, while remaining stable for men, and is now ranked fifth highest in Europe.

While there still more men than women starting businesses, the ratio in Ireland continues to narrow and now stands at 1.6 to 1 among early-stage entrepreneurs.

Anna Dobson, with her three boys, Sonny, Archie and Rhys. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure
Anna Dobson, with her three boys, Sonny, Archie and Rhys. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Anna Dobson, the mother of three young boys, is one such early-stage entrepreneur. More than two years ago, her working days, elongated by the commute from her home in Avoca, Co Wicklow, to a job managing a fashion production unit in Dublin, became too much.

“It just wasn’t a life,” she says. It was particularly hard on her sons, who had been used to having her around when she worked as a freelance designer from home in Donegal.

Two years after her marriage broke up, she returned to her native Avoca with the boys and took the job in Dublin to try to provide for her family. But within 12 months, she knew she had to find another way.

Ever since studying fashion and textiles at the University of Ulster, Anna had had a love of tweed, so she bought some Donegal tweed and starting cutting and making waistcoats for her sons. That was to be the seed for her own tweed clothing and accessories brand, Love Mo Chuisle, which she set up in November 2017.

Year-round outlet

Almost two years later, she is filling wholesale orders in Germany and France, as well as for retailers around Ireland, and she has opened her own two Tweed in the Valley shops – the first in Avoca village that operates only in the summer, and, recently, a second, year-round outlet on Main Street in Gorey, Co Wexford.

Anna and Archie.
Anna and Archie.

Anna tries to work the business around her sons, Rhys (11) Sonny (8) and Archie (7) “but it doesn’t always happen”, she says, acknowledging that she couldn’t manage without the hands-on support of her mother and other family members. She has part-time help in the Gorey shop, where there is a production area upstairs with small kitchen, so she can work there and have the boys with her if necessary.

At night, she is often cutting outfits at home for wholesale orders, after the boys have gone to bed. “It is just full-on at the moment,” she says. “You just manage – get less sleep.”

With the Gorey shop having opened only in August, at the time of speaking she had yet to tackle a full week of working there, getting the dinner done, sitting down to do homework with the boys and ferrying them to sports. Extra-curricular activities are “a killer”, she says, in terms of logistics. For instance, the three boys are on three different age soccer teams, training twice a week “all on different days and at different times”.

A participant in the last round of ACORNS, Anna found it was a great way of getting away from the non-stop demands of work and home.

“You know if you try to go and put time aside for yourself, it doesn’t happen. But if you have an ACORN meeting, you know you’re getting that hour, two hours, three hours, with the girls, to have coffee and talk about things that you need to talk about and things you need to make decisions on.”

She values highly the support of the other local women entrepreneurs in the group and now stocks some of their products in her shops.

“They understood the pressures and everybody has a different input. Some of them were ahead of me in business, so they had been through the parts I’m going through.”  Anna is still taking the business “week by week – all I can do is keep going”, but she has no doubt she is in a better position now for juggling family life than when she was boarding that daily bus to Dublin.

Maura Sheehy started Maura’s Cottage Flowers in 2015.
Maura Sheehy started Maura’s Cottage Flowers in 2015. Photograph: Ciara O'Donnell

The flowering of a long-held dream

After 20 years working in the home, Maura Sheehy wanted to make a little time for herself outdoors when the youngest of her seven children started school.

But in deciding to “take back a piece of the garden” in the field beside the family home in Tralee, Co Kerry, she never dreamt for one moment that it would be the start of her own business. Or that her husband, Tommy, would be able to give up his job as an off-licence manager to work alongside her.

With a keen interest in gardening as a child, Maura had toyed with the idea of studying horticulture after leaving school. But, as a hay fever sufferer, her careers guidance teacher advised against it and she opted for the safer bet of retail fashion.

Having her first child, Rory, as a single mother at the age of 21, she put shop work on hold for more than three years, during which time she met Tommy and they got married in 1995. As six more children arrived over the next decade, Maura had her hands full at home.

When she finally got to spend time on a hobby again, she took part-time courses in organic gardening. “My hunger for more information and knowledge became very apparent to me. I found out I could study through distance learning with The Organic College in Dromcollogher, Co Limerick, and things really began to take off.”

Although, she still wasn’t thinking of it in terms of a business. “I was doing it because I loved gardening, I loved learning and I loved providing vegetables for the house.”  Yet while she enjoyed the vegetables, “it didn’t give me the same passion as growing flowers, which I had always been doing on a small scale”. Before long, all the vegetable beds were taken over with flowers and, when people visited, she’d pick them a bunch of flowers before they left.

“One particular person said ‘you’re mad, you should be selling those flowers’ and that is when the penny dropped,” says Maura.

First, she tried the farmers’ markets but “thankfully, that didn’t work out”, she says, because it was “such a hard sell”. Now, she explains, every time she cuts a flower it is already sold, whether for pre-ordered arrangements in local businesses or for weddings and other special occasions.

Having trialled the business in the summer of 2014, she started Maura’s Cottage Flowers (maurascottageflowers.ie) the following year. Joining the second round of ACORNS for 2016-17 was “a huge turning point”. Through the networking with a very strong group of fellow female start-up entrepreneurs, along with great support from her local enterprise office in Tralee, she was challenged to decide if she was happy carrying on “playing with flowers” or if she wanted to create a money-making enterprise.

“Surprisingly for me, it changed very much from, ‘it’s great being paid for something I love doing’ to a situation where I became very ambitious.” With ACORNS, she says, you have to envisage where you want to be in three years’ and five years’ time, and to focus on your “niche market and points of difference”.

While training and building up the business, the cooking, washing and cleaning still had to be done, with all seven children, now ranging in age from 28 to 14, still under their roof. “They go and they come back,” she laughs, with the younger ones showing the most interest in the business.

While she would be “ashamed” to say the number of hours she and Tommy are working, she considers herself very lucky.  Even if she is exhausted going to bed at 1am and is back up at 5.30am, “within five minutes I am in my zone again”. She also regards Tommy joining the business full-time a year ago as a “wonderful opportunity” for the pair of them.

“Some people think you’re stone mad to work alongside your husband,” she says, but “life was so busy before that with the lads, doing things for them and bringing them to sports and stuff like that, we had very little time for ourselves. We’re working alongside each other and it’s absolutely brilliant. He’s living my dream now – Tommy’s in the garden full time,” says Maura, who is more likely to be beavering away in her workshop, or out meeting clients.

“I would love more time in the garden,” she laughs, admitting her work-life balance is a bit askew. Even when she tries to do anything for herself, it is almost inevitably linked to floristry. To celebrate her 50th birthday in October she has a trip booked to the US – to do a flower workshop.

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