Work and family: A question of balance

Jen Hogan says the pros of parental leave — more time with the family — tend to outweigh the cons — less take-home pay.

Many working parents will have noted with interest recent proposals to extend parental leave from 18 to 26 weeks. 

While grumblings continue that this leave remains unpaid, there are plenty who would welcome an extension, irrespective of the unpaid element, just so they can maintain a better work/life balance.

I am one such parent. I have used this leave in many different ways, from shortening my workday, to extending time off after maternity leave, to covering the many school holidays. 

Although the financial implications of unpaid leave are difficult to bear, the cost of my childcare needs would exceed my loss in wage. For me parental leave has been a work/life balance saviour.

There is a lot of focus placed on the period after maternity leave when mothers often struggle to leave a young child in the care of others. Extended maternity leave, itself unpaid, often sees mothers needing to return to the workforce sooner than they might like. 

I, like many parents I imagine, thought juggling work with family life would get easier as my children got older. Certainly the return of a full night’s sleep helped, but new demands crept in once the children reached school-age.

Creche-based childcare quickly lost its appeal for “big boys and big girls” and costly summer camps became viewed as something the children had to do, rather than wanted to do. 

It was the summer after all, why couldn’t they just “hang out at home?”

The fact that my family is larger than your typical-sized Irish family meant my hand was forced either way — finding a childminder prepared to take care of them all was always unlikely, and even had I managed to, chances are I couldn’t have afforded her.

But the school holidays were not the only issue. There was homework to be supervised, afterschool activity runs to do and a desire to be at home more with my younger children.

It’s not all idyllic — there is still a need for childcare for my youngest two, which must be paid from a reduced wage, and there’s a feeling that I am neither fully committed to my role as either employee or parent. 

I am here for the morning chaos before school begins and arrive home to evidence of that chaos in the shape of a house that looks as though it has been turned over in the efforts to get out the door. 

I have no lunch-break and am straight into mammy-duties as soon as I walk in the door.

My older children often forget I’ve been to work at all. But in saying that I am incredibly grateful that parental leave has allowed me to find a balance that works for my family, (albeit stressful sometimes), in spite of our numbers.

Eoin Kelly is a father of three children, aged 9, 7 and 3, and a public sector worker. He has availed of parental leave since his eldest was nine months old. 

L-R: Ailbhe, Megan, (Wife) Lesley, Maya on Lesley's knee and Eoin Kelly

“I have found parental leave to be really good,” he says. “It allows me to spend more time with my family, as opposed to in the office.

“I am home three days and in work four days per week when I take it.”

“I take it to spend time with my children,” he explains. “They get big so quickly that not taking the opportunity to spend extra time with them seemed a bit daft. 

"We could afford the pay-cut by factoring in the reduced crèche fees too initially. 

"Taking parental leave has given me the opportunity to get involved in their school life, to spend time at home doing homework, to give the kids more time at home than in crèche.”

Eoin says his employer has been very supportive. 

“The first time I requested it, my manager said that it was routinely approved for mothers so he couldn’t see any reason for the same not to apply for fathers.”

When it comes to concerns about the impact on career progression for the parent availing of leave, Eoin believes this is difficult to address. 

“My career hasn’t progressed,” he admits, “but that is more down to lack of promotional opportunities within my organisation due to the recession etc.

To be honest if it was a case that my career progressed more slowly because of taking parental leave I would still do it anyway. I’m pretty sure the kids will remember the Friday afternoons at the beach with dad a lot better than the celebrations when dad got a promotion.

Eoin accepts it’s not always so straightforward.

“It’s a 20% pay-cut for me. That does make a difference and has to be considered. If you can’t afford it, you can’t take it.”

Referring to men applying for parental leave he adds, “if the workplace culture does not value family then it may be more difficult for a man to request parental leave. 

"We’re very lucky in the public service that we have the policies in place to allow this sort of time off and often a culture to match.

“In my position there is no cover for the time I am off. As a result you still have the same workload, you just have to get it done in a shorter timeframe. This can bring its own issue with longer days when you are there and still having to deal with the pay-cut.”

Sarah O’Toole is a private sector worker and mum to Finn, aged 18 months. She uses parental leave to work a four-day week agreeing to a degree of flexibility should she be required to work a particular day.

Sarah O'Toole and her son Finn O'Toole

“My son is at the real fun stage where he’s learning something new every day,” Sarah says. “The extra day is amazing for both me and him and his development. 

"It also gives me more prep time for meals and other stuff so that I’m not running around like a lunatic every evening after bed-time.”

With regards to career fallout, Sarah says: “There is always the thought that something negative may come out of it as I feel like I’m choosing one over the other, but everyone who has families understands why these choices are made.

“I think the proposal to extend parental leave to 26 weeks is amazing. At the end of the day it’s not costing the company anything, financially speaking, as it is unpaid. 

"What the company gains in happy employees makes up for any missed days. Being a happy mum makes me more efficient in the home and in work.”

Kevin Dillon works in the financial sector and says that the proposed extension of parental leave entitlement will make no difference to him. 

“As a single income household, taking additional unpaid time off wouldn’t really be an option in terms of paying the bills,” he says.

He wouldn’t fear that availing of parental leave would have an impact on his career progression though. 

“I’ve been in my job long enough that it wouldn’t restrict or damage my career but I can definitely see how someone new in a job could have those fears,” he says.

As for what seems to be a female gender-heavy tendency to avail of parental leave, Kevin feels this lies in the fact that “the traditional family model of the men being the breadwinner is still fairly prevalent in most people’s minds. 

"I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but I suspect this mindset still dictates how most households deal with this issue if it arises.”

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