Mine was a traditional up-bringing. Both my mother’s side and my father’s side were very large Irish Catholic families. Particularly in my father’s family, motherhood was everything for women. Motherhood was the most important thing a woman could ever do, and motherhood and paid work were seen as mutually exclusive propositions.
From a young age, I was angered by this gender divide. As a girl, I watched the family dynamics on Christmas Day and realized I didn’t want to be one of the women cooking in the kitchen while the men enjoyed themselves and were waited on by their wives, sisters, daughters and mother (my Grandma). I saw the unfairness in the way women and men were treated in my family. I told people I wanted to become a nun, although now I realise that was less because I was inclined to a religious way of life and more because it meant rejecting the wife-and-mother role that otherwise lay ahead of me.
Luckily for me, while my Mother had been a stay-at-home mum throughout my early childhood, she returned to work when I was about twelve years old.
She did this because she had to – the family’s financial situation drove her to it. She was good at it and ultimately she started her own business. Although Mum’s re-entry into the workforce (she had worked after she left school, before I was born) was necessary and kept our family from struggling financially, I could see my Mum was judged by other women within my family for choosing to go back to work. That didn’t bother me. I was proud of my Mum and also could see very clearly how much her work helped the family financially. This, combined with the fact that from a young age I was very competitive and wanted to be the best at everything I did, gave me a strong motivation to find work that I could throw myself into.
Despite having a strong motivation to succeed, it took me a while to find a place to focus my intellectual drive. By the end of high school I had no real sense of what I wanted to be. I completed an Arts degree, but took a year off before finishing because I still couldn’t work out where my future lay. During that year I worked as a volunteer at a human rights organization and as a result of this work (and some incredible people I met) I decided to study law. It became clear, once I started my law degree, that I had found the thing I had been looking for since primary school – something I loved, could throw myself into, and (fortuitously) was good at.
I have now worked in the law for some 16 years, running my own business for just over 10 of those. I have also had two young children as a single mum (just to make life interesting).
But this piece is not about my job or about how I go about balancing work and children. This piece is about an aspect of my job that I realise is very important and yet is not emphasized for women when they are thinking about future career paths.
One of the things I realise, having taken that leap into self-employment, is that women are not often told how deeply satisfying it is to run your own business.
To run your own business is to be in charge of your own working life – to make choices about the work you do and how you do it. That is an incredible thing. And yet it isn’t often emphasised for women as something worthy of their aspirations. The benefits of being your own boss, of being in charge of your destiny, aren’t laid out for young women when they are being given advice about career paths.
As I have become more senior in my role and more financially secure (being able to buy a home and make decisions for my financial future and that of my children) it has brought home to me how important it is to have economic independence and independence in my career decision-making.
A good example of the benefits this freedom brings is how to structure work during pregnancy and in the period immediately after having a baby, and in the years that follow when you have small children to care for.
Each of these phases has its own challenges. When you are pregnant there are likely to be periods of time when you feel very sick or very tired. While some women choose or need to finish up work well ahead of the baby arriving, others choose or need to work right up until the baby arrives. It is an individual thing of course and can vary from pregnancy to pregnancy and within a pregnancy too. So, too, every woman has a different set of challenges and priorities in the immediate post-baby period and in the years after that.
When you run your own business, you have the ability (within reason) to make your own choices about how to structure your work as your pregnancy progresses. In my case, with both of my children I was able to work right up to the day I gave birth, but I chose to work reduced hours as the pregnancy progressed. I worked more at home and took more “paperwork” because at times it was physically hard to be anywhere other than at a desk. I’m not saying it was easy – I had clients and deadlines and various responsibilities to take into account – but you do have the ability to make the big decisions yourself about if and when to reduce your hours, and if and when to stop working before the baby arrives, without another person dictating the parameters to you.
With maternity leave, of course you are not being paid by anyone to be off work. The longer you take off, the less money you will earn that year. Many women consider this to be a big drawback when it comes to starting a business.
But I found this financial limitation was outweighed by the fact it was me making the decision about how long I would take off and how much work (if any) I would take on during my “time off”, and (most importantly) what my return to work would look like.
When I returned to work, I adopted a model from a friend – I returned to work on a part-time basis, working every day but only half days. This gave me and my baby a regular routine and meant I was able to keep up breastfeeding easily. It also meant my clients knew I would be in the office each day, at least for a portion of the day. This model worked really well for me and my baby and it suited my particular way of working. I am not sure many employers would have agreed to it. The real benefit, as I see it, is being about to design your own working life, within certain constraints of course, to suit you. Many friends have told me that upon returning to work with a new baby, their employer dictated the terms of their “part-time” role, often consisting of four days a week (with unpaid work from home in the evenings and on the fifth day). The ability to structure your working life to the unique needs of you and your baby is a significant benefit and something that women should bear in mind when weighing up the merits of working for yourself or remaining an employee.
I recognise the privileged position I am in and the advantages in life that enabled me to make the choices that led me here. Nevertheless, what I would love to emphasise to women and to girls are the benefits of being in business for yourself. The independence it brings, and the freedom that come with that – including when it comes to parenting. In a nutshell – don’t underestimate the value of being your own boss.