'The pay sucks' - Meet women who are balancing self-employment with parenting
Being a work-at-home mother isn't easy but it also brings many rewards. Andrea Mara meets three women who are balancing self-employment with parenting
Working full time, commuting, doing the crèche run, and juggling when kids are sick; while many parents find a rhythm and make it work, for some it can become all too much. It may be down to long hours, frequent travel, having a third child (which anecdotally at least, seems to be a tipping point) or simply seeking balance, but for those parents, setting up a business from home can seem the ideal way to take the pressure off. Is it as daunting as it sounds, or does it provide that elusive perfect balance? Three women who gave up full-time work for self-employment tell their stories.
Aisling Scally worked for an IT consultancy as a Quality Analysis Specialist right up until her third child was born. "It was full-time work, but with none of the perks of a permanent role - I never knew what company I would be contracted out to next, or their working hours. So it was hard to manage childcare around it; my husband had to have flexible working hours to mould around mine."
She realised after her third child was born that it just wasn't sustainable anymore. "There were some days I didn't see the kids at all. I would leave before they got up and would be home past their bedtime. That broke my heart. My eldest also has special needs, and we found we were using all our holiday days to take time off for his medical appointments and therapies, leaving us no time together as a family."
She made the decision not to go back to her full-time role after her third maternity leave, but knew she couldn't afford not to work in some shape or form. "We couldn't live off one salary so it was a worrying few months racking my brain to try and think of some small way to contribute to the household."
As is often the case, her business idea came about organically and unexpectedly. "I made a vintage scrabble tile frame for my family and shared it on social media, and I was bowled over with the reaction. Friends ordered them, then friends of friends, and the business grew into what it is now. I feel unbelievably lucky that I've found my niche." Five years on, her business designing and creating bespoke frames (LoveLetterArts.com) is still going strong.
Aisling works from home while her four children are at school and crèche, and at night when they're in bed. Understandably, that comes with challenges. "It's just me to answer emails, do admin, accounts, resolve customer issues and make the product; it's hard to tend to all sides equally. I think people are so used to dealing with a team, they presume someone is online constantly to answer. Because I work in the morning and look after the kids in the afternoon, I am often up late at night answering emails. So the hours can be long if you let them be. I'm slowly learning to pare back, and that it's all right if I'm not constantly available."
Financially, self-employment is not for the faint-hearted. "The pay sucks!" says Aisling. "By the time I've paid for supplies and stock, paid tax and margined in lost parcels or faulty stock, I earn pennies. I hate to think how much below the minimum wage I earn."
So why does she do it? "I love the creativity it affords me. My head spins constantly with new ideas and colour palettes and I love finally getting to execute a thought I've had in my head for months. I also love the flexibility it gives me. If the kids are sick or my son has an appointment, I can juggle the workload around it. My husband is a huge support and often takes the four kids off at the weekend so I can catch up on work. I am constantly learning new techniques, new skills, new materials. It's never ending, so there is no time to get bored or restless. I can honestly say I love what I do, and I think that's a very, very blessed thing to be able to say and feel."
When she went back to work after her third child was born, Nicola O'Byrne knew she was in danger of burning out. "I was a neonatal nurse in the Coombe Maternity Hospital in Dublin - a very busy NICU with the sickest babies in the country. I loved my job but Health Service cutbacks were brutal - there were more babies and fewer nurses." She wanted to find more flexible work in order to have time with her own children, but also dreamed of specialising in one particular area. "I had a fire inside me to help breastfeeding mothers and babies. I wanted to work in lactation professionally and being a private practice lactation consultant was the best option."
When she first launched her business (breastfeedingsupport.ie) Nicola found it difficult to adjust. "It was very solitary - I was meeting families all day but had no 'work' colleagues. There were very few other private lactation consultants then, and no WhatsApp or Facebook groups. Magicmum was the big online forum - I received great support and enthusiasm there from the breastfeeding community." She also had to learn the practical side of self-employment. "Deciding fees and knowing nothing about business was quite a steep learning curve to put it mildly. They don't teach you that in nursing school!"
The internet has evolved considerably since Nicola started out, and the advent of Facebook and online groups is a huge help to those promoting small businesses and services. "In some ways social media is wonderful but it's also scary," Nicola says. "Nobody shows their true self on social media. When a mother is in dire difficulties breastfeeding she needs someone in front of her helping. But I love Facebook and Instagram - I really enjoy posting about my work and some family stuff, too. There are still a few trolls out there and I try to respond fairly when they offload."
While self-employment can be very challenging, with nobody to fall back on when things go wrong, it can also be enormously fulfilling. "I'm responsible for my own outcomes. I try my best and I stay well informed about breastfeeding research. I still love learning. I set targets each quarter and really enjoy meeting them. I understand the political world of breastfeeding now which means I am very clear about ethics and my limitations around sponsorship."
And of course the huge draw, and the reason she did it in the first place, is it allows her time with her five children. "I love the flexibility it gives, I can work around my kids' schedules and I'm getting much better at time-planning."
So for parents reading, would she recommend self-employment? "Yes, as a second income, it's a wonderful way to work. If we didn't have my husband's steady income it would be very different, with much more pressure. To be honest, when I say work, that's probably not true… my business is my sixth baby. It's now at the 10-year-old stage - I hope that doesn't mean I'm heading for teenage drama!"
Baby Product Designer
Even before her daughter was born, Eimear Fahy knew that her career in fashion buying was no longer what she wanted.
"It was a very demanding job with long hours and a lot of travelling to Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan. I knew it wasn't a career I wanted to stay in once I had children. It was amazing and I learned so much from it and probably wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't worked in buying, but I left it before I had Sofia."
Eimear had always dreamed of starting her own business, and having her daughter proved to be the catalyst. "It was when I was on maternity leave that I set up Accessories4babies. There were a lot of products I needed as a mother that weren't available, so while on maternity leave I combined all my skills in order to research, find and develop my own range of baby products. I wanted to design and develop products that made life easier for parents, were easy to use, and safe."
Eimear set up Accessories4babies and launched her first product 'Buggy Pegs' in April 2016.
Many self-employed parents find that life becomes busier than ever, because they're always 'on' - has this been the case for Eimear?
"Yes, I'd be lying if I said it was easy. There are a lot of late nights and early mornings. When you own your own business, it's hard to switch off, especially at night-time when there are a million things going through your head. Sometimes the work/life balance isn't great and I don't see much of my family and friends. This is something I am going to work on in the future. But it is totally worth it."
And of course self-employment doesn't necessarily mean working while looking after children. Like Aisling, Eimear avails of some childcare. "When Sofia was younger she went to crèche two full days, and now she also does three hours in Montessori three days a week. But I can bring her to ballet and gymnastic classes, drop her to crèche and collect her, read a story to her before she goes to bed. They may seem like little things, but they grow up so fast!"
What to consider before taking the leap
It sounds obvious but do take a hard look at how switching to self-employment will impact your bank account. As Nicola O’Byrne points out, it’s often more feasible if you have a partner with a stable income. You may earn less but also spend less — for example, many self-employed parents work around their children’s school hours, avoiding childcare costs.
If you have a pension, phone, or health insurance through your employer, bear in mind those disappear along with your salary when you become self-employed. On the other hand, there are expenses that can be written off against your new business — an accountant will give you advice on this.
If you work while your children are in school, remember that schools close for about 15 weeks a year, so you’ll need to take time off or book them into camps.
Many self-employed parents work long into the evening after their kids go to bed, and it can be exhausting at times. But if you’re doing something you love, it’s easier than it sounds.
Working alone at home means there’s nobody there for coffee breaks, brainstorming, or venting, and on a cold, grey morning, self-employment can feel lonely. But the internet provides many ready-made networks and there’s always someone online day or night to chat to. Just don’t get sucked down a Facebook rabbit hole.