Mum's the word


FAMILIES:Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, from single to stay-at-home, from teenage to executive with live-in nanny. Here are five women trying to find that all-elusive thing called "balance"

FOR SOME it is not so much a case of glass ceiling as it is one of glass trapdoor. Life is progressing. Boxes are ticked: job, home, partner. And then down they fall, like Alice down the rabbit hole. Except in the wonderland of motherhood they will be the white rabbit, never quite on top of things and always in a bit of a flap.

I have been among the mammies of Dublin, walking around in winter gales. Our faces are set against the wind, sensible hats shoved down on our heads. Men in suits walk by under their oversized golf umbrellas. It is not possible to carry a golf umbrella and push a buggy.

Being a parent has challenges. Being a mother is fraught with complex choices as never before, with the pressures of commuting, mortgages and careers. The number of women in paid work has doubled since 1994, against a backdrop of rocketing property prices and consistently inadequate childcare provision.

Childcare is not a woman's issue. It is a parenting issue. But the chatboards and airwaves are full of women's voices telling stories of juggling demands of work and family. There are nail- biting calculations about everything from the traffic on the Kinsale roundabout to the molar that is pushing its way through the youngest's gums and causing him to howl at 3am.

As the daughters of the feminist movement, reared to work towards career success, we waited until our 30s to have children. Now we find ourselves singing nursery rhymes in the hollow echo of a church-hall toddler group, wondering where that other life went.

I am typing this at my kitchen table while my sons are asleep. It feels like reclaiming something for myself. I put the words together and they stay where I want them to. They do not slide off chairs and bump their heads. They do not ask me whether dogs purr or if fish sleep. They do not throw small arms around me and pat my shoulders. And they do not say "Mama" to me in a peculiarly Italian accent.

I wonder was motherhood a trapdoor, an escape hatch from a way of working that did not seem to work any more. I love it, but, like apple pie, you can have too much of it. I am lucky. I have work, and the camaraderie of fellow mothers and friends. The life of a freelance journalist lends itself to working around family life, if only certain kinds of journalism. I had a new byline photograph taken recently. The photographer asked me my name and looked puzzled as he wrote it down. "There used to be another Catherine Cleary," he said. "Yes. That was me," I told him. "I used to be her."

Lynda McCracken

Working from home

Lynda McCracken had an epiphany on East Wall Road in Dublin one afternoon. She was driving home from work, on her first day back as an IT project manager after maternity leave for the birth of her second daughter. Trapped in gridlock, she had to phone her husband and get him out of a meeting to collect their daughters from creche.

"A light bulb just went on in my head, and I decided I wasn't going to continue like this," she says. She set about trying to find someone who could help her find work that would challenge her but also fit in around her family life.

That person or agency did not exist, she found, so she spent a couple of years as a full-time mother. In the world of mother-and-baby groups she met other women in the same position. "Really senior women, such as IT project managers, lawyers, accountants, who all said the same thing: 'We want to work, but we can't fit ourselves into the old jobs.' It was a recurring theme."

So McCracken set up an employment agency to tap into this rich seam of talented parents who wanted project work rather than jobs that involved the jacket-on-the-chair, long-hours game.

"The people I was meeting were unbelievably senior, women who had been managing directors or had more than 10 years' experience. So it was a huge talent pool. In some cases these women don't have to work, so you have people who are really driven."

Employers are having to adopt a more realistic approach, McCracken believes, with labour surveys predicting that in five years more than half of all senior and middle managers and business leaders will be women.

"I know of an engineering firm that implemented a 7.30am-4pm day, with a half-day on Friday, to facilitate families. They were a bit worried they were going to lose business, but it has had no negative effect."

A growing number of men have been coming to her company looking for project work. They have sat down with their partners and looked at the figures where a mother is the higher earner. "Five guys in the past three weeks have come to me looking for part-time work."

She believes that people should stand up and look for family-friendly working arrangements. "Be that trail blazer - if the answer is no, then there are always options elsewhere."

McCracken now does the school and creche run for her daughters, seven-year-old Zoe and three-year-old Amy, in the mornings; she is back in her home office at 8.30am. She works until 4pm, then has four hours with the children for the homework, meal, bath, book and bed part of the day. "I have control over the times of my meetings, and location is key." When the girls are asleep, she can go back to her computer if there is something that needs finishing.

"Careers have to be capable of being scaled up and scaled down," she says. "Work is a very important part of who we are." She believes that working parents are productive workers because of the demands of their home life. At a recent party she met a friend who is going back to work after her first baby. "She said she is not going to be able to read the paper for 15 minutes in the morning or go for a half-hour cup of tea at 11am. She will be working to get out of the office at 4.30pm, so it's a big change.", 01-4954891

Rachel McDonnell

Mother of triplets

When Rachel McDonnell started bleeding in the early stages of pregnancy, she assumed she was having a miscarriage, but then a scan showed two healthy heartbeats. "My first thought was: Oh my God; I'm not going to be able to afford a creche for two kids." She was sent home to rest. At another scan, a few weeks later, she was told it was not twins. She sent her husband, Declan, a text message he is likely to remember for the rest of his life. "It's not twins. It's triplets," it read. What followed was a complicated and anxious wait. At 25 weeks she almost went into labour. She spent the final 14 weeks of the pregnancy on the couch, day and night, because she was too uncomfortable to sleep in her bed.

When Ciara, Ruth and Aaron were born, by emergency Caesarian section, a family support system swung into place. "My mam slept in the house for six weeks." Luckily, both her family and her in-laws live nearby. "They wouldn't feed together, and while they were a good weight for triplets they were under 2.3kg (5lbs). It took an hour to feed each child, and then you would start again. We constantly had six bottles in the steriliser." Time passed in a blur. "I got quite bad postnatal depression. It was like drifting along on a wave, going from having no children to having three babies. But you just get used to it, and I had so much support." Her mother, sister and GP helped her through the toughest stage.

A cousin who also had triplets warned her about another feature of her new life: questions from strangers. "One day, in the Blanchardstown Centre, I counted the number of times people asked me about them. I was stopped 55 times. Every two steps it would be the same questions. 'Were they natural?' And 'What weight are they?' At one stage I thought: I'm going to do up a leaflet."

It is easier now the children are older. Now they are aged two and a half, people assume the girls are twins and Aaron is their older brother.

For a while McDonnell felt her life was over. Her job as an accountant was on hold, and she could not leave the house unless she had another adult to help. "I can't get out on my own with the three of them. When it comes to the toddler group I have to have someone with them."

Pressures about feeding have eased. The children now eat independently, causing a terrific mess, but without the intensity of bottle-feeding small infants. The toddler stage has brought its own challenges. "When they fight over everything, it's not like you can say to one of them: 'You're the older one.' "

McDonnell's parents mind the triplets two days a week, when she works part-time. "When I get into work it's grand. But it's trying to keep everything else up to date . . . Financially, I have to do it, and I think it's good. It took me a long time to qualify, and I suppose I have the best of both worlds."

The triplets' babyhood has flown by, and each child has become an individual. "I tend to call them the triplets, but I try to stop myself. When they go to school I'm determined they will be in classes on their own rather than put in together. What I'm hoping is that they'll be great company for each other. And later they'll be able to go dancing together and they won't ever be stuck for friends."

Susan Fanning

Staying at home

Susan Fanning had a job she loved with Abhann Productions, one of the companies behind Riverdance, for the first year of the life of her daughter, Alice. "I enjoyed my job, but I didn't like leaving her in the creche." They had planned childcare before the birth, putting Alice's name down for a creche, but Fanning did not realise how difficult it would be to leave her baby and head to the office. "I would be going to work pretending I was fine, even though my eyes were red and puffy from crying. I suppose I always thought that when I got married I would mind my children myself."

Fanning feels that she missed out on some milestones in that first year, when her child was in full-time care. She wonders how many creche staff see babies take first steps but do not tell the parents, so the parents won't feel they have missed something.

She had to be sure to be in her car on the dot of 5.30pm, in order to be able to pick up her daughter on time. If Alice was sick she would have to leave work. Suddenly she could see how difficult it would be to climb the career ladder and meet the demands of parenthood.

When her second child, Daniel, was born, Fanning decided to give up full-time work. Does she miss it? "No, not at all," she says. "I miss my friends, but I love being with my kids." Alice is now five and Daniel is three, so school and playschool duties will begin to take up Fanning's morning hours, at a stage when many mothers consider going back to part-time work.

She is regularly asked when she is going back, but she has no plans to return to paid employment. She is an advocate of making life with small children as sociable as possible, to combat the isolation parents can feel when they leave jobs for life at home. "I joined groups and ran a mother-and-toddler group. I am a member of the tidy towns committee. I also play tennis a couple of times a week when the kids are at school."

There are days when the children are acting up, the rain is coming down and it's not "always fantastic", she says. "But I find it very fulfilling. I know plenty of women who are at home with their kids, and they all seem to be very happy. It's great to have other people in the same situation. You don't have to explain yourself."

Fanning believes weekends are for the family; during the week, when her husband is at work, there are play dates with friends and their children. She would never tell any parent the best way to juggle work and family life, but she feels lucky to have the choice to stay at home. "I was on a good salary, but once you add up childcare for two children, and the other costs, you're spending a huge amount of money to go out to work."

Liz Stafford

Adoptive mum

Liz Stafford remembers the day she and her husband, John, got the photograph of their son and a sheet of paper with his medical information on it. Although she had only these two scraps, she felt the bond from that moment. "I had the same love for him as any mother, except I hadn't met him," she says when she talks about their adoption of Jack.

She stared at the photograph during the weeks ahead, marvelling at how this three-week-old baby was staring right at the camera, alert and inquiring. Two months later they flew with five other couples and a single adoptee to Vietnam and booked into a hotel. The Staffords knew that, when they left, there would be three of them instead of two.

She and John had waited four and a half years to be processed, approved and finally allowed to adopt their baby. Liz got the first sight of him last September, as they in the garden of an orphanage in Lang Son, in northern Vietnam.

"The carers started walking around the garden with babies, and we all said: 'God, aren't they lovely?' Then we realised these might be our babies. And, sure enough, the first one who came out was Jack. I was shaking and trembling. It's overwhelming and you're in tears. You've waited so long, and there's the relief that everything is fine with them."

They spent time with Jack in the hotel, enjoying the early days together without the pressures of being at home. "The transition was easy. He was a very easy and happy baby." The three-week-old in her prized photograph was four months old at this stage, and able to push himself up with his hands when he was lying on his stomach. "He would focus on you from very early on. He was always very alert. Nothing passes by him."

Stafford says they are very lucky to have met Jack's birth parents at the giving-and-receiving (G&R) ceremony, a formal adoption procedure carried out at the orphanage. "In the cases of around nine out of 10 children, their parents do come forward at the G&R to say goodbye and wish them the best."

She sent photographs to his carer at Christmas, and the carer gave them to his birth mother, who sent off a card of thanks to Liz. The Staffords have the birth parents' names and address and want to maintain contact.

Does she feel any different as a mother? "It's very much the same," she says. "You have the overwhelming bond and sense of responsibility." She has taken a year off from her job, between paid and unpaid leave. She has taken Jack to Gymboree sessions and baby-massage classes. Nobody asks, but it is obvious he is adopted, she says. "The reason we chose Vietnam was that the babies are very young and are very healthy."

Lisa Domican

Mother of children with special needs

Lisa Domican says it might have been her training as a sales rep for a wine company that helped her to push harder for services for her two autistic children when they came up against difficulties in the Irish health system.

Domican had worked in sales in the fashion industry, and then for a small boutique wine company in Sydney, Australia, in the 1990s. "I was pretty good at what I was doing. I suppose I was top of my game." When she became pregnant with her eldest son her employer did not want her to leave, so she ended up job-sharing with her husband. Her son, Liam, was often in a bouncer under her desk as she worked.

But things started to go wrong as Liam grew. "I thought I was crap as a mother, because he was not developing as he should have been, not making eye contact or doing what other babies his age were doing. I thought it was because I was just not good enough."

She would look at other children walking and dancing and wonder why her little boy couldn't do the same. "My husband, Bill, was the driving force behind getting a diagnosis. I wanted to give Liam more time. I remember saying: 'I don't want this.' "

Liam was two and a half by the time they had the official diagnosis of autism. "I just remember saying 'I don't want him put in this box' and rebelling against it. I suppose I was so weighed down by the behaviour. But I don't remember having that cataclysmic grief."

She does remember the devastation when her mother suggested that her second child, Grace, needed to be assessed.

When the family moved to Ireland, Liam was almost four and Grace was just two. The authorities "refused to recognise not only Grace's diagnosis but Liam's, too". Domican responded by "kicking in doors". At one centre she was told the waiting list was closed. "I asked them 'how can you close a waiting list?' and I just refused to stand for it."

She was sent from the community health services to autism services. It was there she was told the waiting list was closed. And even before they could get on it, her children needed a psychological assessment to get an autism diagnosis. Eventually, after much persistence, the diagnosis was secured, and both children got places at special schools.

At one point Grace was at school in Rathfarnham, in Dublin, and Liam was in Newtownmountkennedy, 30km away in Co Wicklow, so before the M50 was completed Domican drove over the mountains every day to drop off and pick up her children. Now they attend the same school, 25km from the family home. There is a bus, but it takes up to 90 minutes in the morning rush hour and an hour in the afternoons. "With that much time the kids just shut down." So she drives about 100km a day to drop them off and pick them up.

How does she see herself now? "I'm 100 per cent a mum. But that's a hard role to defend. When two parents have a mortgage, and kids who are developing normally, there's pressure on both parents to get a job." Having children with special needs in one way enables her to resist that pressure and be a full-time mother. "I'm a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, a behavioural therapist. I suppose I was so driven in my professional life, I've applied that to being a parent."

When people ask about her children's future - Liam is now 10 and Grace is eight - she says: "What I see is my hands over my ears. Liam is academically brilliant. If he got the help he needed, intensively, I could see him doing third level. He just doesn't like other kids.

"I see Bill and myself being hands-on parents way beyond the day the kids turn 18," she says. "I think it's easier for mums to just see their children a bit at a time. I find that the dads in the autism movement are much harder hit by the grief. I remember one man saying to me how sad he was that he was never going to walk his daughter down the aisle. He saw this lost future woman. With mothers, I think, it's the bit that they've got now that's enough."

How does she keep going? "It's just adrenalin. I'm very healthy and I'm fit. I've given up coffee, because it was what I used to use to get through. You just have to keep going from the minute they're born."

She writes a blog about life with two autistic children. It is a practical and unsentimental account of her work as a mother. It started as she sat with her daughter, waiting for her to fall asleep. "I would bring up the laptop and sit there chatting away with my friends online or sending e-mails and doing my blog."