My first ‘break’ from work, eleven years ago, was after the birth of my first child. I’d been working full-time for just over ten years at that point and had had three proper and fairly pressurised jobs. I’d signed off on maternity leave wide-eyed and in a state of abject denial when I went into labour seven weeks early at my desk.
Due to the truly death-defying arrival of my daughter and the all-consuming dedication to minding a tiny, birdy baby, I barely left our flat for months. And if I did make it out, I usually had about five minutes to locate a dark corner and release the blazing torpedoes for a feed.
For six whole months I didn’t have to think about work. I just had to figure out how to fit a shower, 10 feeds and a pneumatic pump into the day. And that was task enough.
I started to question my own capabilities and personal limits the day I visited a self-employed friend who was also nuzzling her barely born. She hadn’t told most of her clients that she was pregnant for fear they would write her off and was back on the beat, fielding emails and calls, within weeks of the little imp’s debut. There I found her, submerged in lever arch folders and fabric samples, baby on the breast, customer in her ear, emergency services pounding on the door. “Can you grab that,” she whispered. One of the builder’s collapsed in the loft, he’s diabetic.” They were also half way through a building project.
Absolute bleedin’ iron woman, I thought, recognising that I wouldn’t be able to function in that level of chaos; that maybe – just maybe – I wasn’t a multi-tasker after all.
All these years, many more hours of nine-to-five (and some) later and I am now hoping to take control of my own destiny by striking out solo; by trying to achieve the utopian dream – financial security, flexible hours and a family who still recognises me as a blood relative.
The timing also feels right. ‘Flexible’ is a word repeatedly associated with the global vision of our future workforce, as is ‘up-skilling’. When Elon Musk, meanwhile, lays down his 2024 plans to colonise Mars, you know that we’re shifting into a new realm.
But, am I a flexible, working-from-home, entrepreneurial type of person? I think of my bionic, child-soothing, sales-ringing, crises-kicking friend when I ask myself this question. Am I her?
Despite having a smorgasbord of skills and experience to set myself up as a consultant, I didn’t have the confidence to do it. I dipped my toe into the freelance market with some feature writing, quickly imposing disabling conditions on my working day when I wasn’t happy with my output. For example, I denied myself any adult social interaction Monday to Thursday so that I would be distraction-free. I also started trash-talking myself – yes, really, out loud – in various attempts at hyper-efficiency. Unsurprisingly, neither technique worked, my odd-bod methods leaving me under-stimulated and frankly, confused.
And so I decided to up-skill. I signed up to do a remote course with Digital Mums, a multi-award winning UK-based company committed to retraining and mobilising mums looking for flexible working solutions. The 6-month course, of roughly 25 hours per week, was a dry run for life on the field. Managing a live project for the duration, we had to meet weekly performance and report targets, bouncing around our Whatsapp group of seven cohorts for sanity, solace and Wednesday night wine. The course was tough, relevant to how much pressure you put on yourself, how much faith you had in yourself and how exacting your standards were. Perfectionism really is a weakness, I discovered.
But it was totally worth it. Now, we’re all skilled up and ready to rumble. Which is the holy grail, right? Valuable talent and experience back in the workplace, satiated mums and happy kids?
The fact is, flexible working is not the loosey-goosey, grab-a-coffee, tap-tippety-tap-on-your-Mac breeze some (resistant) employers would suggest. It’s about mastering your time and finding a brand new, smarter way of working, making every single moment count. This means trying out apps and techniques to optimise your productivity and minimise distractions so that the work never owns you. Having said that, there is also an element of always being ON. If you’re working with clients, as I will be, and in some cases monitoring their social media accounts, there is no off switch.
I’m ok with that, partly because I’ve been ‘on’ in every job I’ve had. What I am struggling with though are the many hours of just me, myself and I. I miss people and working in an office where I know exactly what everyone is having for dinner on any particular night. Interrogating my kids when they come in from school is just not the same.
At home, the temptation to routine the joy out of your day to cope with the continuous work/ family flow, is also strong. And, contrary to my productivity rant above, this isn’t always best practice. My husband sounded the klaxon recently when he returned from a stint away to witness my maniacal breakfast routine, which I won’t bore you with other than to say I have a favourite teaspoon.
Routine, I have discovered, can also be the enemy of creativity.
So, what’s the answer, to this eternal quest for balance? For me, it’s accepting that to work flexibly you may have to learn a new way of working. It’s identifying what you are lacking – in my case social interaction – and putting people back in your day – hello, friend! It’s accepting that external stimulation feeds your brain and ultimately helps you nail ‘the thing’ when you need to knuckle down. It’s acknowledging that I’m probably a different level of anal to my multi-tasking friend.
With this new respect for time, gaiety and efficiency, I will no doubt be spending far more quality time with my family too, right?
As Dolly Parton says, “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
I’ll let you know how I get on.