Child care

Mum’s the word

Alice Jones couldn’t get by until Caleigh Denehy came along. Jones is a mother to four children under the age of 13, she is the wife to an overworked husband, and daughter to elderly parents with Alzheimer’s disease.

Jones’ weekends are filled with driving her children between birthday parties and sporting events. Her weekdays are similar, driving in opposite directions almost every morning and afternoon for their extracurricular activities. All while running crisis management in the household, helping her parents when they need her, and doing the rounds to ensure her children bathed, fed, and ready for bed every single night.

Jones’ daughter suffers from a form of inflammatory bowel disease called ulcerative colitis which causes the inner of lining of the large bowel to become inflamed. According to medical experts diet isn’t a factor for causing the disease, but it can exacerbate it. There aren’t enough hours in the day for Jones to steer clear from processed or pre-prepared meals for her family, but after the diagnosis it all changed. Jones decided she needed support to be able to provide soothing fresh, homemade, whole food meals and that’s when Denehy came to the rescue.

Denehy is an array of light; she wears a pink kaftan with slices of yellow and an infusion of other bright colours. She’s left a day’s work with a smile on her face. Denehy is naturally organised. Her books are arranged by colour, her wardrobe divided into sections by colour, and her pantry is categorised to resemble a tidily stocked supermarket shelf. Denehy is the founder of Spare Mum, and she visits the Jones’ household every second Friday to support the busy family of six by cooking their meals.

The Jones’ fridge is filled with ingredients and possibilities, a colourful selection of fruit and vegetables and a pantry jam-packed with potential. Denehy prepares to bring to fruition a menu personally selected by Jones, who remains surprised at Denehy’s mastery can do.

Jones says before hiring Denehy, she would scramble when thinking about what to cook, scramble when there wasn’t enough time to cook, and scramble in the evening at the thought of lunchboxes, afternoon snacks, and helping with homework. When Denehy takes her first step into the house, equipped with her knife roll and cooking essentials, Jones sighs in relief.

Caleigh Denehy, 59, has expressions of interest across WA and believes there is a need in the care market. Photo: Ash Ramos.

Before Denehy begins, she sometimes finds herself rearranging the fridge, placing cold items in preferred places for her visually organised mind. If the doorbell rings and hungry school kids erupt through the doors, she feeds them an afternoon snack. If Jones’ husband is working from home, Denehy will bring him freshly prepared lunch. When Jones returns home, she’s greeted with aromas of a hot roast finishing off in the oven and steam from the vegetables clouding the air.

“She fills the void of a mother in the home if I’m not there.”

Spare Mum client Alice Jones

It wasn’t always smiles and happy families with full bellies, Denehy was left questioning what her purpose was after deciding to re-enter the workforce following some time away. The 59-year old’s career ambitions had changed, She didn’t want to return to the marketing profession, so she applied for jobs elsewhere. But it brought rejection that may have indicated ageism was at work. She says ageism was not allowed to be talked about, but she picked up the sinking feeling that her age meant she was an undesirable candidate, despite her many skills and years of experience.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a 2021 report revealed 63 per cent of people experienced ageism in the last five years in Australia. With 83 per cent of Australians admitting ageism is an issue. The AHRC says people aged 40-61 are in their prime, however, are the most likely group to be denied a job due to their age.

Denehy recalls when someone told her off the record, that she wasn’t selected for an interview because she was getting towards retirement age. She was annoyed. “I’m so far from retiring!” she protests.

Denehy’s response was to start a business that supports women who may have been subject to ageism, to provide them with a flexible and supportive working environment. Since 2021 when her idea turned into reality, Denehy has grown her enterprise to five employees, with open arms to new recruits. These roles are filled by women who have dedicated their careers, time, and lives to being a mum. She has turned the role of a mum into a business model to recognise the skills that are part of the job of being a mother.

“A Spare Mum is someone who has experience running a home. She’s had children and can tell the difference between a whinge and a fever. She knows when it’s time to go to a doctor or when it’s time to just have some water and lay down and rest. She can look in the fridge, when the fridge is supposedly empty, and create a meal.”

Spare Mum founder Caleigh Denehy

Founder of life coaching business We Inspire Louise Kelman is another self-starter. She made people laugh for 12 years in more than 300 shows as a comedian. Kelman decided to leave the industry behind to pursue her life’s work as a coach. A key role in transitioning to her new venture meant applying her experience and skills learnt in theatre and as an ex-comic into coaching. Kelman says most women opt for a professional change due to corporate burn out and says the key to finding a passionate new career is to ask “what would I do for free every day if I could? Or, what am I already doing for free?”.

For Denehy, it’s motherhood. After raising her 29-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter on her own, the daunting reality is that they don’t need as much of her help anymore. But there are families, busy couples, and single parents who do. Denehy says Spare Mum was designed for more than just busy families, it could be for the childless corporate couple who need laundry done but don’t have the time. Denehy says the range of services provided by Spare Mum, and the skills of the mothers who are employed to provide the support, is the point of difference between her company and a nanny or an au pair.

Denehy says she turned something she was naturally good at from a young age into a full-time job. Photo: Ash Ramos.

Curtin School of Education professor Rhonda Oliver believes many mothers, the good ones, are the unpaid heroes of society. The magic of Denehy’s business model may be tied up with the word “Mum”. Home help is nothing new, cleaners, au pairs and nanny’s have been around for ages but “the mother is the heart and soul of the family”, according to Oliver. She points out that while our patriarchal society still undervalues women’s work, many people associate positive emotions with the word “mum”.

According to Oliver, in some cultures mum can mean different things to different people, and in some cases, mum refers to aunty or the land. She says some consumers may be drawn to a service like Spare Mum because it taps into positive emotions tied to mum as a label.

Perth psychologist Marny Lishman shares similar views to Oliver, she believes while some people might not have a positive connection to the word mum, for others it means care, support, love, and empathy. She says having extra assistance in the family home, particularly in a world where people are busy and overwhelmed, can be a good idea.

Since operations commenced in May 2021, Denehy has been pursuing her dreams at Spare Mum with a team of five employees, 40 families on a waitlist, and ambitions to expand Australia-wide. Having started with the memory of wishing “I had another me in the home” to transforming “mum” into a business model, Denehy says the most rewarding part of her job now is allowing families to spend more quality time together, while also giving experienced mothers the opportunity to nurture a brood, once their nest is empty.