Turning home into a workplace
Ian Martin with three of his four children - Isabel (3), Sarah (5) and Alex (7) - playing in their home in Crumlin. Lack of building work meant he became the main child minder as his wife had a full-time steady job. photograph: david sleator
Working around their children's needs has become the blueprint for a new working life for many parents
The phrase “balancing act” is often used to describe family life, but the debate always focuses on the two opposing ends of those scales – those who stay at home and those who get paid for work. But what about those who do both?
As recession bites, some parents are finding a middle ground by leaving the office and work environment, either through redundancy, reduced hours or lifestyle choice, to stay at home with their children, and work around their childcare needs. This third way requires a whole new level of balancing.
Some women say the issue is not that they face a glass ceiling in the workplace because of their sex, but that they are hitting a nappy wall because of their choice to have children. Unmanageable pulls on their time, childcare costs and endless guilt about not pleasing any of the people any of the time are forcing them to find another way.
Meanwhile, men are also realising they have been missing out, and changing roles and recession have meant more men are staying home to look after the children, and working on the side.
Ian Martin is a father of three with a fourth baby on the way. Lack of building work meant he became the main child minder as his wife had a full-time steady job.
“It was difficult to accept at first. I felt I lost my identity and felt I wasn’t in control anymore. The kids were in control. But gradually it got easier. But it’s hard getting the balance. I have to work when my wife is home which means we haven’t had a family day in a long time.”
But on reflection, the benefits have outweighed the challenges. “I never would have dreamed I would be staying at home looking after my children. But I’m really glad we’re doing this – that one of us is able to stay at home with our kids and we muddle through as parents.”
Ireland has the highest childcare costs in Europe (alongside Switzerland) consuming up to 30 per cent of an average income for small children. According to the ESRI, people with young children are more likely to work from home than those with no children, and between 2003 and 2009 there was a substantial increase in the numbers of people working from home, from 8 per cent to 12 per cent.
The recession has meant that many businesses are seeing the advantage of having some employees work from home, reducing office costs and allowing greater flexibility.
A survey carried out by Grant Thornton Accountancy in March of last year found that 55 per cent of Irish companies have flexible work practices in place, although the reality is that many don’t have the actual infrastructure yet to allow employees to work from home.
In the same month Microsoft published research that showed that only 26 per cent of Irish businesses with flexible working practices provide remote desktop connections to employees to work outside the office.
Mary Connaughton, head of HR development with Ibec, confirms smart companies are realising that offering flexibility can mean keeping good staff, more productive and less costly staff and better business practice.
“We know that nearly 60 per cent of Irish businesses now have flexible working practices including flexible hours, part-time work, and working from home options. E-working and hot-desking is definitely increasing as improvements in both technology and broadband take place nationally. And research has shown that responding to the needs of employees increases productivity, moral and retention.”
Having it all
However, it is not necessarily the solution to “having it all”. Combining the tasks of raising money and raising kids can be fraught with challenges. Connaughton says. “Working from home doesn’t mean you do away with the childcare option. In fact, childcare can still be a stresser if not worked out properly. Working from home is obviously role-dependent, requiring clear boundaries and discipline.”
Mairéad Kelly runs courses for those who want to work from home while managing their home life and children. “I see lots of women who want it all – to work, but also spend time with their children, so they ‘want it all’ but on their terms, not the terms society has set.”
Like many who attend her courses, after Kelly’s third child she found childcare costs made working life too difficult. She also realised how much she had missed from her older children growing up and wanted to be there more for her youngest child. She re-trained and did something she knew she was good at – coaching.
Now she helps people find the skills, confidence and networks to make their own business ideas work.
“I remember one course, where three women had college degrees yet spoke about being ‘only a stay-at-home-mum’. Because the work of parenting is non-paid, it is negated, yet the skills you acquire make you so much more employable or business minded.”
Her website, cutehoney.ie(named after a derogatory comment from a male colleague), encourages parents to brainstorm and network with others on the course to thrash out ideas and make plans.
“Attitudes in Ireland have changed. It used to be that stay-at-home parents who made some money on the side where only contributing pin money. We were encouraged to play it safe and get a steady job.
“Now we have a real entrepreneurial spirit, and what were once cottage industry type hobbies, are becoming proper businesses that allow a parent to work around the needs of their children, but also build a successful career,” she says.
Those who attend the courses come from a mixed background; women who put aside business ideas because they felt their job was to be a stay-at-home parent and now realise they can be both; women who have given up their high-powered jobs but realise that childcare is not enough for them; and parents who have been made redundant and want to earn money while minimising childcare costs.
Increasingly however, working from home around the children is being driven more by economics than by lifestyle choice. And men can find that a real challenge.
Frank Curran came home after many years in the States with his family in 2008. Although he initially had work as a builder, things soon began to dry up.
With three young children aged between one and six, they could no longer afford childcare and they made the decision that Frank would look after the children and work when he could, while his wife worked full-time. It was not an easy transition.
“I found it very hard at first. It was a complete adjustment from running my own business in America, to being at home with three small children. I just felt I wasn’t cut out for it.”
Although it has become easier as the children have grown older and more independent, it is not necessarily his first choice.
“I’ve loved watching the kids grow and develop, and being so involved in my son’s football has been great for me. But I’d rather be working.
“When I get work I call it recreation and I skip out the door.”
While no one is suggesting this middle ground is an easier option, Mairéad Kelly believes that at least there is another choice now for parents.
“There have always been a certain percentage of people in the background, making crafts, providing a service and it wasn’t really considered a job. But when childcare costs become economically unviable, more and more people are prepared to give it a go, and working from home has become legitimised.
“Some parents are realising not only does it pay, it gives them the freedom to manage family life a bit better.”