‘Doing It All’: Caryn Franklin MBE On Working Motherhood

In an era of ‘having it all,’ modern motherhood stands out as a beacon of conflicting suppositions. An exhausting balancing act for a great many of us in careers/jobs we love or need, being a working mother – especially a freelance working mother, in fashion and broadcast (no maternity or sick pay) and in earlier times a single-parent working mother – has delivered the highest highs and the lowest lows to my life.
Of course you can do both, and you don’t need to choose one or the other, but go forward with certainty that there will be short to mid-term impact on the way you manage your career. Be assured however, that this does not have to hold you back in the long-term.
And long-term thinking is a crucial comfort blanket against the backdrop of debates around the detrimental impact of child-rearing to women’s careers and earning ability. I write as a mother who has worked full-time throughout my child-rearing years, and now with grown up off-spring, I continue to enjoy exhilarating and exciting projects.
But let’s be clear, there were times when my constant companions: exhaustion and guilt would collide with misjudgement and unforeseeable outcomes to impact on both my professionalism and my parenting. Those ‘head-in-the-hands-why-am-I-doing-this-to-myself,’ moments really suck. BUT I wouldn’t call motherhood an impediment to career success in the same way that I wouldn’t define career success as the highest measure of achievement in my life. In that respect I don’t take an either/ or approach. I am a better woman, having altered my journey and perspectives to take in parenthood. My daughters, 23 and 16 – different women with different fathers – have delivered enormous presence and teaching. So even though their early years added uncompromising demands to my working schedule and influenced the jobs I chose, I do not regret my choices.
We may each negotiate unique conflicts during working motherhood simply because as women navigating an androcentric working environment with cultural and corporate norms shaped by err... Fathers, we are trying to fit into a system that does not accommodate parenting. But business is business and until we get more Mothers in positions of power to bring in work-place crèches and other visionary mother (or father)-child supports, it is what it is. I’m with British Vogue editor Alex Shulman, who says you have to accept there will consequences when you are absent due to multiple maternity leaves, but before you throw your toys out of the pram, consider the fact that motherhood can help you to GROW UP in ways you can only understand after the event. It is this growth and its enhancement of my life and of course my long-term career progress, which I am most grateful for.
I believe that motherhood begins at the moment of conception. It changes your view from foreground to horizon and things alter both subtly and seismically in ways you simply cannot know... until you know them. I’m offering honest, personal and generalised diary excerpts to flag up things worth thinking about but with respect, as each woman’s working motherhood is different and these are very different times. We are united, however, by the well-travelled route of this age-old journey, as throughout history and across the globe, nearly all mothers have worked during their child-rearing years. I also asked both daughters what it was like growing up with a working mother and their points at the end of this piece make for interesting reading.

The choice to create another human being, to love it unconditionally and be there as best you can is as good as it gets. No one said anything about unicorns and rainbows let alone gender parity and uninterrupted upward career trajectory.

A flexible stance will help you most. Try envisaging working motherhood not as an irritating interlude to your ambition at a time when you are highly productive career-wise, but as a calculated overdraft on previously stored resources: financial, personal and relational. Yes, you will be severely in the red at regular points in the first few years of your child’s life and wondering what you have done to your sanity and your chances of career success. It’s normal stuff and every working mother in this privileged and industrialised world knows your pain. But seeing the bigger picture always helps. Motherhood impacts across your life, not just your career. The choice to create another human being, to love it unconditionally and be there as best you can is as good as it gets. No one said anything about unicorns and rainbows, let alone gender parity and uninterrupted upward career trajectory.
Motherhood, will for instance put a catastrophic strain on the best of relationships. Dysfunctional or sub-standard relationships will not survive unless they change. I realised I could not continue to look after my first partner in the way that I had done, and assume sole responsibility of a new born and work full time! He had chronic ill-health and I was the only earner and perhaps a little too optimistic about how much I could take on. However, I soon realised many things about us as a couple that would make it impossible to continue. Single parenthood became a simplification in many ways. Looking after one needy human instead of two and exchanging rows and screaming matches for silence was bliss. My second and current long-term relationship delivered other struggles. My resentment at assumptions regularly made about changes to my plans to suit our children’s needs would always lurk on the side-lines of our love affair and flair up as arguments. We were two devoted parents but also two highly motivated freelancers. Because my husband travels the world as a documentary maker, I found myself making 90% of the compromises. We bickered mostly but we also got to a very bad place that needed professional refereeing. We stayed together and I am overjoyed about that. Keep on talking, keep on negotiating.
The first baby is a big old wake up call. I went back to work two weeks after giving birth and took my infant Mateda and everything I needed for her day with me (that included my mother). I was lucky in this instance, my employers were the BBC and I was a regular screen-face on a prime-time fashion show for many years. Some may say that was unlucky... I would have been replaced instantly if I wanted a few months off, and who can say if I would have returned for the following series the next season? I saw my situation as fully advantageous however and of course fairly unique. A typical day would need me to express milk at midnight while reading and writing scripts to be faxed overnight, up several times during the night before a 5am alarm to prep and pack for an 8am departure. Earlier call times required earlier alarm calls to deliver the three hours of morning prep. Leaving the house like a pack-horse with nappies, baby sling and car seat, and at work permanently jigging/rocking the baby while I wrote and learned my lines for camera or interviewed a variety of creatives, are two very strong memories. I became adept at breast-feeding many times during the day while working on live consumer shows at the NEC, at London Fashion Week and on live and pre-recorded studio shoots and location shoots, but when I couldn’t break away my mother had the previous night’s harvest to calm the screaming infant on set. If you return to work early and want your child to receive the huge benefits of human milk, you’ll need to factor in clothing changes as milk leaks from the body, infections and fevers for yourself, and feeding or changing your baby in hard to find or out of the way places. I travelled all over the country with my first child and there were no nappy changing facilities on trains in those days so I had to do it on the floor in the only toilet cubicle. Ahh... Happy Days.
I have been lucky to work with many colleagues who have been supportive and flexible. In return I have always delivered unflinching graft. When I had Roseby seven years later, I returned to work three weeks after she was born. A Vogue shoot with Prince Charles for Fashion Targets Breast Cancer, which I still co-chair with Amanda Wakeley, and a new live-in nanny in tow, excited at the faces she recognised, are a sweet memory of my easier second time around of easing back into the world of career. Sisters, friends and other mothers are also important allies; women are brilliantly collaborative during the early years. Having daughters also consolidated my thinking around the unachievable body ideals my own industry presents and as I began to deconstruct fashion imagery for Mateda at a very young age, I naturally gravitated towards projects that allowed me to use my skill to critique fashion and empower users.
Did I mention the guilt? Never enough time to do all the “out of hours” work required to get a production off the ground? As a writer, broadcaster and producer, I have had periods of relative calm when working on books and other writing projects, but many more mad times when working to aggressive deadlines on productions for large events at places like the V&A, Earls Court and London Fashion Week. Producing and presenting documentaries and live location reports for ITV, prime time shows for BBC and other channels such as Discovery, Channel 4 and 5 and liaising with designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Philip Treacy, Matthew Williamson, Agnes B and many others to create vehicles with high-end production values, I have pushed myself to the edge to deliver at the expense of my parenting. Even though I dropped everything when they were ill, accepted jobs much closer to home, and called a halt to evening networking, launches and work parties, it wasn’t enough at times. The guilt of not being there for school plays and concerts, parents' evenings (which annoyingly always seemed to be from 5pm to 7pm), sporting events, hobbies, play dates and all the marvellous minutia that would be left to our au pairs, was always present.
On bad days or weeks of heavy deadlines, I tortured myself with fantasies of the terrible psychological damage my child might be prone to as a result of not enough contact with me in a way that I don’t think my partner ever did, despite him having much less contact. Mobile phone conversations with little ones before bedtime were a lifeline for mother and child as was a good au pair’s report of the day to keep me in the loop. On the flip side, I never felt the frustration of a bigger world calling me or the dwindling of my journalist skills; I was always invigorated by what the day held and I didn’t worry, as many women who stepped away from work did in my time, how I would get back in the saddle.

Whilst my husband exchanged pleasantries with our live in au pairs at meal times, I was required to make bigger, deeper and more time consuming relationships with each of these women. I had a wife in fact.

As a freelancer, you spend the time in which you don’t have actual paid work, looking and pitching for work. This becomes even more urgent when you have childcare wages on top of everything else. And we had many different service providers, from nursery and live-out nannies, to live-in. However, whilst my husband exchanged pleasantries with our live-in au pairs at meal times, I was required to make bigger, deeper and more time consuming relationships with each of these women. I had a wife in fact, and bringing small gifts back, remembering special days, and listening empathically for hours about boyfriend problems was fairly standard. Our relationships were always intense as we bonded over my children and my au pair’s desire to help me. Most of them came to feel like part of the family and we cried and hugged when some left. One of them was negative and mean-spirited and I snapped and sacked her on the spot, but my girls and I remember all those other amazing women very fondly. My husband would occasionally get involved in looking through agency books for our next Dutch, Turkish, Czech, Polish, Slovakian home help and he did make some great choices.
Exhaustion comes with it. My first daughter birthed at 33 was much easier to stay up with at night and then put in a full working day than my second at 41. I was much more fatigued and prone to illness that probably came as a result of less resilience to sleep deprivation. N.B. Mums seem to sleep in a different way around young children and always hear their calls in the middle of the night and respond instantly before Dad has had a chance... at least that’s what my partner used as a defence.
Right about now I’m feeling to add the promise of overwhelming love into this piece. You get given it in bucket loads for your child. When my first daughter asked if I would have to give half her love to the new baby I answered no! I told her it was all hers and I was growing more love for the new baby. There simply is no substitute for the magical joy and devotion you will feel for your children and this will make your roar like a lioness to protect them! You also receive a previously unknown adoration from your child who, for a very long time, thinks you are the most wonderful person in the world – there is nothing like it to sustain you through the tough times. But there are other gains... parenting will shape you as an employee. Based on my own experience, I can predict these possible changes.
You will not tolerate time wasting if it means you are prevented from getting back to your child on time.
You will become focussed like never before and better able to compartmentalise. So what if you had a rubbish day? You will not need to mull it over in the evening as you will be way too busy doing important stuff with and for your kid.
With practice, you will be able to switch off when at work and focus on the job. You will give it your all and you will be sharper and more creative as thinking outside of the box will come more readily now that you are working your brain harder than ever.
You will care less about what you see in your mirror and more about what you observe in your world.
Your instinct and gut feeling will be enhanced. You will intuit more about your environment and this can be put to good use in the work place. Trust it.
Your sense of consequences and outcomes is multiplied.
You will become super organised and know where everything is or should go to the point where you will wonder why you didn’t have these tools before having a child.
You will be an excellent time-keeper.
You will spend your money differently to prioritise your family.
You will become a better negotiator at work, having honed your skills on your child and your partner.
You will become firmer and clearer about boundaries for the same reasons as above.
You will feel better able to promote your skill-set and justify your fee. If the job takes you away from your child, it has to be of value to you.
You will care about the future in a new way as you see mass-media messaging and appalling corporate behaviour through your child’s eyes and attempt to explain the messed up thinking.
You will see your work as both an important element of who you are and a means to a bigger end. Families need funding after all.
You will PLAY again.
In short, I’m saying the long-term benefits can far outweigh the short-term deficits to your life. Family is created from heart-felt bonds between people who love each other and of course there doesn’t have to be a biological connection to make this happen. But you won’t find these family members miraculously clustering round your work-station, no matter how great your job and how wonderful your work colleagues. There are many good reasons not to bring children into the world but damage to a glittering career doesn’t have to be one of them. Critics of working mothers may point to lack of maternal input in to a child’s life as problematic (forgetting of course that lack of paternal influence can have impact too) but I was keen to know from Mateda and Roseby what their positive and negative experiences of a driven working mother might be.
They both say they became independent quickly and learned to shape their own lives. For Roseby, the waiting for me to get in and cook and the eating too late got her down, so from 12, when we no longer had au pairs, she began to shop and cook for herself (and us if we were lucky). Ditto using the washing machine and iron to make sure her favourite clothes were clean when she needed them.
Au pairs were fun and the girls learned about other cultures. Roseby especially honed her confidence and people skills by having to quickly adapt to new women in the home.
They enjoyed not having a micro-managing mother. It meant there was no time for any maternal criticism of their life. They made their own choices with confidence, knowing that I would not be interfering.
They loved having a role model who talked about exciting projects and the whys and hows of getting things done. Mateda says this was always inspiring.
They now realise that having a female role model with a strong work ethic has rubbed off on them and they too have become naturally productive. Mateda says this has given her confidence in her own ability to get things done.
They hated the negative energy of stress and martyring to deadlines that got brought home. AND THEY BOTH SAID THEIR PIECE ABOUT THAT ON MANY OCCASIONS.
OK there was no hobby encouragement, no excited parent on the side-lines, but they reassure me I seemed to feel much worse about it than they did and apart from boring lunch boxes hurriedly put together with zero imagination, they can’t think of anything else.
We muddled through is what we three women are saying and I’m recommending that if you want children, you’ll consider doing the same. Neither daughter knows if they wish for motherhood yet or how they will tackle a working motherhood in the event of conception. I’ll leave them and you dear reader to ponder that privileged choice for yourself.
Join the conversation with @Caryn_Franklin and @Refinery29UK #motherhood

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