Parenthood
The diary of an Office Mum: “How do you do it all?”
"She’s a multi-tasker; she’s super-organised; she takes it in her stride."

Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working in financial services, or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.

“Is this a bad time?” said the voice at the other end of the phone. “No, no, I’m fine, I’m just, um, finishing up some emails here,” I lied, from a kneeling position on the landing floor. With the phone in one hand, and Dettol in the other, I continued to listen, attempting to concentrate on what was being said. I desperately tried to keep my toddler at bay with a silent, pleading stare, as I scrubbed the carpet at the same time. It was poo. Sorry. But it was. Taking a work call while cleaning poo. That’s probably my most inglorious parenting moment so far (so far...)

“How do you do it all?” is a question regularly asked of working mums. And the unspoken answer, for the most part, is: “With a fair bit of help, some nerves, a good chunk of subterfuge, a lot of winging it, and some fluky good luck”.

The woman who glides into work looking groomed and ready to take on the world at 9am often has a whole day’s worth of work behind her; getting the kids ready for crèche/doing the school drop-off/removing baby-spit-up – just a few of the things the average parent does before going into the office. She’s a multi-tasker; she’s super-organised; she takes it in her stride.

But what happens when it all falls apart – when childcare falls through, or a child is sick, or work demands an unplanned trip to the office?

Some women have a stay-at-home partner for support, or one who can drop work easily, or parents who live nearby and are available around the clock.

But many survive those panicked moments by calling on help from anywhere and everywhere, or from whoever just happens to be standing nearest.

Like Ellen, a HR manager, who had to ask her cleaning lady to look after her three children while she went to an unexpected work meeting. “She’d been with us for three years and the kids knew her very well, so I wasn’t worried,” says Ellen, “But still, it’s not ideal!”

The more usual port of call for the desperate parent who has been left in the lurch is of course extended family. When my own childminder was sick for a week some years ago, my sister stepped into the breach, taking time off work to cover one of the days. Which also meant calling into us the night before, to practice driving our car and to be trained on how to put up the buggy. The latter is something that usually requires a three year degree program, so she did well to figure it out in fifteen minutes.

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My dad helped me out another day the same week – minding my toddler inside the house, while I sat in the relatively quiet car to join a conference call. It worked really well actually, except for when the bin truck arrived and left my colleagues on the other end of the line wondering why my office sounded like a construction site.

But work colleagues can be great in an emergency too. When I was on maternity leave, and needed to go into the office at one point, I had nobody to mind my three children. A very kind work friend offered to mind them in her office while I joined a meeting. She brought crayons and colouring books and sweets for them, and they had a fabulous time – which is why they now think that colouring and eating chocolate is what I do all day at work (only half true).

Kate, who works in pharmaceuticals, remembers relying on work colleagues’ patience when she had to bring her three month old baby into the office. She was on maternity leave, so going beyond the call of duty by coming in, but people can forget that quickly when there’s a crying baby in the office.

“She mostly slept in her car seat and it was fine,” says Kate, “But at one stage she woke up and roared because she was hungry. Finding somewhere quiet to feed her, in an open plan office full of slightly embarrassed male co-workers was tough!”

But what do you do if you have no family nearby to help, and you can’t bring the kids into the office? That’s where the nerves and the winging it come in. Risking a conference call while using TV as a babysitter is a gamble but sometimes it’s the only option. Meeting deadlines while minding a small baby is not easy, but when there’s no choice, it’s what you do.

Sandra, who works in Funds, remembers taking an urgent work call just before Christmas. “The three boys were with me and the shop was packed. We were standing in one of the checkout queues that went the whole length of the shop,” she says, “But what could I do? I had to take the call – I didn’t want to let work down.”

HerFamily.ie editor Sive recalls a time when she was working on a magazine as a freelancer for a big fashion brand while her baby had reflux. “I would write emails and content with her in the sling as I bounced her up and down,” she says, “And hoped to God she wouldn’t puke all over the keyboard.” As someone who has vied for keyboard space with the teething toddler on my knee, I can wholeheartedly sympathise.

Working mothers can make it look easy sometimes, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. We’re like swans (but of course) making it all look effortless, while we’re paddling desperately beneath the surface. Remember that, the next time you’re on the other end of the phone to someone who sounds slightly frazzled, and give her some leeway – she might just be cleaning up poo. Sorry.

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