The relentless, unforgiving battle of being a mum in enterprise

A lot of people think that for women, success in business comes at a cost; that you can either have a happy family or a happy business. Actually, I don’t think it’s responsible or helpful to think in this way. I have rarely been able to get the balance exactly right, keeping my mind body and soul in fact, fit and fab, sane and not too serious – whilst still being able to follow the standards my parents impressed upon me and which I value so greatly. Regardless of my lack of perfection, I have had and am leading the most interesting of lives. I remain happily married, with 3 children all of whom were born while I was in the process of growing a large international business. In fact, I had to discreetly breastfeed my second daughter while attending lectures at Cranfield Business Growth Programme.

I have felt utterly miserable at times, when family life was going, where I had been a more present mum – but underneath I was feelign stretched and knackered because I did not feel I was giving the company or my team all I could. At other times when I felt on top of the business, things were ticking, growing fast and happily generating profit, I was missed by the children and sometimes felt very low, calling home and asking yet again, how was school?

There is this ridiculous notion that a woman can either be a “good” wife and mum, or we can be successful in business. I will admit that I have done a lot of juggling over the years, and that I have been blessed with a wonderful husband who picks up the slack while I am off travelling for work – but I still maintain that it is possible, and important – to have both professional and personal fulfilment in life.

Like most things, it’s all about the choices we make in life.

Choosing the right husband

I chose to marry my husband because I saw him as the best I had – and we make a fantastic team. “Team” is the key word here – we work together, not against each other. He knows me and of course has put up with me longer than my parents did – and for us, it works. If the washing up needs doing, the dogs need walking, the school run needs to be done, it doesn’t matter who does it, as long as it gets done. We both choose to put the needs of the family above our egos or any petty arguments. We really rarely argue, and he was utterly warned by my father that “no man alive should live with that woman!” Now that my children are older, they form a part of our team too; we all work together to ensure we all keep going and of course we strive imperfectly to always ensure everyone is happy.

Choosing the right people

As well as marrying the right partner I have ensured, as much as one realistically can, I always chose the right people in my business. I have made mistakes and I have had a great deal to learn about professionalising our recruitment process. You can achieve amazing things if you put the right team of A-grade people around you. As a business owner, you can only take time out of the business if you have 100% trust and belief in the people you are leaving behind in the office to keep things going in your absence. That can only come from choosing the right employees, setting clear high expectations, and then milking them for all they are worth whilst sharing experiences and education, giving fair and even-handed feedback and always being consistently fair in care.

When people ask me how to know which applicant will be a great employee I tell them to look at their CV and if they had a paper round as a child that lasted through at least one winter, they are the right person for a grafting sales job. Anyone who can ride a bicycle through the cold British winder with a heavy bag of newspapers on their back will bring that same tenacity and determination to your business – and that is what you need from people if you are to succeed.

Recruitment for your own business is entirely different to recruitment for a large multinational. Someone who wants a job in order to have money and pay the bills is not someone who belongs in your small, fast-growing, agile and reactionary business. You need people who are passionate about what you are doing, who buy into your “why” and will work hard to achieve it alongside you. When you have these people on board, and work hard on your company culture, you will find that although you work hard, the work itself is not hard and it becomes much easier to take time out of your business to spend with your family. There were times where I genuinely built a very good routine and was on the ball both at work and at home.

Choosing not to put my life on hold

I am desperately sad to hear of women who feel they have to keep a pregnancy quiet, or indeed delay their own desirest o have children because of perceived career pressure. Women have to be more tactical, more demanding of what we are worth, and we must plan to succeed, setting clear boundaries. It is of course more difficult for the employed rather than a founder, but equally good people who are good contributors working for a decent company will always find a working way. I would leave any company that restricted me otherwise.

It would have been easy – almost expect – for me to put my personal life on hold while growing a business. Nobody would have thought less of me if I had waited to have children until “the time was right.” The thing is, the time is never right, is it? Is there ever an optimum time to have children; there will always be hard choices to make – particularly for mothers – about returning to work. The choices I made are no doubt different from those made by others, but we all make choices.

Fulfilment comes from many areas, and while I love my children fiercely, I knew that I also needed my work in order to be fulfilled so my choice was to have children while also building a company. Really simply put, I’d rather sell stuff than change nappies, and I don’t like babies. I liked my own some of the time, but not for lots of days in a row. It wasn’t always easy – but much of my life I have felt my approach worked for me. I have of course experienced self-doubt. I refuse to use the world “guilt” and I change things if I don’t feel I have a near balance.

I don’t often hear people talk about “quality time” with their children, but that’s what I have always aimed for. When I was home, I was present. In the early years I never had tech with me and tried hard to always be there at bath and bed time. I never missed a Christmas play, but had to wait for every type of tree, star, shepherd and nativity character until finally on the ninth attendance Tamsin cracked it as Mary! Worth the effort!

Choosing not to be defeated

I am not a person who accepts defeat as a foregone conclusion. When 9/11 happened, the global travel industry collapsed and as a supplier to hotels across the world, my company suffered. This was just one of numerous times when things began to look more than a little worrying for me but I chose the “head up, shoulders back, get on with it” approach.

Juggling work and a family can feel like a situation where you’re doomed to fail. It can feel very defeating, especially if the people around you are not supportive. But even if the people around you are supportive, you still need to be supportive of yourself. You still need to stand up every single time you are knocked down. I could so easily have thrown my hands up and said “well, I’ve got children now so I can’t do this too.” I definitely would have had a much less stressful time in my thirties – but I also would have been much less happy, much less fulfilled, much less me. There is nothing wrong with needing more than just work or more than just a family life to be fulfilled; men and women are both perfectly capable of having both if we choose not to be defeated by either.

Choosing balance

Life is often a balancing act, both personally and professionally. We juggle so many different things in our lives and I think there is this fallacy of “balance” in life, as if we will one day line things up on each side of the scale perfectly, achieve balance and never have to think about it again. In reality, balance is something that requires constant attention. The tightrope walker doesn’t balance himself at the beginning and then wander off across the wire without paying attention to every single movement along the way. When you have a business and a family there are daily adjustments to be made in order to ensure you are serving both sides equally. I still loathe calls home to check everyone is OK, but I still make them.

Possibly the most important choice when it comes to having a family and a successful business was this: I chose never to do “guilt.” Guilt, especially for mothers, is a massive thing that can easily weigh us down and paralyse us. Guilt because we didn’t cuddle our children enough, or we cuddled them too much. Guilt because we had to rearrange that meeting, or because we didn’t make it to sports day on time. It serves no purpose, except for tying us up in knots and diverting our attention from what is really important. Focus instead on the here and now, and what you can do to make tomorrow better.

Life is all about choices, and the choices I have made may well not be the ones you would have made were you in my position. I chose to raise a family while also growing a business, to maintain a happy marriage while also having a happy workforce. It has not always been the easiest thing in the world – but who wants an easy life, really? Easy is boring and unfulfilling. I can stand up now and say that I am thus far relatively proud of my achievements in business, and also proud of my marriage. More than anything I am outrageously proud of my children – and I hope in leading by example they too will strive to be the best they can be, and to make the most of what life throws at them, coping well and always giving back to others.

Written by Vicky Charles

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