I was never the type of woman to daydream about pushing around a pram. I guess I assumed I would one day, but that vision was in the back of my mind, far overshadowed by ambitions for my career. Since I graduated nearly ten years ago, my priority had been work – I was lucky to have very supportive parents and friends who believed, probably more than me sometimes, that I could be successful. I feel good about where I am now, as news editor at It’s Nice That. I had to fight some pretty awful bosses along the way, one who described me as having “sharp elbows” (if I were a guy that would translate as “ambitious” but that’s a whole other subject); another with an approach to gender equality like that of Sterling Cooper. But it made me tough and I gained respect. Until I got to my late 20s and the comments started coming. Subtle, seemingly harmless jokey comments from family, friends and colleagues that most women around 30 in long-term relationships would recognise. It’s baby time. If you don’t have your usual G&T at the pub, eyes flicker with gleeful suspicion. People outrightly ask you if you want to have kids, like it’s not a hugely personal and weighted life decision that will change everything.
When it started, I wasn’t offended, it came from a friendly place and I’m fairly open about these things. But it did make me see myself through other people’s eyes in a new way. I applied for this job aged 30 and, for the first time in my life, I felt like my achievements and ideas weren’t the only factor to consider about me. Something I couldn’t change, my prime child-bearing age, might affect my career. Luckily it didn’t (although many, many other women aren’t as lucky) and soon I found myself in the best job I’ve ever had. I got married, and though the anticipation of that event seemed to stave off the baby comments, they didn’t stop entirely, and afterwards, of course, they came raining down.
So when, a few months later, the suspicions became founded and I got pregnant, though I was simultaneously elated and terrified, I couldn’t help think I’d proved all those people right. I was so happy, but I satisfied expectation, and nobody would be surprised when I told them. I didn’t tell work for three months, like many people choose to do, to protect myself from added trauma if things didn’t work out. Though it didn’t stop people asking or commenting, and flickering eyes when I ordered orange juice. I tried to carry on as normal, keeping up the fast pace at work, tackling my infinite mountain of an inbox, ploughing through to-do lists, while I felt like crap. I hoped desperately that I wouldn’t suddenly puke in a meeting. I’d cheerily say bye at the end of a work day, and pray for a seat on the overground (it was too early to wear my Baby on Board badge in case someone from work spotted me, though that’s the time I needed it the most). When I mustered the energy to go to a private view, I’d ask sheepishly if there was anything non-alcoholic, which there rarely is; and I can tell you private views are significantly less fun without prosecco.
And when three months was up, the fear set in. Telling my boss, and everyone at work, would make it so much more real. Would people see me differently? Would people write me off? Would that be the only thing people talked to me about from now on? Only some of that is true, but the reality was less dramatic, and everyone was happy for me. The only thing that dampened it was the lack of surprise – they “knew it”, apparently in some cases before I did (thanks to some innate baby-radar ability a lot of people claim to possess) and that nagging tiny voice inside that said I was predictable in the eyes of western society just couldn’t help muttering.
So, I was out, and in the two months since my belly has followed suit. Yes, at first, all people asked me about was babies, but I was excited to talk about it. When I turned up to meetings with clients, some reacted to the Baby on Board badge and some totally, and awkwardly, ignored it. So far, projects have been so imminent that my involvement hasn’t been questioned, but one meeting about a project happening in summer suddenly changed my perspective. “Oh, but you’ll be off having baby so you can’t do it.” I’d been so busy keeping on that I almost forgot I won’t be around to work on it, but that phrase, “you can’t do it,” somehow hurt. My job, come summer, will be an entirely different one, and I can’t wait; but for now I don’t want to be left out. My work is constant and in the past I have had days where I wished the emails and the meetings and dozens of spinning plates would stop, but now I realise they will – or at least pause for while – it’s deflating. Things will carry on as normal without me, and I realise I probably won’t have time to care at first, but already the idea of coming back to this world where things change so quickly is scary. What if lose my edge? What if all the knowledge of the industry I’ve accumulated turns to dust, to be replaced by a database of nappy schedules and formula temperatures. Baby brain has already caused me to deviate from my A-game a few times, imagine how it’ll be if I can’t sleep for longer than a couple of hours at a time.
I’m stepping into the unknown, and while I’m so happy and excited to be a mum, I feel like my grip on my career has been unwittingly loosened. I’ve become fascinated by tales of women who’ve carried on as normal. Of course there are Wonder Women who overcome stacked odds and far tougher circumstances than mine to become leaders of industry with multiple offspring (see: Sheryl Sandberg) but more so, because it seems relatable, I cling to the stories of regular, successful, human women who didn’t seem to change. Who had both, babies and career, and made it work, and people didn’t see them any differently than before. Before writing this, I was nervous I wouldn’t have much to say, that my ramblings would be too self-indulgent (which is up for debate) or wouldn’t offer much solid advice (again, debatable) so I reached out to some of these women. Not Sheryl Sandberg, but women in the creative industry who’ve had children and maintained, or even bolstered, their place in its rapidly shifting culture. Here, they share their experiences, worries, advice and stories – something I hope to do again, as a mum, in the near future.
Photographer Emily Stein
“When I was pregnant with my son Ray I spent a lot of time with people telling me how I would definitely change when I had a baby. I would probably never really go out anymore in the evenings, my work would not be so important to me, I wouldn’t be able to travel anymore, and I would become more content with staying in and being with my baby and husband. I spent so much of my time while being pregnant worrying about these things and being determined that I would still manage to be myself once I had the baby. To prove something to everyone I decided to book a two-month road trip to South Africa leaving when my baby was six weeks old. We went on the road trip and it was a nightmare – screaming baby, boiling sunshine, weird hotel rooms, out in restaurants/bars in evenings attempting to eat/drink with a baby asleep on my chest. The trip proved things had changed… and I had to accept that a bit. But in time I did prove my friends were wrong. Work is now more important to me than ever. When I am working I am now 100% dedicated and use my time wisely. I love going out with my friends and exploring more than ever too, and I still go out a few evenings every week, and on top of it watching my kids grow up (I now have two) I know that although the juggling act is hard, these are very special moments of my life which really count.”
Graphic designer Marine Duroselle
“Becoming a parent feels like stepping on to a rollercoaster with a blindfold on doesn’t it? Nothing can truly prepare you for it. As a female freelance designer in the creative industry, I worry how becoming a parent will impact on my career. This sounds negative, but when I was pregnant, I tried to hide my bump as much as possible in work environments rather than being natural and celebrating it. I thought it was going to scare off my clients (both current and perspective), as they’d see me as an ‘out of order designer’ and not wish to get me involved on a project. In my case this actually sadly proved to be the case on two occasions!”
Illustrator and art director Chrissie Macdonald
“Like many folk in the creative industry my life and career are inextricably linked so my greatest fear of having a baby was losing my identity. My work was incredibly all-consuming so I knew I’d have to put it on hold for a while but by giving myself the space to slow down and reflect I realised that after more than 15 years of creating commercial illustration work I was ready to move in a different direction. Having a child has given me a new perspective and it’s important to me to have a better life-work balance. It’s tricky but I’m trying to make work that I can do more on my own terms rather than letting it take over my life so I’ve been focusing on creating stained glass pieces. It doesn’t mean I won’t return to illustration but I’ll need to tailor my process to keep it interesting for me and better suit my circumstances.
“I’m far from having it all figured out and I invariably have moments of blind panic when I don’t know what I’m doing or who I am any more, but I’ve learned that it’s really important to give myself a break. It’s tough enough having a baby without beating yourself up all the time about what you should be doing. I’ve accepted that being a mum is just as much about who I am as the work I create and that’s ok. It’s also a whole heap of fun playing together and I just hope I can embrace that sense of play in my work again. I also find it really helps to read about other freelance mums’ experiences (both career-related and not) and how they make things work, in particular Annie Ridout’s digital lifestyle magazine The Early Hour which has been a regular source of inspiration. It’s a real comfort to know you’re not alone on this journey!”
Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, co-founders of design studio FranklinTill
Kate: "I think it’s normal to worry about how to juggle a career and family. When I fell pregnant for the first time (10 years ago), it was important for me to go back to work – I’m lucky enough to love what I do. I was full-time employed before having my first daughter and I was the first person in the studio to have a child, so I was worried how colleagues would view me leaving ‘early’ to pick up my daughter. My main worry was how would I achieve this in an industry that isn’t 9-5 – there’s always an event to go to, a meeting running over or simply client projects that need delivering. So I think the biggest thing I learned was to feel comfortable saying that I couldn’t do everything. That it’s ok to say no. There’s nothing worse than trying to do everything and not being satisfied with anything. So prioritising became key and finding alternative ways to do things.
“It sounds cliché but as a mother I feel I’m much more efficient than I ever used to be. You learn to multitask in ways I never thought possible before. FranklinTill is run by two working mums and I think we are incredibly good at managing both a business and family life. I think we’ve applied the skills we’ve learnt as parents to how we run a studio.”
Caroline: "When pregnant with my first daughter I was beautifully naive about what was to come and how much becoming a mum would rock my current career-focused world. The biggest realisations for me have been that I believe I am a better mother for continuing to work. My mum gave up work and mothered myself and my sister full time, so initially I felt I should do the same as this is what I knew as a child, but I quickly realised that I am more focused and more passionate as a mother if I can also fulfil my career drive. My two-year-old daughter is, and always will be my main priority, and I totally relish my two days with her after a very busy start to the working week. I am lucky in running my own business we can have more flexibility and make our own decisions about when we put our hours in, however I strongly believe this flexibility makes us a hell of a lot more productive, more focused and cultures a more nurturing working environment for those that work with us.
“Flexible working is something I feel totally passionate about and I feel sad we cannot be totally overt that we are mothers as well as running a business as our level of planning and organisation means this ultimately has zero impact on our output or our clients. I have always been a massive believer in the saying ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person’. I am continually amazed and in awe of my mum friends around me that, like me, run the family and hold down high-powered jobs or run their own businesses. We have come a long way in terms of equality but from what I see around me women are still the first port of call for childcare, yet still working hard too. It might not be a popular opinion, but it’s true.”