This month I was honoured to be asked to take part in Creative Mornings Cardiff, a breakfast lecture series for the creative community. Cardiff is just one chapter and there are chapters in almost every city all over the world. Attendees gather in cities around the world to enjoy fresh coffee, friendly people, and an international array of breakfast foods. Exciting stuff! Each month there is a theme, and November's theme was Death.
Initially, I didn't think I had anything to chat with a room of people about concerning Death. I didn't know anyone personally that had died recently. But this was a creative event after all so we started to think outside the box. (or the coffin, if you will). I realised that there was something. Something that I talked about generally, day-to-day; unconsciously. Something that came up more and more in conversation with friends and family and something that I was beginning to feel very passionate about; Choice.
I'll start at the beginning...
I started off freelancing about 6 years ago now. Before that, I did a degree in Graphic Communication at UWIC. After graduating (and about a hundred interviews) I went to work at a large greetings company, designing Christmas wrapping paper and cards. Which was great, until it was July, boiling hot outside and I was drawing my 15th Santa that day. Seriously, there are only so many ways you can make a Santa look different! I was going slightly insane, I had to leave! After that stint of Christmasness, I went to work for a web and app company. I’ve no idea how I managed to get that job with just Christmas wrap in my portfolio but it must have been something to do with my powers of persuasion. I was there a year but I started freelancing on the side as I needed to subsidise my income (the money was pants). I learned a lot there but if I'm completely honest, I was getting annoyed that my superiors were buying expensive cars and going on expensive holidays (which was their prerogative of course! They earned it). But I wanted a chance to earn it. I left, went home and cried for a week panicking about what I’d done but I can honestly say I’ve never looked back. It was definitely the best decision. Terrifying by worth it. (This is all relevant I promise).
Six years later there are three of us & we work on everything from branding to infographics, to animated promo videos for all sorts of clients all over the place. It has been a hell of a few years and I’ve gone from doing tiny branding projects for family and friends to working with clients such as Public Health Wales, The Welsh Government, Rent Smart Wales, Confused.com, Visit Carmarthenshire, Sainsbury’s, Arriva Trains to name a few.
I’m also amazed to have collected a couple of awards too. I won the creative industries award at the Cardiff Life Awards this year, Highly commended at the business growth awards, freelancer of the year at the regional business awards 2016 and shortlisted for The Great British Entrepreneur Awards twice. Mind-blowing and completely unexpected. In fact, at the Cardiff life awards, I had already taken my shoes off and was lounging about in my chair eating dessert (sulking a little because I was pregnant and couldn't enjoy any of the free champagne) when they announced. It was such a shock I had to go and collect the award onstage shoeless. Embarrassing!
I still do most of the design work, because that’s what I love doing but as anyone knows who runs their own business, I've had to learn how to step into other roles along the way. Like project manager, client development bedtime, marketing, finance etc. Matt, a great designer keeps our day to day clients happy, and my husband Dave, is our motion designer and tech boffin. Yes, we live together, we work with each other every day, and we haven’t killed each other yet. Which in itself is a massive achievement!
In fact, we have made two babies in the last two years. So we must still like each other at least a little bit. Don't you think?
Say hello to my little family. Murphy, our daughter is 18 months now and Maximus is 4 months old. Dave is there too, he's the one with the beard. I always said I wouldn’t be one of those mums who shove baby pictures in people’s faces but sadly, I have turned into one by accident. So sorry about that, but it is relevant, I promise.
Like I imagine most of us do, I had an idea of how my life would pan out. I met Dave when I’d just started my degree course so I thought, I’d graduate, get a nice job at an agency 9-5 (where the boss can worry about getting clients and the money), buy a house, get married, have kids. Dave would probably be the breadwinner as he was (well, still is, I haven't caught up or anything) seven years older than me and already had an established job. I’d take some time off with the babies. Y’know, the usual. That’s just what I thought was the normal route to take. I guess it was sort of ingrained in me. Boring? Maybe, but each to their own. (hey, I don't judge you for your obsession with gin ice lollies or zorbing).
I was never very adventurous. Friends of mine were off travelling or moving to different cities for work but it never appealed to me. I wanted to stay in Cardiff, settle down. One thing was entirely certain though. I definitely, 100% wanted to be a designer and illustrator and nothing was going to get in the way of that.
Up until Murphy was born, Dave was working full time for the Police in Forensics. He liked his job, it was reliable money plus decent overtime, and I was doing pretty well with the business. Dave also dabbled in animation and web development so he was doing some side projects with me in our spare time. It was around then that we realised that we worked really well together and our skill set complimented each other. Don't get me wrong, there were arguments and creative differences, we're not completely in tune. Often, after a few drinks on a Friday, we'd drunkenly dream about how amazing it would be to go into business together, full time. Never did we think we'd ever have the courage to do it.
But if we wanted to have a family, we had some decisions to make.
Over the last decade or two, the way we live, love, work and care for our families has changed dramatically. A Telegraph article suggested that the ‘nuclear family had become a museum piece’. Which I don't believe is entirely a bad thing.
Among lots of other changes; we now travel further for the jobs we really want, we’re having children later and families with one full time and one non-working parent are increasingly rare.
For lots of families, two full-time incomes are necessary, there’s no option for one to stay at home. People always say things like ‘I’d love to be at home with the kids’ or ‘I wish I could be a stay at home Dad’ It’s clear that in so many lives ‘family and work is not a good fit and we feel like we have to choose one or the other. That’s certainly how I felt personally, I couldn’t see how I could keep running my business and be a mum.
So what if you want to do both?
How do we solve the work/life balance puzzle?
Those who do take the decision to focus solely on their family, find themselves having to with one income or rely benefits which inevitably puts a strain on relationships. "Life in more ‘time -wealthy’ families is less pressured, relationships are under less strain and wellbeing levels are higher.” Which is common sense right? But most of us simply don't have that choice.
So, being in a loving, committed marriage that we both agreed we wanted to go the distance (despite a severe clash of opinions when it comes to cake flavours), we talked about this stuff. In-depth.
It seemed we had only 3 options available to us once we found out that our daughter was on her way. Don't get me wrong, we felt extremely lucky to have these choices. Many people don't. This is a very simplified summary as it was quite complex.
Either Dave took the 6 months paternity (which you can swap around now between you due to the new laws) so I could carry on working. But that would mean I’d basically give birth on Saturday and go back to work on Monday. (eeek). Or I took 6 months off, but Dave’s income wouldn’t sustain us both and he’d miss out on the first few months of our kid’s life. I’d also likely lose a load of clients because who’s going to hang about for six months waiting for me to come back? Also, we’d have to think about childcare after those 6 months for us both to work which we worked out would cost about £1200 a month! Crazy! So neither of those options were working for us. I didn’t want to give up work completely and Dave didn’t want to miss out on being a new dad. So we only really had one option. Let’s take a risk and go into business together and work on being new parents and business owners and try and make that work. It was a long time coming and it looks like we just needed a little push.
I love my job, as I’ve said before. I’d spent four years by this point building it and I wasn’t prepared to let that go. I wanted to build something successful that would benefit my family financially but also to be a lesson about working hard and perseverance for my children when they were older. Dave was also pretty sick of visiting crime scenes and much preferred working on animated videos for cool projects! Plus, frankly, we worked out we could earn more money doing what we do together than Dave working with the police and me working alone.
One thing I have learnt over the past six years is that if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. But I can’t say we jumped head first into option three without any worry at all, we’re not completely deluded. Although Dave definitely had great skills to contribute to the business, and we’d worked out a way to offer services that would involve more of his skills, there was also still a question of taking time off after the birth and whether I could successfully take a decent amount off, without losing clients. We would also need to earn enough during the pregnancy to cover that time off.
It was a stressful time. Ultimately though we felt that us both being as involved as possible in our child’s life and both of us shouldering the responsibility of running a business would work better than one of us going off to work all day and the other being a stay at home parent. Or, us both going to work all day and sending our children to a childminder or nursery and missing all the milestones.
Once I got my head around the fact that we were both in it together, and that one was not more responsible for our lives than the other things began to work out.
Dave and I are not unique. I know a handful of friends who have found themselves in this position and had to figure a way to work it out, I’m sure you do as well. And they’ve dealt with it in different ways which is great. There is no right way or wrong way! Being able to adapt to do the best for your family is a necessary skill these days.
So, Dave handed in his notice and the adventure began. I can’t say it was smooth sailing. We set the plan in motion and I let all clients know that I was taking two months off as soon as I could and tried not to beg them to wait for me. We decided that two months would probably be enough (PAH! Being childless up to this point, we had NO IDEA how hard it was actually going to be).
Most clients were really understanding, but there were a few responses along the lines of ‘well, what’s your contingency plan?’, ‘Are you arranging cover because this is very inconvenient for us’. Which I guess in a way, was a huge compliment. But it did send us into a mild panic and we had to adjust the plan a little.
I started the search for a freelancer who could help out on projects while I was off, so I didn’t have to turn clients away and risk them finding someone else. This wasn’t part of my grand plan because I’m a massive control freak and I didn’t think I could cope with someone else doing the design work. But we did, we found Matt, who’s still with us. So the plan was, that I’d take two months off and Matt would cover the day to day work and it would all be hunkey dory.
Of those two months, I actually managed 3 weeks off. So it was pretty much like giving birth on Saturday and going back to work on Monday. (sigh). And man, it was hard. Especially since it turned out that having a baby is so freakin’ hard. Definitely harder than I thought and massive hats off to any single mother’s out there who do it alone all day every day.
I still had to manage the projects, brief Matt and Dave, manage the accounts while trying to get to grips with this little human who needed all my attention. Sleep turned into something that happened to other people. (who am I kidding? It still is) Dave and I alternated between work and baby care through the days and nights. This was a whole new ball game for Dave too, he couldn’t just jump into my roles in the business and there were things he couldn’t do for Murphy for the first couple of months, like feed her.
Bye, bye, nine to five
Today, there’s no such thing as a 9-5 day for us. We might do 6-9am, swap over and Dave would do 10-1, we might have to pop out to a baby group or baby clinic in the afternoon. Alternate work and baby time again. Then it's tea time, bath time, bed time and then we might squeeze in a quick meeting about a project and then carry on working. It’s chaos. But organised chaos and it works. Most of the time.
When Murphy was 6 months old, and we’d just nailed the sleeping, she was at least getting 6 hours straight a night, we found out we were expecting Max. He was a surprise, a nice surprise but I did have two weeks of completely freaking out and wondering how it was going to work with two of them! But, there's that word again; we just had to adapt.
For nearly 19 months now we’ve been juggling work and two little ones. It’s been stressful, there have been lots of tears, ups and downs, challenges but we have adapted and the massive risk, has definitely turned into massive reward. We’re able to be there for every milestone in our kid's lives, do what we love for a living and be with each other. Some people would argue that my priority should have been my babies and that I should put work on hold and taken more time off at the beginning. But I'll argue right back that they have been my priority but within the bigger picture. They’ll grow up, with both of us every day, watching us work hard and provide as a team. That's priceless to me.
Fortunately, the subject of flexible working is coming up more and more as employers realise that to retain their talent and attract new staff they need to adapt to family lives. That's great because it means it’s not just self-employed parents that are getting opportunities to spend more time at home. But there’s still a way to go. Lots of people still feel that asking for flexible working will signal lack of commitment or that they will need to work longer hours when they are in work to make up for this ‘benefit’ of flexible working. Which of course isn't going to help anyone.
There is also still a need for Father’s to be able to make work-life balance choices. The challenge isn’t just for women as more and more dads want to play a more active role in their children’s lives. This is fantastic news but there are still equality issues here that we need to be having more conversations about.
Our work and family life now blend together, they're not separate. It’s hard, but it works. We’ve built great relationships with clients who understand and think nothing of receiving an email with draft of an animation at 11:30 at night. Ultimately, I’ve found that as long as you deliver on time, on budget, and that the quality is still there, they don’t care when and how you’re managing it. That’s been the key, making sure we still deliver quality work, why would they go elsewhere if they know they can rely on you. Who cares about 9-5 anymore?
More than that, family and business life doesn’t need to be separate. We forget that MD’s and CEO’s and marketing managers are all actual human beings, with the same challenges, same problems and bringing a bit of a personal touch into your business via blog posts and Instagram stories can sometimes inspire a connection. People buy from people, and they buy even more from people they like and can connect with. So, don’t be afraid of blending. I can honestly say that it’s had a positive impact on our business.
If there’s one thing I’d like you to get from this post, it's that there’s always a way around obstacles, and if you want something to work and you work hard enough, are willing to put in the time and effort, it can be done. There’s no right way, no wrong way and we need to adapt and change with the times and with changing views.
If you are an employer, think about how you could get much more from your employees by just allowing a little more flexibility, a little more trust and understanding. They will give you much more if they’re happy, it's common sense. If you are are a freelancer, don’t be scared to mix family and work life together, it doesn’t need to stay separate. Blending a little might have a positive impact on your business performance. We're all human, why can't we show it?
Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that I think we’d all be more successful if we were happy. Try and be happy first. Make your own rules. Life’s too short not to try.
Go be happy!