There has been a steady rise in parents working for themselves in recent years, yet little is discussed about the specific joys and challenges of this. Emily Garsin, a self-employed mother and arts business co-owner reflects on the highs and lows of looking after a small business alongside a small family!
People often ask me what it’s like to run a business as a mother of a young child. I have two babies: my son and my company, Starling Arts. I love both with all my heart and thank my lucky stars for them both every day. The flexibility of being your own boss is a massive bonus for my life as a mother, but being a self-employed mum is a constant juggling act! Being a parent is hard. Being a business owner is hard. Trying to do both well simultaneously can feel impossible at times. So here are some of the things I’ve learned from my first two years of working motherhood.
1) Planning ahead
The rules around maternity rights for those who are self employed aren’t necessarily simple or clear, so I did lots of internet based research, finding the most useful sources of information coming from other working parents. Each situation is individual, so it helps to leave plenty of time to make applications and claims! It’s also a good idea for employed partners to have conversations with their workplaces early on, to find out what sort of benefits, support and packages they provide.
2) Keeping it separate
One of the most valuable lessons learnt since my son was born is that I am better at both parenting and my work when I separate them. I attempted to do a KIT (keeping in touch) day by attending a choir rehearsal when my son was just a few months old. I ended up sat in tears by my front door, and I never made it to the session. On reflection, it was too soon, I wasn’t prepared; I just didn’t yet have everything I needed to return in place. I have since carved out blocks of time to be the best mother I can to my son, whilst also dedicating separate time to my work where I can focus and be ‘me’. I’m determined to show my son a positive model as a female social entrepreneur and make him proud of me. That drives me to work on both my parenting and working life, and I try and keep as much equilibrium as I can.
I have been known to call my mum while I’m cooking dinner, shovelling a spoonful of yogurt in the direction of a toddler, wiping various stains from my top and, packing a bag. Usually to a soundtrack of ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’. I now have muscles in my left arm I never knew existed and have refined the brand new skill of picking things up exclusively with my toes. It’s lucky parenting a toddler is so energetic because I’d struggle to find time to workout otherwise!
I’ve taken my son to work events, performances and even pitches for new clients. He always seemed to enjoy the experiences - with a highlight being him attending our first choir away weekend in 2018.
4) Using every second
Never a second can be wasted when you’re a self-employed parent! The moment one baby is asleep, you pick the other up and ‘go go go’. When my son naps, I’m cooking, writing proposals, planning sessions and answering emails. When he sleeps for the night, I am off to run group singing sessions while someone else watches over him. Commutes have become a time to work, check-in and recharge. Who knew the Northern Line could be a place to unwind…
Tip: A useful tool I draw on is the pomodoro technique. Short blasts of 25 mins mean I can fit in bursts of washing, cleaning and cooking during my working day.
The great gift of working for yourself is that, during admin times, you can flex and adapt your own hours to suit your family. I am lucky enough to be able to work around the needs of my son and find ways to make sure I get the important stuff looked after. Before I became a mother, I used to wrap my life around my work; now I flex my work around my family life (and use all the other things below when that doesn’t cut it!).
However… there is a constant buzz I’ve come to know. The voice that says I’m doing too little of one thing or not enough of something else. I’ve come to accept that the balance may never be exactly right (and is in a constant state of flux), and that I can only do what I can at any moment.
For most of us mere mortals, motherhood brings different standards of presentation. Where before having a child I’d pride myself on being (reasonably) well turned out, now I’m lucky to be wearing clothes that aren’t stained with some sort of bodily fluid. (Reader, I keep clean clothes by the door that I change into before I leave the house for work / exit mum mode). I’ve grown my hair from edgier shorter crops to a low maintenance bob to minimise the impact when I can’t style it. As someone who has had acne since the age of 10 I never thought I’d have the guts to leave the house make up free, but now it’s a shock when I do manage to wear it. But I sometimes have a clean house (for five minutes). I am learning to embrace the chaos (and the cups of tea that are cold by the time I get round to drinking them. I recommend a flask to all new parents!)
For several years I have been co-running a business and looking after a community of singers. Then while I was on maternity leave I was a mum. The first few months of creeping back to work were full of subtle negotiations. Learning how to get myself ready while cradling a teething baby. Attempting to dress presentably for a client workshop while feeding the baby meatballs (why do I always cook meatballs when I have something important on?). I am still working on calming my anxiety when I have to be away from my son for work. I am still working out who I am now, and accepting that the pre-baby version of me has changed for good, and the post-baby me is still in progress. I bring many of the creative elements of my job into my parenting - I am the queen at improvised toddler distraction techniques - and likewise being a parent has taught me to be more compassionate, patient and curious in my work.
9) Mindful moments
While I’d love to dedicate more time for formal meditation practice, my ever-growing task list often wins out. So instead, I prioritise space for mindful moments - 5 minutes to sit in the parked car and do nothing before I rush to the next thing, or a cup of tea spent drinking (not writing a to-do list or scrolling through twitter, or crawling on the floor looking for a lost miniature tractor). Being present and in control of my own emotions is as vital during a toddler tantrum as it is during a tech rehearsal.
10) Childcare / Having a ‘team’
During the day, my son is either at a small nursery childminding service (who are brilliant and super flexible and help out whenever a last minute job comes up!) or at home with me. When I’m on mum duty I sometimes do simple tasks like answering emails and planning warm ups and get my son involved as much as possible. Sadly he’s started using the phrase ‘no singing mummy’ so there goes my at-home-rehearsal-come-toddler-entertaining sessions..!
I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband who supports my wayward and sometimes unsociable hours, rushing home from work just in time to take over bath duty while I run out the door to run choir. But sadly he has an unpredictable job that involves lots of travel. I’ve had many an evening session, and two weekend-long work trips since our son was born, where my husband got called abroad last minute… Luckily we have several super grandparents and our siblings who are on-call to help us out! I have a wonderful babysitter who calms me down as I race out of the door fresh from ‘one more book’ before bedtime. I am also blessed to have the most wonderful business partner who is as good at making children laugh as she is being my work wife. Without her understanding, flexibility and compassion, I’d struggle to make it all work!
and 11) Remembering what it’s all for
Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in whatever challenge is most urgent that second - that important proposal that should have been sent yesterday, or the pile of washing that won’t wash itself. But as I nurture my business and family, I also need to find time to nurture ‘me’. So I try to step back and remember what is in front of me at any one time, and - whatever that is - give it my full love and attention.