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MEL SHEEHY © TOM PITFIELD PHOTOGRAPHY
Melanie Sheehy is one of the co-founders of the renowned Manchester PA Network (MPAN) and Manchester PA Awards. Alongside this incredible career accolade, Melanie is also Chapter Manager for YPO (Young Presidents Organisation), as well as a demanding role as an Executive Assistant for Citation Group – all whilst juggling her energetic 9-year-old twin boys.
“…It was really hard dealing with the mum guilt!”
Melanie Sheehy is one of the co-founders of the renowned Manchester PA Network (MPAN) and Manchester PA Awards. Alongside this incredible career accolade Melanie is also Chapter Manager for YPO (Young Presidents Organisation), as well as a demanding role as an Executive Assistant for Citation Group – all whilst juggling her energetic 9-year-old twin boys, Pearse and Beau.Since founding MPAN in 2011, the network has grown tremendously, providing a fun and supportive platform for hundreds of PAs, EAs, VAs and support professionals throughout the Northwest, and through tireless fundraising events, MPAN has raised an incredible £200,000 for The Christie Hospital. Melanie has an unquestionably strong work ethic, and her determination to succeed both in her career and as a mum is nothing short of inspiring. After enduring a long and emotional journey with IVF, to conceive her beloved boys, Mel didn’t find returning to her career easy at all initially as she found herself plagued with mum guilt. But, after making peace with her decision, she now manages the juggle of three job roles, as well as her all important role as Mum. We sat down with Mel at her home during half term and chatted to her to find out how she does it all – we did so amongst the madness of her boys playing with two of our ‘BROOD kids’ who had accompanied us to the shoot, and Mel’s three dogs who also wanted plenty of attention too!
MELANIE SHEEHY IMAGE © TOM PITFIELD PHOTOGRAPHY
Let’s start at the beginning, how did your career journey begin?
“Well, I didn’t go to university, I ended up moving to Greece when I was 18 instead – ‘the university of life’ as I call it. Then after five years of working in Greece I returned home, and I was kind of at a loss as to what I wanted to do. Then I saw that AstraZeneca were looking for temps, so I started with them and ended up staying there for ten years! So that’s how I became a PA. Then after ten years with them, they were looking for people to take voluntary redundancies, and at the time myself and Kev had got married, and I already knew we were not going to be able to have children naturally, so decided to take the redundancy so that I could just take a bit of time out and use the opportunity to focus on IVF as there was no way we were giving up. It was also a time to work out what I wanted to do. We had already been through treatment a few times before at this point and it hadn’t worked. [She looks at her boys] These two happened on our 8th try! (We went through IVF 8 times in 6 years.) When I left AstraZeneca, I had intended on taking 6 months off, but instead I only ended up taking 4 months, I just needed to do something – I needed to find my purpose.
That’s when I started working at the co-op bank, and that’s how I came to meet Amanda (Amanda Hargreaves fellow co-founder of the Manchester PA network). The job I was doing was ok, but I was looking for something more challenging, and it was my line manager at the time that suggested I set up some networking to bring all the PA’s in the co-op together, the majority of them had worked there for over twenty years and some might say in a rut. One of the PAs that worked there suggested I meet Amanda, because she was trying to do something similar within her role. So we met for lunch and chatting about how we felt there was something missing in Manchester. There was a PA network in London, but not Manchester; so, we thought how hard could it be (little did we know) so we decided to give it a go on our own and that’s how the Manchester PA network was born. To start, the most obvious seemed to hold an event and invite all the PAs we knew between us and go from there. We approached Hayley Harthern at The Radisson to see if they would host this for us and the rest they say is history. Whilst we were setting up MPAN I decided to leave my job at the co-op bank as I saw an opportunity for maternity cover working as an Executive Assistant to the CEO of LateRooms.com. It was a bit of a risk leaving a permanent position to go and do a temporary role, but it was what I wanted to do and what I had always aspired to do professionally.
Following our first event, we ended up in the Manchester Evening News Business Week – I have no idea how! And I remember sitting at my desk on my first day in my new role at LateRooms and I rang Amanda saying ‘Oh my god, we’re in Business week! It’s real now! We’re really going to have to do this!’ I was so proud of how we had achieved this, just us. At the time I was still regularly going through rounds of IVF, and thankfully on our 8th try it worked! So, it wasn’t long after the MPAN was born, that my boys were born too!”
Having Twins must have been both amazing and very tiring! Were you able to take Maternity leave and how did you manage the MPAN after the boys were born?
“Yes, I did. I had originally planned not to go back to work as an EA as we had waited so long to have them but during my Maternity leave, my old boss from LateRooms called me to tell me that he had moved to Wilmslow, with a job a Citation Professional Solutions, and he asked me to come back and work for him. I said no initially, because the boys were only 6 months old, and I knew how demanding the job would be. It had taken us 6 years to have the boys and I think I just really wanted to have that time with them, without having to give any of my focus to a full-time job. So, he proposed that come back in the December (when the boys were a year old.) I discussed it with my husband, and I realised that I did want more, even though we had waited so long for our children I couldn’t just stay at home, I needed for my brain to be active.
During my time off with the boys I never stopped at any point with MPAN though, this was important to me, important to us (Amanda and I). I remember going to my first event after the boys were born when they were only 5 weeks old and I remember thinking how much I had dropped the ball at that event. It was a good learning on what life was going to be like as a working mum. Thankfully the team were understanding and we did agree that we didn’t all need to be at every event.
The network at this point was growing very quickly so we were working hard in the background organsing the events and making sure we could offer what we said we would as well as achieve our goals of building the best network in the the North West. This wasn’t going to be easy not just because we had so much to achieve but also the guilt started to set in that I couldn’t be as present as I had the boys and then because I wasn’t home.
After I started work at Citation, when the boys were one, I took on the YPO Young Presidents Organisations too, so I have three work roles alongside my role as mum.”
What was the hardest thing about returning to a full-time role once you were a mum?
“It was really hard dealing with the mum guilt. That was the hardest thing. I was constantly thinking ‘what am I missing out on?’ We had a nanny, instead of sending the boys to nursery, because for me that felt like at least they would still be in the home environment and still getting something that I would have offered and when they were poorly there was someone caring for them as I just didn’t know how I would juggle work and sick babies. The nanny would take them out places, but then she was doing things that I would have liked to have done, like taking them to baby clubs, the park and things like that, so that was hard. It was also hard because I thought to myself, maybe I’m just not that good at being at home with them all the time. I felt guilty because we had waited so long, but the more time I spent with them, the less I appreciated it. Returning to work meant that I really cherished the time I did have with them again. And I remember the first time I had a cup of tea at work and thinking it was so nice to just be able to sit down and drink a hot cup of tea – because I hadn’t had a hot drink in the first year that they were around.
I also found having a male boss or working with people who didn’t have children was hard, as they didn’t really understand what I was going through and what I was feeling; like why I wanted to be at home when they were poorly for example. Don’t get me wrong, work are extremely supportive but you have to be realistic! You can’t take a week off work because you’re children are poorly. So even though I was physically at work, at times I felt I would be a bit absent, as my mind was elsewhere. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got to give that bit more to almost prove yourself, because there are times you can’t make things because you don’t have childcare etc.”
You are obviously a great mum and you’re excelling in your career, which are the areas of your life that you feel you must sacrifice to keep your mum and career ‘balls up in the air’
“I would say my personal life. For example, I have a membership for Hale country club which I keep saying that I’m going to cancel, but then I’m like ‘no I’m in my forties I need to go!’ but I just never make it there. My husband Kev works for himself so we’re lucky that he has the flexibility to do the school pick up so they don’t have to go to after school clubs but when I come in from work he then has to work later to juggle the time he has taken off. It’s very much teamwork as we both can’t be around all the time. Your work day finishes and then your mum duties start, I can’t remember what it was like to watch something before 9pm. I have now gone full time so that really helps as I can do two school pick up’s a week and then I can catch up on work after I get home with them. I don’t see my friends as much as I would like to, I don’t get to the gym – even though I dislike working out passionately, I still want to have time to go because I need to, to look after myself. I also I miss out on watching them play sports sometimes as they are on so many teams I can’t possibly make it to all their games plus so much more so you do sacrifice a lot as a working mum. And hope they remember that mummy was working and not just absent”
How do you help yourself deal with the rough days that come with being a career parent and how do you cope with the ‘mum guilt’ that comes with it?
“I think I’ve kind of made peace with it [ the mum guilt] and I’ve almost accepted it now. I would say a flaw in my personality is probably trying to do everything for my family, so even when I’m at home I will put the boys and my husband before me, and it takes a lot for me to go ok I’ve had enough – which I did on Sunday – I was like ‘I’ve had enough you just need to go out and do stuff on your own’ and I think I do need to recognise that sooner. I also think it has got easier as they’ve got older, because they are nine now so at weekends when I’m talking to them, trying to find out what has been going on, what have I missed or wanting to do stuff with them, they will sometimes say, ‘Mummy, I just want to watch my iPad because you don’t let us have it in the week.’” She laughs.
“My precious time with them, and the main thing I always maintain with them is at bedtime; I lie with them and have a chat. It’s my time with them and it’s where I get the most out of them, and it gives me the most joy as a parent when they are talking to me in that way. Sharing their worries and talking about things that have gone on at school. That’s my calm time as well, I suppose because I don’t have much just me time. I guess that’s mum guilt right there but as I said I’ve made peace with that because we tried so hard to become parents, but I’ve chosen to work and I chose to set up the MPAN, I’ve chosen all of things and if I didn’t want to do it all there is an exit point, but I thrive with being busy.”
Tell us a little bit more about the MPAN. You’ve built an incredible network, and raised an amazing amount of money for Christie’s in the process, haven’t you?
“Yes, we’ve raised over £200,000 now, and a lot of that money was raised in the last couple of years (pre-covid) as we did a LOT of fundraising! We did things like jumping out of planes, abseiling down building, lots and lots of crazy things, but it was a lot of fun. We actually decided to retire the MPAN just before covid hit as we felt we had reached just under ten years, 800 members and such a huge amount for The Christie, as they say, leave whilst you’re on a high . Early on in Covid Amanda had a discussion and decided it was time to come back out of retirement, we said do you think we should bring it back; do you think people need it. So, we brought it back and I think we’d had about two or three months off! And we were like we’re back!” She laughs.
“Obviously, we enjoyed it a lot more than we thought we did because we couldn’t let it go. We have had moments where we have thought shall we hand over the baton to someone else, but you can’t, because it’s our baby. It’s everything myself and Amanda wanted, and the awards was one of our goals right from the start, and we reached that goal and held the first awards 4 years after we launched the network. We were originally approached by a recruitment agency to do monthly awards and we said no, we either go big or we go home! This is our goal, and we know we can do this. It was daunting especially when the time came to part ways with the agency, although it was our decision, but we knew we could do this on our own. We’re both quite driven like that, we know what we want, and we do it. It will be so nice to bring the awards back again this year as obviously we lost a couple of years of doing it because of covid.”
How was Covid for you, did you have the juggle of work and home-schooling.
“I was furloughed for 6 weeks and initially that was quite hard, as no one knew what was going to happen and Kev’s work dried up completely, because he’s a head-hunter, but being the kind of person that I am, I was like no come on we’re going to be alright. So, we tried to just embrace it and see it as a luxury to have time together as a family that we wouldn’t have ordinarily had. We were home schooling and the boys said I was the worst teacher ever, I was too shouty they said – even though after two hours of creative writing with them I thought I had been pretty patient!” She laughs. “But after a while I stopped the home schooling, I just thought it’s not doing anyone any good, because it was so stressful. I thought the boys are going to end up hating me when we could be using the time to have a really nice time together. So, we enjoyed lots of family time. Covid in that way was a blessing. I still had to check in with my team and I held twice weekly zooms with them, and they weren’t in a great place with all the uncertainty over their jobs, and we were doing zoom calls for the MPAN too, as we felt it was important that we kept that network of support going for people. It was tough emotionally at times, because I was trying to reassure others that everything would be ok but really, I didn’t have a clue what would happen, and I was also worried about my job and obviously Kev’s work too.”
What strategy’s do you use to keep your mindset strong and stay positive during challenging times like you’ve just described?
“I love music – that is a big DE stressor for me just getting in the car putting on my music and belting out the tunes! I cannot sing I’m completely tone deaf, but I love it and I love listening to classic dance tunes too. Just belting a bit of Adele can make me feel so much better! She laughs. So that is how I destress, but I don’t overthink, and if I do start to over think I’m very strong minded so I will shut that down – I will tell myself no, you know there is no room for that. I’m also extremely positive most of the time. I always say to the boys there is a solution for everything, so there is no point in getting yourself into a hole, because no matter what we’ll find a solution. We can do that together or you’ll do that yourself, but either way we will find one.”
You have such a strong work ethic, both yourself and your husband, is that something you hope will inspire your boys?
“We do drill into the boys you can’t give up; they want to give up on stuff, but we’ll say no you’ve started it, so you have to finish it. For example, they didn’t like doing piano lessons, but we said, ‘Well finish the term and if you still don’t like it, we’ll consider you stopping it, but you can’t just give up halfway through. Because if they did that throughout life then they will never get anywhere – you would just give up on everything. Both Kev and I are very work focused, but equally we are very fun focused too out of work time, but they do see both of us working hard and I think that’s important. I don’t have any shame saying to the boys no you can’t have that because we can’t afford it. I think they need to know that you need to work to save to afford. That’s how I was raised and that’s important to me. My mum was a stay-at-home mum, but when I was 16, she started working and then she worked solidly until she retired in her early 60’s and it was time for her to retire but she had an amazing work ethic which she passed to me`.”
Do you have any tips for other career parents to get as much balance as possible in your life and remain happy whilst juggling it all?
“For me it’s working out your priorities. My priority is having happy children and showing them what life is and showing them as much as we can. It is saying no to things that aren’t within your priorities and making time for the things that are. Like spending time with the kids so I’m happy to sacrifice my social time, gym if it means that I’m doing something that I want to do with them Secondly, I would just say be present when you are doing something, put your phone away and sometimes that can be hard, but it makes a difference. Memories are in your head as well as your phone. We don’t allow phones or iPads when we’re eating together and things like that. Going back to the saying no thing we have started saying no to social events that we used to go to because we felt like we had to as opposed to us wanting to go to them. So that has created a lot more time for us as a family, That was a decision we made around two months ago and it’s quite liberating.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOM PITFIELD
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