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Moms Doing It For Themselves: Ruth Freeman

Mom-of-two, Dr Ruth Freeman is the Director of Strategy and Communications at Science Foundation Ireland, inputting into strategy, planning events and projects that create a curiosity and passion for science for people of all ages. Science Foundation Ireland is the national agency that supports research in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The Foundation also promotes and supports STEM education and engagement. 

We caught up with her to find out how she does it all!

Tell me a bit about your background?

I was appointed as Director of Strategy and Communications for Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in 2013. Before that, I worked at a series of positions at Science Foundation Ireland, having joined in 2006. I worked as a researcher at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) after receiving my PhD and Bachelor degrees in Genetics from TCD.   

Being with SFI for over a decade makes me feel very old! I was christened ‘Trouble’ when I first joined because I was constantly challenging the status quo and suggesting changes and new initiatives.  I worked my way up through the organisation by taking on lots of diverse roles and I’m currently the only female Executive Director.

There are no average days in Strategy and Communications – like many jobs nowadays, it’s a constant barrage of meetings and emails.  The real bonus of working in science is that it’s such a fascinating area. I feel privileged to interact regularly with some of the finest scientific minds from Ireland and across the world who are making new discoveries that could really improve people’s lives. I also work with educators and volunteer groups who bring huge infectious passion to what they do.

I get great motivation from promoting science to children, young adults and parents; people in arts and broadcasting; government and public service – generally Irish people are very positive about science as a force for good and they want to have the conversation about what we are doing.

Did having children change how you felt about your career? How so?

I’ve focused my work on areas of activity that are important to the strategic needs of the organisation and add genuine value. I am constantly thinking about the challenges our organisation is experiencing; bringing solutions rather than problems. When you are experienced, it’s important to remember that it’s your insights and team management that are of real value. I think every working mom has moments where they think it would be easier not to have a career, and be available 100% of the time for their children. I have those moments every now and then, but in truth, I love what I do, and I’ve worked really hard to get here, so I would never want to give it up.

What changes did you make to make your career work for you?

Having children was a major change, and balancing caring for two small people with a busy career requires a lot of prioritisation. The first obvious logistical change was that I could no longer be in the office for 50-60 hours a week, so I had to focus on getting the important things right, and on delegation. I’m lucky to have a great and dedicated team here at Science Foundation Ireland; many of us are working parents so we try to support each other. Travel has also become more difficult, so I try to only do it when my presence is truly important.  

Before becoming a parent, I operated on an “always-on” model. Now I try to detach from email when I’m at home and the kids are awake. Most things don’t need an instant response and I think it’s healthier to take some time out from technology – not to mention thinking about the response itself!  I tell people to phone me if there is something urgent that needs to be managed.

While my job is often about trying to see the big picture, home life and bringing up children brings you right back to the “micro tasks”, like making sure you have food and nappies! I am very lucky to have family close by who provide huge amounts of support. It can be hard to ask for and take help, but for me that is essential.  

How did you feel when making these changes?

Both times I returned from maternity leave, I worried that I was failing on all fronts; I am by nature a bit of a perfectionist and I had to let that go across the board. In some areas of life “good enough” has been ok. I still find that difficult and I think I always will, but it’s just how it is when you essentially have two full-time roles.  

Did you receive support from your employer at the time?

Having some flexibility in working hours is the only way to deliver well at home and at work in my experience.  Plenty of productive work is done after bedtimes!  The traditional nine to five or six, with commuting, does necessarily meet the need of a lot of modern organisations and also makes it very difficult for parents to spend time with their children during the working week, so I believe that it’s really important to embrace dynamic and flexible ways of working.  I am taking parental leave to reduce my working hours by a small amount and I usually start work early so that I can get home in time to see the kids before they go to bed.

How did your partner support you through this time?

Honestly, by being the other person figuring out the juggle in equal measure. I think parents nowadays mostly share the practical pieces of child-rearing and housework, pick-ups, drop-offs and sick days. You just have to try and support each other to manage when one person’s work is especially demanding and extra hours are required and hope that doesn’t happen to both people at the same time, with a sick child thrown in for good measure!

What worked and what didn’t work along the way?

What doesn’t work - evening networking events. Earlier in my career, these were an enjoyable way to make connections and stay in touch with conversations in the sector.  Nowadays, they are usually a luxury that I can’t afford. Because I start work so early, those hours between 5.30 and 8.00 in the evening are the family time in the day and it’s just not viable to go to networking events unless there is a compelling reason for it.

What does work – enjoying work and knowing that it’s making a difference. Science Foundation Ireland works closely with government, industry and science researchers to keep Ireland’s cutting-edge research and discoveries at their peak so that we create sustainable jobs across sectors like food, health and technology. But this drive for discovery can also lead to important breakthroughs, which can have a positive impact on people across all over the world. It helps to put a stressful day in context to remember why you are doing it.

Considering your happiness levels before making a switch to now - how have they improved/decreased?

Obviously, I cannot imagine my life without my children. You learn a lot about how you feel about life when you become a parent.  It’s more ingrained than happiness, it goes to the core of who you are and what you want out of your time on earth.  Busier – yes. More tired – yes. More challenged – yes. Happier – without a doubt.

How do you rate your work/life balance?

I don’t really like the term work/life balance – I firmly believe that the way you spend your hours and days is the way you spend your life. Work is part of my life rather than something on the other side of the scales. I have tried to decide how I want to spend my time and act accordingly. Of course, there can be times when both work and home life are unpredictable and you have to adapt accordingly. For me, the important thing is to make sure there is a general sense of balance most of the time.  I (usually!) love spending time with my kids but I also need to eke out a bit of time for me and my husband and to recharge. I enjoy spending time with friends and family and love reading; a weekly run with my friend Louise, and Pilates with Eva Berg also help to keep me well.

Three bits of advice for working mothers?

I think it’s really important to be clear about what it is that you want and to know what’s important to you in terms of your job and your family. Once you have that clarity I think it is much easier to make the right choices towards having the life you want. 

  1. Online grocery shopping
  2. Save your time for something more important to you.
  3.  Go easy on yourself – you are doing your best.

Would you like to be featured in this series? Send an email to our Editor mairead.cahalan@eumom.ie and tell us a little bit about your career, how you manage to balance your work and life balance and let us know if you've made any drastic changes to facilitate your family and career.


About the Author

Lucy Earley is MD of artisyn.ie, (former editor of Salon Magazine) and is a freelance writer, interviewer and editor. She's a delighted convert to the maternal side following the birth of her daughter, Lara, in August 2014

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