Charlotte Philby, founder of motherland.net and mama-of-three on stepping off the career ladder to go it alone
Deciding to go it alone
Not long after having my second baby, I lost the plot. I’d had my first child aged 27, just as my career had begun to take off; having taken 10 months’ maternity leave before returning to my job as a writer and editor on the weekend magazine of a national newspaper, I promptly had a meltdown.
‘But I’m not going anywheerrre!’ I shrieked to my husband when he pointed out, in a maddeningly rational manner, that I had a three-day-a-week post which enabled me to spend ‘quality time’ with our daughter and do freelance writing on the side. Everywhere I looked, you see, all I noticed was my friends – none of whom were anywhere close to procreating – soaring through the ranks of their respective professions, whizzing off on carefree holidays, reading books; each of them seemingly thinner than me, more sorted than me and still able to sport dry-clean-only outfits. I loved my daughter and I loved being a mum, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit stuck. So when a job as a news reporter came available at my newspaper, I applied. Yes, it meant longer hours, working on Sundays and fewer PR freebies, but it was ‘important’ work and I would be taken seriously. I was going places: motherhood would not hold me back!
Except that the reality of relentless hours and an often emotionally gruelling job took its toll. As did commuting an hour across London twice a day to do a job for which I was paid not much more than I spent on childcare, while missing precious moments with my baby.
After having my second child and returning to work briefly I decided – after eight years at the same company and precisely zero experience of running a business – to rope in my partner and a few mum-friends and go it alone. As for so many of my contemporaries, the price and scarcity of good quality childcare meant going to the office had become something of a luxury; if it wasn’t working for me, what was the point?
Where was the space for women like me?
One of the things that irked me about motherhood at that time was the absence of smart, honest, well-presented media for women with kids. Away from the saccharine-sweet image of the perma-grinning domestic dreamboat (and the often divisive publications presenting mums as polarised, warring factions), I wondered where was the space for women like me and the women I’d met through having kids, who craved informed, fun, irreverent content within – but also beyond – the context of parenthood?
After several stiff G&Ts, it clicked that if there is one thing mums can do, it is get stuff done. If I could channel even a fraction of the emotional and practical resources I had pumped into my past job, I could probably power a steam-train.
Finally, two months after leaving the newspaper and having secured a small amount of investment from the creative agency Protein – enough at least to (inadequately) pay some fantastic writers while we found our feet – I galvanised some of my hugely generous mates and, in August 2014, Motherland (‘an online magazine for women who happen to be mums’) was born.
To say I have never looked back would be a huge fat lie. Towards the end of last year, around the time I was due to have my third child, I hit another wall.
Since launching Motherland 18 months ago, we’ve opened an online store selling design-led independent brands and launched a series of creative events with workshops, competitions and classes for parents and kids. Running a business of this scale on your own, and winging it – albeit with the support of some wonderful pals, and the skills of my brilliant husband and business partner Barney Beech – is gruelling. So much so, that I’ve only taken two days of maternity leave. I admit this without any sense of pride: there’s no glory in not taking time to rest with your newborn. Although I’ve been lucky enough in some senses to work with him largely strapped to my chest, or gurgling on the floor beside me, it’s still been a choice I’ve made with a lingering sense of regret.
Being your own boss, like being a mum, is steeped in tough decisions, and sometimes whatever choice you make, you’re doomed to fail. The requirements of social media, accounting, meetings, finding ways to create diverse revenue streams where traditional online avenues fail to generate any real income – all of this while bringing up my kids and taking on freelance work to pay for childcare – has meant moments where I’ve wanted to run for the hills.
But – but! – I am also aware of how lucky I am. Because having kids, whether you work for someone else, work for yourself or don’t work at all, is a hard bloody slog. Them’s the facts. And while starting your own business is no small undertaking, it is also an astonishingly enriching process, and one which has opened doors to places I never knew existed.
It has also enabled me to nurture my career while making it to every parents evening (though I’m always late) and attending playdates (though usually without spare nappies or snacks). In lucid moments, I can appreciate how lucky I am. Not only in having a husband who is a wonderful and hands-on dad, or in having the flexibility to be a working mum, but in being able to work with and learn from other women. At each stage, as well as new challenges, I’ve been overwhelmed by the support network I’ve discovered within a rising generation of mothers who are using the internet, social media and a shifting business culture to support other women – slowly but surely shifting the balance in a predominantly male-led business world.