On the double: High-profile people who juggle work with children 

On the double: High-profile people who juggle work with children 
Tommy Martin, journalist and broadcaster, with his son James as he works from home. Picture: Moya Nolan

IT’S the most modern of dilemmas – how to manage work video calls while also caring for your children. “It’s an accident waiting to happen,” says Virgin Media’s Tommy Martin. He is only too aware of the potential pitfalls.

At the start of the lockdown, just after the schools closed, the Ireland AM presenter was reviewing the Sunday papers for Newstalk’s Off the Ball show, which is now streamed on their social channels. “Usually you’re in the studio, chatting with the presenter Joe Molloy and going through the papers, but for the first time, it was via video call. I was sitting at my kitchen table with the newspapers spread out in front of me.”

Martin’s wife had taken their two children, James (nine) and his sister Isla (seven) out for a walk during the broadcast. She arrived home just before his slot was finished and tried to hurry them upstairs.

“My daughter managed to escape her clutches. I think she was genuinely curious as to what daddy was doing and why he was talking in a really weird, serious voice to his laptop.”

He was in the middle of making a point when his daughter wandered into shot. He says anyone watching the clip can see the moment where “I stop being Mr Broadcaster and start being Mr Dad. At first, I’m kind of trying to sort of scold her with my eyes, trying to encourage her to go away, and then I start smiling. Then she realises she’s on screen and she dashes away, getting all shy. It was only a split second, but in that split second, my brain couldn’t function.”

He realised afterwards when your work self – “the one you’re projecting, a bit of an act” – gets interrupted by real life, “it sort of collapses. I had to apologise and say I couldn’t remember what I was saying. It was that real breakdown of whatever role you’re trying to play.”

It is the thought of such breakdown that worries Gillian Laffan. The president of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association is also the mother of six-year-old triplets. “I almost die when the door opens and the kids barge in. It’s really mortifying when it happens because you just don’t know what they are going to say,” she says.

President of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Gillian Laffan with her children.
President of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Gillian Laffan with her children.

Laffan works as business operations manager at pharmaceutical company Pfizer and she says that although the company is very family friendly and appreciates the difficulties working parents face, she finds the current situation difficult. One day, her son had fallen off his bike minutes before an important work call was due to start. She found herself saying: “I know that’s terrible, I know you’re hurt but I have to go on this call.”

She felt awful and then, a few minutes later, the same child came in to get his iPad charger so he could send an email to his grandad. “We were just about to start with the full audience of 300 people so it was very stressful.”

WALK-ON PART

“Most of us feel our children are sometimes badly behaved,” says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley.

“It’s very interesting how much women seem to do parent guilt and I think it’s really admirable that men don’t seem to do it as much, they don’t seem to feel as guilty. As a result, they don’t tie themselves up in knots as much. And I think it’s really important that women start to learn from that and start rejecting the guilt because we’re all in it.”

A case in point happened recently when the broadcast of Sky News’s foreign affairs editor Deborah Haynes was interrupted by her four-year-old son asking for a biscuit. She said she “wanted the ground to swallow her”. But, afterwards, she was inundated with positive comments from other parents, while the decision by Sky News to abruptly cut her broadcast was widely criticised.

On the same day, the BBC’s Christian Fraser continued talking with Dr Clare Wenham when her four-year-old daughter Scarlett entered the room and waved her artwork at the screen.

Martin thinks that the BBC presenter handled the situation very well. “He started engaging with the kid and asking about the picture and she responded back. It was a really nice moment and a real acknowledgement that this is the new normal – our home selves and our work selves are being intermingled and people have to understand that.”

O’Malley says that the difference in tone of the two presenters was striking. “It’s much more progressive to be the presenter who engages with the child.”

Although Clare Wenham has said that she was “mortified”, she also added that “every working parent is having similar things happen. I’m not a hippy, liberal parent but I also think we are not in Victorian times and I don’t believe children should be seen and not heard.”

CHANGING WORLD

The world has certainly changed since Professor Robert Kelly was explaining South Korean politics live on television when his two children made their broadcasting debut. The video of the 2017 incident has since gone viral.

Martin believes the way the story developed was ultimately good for Prof Kelly. “ You tend to like someone more when you get a rounded view that they’re just a normal person facing all the challenges, the joys and the ups and downs that everybody with families do and they’re not just made up very serious talking head on TV.

“This whole experience has been about accommodating strange and unfamiliar things happening and a child wandering into a TV set in the middle of a serious interview is certainly not the weirdest thing that’s been happening in the last few months.”

And sometimes kids are just being mischievous. When Maritn was doing an item on Ireland AM about the challenges of homeschooling, his son James couldn’t resist the urge to speak up after his dad was asked what his children did during the school day. After he said that they went for walks and did sport, James added, ‘and drink wine, of course’.

“I was like, ‘did anyone hear that?’. And, of course, they did.”

Laffan says one of the benefits of the new ways of working is being able to spend more time with her children. But she adds that they don’t want her to work “they ask why do I love my computer more than them?”

She was on a one-to-one call with a senior colleague in New York when “the two boys barged in and they asked him who he was and what does he do and they said we were thinking you should fire mammy because then she could spend all her time with us,” says Laffan, laughing.

WORK PRACTICES

For Stella O’Malley, the change in working practices offers a huge opportunity. “We all, women especially, pretended in the workplace that our children didn’t exist. We rarely mentioned childcare, we tried to cover it up on many levels because it was seen as unprofessional. And, finally, now, it’s not unprofessional, it’s a fact of life.”

She says that it’s noticeable that in many households, women have taken on a good deal more of the childcare and domestic duties. “For the first time, the stark unfairness of women taking the emotional burden has been revealed.”

If your organisation isn’t truly family friendly, says O’Malley, there is an opportunity for employees to group together and say how it can be improved.

Up to now, many companies paid lip service to the notion of a family-friendly workplace, but now “we have a real opportunity to push it,” she says.

It doesn’t make sense, she adds, if people feel bad because their children are behaving like children.

“It turns out that we have to make the workplace friendly to the family.”

NEW NORMAL 

As far as Morning Ireland’s Audrey Carville is concerned, her five-year-old labrador Pal is more likely to interrupt her while she presents the country’s most popular radio programme than her 11-year-old daughter Lucy.

Carville and her husband, fellow Morning Ireland presenter, Gavin Jennings, have been broadcasting from the couple’s spare room since early March. But Lucy has been used to her mother working from home almost her entire life because Carville also presents programmes for the BBC.

RTÉ broadcaster Audrey Carville. 
RTÉ broadcaster Audrey Carville. 

“When she came of an age where she might have been able to wander in, she always knew not to,” says Carville. “I was always explaining to her that I was working and couldn’t be interrupted. She’s 11 now, so she perfectly understands what’s happening and she realises the extraordinary situation we’re living in.

“She brings me in a cup of tea every now and again, so that’s really nice.”

The family refer to their spare room as ‘the studio’ and Lucy made a sign for the door that reads: ‘Studio: Keep out between the times of 7 and 9. Parents working’.

“It’s better than any red light,” says Carville.

However, Pal is not quite as considerate as Lucy. “Even though there’s been a long-standing rule that the sitting room door remains closed, it invariably is left open and Pal will take her chance at freedom and wander up the stairs and come in for a nuzzle and a look around to see what’s going on.”

She’s been in the middle of an interview a couple of times when she’s felt a nudge on her knee, as Pal comes in for a cuddle. “I have a momentary panic but then I return to what I’m doing and once it’s over, I just shoo her out the door and down the stairs.”

Although working from home has been a revelation, Carville adds that “like everybody else, it took us a long time to get to grips with the new situation we were all living and working in, but I always said that we’re very, very grateful that we are able to continue working. We’re so mindful that so many hundreds of thousands of people just couldn’t and still can’t.”

Parents shouldn’t be concerned if their children interrupt a work call, she says. “I would say, ‘own it’, make a virtue, say here’s my child.”

She believes that most people will react like Christian Fraser, the BBC broadcaster who has been widely praised for chatting to four-year-old Scarlett when she interrupted her mother’s TV interview.

Fraser, who is a friend of hers, handled the situation perfectly, she says. “He’s a dad himself so he got it right away. He completely normalised it and it was all just very naturally done.”

Such interruptions are a very human thing to happen in this new reality we’re living in, says Carville.

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