Words by Annie Ridout
I had this plan. I'd become a mum, return to work as a copywriter after 10 weeks' maternity leave—on the advice of Sheryl Sandberg, whose book Lean In had recently been published; making it clear that this was not only possible but a great idea, career-wise—and continue to earn good money. Where my baby would be while I was copywriting wasn't important. I'd worked hard to get to this stage; I wasn't going to become financially dependent on my husband just because I'd had a baby.
But I also had another plan. Like my own mother, I was going to be an attentive, present stay-at-home mum. I would breastfeed my babies and be there morning, afternoon and evening. I'd collect them from school, make their tea and put them to bed each night, after books and songs.
However, I soon found out that you can't plan accurately and unemotionally for new motherhood because once you've given birth, everything changes. You might be desperate to return to work right away and retain an identity outside of motherhood; you might feel you never want to be separated from your child again. Or you might sit between these two extremes and decide that continuing with a career, but closer to home and flexibly, is the best option.
I fell into the third category and started pitching for freelance journalism work while sat at the kitchen table, rocking my baby to sleep with my foot. This slow return to work, when she was a few weeks old, suited us both: I got to continue breastfeeding and bonding with her; she had some time just with me, to ease her from womb to world. I remember those early months fondly; even if the sleep deprivation and major life shift was sometimes quite overwhelming.
When she was one, I launched a digital parenting magazine. I still harboured dreams of running an empire and earning big bucks so planned this as a Huffington Post-style platform for parents. And to sell it, as Arianna did, for $300m. But while it brought in a neat little income from sponsored content and brand collaborations, it was very much a lifestyle business; not a multi-million-pound platform. However, it did lead to journalism commissions for the Guardian, Red Magazine, the Telegraph. And then a book deal.
What I hadn't realised is that the work-life balance I'd developed as a full-time mother to my daughter, working while she napped and in the evenings, was of interest to other women. They liked the idea of sacking off the commute and extortionate nursery fees and finding a way to work from home, around their children's needs. But they weren't sure what work to do, how to launch, what to charge, how to network and do their own PR and, crucially how to develop the confidence to make this career change.
Earlier this year, The Freelance Mum: A flexible career guide for better work-life balance was published. I've had messages from women saying they've read it and quit their job to go freelance, or doubled their day rate. I hoped it would be helpful for other mums who, like me, weren't ready to leave either their career or their children. And it seems it has been.
But it has also led to me starting a new business, running online courses - one that teaches freelancers and business owners how to do their own PR and another that helps women to become their own boss. I write the courses from my kitchen table, market them on social media and have built a website to host them. They are selling well but more importantly, they are giving mothers exactly what I needed after the birth of my daughter: an opportunity to explore a different way of working.
My husband recently quit his job to help me grow the business and this means we divide work, childcare and house stuff. This way of working suits us but it's not perfect. When my son was napping and I pulled out my laptop to catch up on emails, my daughter said to me: "you say you only work Tuesday and Thursday but you work every day." And she's probably right. But I reminded her that I'm still there to have breakfast with her and make her dinner. To stroke her hair while she falls asleep and to help her learn to read. I'm in the room; even if my mind is on work.
Sometimes, I do find it hard to switch my focus to my children. I watch them playing in the garden, making up games and occasionally bickering, and I wonder if I should be out there with them, engaging while they are still open to having me involved in their play. But I usually stay positioned at the table and finish off my work while they're occupied. I occasionally feel frustrated that I don't have enough time to work, as my son is only in nursery two days a week, and then frustrated that I have to work when I'd like to be focusing on the kids. But this is the only way I could incorporate both of those plans I had; to continue developing my career while being around morning, noon and night for my family. Mostly, it works.