January 25, 2006

Superwoman

Posted in Irish Independent · 10 comments ·
Share 

The other day at about four in the afternoon, while watching my daughter at a swimming lesson, I got chatting to a couple of the other parents in attendance – mainly mothers – at the side of the pool.

My phone rang.

It was a work-related query and I stopped the conversation by saying quite unselfconsciously, “I’m here with my daughter at swimming, I’ll call you back in a minute.” The man at the other end of the phone seemed to understand perfectly. On hearing this, one of the mothers next to me laughed, explaining that she would never say that.

When she is looking after the children and a work-related call comes through, she always tries to pretend she is somewhere high-powered and most definitely not engaged in something as frivolous and as unimportant as being with her children. This little slice of everyday life encapsulates the difference in many employers’ attitudes towards working parents and it evidences the conundrum that many working women face.

When a working man says he is looking after his children at a time when most are working, he is seen as being almost virtuous. He can multi-task, he is prioritising and in tune with his work-life balance. In short, he is to be commended for his actions.

On the other hand, a working mother putting her children first is seen as uncommitted and possibly even work-shy. By being with her children, she signals that her main concern in life is not the bottom line but the clothes line. Many working women are profoundly aware of this and hate themselves for it. It is an insecurity that completely permeates their working day.

(While it is both parents’ responsibility to care for their children, it is usually the working mother, not father, who organises school runs and packed lunches.) Women are constantly trying to juggle being a good worker and a good mother to their kids. It can be difficult to focus on next year’s marketing strategy when the creche has just rung to complain about little Matthew who is biting other children. This dilemma can lead to seething resentment at work, where an early thirties professional mother is working for a fiftysomething company man.

He is from a generation where most mothers did not work and she is from the generation where most mothers have to work. From the perspective of childcare needs at least, she is from Venus and he is from Mars. She frantically and surreptitiously tries to organise after-school or creche timetables, while he strolls around the office taking imaginary swings – playing ‘air-golf’ in the same pathetic way, she thinks, as he plays sweaty ‘air guitar’ at the Christmas party.

What does he know about trying to be Superwoman? After all, his sweet Joan stayed at home to look after his four brats, while he was nobbing around the various committees that double for seniority in this place. What does he know about anything with his “If you don’t put in the hours how can you expect to get on?” or his infuriating quotes from the likes of Gary Player: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
This place is selling photocopiers, for heaven’s sake!

And, how could she be expected to be on top of things today? Her youngest puked all over the creche and was accused of spreading germs to the other snotty three-year-olds. What’s more, her older brother hit another child and she is just off the phone to that supercilious antipodean cow who runs the ‘little langers creche’, or whatever it’s called. All this executed secretively on the phone, hoping no one could hear her when she was supposed to be devising the latest poxy ‘customer satisfaction brochure’ for her boss.

Her head’s splitting with the pain and then the boss – who also has that infuriating habit of staring directly at her tits – announces an urgent meeting at ten to five, with the unforgivable line: “Tidy yourself up, he’s a very important client for the firm, you know.” How does she get out of this? All she can think of is the faces of her two neglected children, last again in the creche, waiting forlornly at the door, coats buttoned up, pining for their useless mammy.

She looks at him, in his cheap, ill-fitting off-the-peg suit, belly protruding, bad shoes, and he talks about tidying up? “Sorry, John”, she says, “I can’t, I’ve something social planned,” trying to sound like Carrie Bradshaw, offhand and glamorous, as if she has a life after work. Then comes the corporate lecture about “weak links in the chain”. She tries to remain calm but something gives, the dreaded out-of-body experience, and she explodes.

The boss realises it is serious and tries to defuse the situation with the no-no of all no-nos: he mentions her ‘time of the month’. Every day of every week, this type of drama plays itself out in offices all over the country. This is what you get when a baby boom, dreadful child care and double income young families collide in what has rapidly become the most expensive country in Europe.

The single most significant change to our labour force in the recent past has been the enormous rise in mothers going out to work. Since the early 1990s, the number of women working has gone up by 149pc. Many came into the workforce when in their late teens and early 20s. They postponed having children until their early thirties, with the result that Ireland now has the oldest mothers in the EU.

On average, Irish mothers are having their first children at 31, as opposed to the EU norm of 29. Over 60pc of these young mothers with children under five work full time. We are also seeing another baby boom – which is the echo of the late 1970s Pope’s Children boom.

All this is compounded by the emergence of a commuter generation – the Kells Angels – who are the young professionals who commute from towns such as Kells because house prices are so ludicrous in Dublin. And all the while, the productive pressures, long hours and office politics are pitting the family against the firm in the great battle for the working parent’s family time and soul. If we want to avoid turning into a Prozac Nation with our working mothers suffering from nervous bre akdowns, we – as a society – have to do something about either child care or more flexible working hours, or ideally both.

The problem is only going to get worse. First, our birth-rate won’t peak for another few years, as the last of the Pope’s Children start to have their own kids. So demand for childcare will increase.

But as more and more Irish women – the traditional bedrock of the childcare industry – opt to go to university and get better educated, the supply of child carers will fall. So what are we to do? Do we import foreigners to look after our kids? In the US – where they work hard – they pay other, poorer women – traditionally from Latin America – to mind their children.

This would mean increasing, not decreasing, immigration of young women. Given the recent evidence that 78pc of us are in favour of tighter, not looser, immigration policies, this might not be a runner. The other avenue is to follow the European model of fewer hours worked and higher taxes to pay for subsidised childcare and longer parental leave. Again, Irish people have shown that when it comes to taxes, we are singularly against raising them.

All parties – even the mainstream Left parties are sticking rigidly to a “no new taxes” mantra. Perhaps employers might cop-on and realise if they want to keep their employees, they have to be much more flexible. The working day should be much more varied, people should be allowed flexi-time and creche facilities in work must become a reality.

Otherwise, as is the case at the moment, many professional women’s careers will not survive the impact of children. Something has to give.

The great economic and social battle of the future in Ireland will not be about left versus right, capitalist versus worker but rather it will pit the two great institutions of the 21st century against each other – the firm against the family. And it will be the sisters manning the ramparts and determining the outcome.


  1. Pete

    My wife is pregnant with our first child, and no matter
    which way we juggle the numbers we’ve realised that we
    just won’t be able to give our child the same standard of
    living as our parents gave us, even with both of us
    working (they did it on one income). So much for progress.
    The killer is, of course, the cost of housing (renting or
    buying), since most other things have actually got cheaper
    in real terms since our parents day.
    Although we’re both Irish, we’re starting to think of
    modern Ireland rather like we think of London – a great
    place to life for a few years when you’re young, get your
    career launched, and go to lots of parties, but not a
    practical place to live long-term.

  2. Christian

    i feel for people with kids, if you are both working and
    almost one entire incoming is paying for child care I say
    ditch one job for 4-6 years and spend the time with child.
    then go back to the work place retrained from your child
    raring & home study break!

    It also dawned on me when I was 21 (6 years ago) that I had
    actually progressed no further than my grand parents
    generation in ways of social & material leverage.

    The 40,50 & 60 somethings (i.e. our grandparents child, our
    mothers & fathers) are seriously devaluing their childrens
    present & future economic mobility, leverage & stability of
    which has been built of bricks and mortar which they got for
    a song at a similar age to the current worker/child
    gnerations, during the 60-80s.

    its a dangerous thing when the parental generations need to
    devour their children to sustain their expectations.

    Interesting. Progress, no. Increased opportunities, yes but
    most depends of many things out of your own control
    (economic winds, quality & access of educational options).

    The Old rules,

    Jobs for life,
    Single income, 1 set of house keys
    Weekends with 2 days off.
    Child friendly society

    The New Rules

    Job instability, multiple jobs over ones life.
    Double income 1 set of house keys
    House Price instability.
    Weekends with 1 day off.
    Child exploitative/penal Society.

    Quality of life is unattainable in a system based on boom &
    bust.

    Imagine applying the mechanics of modern day Ireland in the
    running of the Universe, were for example the Sun demanded
    that all the plants & photo/solar dependant organisms some
    how payed a tax for its service life giving rays, even
    though money is useless to the SUN….ya follow.

    Its all a big cod, cause what they are not telling us its
    all free.We only need to apply our diversity of experience
    to come up with optimum solution & ensure no one is unduly
    restricted to its benefits.

    Politics & Capitalism are like “I Keano”, a theatrical
    performance of questionable nutrition, packed full of empty
    calories trotted out for the sake of the masses so a few can
    dine on bricks and mortar!

    Hopefully we can get down to some REAL work.

  3. Julia

    The obvious issue here is housing – that’s the biggest
    expense that young most married couples face (as anyone
    older than that bought before the boom). A mortgage is no
    longer affordable on one income. And yet the market in
    Ireland is still growing by the day. In the Sunday Times at
    the weekend, the annual property survey showed that prices
    had risen 5% – 15% depending on the area. Clearly people are
    still buying houses and still bankrupting themselves to get
    into an overheated market. All so some property speculators
    and pensioners can get rich off the back of a young
    generaion trying to rear the next generation so that there’s
    an Ireland left to live in in 2050. If the “Pope’s Children”
    would only get sense and stop buying into the ridiculous
    property market in a desperate attempt to afford what they
    cannot then they wouldn’t have this problem of working
    mothers. Prices would fall due to lack of demand and some
    level of equilibrium would return to standards of living. I
    live abroad and every time I go home housing is all people
    of my generation talk about and it has become a manic
    obsession. And now I read that it’s ruining the childhoods
    of a whole new Irish generation because their parents are
    stupid enough to get into debt rather than stop the market
    in its tracks and live sensibly as their parents did. If
    more people were brave enough to make the choice to boycott
    the property market (because I doubt there’s anyone who
    actually wants to pay 1/2 million euros for an
    ex-Corporation 1-bed in the middle of nowhere) and cut down
    on the need for consumer items it would still be affordable
    for families to get by on one income alone. The greed of one
    small group has over-inflated the market and caused misery
    for others. If we had been content from day one to retain a
    modest standard of living like the generations before us,
    the boom wouldn’t have got so out of hand!

  4. Mary

    Hi David
    I really enjoy your articles about modern Ireland. I live
    at present in the UK and just to console you all that it’s
    every bit as bad over here! Two parents are required to
    have a semi-decent standard of living. I think employers
    are more flexible perhaps and the culture is maybe more pro-
    famiy, but the cost of childcare, the cost of a mortgage-
    these issues are the same. It woudl be great to see the
    Irish Government take a lead (as you did with Smoking
    Ban!!) and subsidise childcare properly to encourage
    mothers back to work-my biggest challenge as a mother is
    trying to work with the inflexibility of my childcare, not
    the inflexibility of my job! Oh for a full time nanny!!

    Mary

  5. If you don’t like I KeANO like myself then you don’t follow the crowd. The trouble is that this ‘entertainment’ is the mainstream content purposely designed to cater for the throng. It boils down to the old Irish problem, it is not what you know, its who you know..

  6. ..if you want to do something DIFFERENT. I dont mean BAD. I’m a straight guy myself and am not into drugs or things like that.

  7. maybe my thread belongs to Nation of adults now behaving just like spoilt little children moreso. Sorry!

  8. julie

    shut up u saddos

  9. julie

    u all hav sad fukin lives man lik my fanny hole bitch

  10. julie

    i also lost a baby 2 months ago it killed me inside

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments