'It's grief," my friend told me bluntly. "You're grieving." It was the last two weeks of my maternity leave, and I could not stop crying. Every day was a constant battle just to maintain equilibrium.
This latest bout of tears was brought on by the thought that I would no longer be the person bringing my daughter for an afternoon walk or drive to ensure that elusive third nap. I'd come to love the walks - the drives I could take or leave. Now, faced with the reality of leaving her all day, every 'last' had become heartbreaking.
I love my work. Even if I won the Lotto, I'd probably still do it in some shape or form. And Sarah, my daughter, who was then nine months old, was to be minded by my parents, who live five minutes away. So, for her, the transition would be very easy, and I knew that she would be in the best possible hands.
But I was absolutely heartbroken at the idea of leaving her all day, five days a week. It seemed surreal. To suddenly go from spending almost all day, every day together, to being gone from eight in the morning until after five. To not be the one who knew the minutiae of her day; exactly what she'd eaten, how long she'd slept for, what kind of form she was in. And to potentially miss all those firsts - stand, step, walk, word - I made my parents swear not tell me if she did any of these when I was at work, so that I could believe the first one of each that I witnessed was, in fact, the actual first.
Having a baby seemed so hugely satisfying, but exhaustively all-consuming at the start. Just about manageable, if I could devote my entire life to it. How on earth was I going to manage to do that and hold down a job?
"I was the same," my friend assured me when I rang to confide in her that I could barely stop crying. She described walking around Dundrum Town Centre, the week before her return, in a seething rage of resentment at the sight of other mothers and their babies. Did it get easier when you actually went back, I wondered?
There was a long pause. I had called this friend in particular because I knew she would give me a truthful answer. "Well, getting out the door in the morning gets easier," she conceded. Ask any woman, and they will tell you something different about how they found the return to work. I took to obsessively asking friends, colleagues and relatives how they coped. Some burst into a soliloquy at how wonderful it was - the break from the never-ending cycle of naps and nappies, the uninterrupted coffees, the adult conversation, the stimulation of work. Some adopted a thousand-yard stare and muttered something about it getting easier over time.
Others confessed that they would love to cut back to a three-day week but wanted to buy a bigger house first, so were hanging on in there. One told me it was the unhappiest time of her life. Some felt deeply resentful that they were forced to give up breastfeeding - or, just as stressful, that they had to get up at five in the morning to express milk. One described sitting in a private room in her office, provided by HR, silently sobbing while she pumped milk. Another recalled how she would get home exhausted, and clock-watch for bedtime to arrive, while riddled with guilt at wishing away the precious few hours she had with her son.
There was crying at the creche door for a month from both mother and baby. Lying about sick days to be able to stay at home and comfort an unwell child. Watching in devastation as an upset baby reached for the childminder.
Some were lucky; their workplaces were sympathetic, their bosses were easy about them working from home if a child got sick, or even insisting on them taking time off when things seemed overwhelming. Others struggled with now always being the first out the door, and all recounted a new ability to burn efficiently through their work, no longer indulging in non-work-related social-media browsing, or leisurely lunches away from the desk.
How you feel about going back to work is a totally random thing that you can never predict until you're in the situation. It's not something you choose. In fact, it can completely surprise you.
And so I went back. For the first two weeks, I cried every morning and every evening. If someone asked me anything about Sarah, I couldn't really answer for fear of tears. And yes, I did go to the bathroom in work and cry. I banned my parents from sending pictures or videos. Right now, I pack a weekly little suitcase of clothes for her to take to my parents, and a daily lunchbox, which is a little bit heartbreaking. She's been sick on and off since I went back, and I've had to go back into the office the day after a midnight trip to Temple Street Hospital - media is deadline-driven and doesn't really allow for impromptu days off. It also requires long hours. Where before I could come in early and leave late, now I'm in the office strictly for the hours required. I take taxis to and from work - I live 15 minutes away, so this isn't quite the extravagance it might seem - so as to maximise the time I have with her. But I work from home most evenings to make up the overtime I would have previously done at my desk.
Life is mostly home and work, as it is for most of the women I interviewed; for the moment, any social life has gone largely by the wayside. I'm told it will get easier; the first few months are brutal, seems to be the consensus. With that in mind, and in the hope of gaining a bit of 'how to' perspective, I spoke to these eight women who are so successfully pulling it off.
'My work is completely unpredictable': Lucinda Creighton, mother to Gwendolyn (15 months). Photo: Tony Gavin.
My work is completely unpredictable, so it's about trying to balance my work around the baby, and also trying to balance the baby around the work. I had an emergency C-section, which is debilitating, and I had an allergic reaction to the stitches. I can't even describe the pain. For about three weeks, I couldn't leave the house. And as soon as I got over that I was back in the office. First for half-days; very quickly, back to work full-time.
I'm a workaholic. When we're on holidays, I always have my phone. I would have been more stressed out if I wasn't on top of work stuff. But it was hard, and the sleep deprivation makes it even harder. She started sleeping through the night fairly quickly. But then, when she got to four months, she started waking up all the time. Now it's fine again.
I left Fine Gael in July 2013 and I had Gwendolyn in March 2014. I was a couple of weeks pregnant [when I left], but I didn't know. It wouldn't have made a difference to my decision, not at all. But it was funny, well, it was ironic; the rumour that they put around about me, which I just found really offensive, was that I wanted an excuse to leave government because I was pregnant. If I wanted to leave government because I was pregnant, I'd just say so. Why would I make up a big controversy? But then, as it transpired, I was.
I try not to have early morning meetings. Myself and Paul will give her breakfast. If I'm busy in the evening, I might pick her up from the creche. We have an au pair as well. I might collect her, bring her home, give her dinner, and then I'll go back into work.
Sometimes if I'm in Brussels, or if I'm visiting two or three constituencies in another part of the country, I might overnight for a night or two. But Paul would be at home then. I miss her. It's funny, when you don't have kids, and you hear about people missing their babies, you almost think they're making that up. Like, 'Oh God, it's only a night or whatever'. But you really do; it's just an instinctive, natural thing.
I think the guilt is inevitable. Especially as she gets older and she knows that I'm going. So in the mornings, she cries when I leave. She hates it. That makes me guilty. She forgets two seconds later.
I found those early months really hard. When you look at other people's babies you think that they sleep all the time. My experience was the complete opposite. She didn't sleep at all during the day. She was a very, very alert baby. I would be trying to get stuff done on my iPad, get work done. She wasn't into that at all. That was a bit of a shock to me, that you really do have to give them your undivided attention. And it's all-consuming. And it's emotionally tiring as well as physically tiring.
I do remember lying on my bed at four o'clock in the morning, crying with the pain after I'd had the section, and the baby crying, and feeling really frustrated because I couldn't lift her. Those few weeks after I had her were really tough. I couldn't be at home on my own with her. I was in excruciating pain. It was just awful. So that was kind of my bad period, really.
I physically felt so much better then when I was out and about; I felt great. And even coming into work, I was quite happy to come in, and was enjoying it.
Sports reporter, UTV Ireland, mother to Timmy (three) and Billy (one)
Marie Crowe, sports reporter, UTV Ireland, mother to Timmy (three) and Billy (one)
I joined the station when I was on maternity leave, having previously worked for the Sunday Independent. Billy was six months old. When I started, I was a print journalist. So, in UTV Ireland I was starting a brand-new job as a video journalist - learning how to edit and to operate a camera.
I got an au pair because the hours weren't nine to five, Monday to Friday. Some days it's day shifts, 10am-7pm, other times it is 1pm-11pm. And the au pair has worked out really well.
I went back to work after seven weeks the first time with Timmy, and that was, at times, very tough, but I have good support. It was in the summer, and my husband is a teacher. Once I knew my husband was there, I didn't have to worry about there being nappies or food; he looked after everything brilliantly - except getting up at night.
I'm seven months in this new job. I'm really happy now, I feel like the tricky bit is over.
Life is fairly hectic. My husband and I are both involved in sports. You can only do so many things. You can have a job, have a hobby and have your kids, but social life can suffer. Our nights out are now days out, and they usually involve going to matches and dinner afterwards.
When I leave in the mornings for work, I'm in the work zone. And then when I'm at home, I'm in the home zone.
I love being a working mum. If I have to do something, I'll just find a way. Recently, I had to go to a Munster rugby press conference in Limerick. My au pair was sick. I left a half an hour early, dropped the kids to my mum in Clare, went and did my work, picked up the kids, and drove back to Dublin. The other option was to ring and say, 'I can't do it', but that's not the type of person I am.
There are times when I'm tired and I want to go to bed early. I'll bring the boys to bed with me and we'll put on a movie on the iPad.
I'm lucky that I have had understanding bosses. With the Sunday Independent, my boss had two small kids, and he understood that sometimes I might need to work from home or rush off early. If a boss can recognise that, then you're going to be more productive. In UTV Ireland the two bosses are women, and they understand. Sometimes they'll come up and ask me how the kids are. They've walked the path before in media, and it's great for me to see that.
I've made this choice. I want to be successful in my career. I know that the kids are happy. I'm happy. I love my job. And then when I go home in the evening and at the weekend, I'm there with them and we have great fun. And having that peace of mind when I get up in the morning makes everything OK.
PMO services manager, Accenture Global Operations Support, mother to Charlotte Rose (nine months)
Siobhan O'Dowd, PMO services manager, Accenture Global Operations Support, mother to Charlotte Rose (nine months)
I'm a project manager. The projects I work on tend to be large-scale global projects. Being in a global role means there's a lot of flexibility. My husband is on a training scheme to be an orthopaedic surgeon, so there's a lot of moving around. I'm generally up in Dublin one to two days every two weeks. And I work from home the rest of the time. Because most of the people I work with are either in the States or Argentina or India, it means that the mornings tend to be fairly flexible, timewise. I'm not under pressure to be up at seven, and have the baby in the childminder at 7.30. The flip side of that is that I can be on calls later into the evening.
I found it a big change living in Westport, being a mammy. So I really did want to go back [to work]. And we found a really good minder.
Having gone from being the first one in, last one out, putting the hand up for the extra work, that kind of stuff, you're like, 'OK, I'm going to have to recalibrate that'. So I wasn't quite sure what the new normal was going to be.
When you're on maternity leave, it can be quite isolating, in a way. Just being out of your comfort zone, being away from your normal. I felt that I was out of the loop. You think, 'Six months off is huge and everything is going to have changed when I go back', and you have all of those kind of doubts and fears and concerns. How am I going to juggle a baby and a job - essentially two full-time jobs?
I think the most challenging thing is the insecurity of 'will I still be able to do it?' I think before Charlotte, I was quite inefficient in how I worked. Lots of meetings, and logging on late. That was a big concern going back. If you've always been the one to work late, and suddenly you've to stop doing it, you're like, 'Well, am I going to be as productive?'
Work has always been one of - if not the most - important thing I had going on. It's just something that I've always prioritised, and probably been quite defined by. So it really has surprised me, because at five o'clock, I'm really dying to go pick Charlotte Rose up, and between five and eight, I'm putting the foot down, and not taking any calls. You never know how maternal you're going to be, and certainly, going into it, I wasn't earth-mothery at all, and then you just kind of find your way.
Alison Davis, event caterer, mother to Sonny (seven months)
The business was going into the busy season when I found out I was pregnant. I did think, 'God, how will I manage?'. Catering is long hours. It was important for me that people wouldn't think I wasn't able to do as good a job as I would always like to. I didn't really show for a while. I mean, I was 26-27 weeks, and I was doing marquee weddings and the clients didn't actually know.
I didn't lighten up my load as the pregnancy went on. I was really lucky, I wasn't sick at all. You try to delegate more, which is definitely something that I find hard to do. I think it's really hard when it's your baby, it's your business and you set it up.
I got to July and everything was fine, and then enquiries started coming in for November. At that point I was thinking, 'What am I actually going to do?'. Sonny was due on November 14. So I kept just going; I thought, 'I'll just get through the busy season and then I'll make a plan'. I also wanted to look after myself, make sure that everything was going well with the pregnancy, and try to live in the moment.
There was one day where I had a total freak-out. The phone didn't stop ringing and there were more enquiries coming in. My accountant Pat rang and I had a total meltdown on the phone to him. I told him I was going to go down to Dun Laoghaire pier and throw my mobile into the sea. It was absolutely ridiculous. I remember thinking, 'I'll just have to close the business'. And Pat told me to calm down and pull myself together; he gave me a good chat. He said, 'You've got to take somebody on'. Actually, the business was growing anyway, so it was time to get somebody in.
I think I looked at the bigger picture and thought, 'I won't have the traditional maternity leave that other women get, but what I do have is an overall future flexibility that a lot of girls don't have the luxury of'.
I started properly back in February. He was 12 weeks. My mum minds Sonny Monday to Friday. I'm quite lucky - the office is on my parents' road. So I drop him off in the morning around 10. If it's a day of being in the office doing admin, then I might even pop up at lunch to see him. It's great my parents are minding him. You're able to go into work and not really worry. Especially in my job. You never look at your phone when you're on an event. There's absolutely no way I'd be able to do my job if I didn't have my parents' help.
It can be challenging to do it all. To run a business, have a baby, have your social life. You need to be extremely organised. I'd say my friends are like, 'We haven't heard from her'. I do keep in touch, but I feel like I'm constantly saying no to that element of my life. Your time is way more precious. You don't really have any free time.
Co-founder of Along Came A Spider creative agency, mother to Emily (three and a half) and Theo (17 months)
Sarah Colgan, co-founder of Along Came A Spider creative agency, mother to Emily (three and a half) and Theo (17 months)
When I went back after having Emily, I was a television producer. I left for nine months, which was a great luxury, and the same with Theo. After my second maternity leave, that's when Heather Thornton, my business partner, and I set up Along Came A Spider. We develop online campaigns for brands.
It is growing as an agency, and I'm really conscious of creating a culture where there's a flexibility when family or real-life needs crop up. Not just for people with kids. To have the open-mindedness to know that if someone's good, they're going to get the job done well, one way or another.
Obviously, having Emily and Theo is a greater adventure than I could ever have imagined. But I love being a working mother. I am 100pc happier and a better, more fulfilled mom when I'm working. I think as women, we've finally been able to walk through the door to the land of opportunity. But now that we're inside, we have to play to a rule book that was never created with us in mind.
When we were in college it would have been blasphemous to say, 'I don't think women can have it all'. Because we felt that women for generations before us had fought so hard. And I think that when we got out there, our default position was to prove how non-maternal we could be in the workplace. I know that I was guilty of it. I wouldn't talk about my kids in the office, or I'd make up a different reason for having to leave the meeting rather than saying the creche actually closed 10 minutes ago. There is a need women have to prove their commitment by working nights or working weekends because of some internal guilt for having children when they're working. I think that's what I'm struggling with.
Companies are going to have to see the benefits of having a more progressive approach to desk mobility, or working hours.
As a mother, I definitely do not think that women are any less ambitious than men. I know how ambitious I am, and I know how important my career is. And I know that I didn't want to give that up for having children. It's depressing to think that women can't have it all. I think we totally can. But I think the rule book has to change.
My husband David and I are a really strong team and he is incredible with the kids. We have a wonderful creche - both the children are there now - and we also have a superwoman of a nana in the form of Dave's mum. She takes them out to the park every week, takes them swimming every week. So that's a huge support.
Setting up your own business, it's an around-the-clock thing anyway. People kind of think, 'Oh you can choose your own hours', and it's fine. But there's no less work. Actually, I find it's much more in terms of hours and things like that. I wanted to run down to the creche to collect them for this picture, but I haven't been able to escape yet! So the way that I would see it is to try and create that culture where a family need is accepted and is validated.
Textiles designer, mother to Ella Rose (five months)
Jennifer Slattery, textiles designer, mother to Ella Rose (five months). Photo: Kip Carroll
If you thought about it, being self-employed, you wouldn't have a baby. I knew I wanted to have kids, and that's the main thing. The business is my other baby - that's like my first baby. I suppose I felt there'd be a lot of flexibility having your own business.
The day I was due, I was working. I went into labour on the Friday, but I had stuff in my diary for the Monday. I had a trade show to prepare for. It was six days after Ella Rose was born. I wasn't doing it; I had my family doing it. I was at home, setting it out on my kitchen table and taking photos - 'This is how this has to go' - and emailing them. With the baby in the bassinet.
She was born on the Sunday; I had until the Friday or Saturday off. I allowed myself, in my mind, that time that I didn't need to worry about the business. I also allowed myself, in my mind, a soft six weeks. But I mean, I've photos of me, with her in the bed and me on my email. And she was two weeks old. But that was only for an hour. It needed to be done. I enjoyed doing it. I wasn't under pressure.
I had this soft time of six weeks in mind, and then after that I would be back to normal. That didn't really work out too well. I thought at six, seven weeks, I'd be back to my normal capacity. I put myself under massive pressure. By week seven or eight, I decided it was too much. I pulled it back and thought, 'I have to be realistic'. So then I was working, but only when I needed to. A couple of hours a day.
You are on all the time when it's your own business. You learn early on how to not worry. But those worries become massive when you're at home with a baby who is seven or eight weeks old. Because you can't put your whole self into the business, you've other things. You've her to mind. And that becomes really pressurised. I would come down to the studio, and she mightn't sleep the way I thought she was going to sleep. And then I don't get things done, and it's all piling up.
It has made me think I have to work smarter. I'm going to put new focus into my website this year, and my online store. And I'm enjoying the studio space, which was part of the lifestyle I wanted; to be able to walk to work, to bring her in and not be disturbing anybody, because it's my own space.
For more information on Jennifer Slattery Made in Ireland, see jenniferslatterytextiles.com
Jennifer Slattery Made in Ireland is open
Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-4pm, The Old Butcher Studios, 72-74 Benburb St, D7
Denim buyer in Ladieswear, Primark, mother to Ella (14 months)
Jane Redden, denim buyer in Ladieswear, Primark, mother to Ella (14 months). Photo: Kip Carroll.
We operate across eight countries so we do a lot of travel - the likes of Barcelona, Madrid, Paris. And then further afield, the Far East. I'd be lying if I said that it was easy with a child. It's definitely not easy. When I'm travelling, my husband John's support is so important. I'm lucky we're a partnership. Being organised is one of the things I live by. Because if I didn't have that skill set, I'd be in trouble. So as much as the career I do, in terms of buying, is crazy and it's hugely pressurised, I think when you have got support and you are extremely organised, it makes the magic happen.
The person who looks after Ella is my sister-in-law, Leigh. She looks after Ella like one of her own. So for me it really eases my worries. And my mum is amazing. She looks after Ella when she can.
I love my job. And I'm really, really lucky and grateful to be here. Of course I was nervous coming back. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel guilty. They're yours and you're leaving them. But I definitely felt like I lost a bit of me when I was off. My work is really social; I love people. And that's such a huge part of my career and what I do. Being at home with Ella for seven months was unbeatable. I wouldn't change it for the world, and she's everything to me. But it was time to be me again, and I felt like I needed to come back and focus on my career. I've worked really hard to get to where I've got. We do the best that we can do as mothers. And I think it's right to do something that's right for us as well.
John looks after Ella in the morning. I would get up about six. We have a bit of play time. I get into work for half seven. I leave the office for about half four, and Leigh drops her home at six.
We have an hour in the evenings, which is priceless. The first week back, it was an emotional rollercoaster. Generally speaking, I don't cry easily. Leigh was coming to pick up Ella, and John had to take her from me. I was in bits. Cried my eyes out. Look, it's the hardest and best thing you'll ever do. You're leaving your child, who is yours. And who you've had seven months of every single second of every single day with.
In the Dublin office of Primark, 75pc of employees are female, so it's good to feel supported by the management team. It feels possible to grow and develop within the business structure here, irrespective of being a new mum. There's even a mother-and-baby room for breastfeeding mums, which I think is really progressive.
Coming back to work is difficult in terms of social life. That tends to go by the wayside. So a lot of tag-teaming, husband and wife tag-teaming - your turn and then my turn.
Jane's and Ella's clothes, all from Primark
Model and retail consultant, mother to Jude (three) and Robyn (seven months)
Sarah McGovern, model and retail consultant, mother to Jude (three) and Robyn (seven months). Photo: Kip Carroll.
At the moment, modelling is my main job. And I work with several fashion brands on the wholesale-selling side. The beauty of modelling is that you don't have to do a full nine-to-five day. I'm very lucky that the job allows me to not have to have them in full-time creche. But then the downside is you're juggling. As much as some days I go, 'Oh, this is great - I'm off and I have the kids and we can go off and do whatever we want'. Then the next day I'll get a call and I'll need to run and do a job and it's, 'Who's going to mind them today?' We started a few creche days, just to give a little bit of stability.
Work bleeds into everything. I love the modelling - you just go do your job and you come home again. And you don't have to think anymore about it, apart from doing your nails or your tan. But working in wholesale selling, you're sitting down when the kids go to bed at night, sending off your orders; when they're down for a nap, you're making a phone call. Or you're in the playground, and a customer calls you. And that can be a little mental.
And you're always feeling guilty. I had to work the last two days, and I haven't seen the kids at all, I haven't even been able to put them to bed. And if I was at home full-time, I'd feel guilty because I'm giving out to them more. There's never an answer.
I wouldn't be able to do it without my family. And I have a babysitter as well. A lot of the time the kids came to work with me, when they were babies and they couldn't move - in showrooms, shops, TV3. They still do. I went back to work after three weeks with Jude, and four weeks with Robyn. Because it wasn't nine to five, you could do one or two days, and then a few hours here and there.
With both of them, it hit me after four or five months that I had done too much. After the first wasn't so bad; number two was probably a lot harder because you're trying to juggle a toddler as well. I did have to step back a little bit from work. You do have to look after yourself. I think we all think that we're superwoman. I do think women are incredible multi-taskers. But it's not always a good thing, and it can be to the detriment of your health.
Sarah's dress by Closet, for more information, see theshowroom.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Lucinda Creighton photographed by Tony Gavin
Marie, Siobhan, Alison and Jennifer: Hair and make-up by Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Sarah Colgan: hair by Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400, or see daveydavey.com
Jane: Make-up by Sarah Browne
Marie Crowe photographed at Croke Park Stadium
Sarah Colgan photographed at Windmill Lane, 29 Herbert St, D2, tel: (01) 671-3444
Jane Redden photographed at Primark HQ, Dublin
Sarah McGovern photographed at House, 27 Lower Leeson St, D2, tel: (01) 905-9090