I first met Laura Tenison, founder of JoJo Maman Bébé, the year in which she was awarded Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year. What struck me was her outstanding energy and passion for what she did. What impressed me even more was that she was also a mother of two. She truly inspired me, then a mother of one very little baby, to believe in setting up my own business and in combining my work with my family. Parental Choice is pleased to offer Laura’s view on juggling work and family:
“I hate the word Mumpreneur – it dumbs us down. We are business people who happen to be mothers or mothers who happen to own or wish to run a business. Let’s not forget that. As a word ‘Mumpreneur’ has its uses for the tabloid press to describe a juggling female parent, but please respect yourself a little and don’t ever call yourself one. Where are all the ‘Dadpreneurs’?!
It’s an interesting world we live in – hardly a day goes by when I am not invited to join a women’s networking group, attend a women’s awards ceremony or role model some young women in business. I totally understand the issues of not wanting to compromise on your children whilst continuing to be ambitious about your career. It is tough for us women but in my case and maybe for many others (including men), letting go of the sense of responsibility is the problem. I wanted to be a hands on parent, I love my house looking good, I’m passionate about fresh home cooked food, but I also enjoy my job and I’m pretty ambitious. Thirty years ago it was the norm to make the decision: be a housewife or career girl – I refused to compromise. My choice was unusual then but not so much these days – we want it all.
When I had my children the company was still very young and I was the only signatory on our bank account. I was the only one who knew how to fix the temperamental computer system, design the clothes and get the product into the warehouse. We had customer service and distribution sorted out but there was not way I could be out of the office for any period.
Thankfully my boys were both born on a Friday, I had relatively easy births and was able to bring them in to the office with me the following week. Being self-employed I could work around breastfeeding and visits from the midwife. With hindsight, I would not advocate that others do the same, but at the time I felt no hardship, it was just what needed to be done. I wanted to be there for the boys (both of whom I nursed for many months), but I also wanted to be there for my teams and giving up my business was not an option.
So I tried to juggle and in many ways I failed on both levels – dropping the children at school or nursery as early as possible so I could make the most of the working day, but STILL arriving late at work. Running out of board meetings to watch them in footie matches just to be berated at half time with a “You were late and missed my goal”. Feeling guilty and running from pillar to post is just par for the cause. I may work from home a lot during the school holidays, but I’m often so captivated by my computer or iPhone that I don’t hear what they say. Equally I have a policy of always answering the phone to my kids, even if it interrupts a meeting – which is frustrating for those I work with.
Juggling is not for everyone and I think there is much to be said for dividing your time – giving full concentration to each area of your life at different times of day and week. But if you can multi-task – cooking the supper whilst listening to homework reading; typing work emails whilst your kids play in the same room; even bringing your kids to work during the school holidays, then do. When you try juggle you do miss out to some extent, its possible that you will be overlooked for promotion due to the fact you can’t give 110% to the role, especially if it requires long hours and overseas travel. And what about the school gate socialising – its tragic that after a few months the other mums stop asking you to come for coffee or sweaty yoga because they know the inevitable answer … “oh how sad, I’d have loved to come, but I’m in a meeting/off to a trade fair/on a photo shoot….” Whatever the reason – as a juggling mum there is just no “me-time” – hence the reason for short nails and hair and a disciplined concentration at work. With not a single moment to spare in your busy day how do you fit in the trivia of a blow dry, manicure or chatting by the photocopier?
The ‘lot’ of women has improved beyond all measure in the UK (definitely not the world over) and it is easier to have a work-life balance in some industries, but we do still take on the lion’s share of domestic duties and child care. If you are anything like me you may thrive on being busy and in charge. So how to find that perfect solution?
I have to say that I am extremely lucky and I have to all intents and purposes ‘HAD IT ALL’. Starting a business around your children may be tough but if you can find a way of paying the bills, feeding your family, stretching your brain and keeping healthy and fit at the same time, you must be blessed.
My first real business was launched from my bedroom when I was in my early twenties with a £2k loan from my oldest brother. JoJo Maman Bébé, my current business, now turns over about £44M gross, employs just under 600 people in the UK, several thousand across the world, has a thriving mail order and web business and 60 retail stores. I still own the majority of the business and we have survived and even thrived during the past few years of down turn. Of course it’s not down to me alone. I have the most amazingly dedicated, loyal and trustworthy team, to whom I owe a great deal.
Yet despite JoJo’s growth, I really don’t think I have missed out on bringing up my children. Its true, I would have liked 4 kids but I was only blessed with two ( and two dogs).. Had I been Nicola Horlick, with her impressive brood, would the company have grown so far? Impossible to say and maybe in the future therapists will get rich on the resentment my (at present) apparently well balanced children, will recall. But I don’t think so.
I don’t have all the answers and I’ve made plenty of mistakes and of course if you do run your own company you can work the hours around your family, but If I can offer any advice on the home front it would be to:
1. Get help at home if can afford it, but the right person may not be the most expensive:
I really did not want anyone telling me how to bring up my babies and in any case I could not afford a trained nanny but I did find a fantastic helper, an au pair. He was a constant in our lives for several years when the boys were little. He was no Norland nanny and many a precious parent would never have offered him the job. But Dalibor turned out to be my saviour. With long hair and an earring – a look more fitting for the IT department of a logistics company, fairly poor English at first and apparently a heavy smoker (as stated on his CV – but I subsequently found out this was added as a joke by his friend typing it up). Dalibor walked into our lives when I was desperate. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because he appeared calm and kind, despite the lack of experience. He was just that – looking after me and the children for the best part of six years. He did not always give them the healthy balanced suppers I trained him to cook and he was often more interested in setting up complicated links between computers to ensure some unsuitable killing games could be played from different screens simultaneously, but he gave the boys attention and I trusted him. That is worth so much to the working parent. Had I not known my boys were happy and loved at home I would never have been able to go on the business trips I so hated which were essential to move the company forwards.
2. Letting go of being a Domestic Goddess:
When you are a working parent it’s vital to remember what is important. When you get home from work sod the mess and washing and give your kids your precious time. I know this is tough; you arrive home exhausted and they want to jump all over you. They need attention when you have your lowest energy levels. My solution is to cycle home – it relieves the stress of the day, gives me time to think things through and by the time I open the door I can just about summon a cheery; “I’m ho-ome!” If you are lucky enough to have an au-pair, then make sure they do the chores, leaving you the fun parts such as bath, story and bed.
When my children grew older, I had no help and enjoyed picking them up from school. We got home and had homework time all together – they doing theirs and me continuing with my work from the same room. They understood this time had to be concentrated which was a good discipline to instil. The domestic chores can wait but your children grow up so fast. One year, 6th January came and went, but there was no time to take the decorations down – they stayed up all year and did not harm to anyone!
3. Cut some corners, but not the important ones:
Of course there are plenty of childcare rules and everyone will offer advice. On the whole I’m pretty relaxed and feel love and attention is more important than strict discipline, but some rules should be non-negotiable from day one. For me it was bedtime. When they were little, I needed the unwind time at the end of the day, so bedtime was essential for my mental health and our happy family atmosphere. The boys never complained much because it was just the way it was. But in order to achieve this I had to get home in time to go through the routine. Both my boys loved the cosiness of reading in bed and whilst I would sometimes fall asleep mid story, they were pretty good at nudging me on. One great thing about toddlers is that they want the same story over and over. I learnt to recite the whole of Peter Rabbit or Where the Wild Things Are with my eyes closed and in my sleep! Once they were safely in bed I could have a glass of wine, unwind and … get in a couple more hours work
For me juggling family and business was the only option in the early days due to financial demands, but as the boys grew up and my bank balance grew healthier it was a choice that I will never regret. They are teenagers now and don’t need me nearly as much as I need them. Thank God I still have a job which needs my input and has put off the agony of empty nest syndrome – for now. “
Thank you to Laura for this great article.