“I was going to work on two-three hours sleep a night. I lost a stone and a half and at one point. I was so exhausted I completely lost vision in my left eye.” Writer and producer Deborah O’Connor on being a working mum…
Deborah O’Connor, 38, is Head of Factual Development at CPL Productions and mum to Dorothy, three.
Returning to work
“I took a year’s maternity leave from my then job. I went back to work for that company for nine months and then I left for a new job at CPL.
The first three months were gruelling. Babies go to nursery and they get exposed to all these germs that are brilliant for the development of their immune system but not so great when you’ve just gone back to work. We reeled from norovirus to chickenpox with full-on teething hell in between.
My first three months back I was going to work on two-three hours sleep a night. I lost a stone and a half and at one point. I was so exhausted I completely lost vision in my left eye. We have no family nearby and so there was no respite, even on weekends.
On the other hand, it surprised me how much I loved being back at work. I thought I’d struggle (that I’d be rusty or have forgotten how to come up with ideas and write treatments) but if anything I was more confident than I had been before I’d gone on maternity leave.
I left at 5pm to collect Dot from nursery (everyone else in TV finishes at 6pm at the absolute earliest) and they never made me feel bad or weird about having to do this; something I know happens to a lot of working parents in other parts of the television industry.
“She has a meltdown because she wants to wear a ‘swishy dress’ and I have dressed her in shorts and a t-shirt. She takes the clothes off. We argue”
An average working day
Workday mornings are a fairly stressful, military-like operation. We all need to be out of the house by 8am at the latest. My alarm goes off at 6.30am but is often unnecessary as we have a human alarm in the shape of Dorothy who wanders into our room anytime from 6am onwards.
In theory the morning works like this: I shower at 6.30am, brush my teeth, apply make-up and get dressed, leave my hair to dry while my husband entertains Dot.
At 7am we switch. He showers, I take Dot downstairs, get her dressed, braid her hair, chop her fruit to eat. I also unload the dishwasher, feed the cats, put in or hang out washing to dry.
My husband comes downstairs and I go upstairs to dry my hair, finish getting ready. Then I come back down, get Dot’s shoes on, make sure she brushes her teeth and put her coat on. We all leave the house.
In reality, it’s quite different. This morning, for example, I had my shower and got dressed. Dot came upstairs dressed in a tutu and bunny ears. She had wet the bed (the fancy dress was meant to be a distraction – she does not like wetting the bed).
I strip her sheets and pyjamas and put them in the wash and get her dressed. She has a meltdown because she wants to wear a ‘swishy dress’ and I have dressed her in shorts and a t-shirt. She takes the clothes off. We argue. I persuade her to put them on again.
We get downstairs. Dot discovers a magazine we bought her yesterday and starts crying and begging for scissors and paint so that she can cut out and make one of the masks inside. I promise her she can have them if she eats her cornflakes.
I brush Dot’s hair, put it into bunches and put her trainers on. I chop her some oranges and strawberries and make sure she drinks something. I take the wet bed sheets out of the washing machine and hang them on the line – they need to dry today in case there is another bed-wetting incident tonight.
“We have no one (family etc) to pick up the slack, so one of us has to pick up or drop off Dot at nursery no matter what the demands of work or illness”
Our system – when it works – involves my husband doing drop-offs in the morning, so I can get to work for 8.30am and I do pick-ups. Nursery finishes at 6pm so I leave work at 5pm prompt every day to travel from Covent Garden to Leytonstone. I usually get there for 5.45pm.
By the time I get her home it’s usually 6.20pm. I get her a snack and a drink and do a few chores (feed the cats, washing, dishwasher) and then try to have her in the bath for 6.45pm.
My husband works later, as he starts later, and so I tend to do bath and bedtime alone. After stories and cuddles she’s usually asleep by 7.30pm at the latest. My husband is usually home by 8pm. We cook dinner, eat and then we’re usually in bed by 10pm.
The cost of childcare
The cost of childcare in London is pretty extreme… it’s a lot easier once you get your 15 hours a week from the government but it’s still a sizeable line in our monthly outgoings and the cost of childcare definitely makes having a second child prohibitive (for us, at least).
Logistically it works for us but there are big caveats to that – it only works for us because I have such a great employer who respects and supports the shape of my working day and week. Without this my life would be a lot more difficult.
We have no one (family etc) to pick up the slack, so one of us has to pick up or drop off Dot at nursery no matter what the demands of work or illness. So a late work meeting or a foreign trip takes a LOT of planning and shuffling around of arrangements.
Striking a balance
I do enjoy being at work and I cannot imagine being a full-time mum. I need to feel creatively fulfilled to be happy and being purely at home would not give me this.
On the other hand, I love time with my daughter. I’m lucky – I feel like, right now, I have the best of both worlds. I get to work three days and then I have four whole days with daughter and I get to see her every night and every morning (something lots of working parents do not get to do).
I have a bottom line and I don’t apologise for it – I leave at 5pm, I can’t work Thursdays and Fridays. And I’m really, really good at my job. Employers can take or leave that and my employer not only chooses to take it, but also supports me whole-heartedly.
To other working mums…
There is no ‘one size fits all’ perfect working arrangement. You might be both happy working full time or you might be happy with one of you at home full-time. Just don’t be scared to experiment with different arrangements or talk to your employer about changing the shape of your working week.
Think about everything you do before you even leave the house – getting yourself and others fed, dressed and prepared for the day, reading What The Ladybird Heard at the same as applying mascara and replying to an important email – superheroes we are, bloody superheroes.”
Since first publishing this article, in August 2015, Deborah O’Connor has become a published author. Check out her psychological thriller My Husband’s Son on Amazon.