I’m writing this post on the balcony of my hotel room in Santa Barbara, California. It overlooks the pool, which is surrounded by palm trees and beyond that, I can just about see the sea. It’s wonderful. Don’t hate me.
I know how lucky I am to be here and more importantly, to be here on my own. In fact, it’s taken me twenty years to get here. It’s the end point of a journey that began long before I became pregnant eight years ago with my eldest daughter and realised that the career choices I had been making for 15 years, were completely incompatible with raising children and actually being able to take care of them myself, for most or even some of the time.
I know that my twenty year-old self would certainly not have listened to any advice from my considerably-wiser-forty-year-old self, about choosing a career that plays nice with one day raising a family. In fact, I would have laughed in my own face and given myself a lecture about not limiting the career choices of women based on traditional gender roles. Yes, I was quite the radical little feminist. And now I’m quite the radical all-grown-up feminist but with a bit perspective on the situation and lot more mummy miles under the belt.
Fast forward to the birth of my first daughter (love, utter joy and wonder, exhaustion, occasional crying fits etc) but also to the loss of my independent income, my ability to at least partially define myself by a job that I loved, by a change in the balance of power in my relationship with my husband, now suddenly the sole breadwinner (and even thinking that word to myself at the time, made me feel like a 1950s housewife). I’d taken it for granted that somehow juggling a career and a family would all work out fine in the end. I hadn’t bothered myself with the finer details.
Guess what? It did all work out fine in the end, but the journey to get here definitely wasn’t the one I was expecting. Returning to my exciting job as a hotel manager, with the late nights and long long hours, just wasn’t an option I felt I could live with. Perhaps I hadn’t climbed the greasy pole high enough before having children, to be able to buy the kind of childcare that would enable me to return to work in a way that wouldn’t cripple me with guilt. I’m sure that’s what Sheryl Sandberg might say.
Those first months as a new mother were wonderful but also frightening, because the path ahead suddenly now seemed obscure. I couldn’t return to work and yet work was what had previously defined me in many ways. I had met my husband through work and nearly all of our closest friends were involved in the same industry. Now I wasn’t contributing to our family financially. I had nothing new to talk about that didn’t involve our children. I felt a bit lost.
My husband is a wonderful man and if I’d chosen not to return to work at all, I’m sure he would have supported me in doing that too, even though financially, it would have been a desperate struggle. But I also know that our relationship thrives on conversation, new experiences, challenge and growth, and I also felt quite passionately that I wanted our children see me working and achieving goals outside of our family life.
I won’t bore you with the truly terrible early business failures, the false starts and the stories of late nights and financial low points, but desperation (in my case, to have a job which meant I was in control of when I could be with our children) motivates you to achieve many surprising things. Eventually, over several years, I grew a tiny idea into a small business as a self-employed graphic designer, through a combination of sheer luck, the kindness of business mentors and many many late nights working furiously after the kids had gone to sleep. I still do this now of course.
And I am surrounded by other mothers and fathers doing the same thing. Every one of the wonderful Truly Madly team balances self-employed work with family and nearly all of my clients do too. It’s wonderful to watch. And it’s wonderful to emerge from the the chaotic years of early childhood and find that the future is a little less obscure.
Back to the view of the pool and palm trees in Santa Barbara. I’m here at a photography convention. It’s a work(ish) trip. It’s a chance to just be me, to push myself creatively and step away from the daily juggle of being chief childcare provider. I’m away for ten days, which has required military-grade planning and calling in favours from many kind friends. It’s a celebration of the hard work of the last eight years and also of being a mum, because I do want my girls to know that being independent is important and that I am someone else apart from being mum, although that is itself a wonderful thing. I guess it’s working because my eagerly anticipated phone call from home yesterday was a demand for the iTunes password rather than a teary ‘I miss you’ conversation.
I hope that the girls manage to find a career that allows them to balance work and family. Is it wrong to tell them that? Will it limit their career choices if they take my advice? I doubt they would listen anyway. I certainly didn’t. But over the last few years, I’ve often wondered if there is a bigger conversation to be had about encouraging young women to equip themselves with the skills they will need later in life. To become entrepreneurs earlier rather than later. In the UK, twice as many men as women start a business every year and yet starting a business can be brilliantly compatible with family life.
Saying that, I don’t think I would change a thing. The struggle – the long hours, the uncertainty of being self-employed, the journey itself – has been fascinating. I’m glad my twenty year-old self didn’t know quite how things would pan out, but finally I feel pretty confident that my future self will have everything under control.
Here are some more gratuitous images of things you only see in California because this wouldn’t be a proper postcard without the photos. To all of the self-employed mums and dads I know, this postcard is actually for you. I salute you all. You’re bloody brilliant.
[stextbox id=”tmk-box”]WANT TO START YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
The RBS Inspiring Women in Business programme has a great range of support and funding for female entrepreneurs.[/stextbox]