Ask for advice and support. These days there are plenty of organisations offering free start-up advice for small businesses and it is so valuable to listen to the voice of experience. Other than that – just do it!”
Your name: Mary Atkinson
Names and ages of children: Emma, 24, Lizi, 19
Business: Holistic Therapist, Journalist and Author
Location: Chichester, West Sussex
Tell us about your background (home life and professional):
My first job was as a trainee journalist on Living magazine. With a mixture of luck, commitment and helpful contacts I moved up the career ladder to become a senior writer on Woman’s Realm magazine at the age of 26. When I realised that the path was leading towards magazine editorship and long hours in the office, I had to consider work/life balance. We’d been married for three years and wanted to start a family. I decided to take a risk and exchanged a regular salary for the freedom of freelance work.
Twenty seven years later, my husband and I have no regrets. At times I have been over-tired and wished for a steady job but the rewards of being a ‘hands-on’ mum have more than compensated. And they still do. When they were younger, I got a real buzz from being able to attend sports days without feeling guilty or to cook tea for all their friends, and these days I just love to be around when they have time for a chat, need help with the endless moving between accommodation, or they simply want a hug.
I remember one particularly fraught day. I had got up at about 5.00 am to finish some copy so that I could be around to make breakfast and take my daughter to an important exam. Then I rushed back to edit it and send it off. When she came home, my daughter asked if I’d had a nice morning. ‘Just working’, I replied. ‘Oh, do you work?’ she said. At that moment, I realised that our children knew they came first in my life – and it made it all worthwhile.
Another time also stays in my mind. We were discussing university choices and career options for our daughter when she said she hoped that she would be able to change jobs a few times depending on her circumstances. I like the idea that she had learnt from my experience that it is possible to choose and shape a work pattern that fits in with your home life.
What do you do on a typical day?
This is a difficult question as I do not have a typical day and this has always been one of the greatest challenges of my working life. However much I have tried to plan ahead with mind-maps and wall charts, I always feel that I should be more organised. So often my head is a jumble of ideas and thoughts. I am most efficient when I make a ‘to-do’ list the evening before, which includes both home chores and work demands. The trouble is that when I have lots of creative sparks flying in my mind I tend to resent spending time cleaning and clearing the house. Then it gets a mess and I can’t find anything.
What projects are you working on now/ have you worked on recently?
My most recent venture is setting up a complementary therapy training school teaching massage techniques. Over the years, when things have become difficult financially, I have needed to engage my creative side and have changed ‘career’ several times so that I now combine my writing experience with holistic therapy and teaching. My latest book Healing Touch for Children is written for parents of children showing different natural ways of helping today’s young people cope with the stresses of modern life.
How do you manage your working day with your childcare arrangements?
These days it is a question of sorting out my diary to fit around our daughters’ visits home, but when they were younger it was always a juggle. Thankfully, my husband has always been very supportive but ultimately it was down to me to work it out. Our parents did not live nearby so we couldn’t ask for their help. My working day always tended to start very early so that I could achieve a good few hours before the house woke up.
I have tried just about every option available from relying on friends, to sharing nannies and actually taking our daughters to work with me. I’ve even worked at a table in the leisure centre canteen while my daughter was in the crèche! I became very flexible about fitting in work during any quiet period but it could get very stressful. One time I was on the telephone interviewing a famous politician when I looked up to see my daughter open the fridge door and drop an egg on the kitchen floor. And then another egg, and another one. I had to take a deep breath and carry on the interview regardless!
One particularly successful six months depended on my three year old daughter going to two playgroups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. She went with her ‘best friend’ whose mother and I took it in turns to collect them for lunch and take them to the afternoon session and back for tea. It was win-win until ‘best friend’s’ family moved away. Another time I got a freelance job testing out equipment for a parenting magazine. That involved inviting friends and their children around for the day to try out potties, nappies and buggies.
What is your greatest achievement?
There is no doubt that our children are my greatest achievement. That might sound like a cliché but we had difficulty conceiving them and they still feel like miracles. I am pleased that I have been able to have my own career and also maintain a very good relationship with our daughters and their friends. On a work note, a real high point was writing my first book on complementary therapy The Art of Indian Head Massage. My daughters both came to the photo shoot and appeared in the book. They even came along to the launch in Waterstones, Chichester, and insisted on signing the book too.
Who or what inspires you?
My father was a great inspiration to me. He left school at 14 and fought in the war. As a young married man of four young children, he set up his own business as a freelance writer and publicity consultant. He was always ‘young at heart’ and enjoyed a challenge – constantly trying out different things, whether it was the latest diet or new technology, and told us that this was going to ‘change my life’. There was an underlying feeling that life was always open to new possibilities and this can be so refreshing.
What do you hope to be doing in five years time?
I am hoping that I will be able to combine working with enjoying time with my husband in his retirement. We have great plans of travelling abroad to give holistic therapy workshops in exotic locations. Watch this space.
What do you do to relax?
Swimming is my greatest form of relaxation. There is something wonderfully soothing about the monotony of the strokes.
What advice would you give other mums thinking of starting a business?
Ask for advice and support. These days there are plenty of organisations offering free start-up advice for small businesses and it is so valuable to listen to the voice of experience. Other than that – just do it!