Friday, 6 March 2015

Mummy start ups: Empowerment or last resort?

Women with children appear to be starting up businesses left right and centre. These include a huge array of options such as small cottage industry type start ups (crafts and baking on the kitchen table after bedtime), re-training in massage, nutrition or hypnobirthing, joining franchises such as La Jolie Ronde and Monkey Music, freelance copy writing, PR or graphic design and also starting up retail empires such as Not on the High Street and JoJoMamanBebe.

When your priorities shift, starting up a business can seem the ideal solution. You are your own boss, you decide when and where to work, you can choose an area that you are really passionate about. I have recently started a small business from home which does give me all those perks. After attending several courses to retrain, I can now drop off my son at playschool, nip back home to teach a class which finishes in time for pick up. It is empowering to do what I enjoy, on my own terms, learning as I go.

Clearly my little start up is not a 24 hour business empire, but running things on a small scale can still have its downsides. Initially you need the finances to take a risk. You are likely to need a budget, small or large, to spend on training, resources, materials, merchandise, publicity etc to get you off the ground. Making this money back can take longer than you think, and unless you are working 24/7, it may feel that you are earning pocket money. Symbolic in terms of independence within the household but it can be hard to demand help with picks ups, household chores etc if your enterprise is not the significant financial contributor to the family finances.

While you hope to be able to spend more quality time with your charming offspring, you can end up permanently glued to your smartphone - answering queries, taking bookings or orders, problem-solving at any time of day or night. It can be very hard to switch off. And if said offspring are ill or just not in the mood to cooperate today, you don't necessarily have the back up to cover your events, classes or backlog of orders.

I don't mean to be negative here. Women being creative, innovative and determined is a brilliant thing. I just can't help wondering whether all this opting out that we are doing is actually limiting social change within the institutions most of us used to work for. Among mums I know, currently on maternity leave and negotiating their return to work, many are complaining that their requests for flexible working, which employers are legally bound to "consider", are being flatly refused. There are fears among employers that allowing part time or home working for one employee will set a precedent and suddenly they will have to accommodate the needs of parents all over the show. Admittedly, in small family run businesses, with limited staff, flexibility can be a difficult one. But these examples are coming from women working in large institutions and corporations, in education, health, banking, law and events management.

I know that as a nurse, I cost the NHS thousands of pounds in pre-qualification and post-qualification training. After much inner angst, my decision not to return based on the difficulty of finding family friendly jobs locally (you do need basics like fixed days to make childcare arrangements feasible), the economy is losing out on my skills and experience. I am now certainly using aspects of those skills in my new enterprise, but I am not in a position to progress and build on that knowledge within the NHS, furthering my career, my financial security and my contribution to the institution that trained me. Corporations and institutions who choose not to meet the needs of working parents not only lose skills and experience but incur additional recruitment and training costs as they must replace employees who feel they must choose family well-being over the demands of a rigid employer who does not recognise their value.

Many employers are starting to recognise that often working parents have a new focus and drive when returning to work after parental leave. They are skilled at multi-tasking, problem-solving and negotiating. While previously work was just something they turned up to, now the opportunity to get things done without a small assistant can be positive and energising. Oh what many SAHMs would give for 15 minutes sipping a coffee and checking their emails in an office. The chance to make a "to do list" that might actually be completed without interruption. 

So, when negotiating your future career, the personal is clearly political. What you choose to do has to be right for you, your family and your career. But if you can come to a happy arrangement with your employer, that is an important achievement. Because after all, isn't setting a precedent a great thing? If you can help others after you negotiate for better conditions for working parents, maybe this will gradually bring about positive change.  And if you go the start up route, remember to be sympathetic to your employees when you're the boss and you run that business empire!

Here's a few articles you might be interested in:


  1. I can certainly relate to this. As a self-employed reflexologist, finding child care to cover the random hours that clients book is a huge challenge.

  2. It's such an interesting one! I was given a part-time role at my previous place of work, so they were 'flexible', but I just didn't have the same passion for it and, for me, part-time means you're on the edge of things. As a manager, that meant my team knew more than I did because things changed on a daily basis, so by the time I came back in I was out of the loop. In certain jobs that's the way it is and I don't know how you overcome that. Now I'm running my own business it is so exciting - I'm using all the skills I've worked years developing, and I can see that the flexibility that I will have is going to benefit us massively when the kids start school etc. All the things you say are true - and you could argue that starting my own business doesn't lead to change in the workforce - but could it? Longer term are all the women starting businesses showing exactly what we are capable of, which could lead to a shift over time in more traditional workplaces? You're right to mention that we need to remember all this and be sympathetic to employees when we do rule the world! Really interesting article - thank you!

  3. Very interesting! I guess I'm the one setting a precedent in my organisation, which was particularly hard work in the beginning. It does get better, and I can already see a difference for those parents returning to work now. However there is still a great deal of pressure on my shoulders, and the feeling that I have to work twice as hard as a full time employee never disappears.

  4. It is interesting, the much longed for "part time" can be a mixed blessing - I definitely felt on the edge of the team when I was part time and that was on a 0.8 contract. Working for myself is liberating and flexible but I do miss the team aspect of working and would like to go back to some form of employment one day I think. Everything is compromises though!

    I think it's great that increasingly both parents are asking for flexible working. It can be hard to negotiate with the old vangaurd be they a male or female boss who have always worked full-time/long hours and had the support at home to do that. But I do think being around for your kids some of the time is important - not necessarily being a family slave but even being able to do pick ups and drop offs once or twice a week. There for bathtime and stories. More than that, flexibility can make you a less stressed out parent/person which has to be good for everybody!