The other day at about four in the afternoon, while watching my daughter at a swimming lesson, I got chatting to a couple of the other parents in attendance – mainly mothers – at the side of the pool.

My phone rang.

It was a work-related query and I stopped the conversation by saying quite unselfconsciously, “I’m here with my daughter at swimming, I’ll call you back in a minute.” The man at the other end of the phone seemed to understand perfectly. On hearing this, one of the mothers next to me laughed, explaining that she would never say that.

When she is looking after the children and a work-related call comes through, she always tries to pretend she is somewhere high-powered and most definitely not engaged in something as frivolous and as unimportant as being with her children. This little slice of everyday life encapsulates the difference in many employers’ attitudes towards working parents and it evidences the conundrum that many working women face.

When a working man says he is looking after his children at a time when most are working, he is seen as being almost virtuous. He can multi-task, he is prioritising and in tune with his work-life balance. In short, he is to be commended for his actions.

On the other hand, a working mother putting her children first is seen as uncommitted and possibly even work-shy. By being with her children, she signals that her main concern in life is not the bottom line but the clothes line. Many working women are profoundly aware of this and hate themselves for it. It is an insecurity that completely permeates their working day.

(While it is both parents’ responsibility to care for their children, it is usually the working mother, not father, who organises school runs and packed lunches.) Women are constantly trying to juggle being a good worker and a good mother to their kids. It can be difficult to focus on next year’s marketing strategy when the creche has just rung to complain about little Matthew who is biting other children. This dilemma can lead to seething resentment at work, where an early thirties professional mother is working for a fiftysomething company man.

He is from a generation where most mothers did not work and she is from the generation where most mothers have to work. From the perspective of childcare needs at least, she is from Venus and he is from Mars. She frantically and surreptitiously tries to organise after-school or creche timetables, while he strolls around the office taking imaginary swings – playing ‘air-golf’ in the same pathetic way, she thinks, as he plays sweaty ‘air guitar’ at the Christmas party.

What does he know about trying to be Superwoman? After all, his sweet Joan stayed at home to look after his four brats, while he was nobbing around the various committees that double for seniority in this place. What does he know about anything with his “If you don’t put in the hours how can you expect to get on?” or his infuriating quotes from the likes of Gary Player: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
This place is selling photocopiers, for heaven’s sake!

And, how could she be expected to be on top of things today? Her youngest puked all over the creche and was accused of spreading germs to the other snotty three-year-olds. What’s more, her older brother hit another child and she is just off the phone to that supercilious antipodean cow who runs the ‘little langers creche’, or whatever it’s called. All this executed secretively on the phone, hoping no one could hear her when she was supposed to be devising the latest poxy ‘customer satisfaction brochure’ for her boss.

Her head’s splitting with the pain and then the boss – who also has that infuriating habit of staring directly at her tits – announces an urgent meeting at ten to five, with the unforgivable line: “Tidy yourself up, he’s a very important client for the firm, you know.” How does she get out of this? All she can think of is the faces of her two neglected children, last again in the creche, waiting forlornly at the door, coats buttoned up, pining for their useless mammy.

She looks at him, in his cheap, ill-fitting off-the-peg suit, belly protruding, bad shoes, and he talks about tidying up? “Sorry, John”, she says, “I can’t, I’ve something social planned,” trying to sound like Carrie Bradshaw, offhand and glamorous, as if she has a life after work. Then comes the corporate lecture about “weak links in the chain”. She tries to remain calm but something gives, the dreaded out-of-body experience, and she explodes.

The boss realises it is serious and tries to defuse the situation with the no-no of all no-nos: he mentions her ‘time of the month’. Every day of every week, this type of drama plays itself out in offices all over the country. This is what you get when a baby boom, dreadful child care and double income young families collide in what has rapidly become the most expensive country in Europe.

The single most significant change to our labour force in the recent past has been the enormous rise in mothers going out to work. Since the early 1990s, the number of women working has gone up by 149pc. Many came into the workforce when in their late teens and early 20s. They postponed having children until their early thirties, with the result that Ireland now has the oldest mothers in the EU.

On average, Irish mothers are having their first children at 31, as opposed to the EU norm of 29. Over 60pc of these young mothers with children under five work full time. We are also seeing another baby boom – which is the echo of the late 1970s Pope’s Children boom.

All this is compounded by the emergence of a commuter generation – the Kells Angels – who are the young professionals who commute from towns such as Kells because house prices are so ludicrous in Dublin. And all the while, the productive pressures, long hours and office politics are pitting the family against the firm in the great battle for the working parent’s family time and soul. If we want to avoid turning into a Prozac Nation with our working mothers suffering from nervous bre akdowns, we – as a society – have to do something about either child care or more flexible working hours, or ideally both.

The problem is only going to get worse. First, our birth-rate won’t peak for another few years, as the last of the Pope’s Children start to have their own kids. So demand for childcare will increase.

But as more and more Irish women – the traditional bedrock of the childcare industry – opt to go to university and get better educated, the supply of child carers will fall. So what are we to do? Do we import foreigners to look after our kids? In the US – where they work hard – they pay other, poorer women – traditionally from Latin America – to mind their children.

This would mean increasing, not decreasing, immigration of young women. Given the recent evidence that 78pc of us are in favour of tighter, not looser, immigration policies, this might not be a runner. The other avenue is to follow the European model of fewer hours worked and higher taxes to pay for subsidised childcare and longer parental leave. Again, Irish people have shown that when it comes to taxes, we are singularly against raising them.

All parties – even the mainstream Left parties are sticking rigidly to a “no new taxes” mantra. Perhaps employers might cop-on and realise if they want to keep their employees, they have to be much more flexible. The working day should be much more varied, people should be allowed flexi-time and creche facilities in work must become a reality.

Otherwise, as is the case at the moment, many professional women’s careers will not survive the impact of children. Something has to give.

The great economic and social battle of the future in Ireland will not be about left versus right, capitalist versus worker but rather it will pit the two great institutions of the 21st century against each other – the firm against the family. And it will be the sisters manning the ramparts and determining the outcome.

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