The GMTV presenter, who will be a keynote speaker at Workingmums LIVE, tells Workingmums how her life has improved since she got to sleep through the night.
Fiona Phillips has spent the last few years since leaving GMTV catching up on much needed sleep and getting her life back into balance.
The TV presenter famously left her top job on the ITV breakfast tv couch after the combination of a challenging early morning job, looking after two parents with Alzheimer’s and two small children became too much.
Reading her book about her relationship with her parents, Before I Forget, it is hard to believe she lasted so long. It details weekends spent racing up the motorway to visit her parents, dealing with social services and tangled family relationships, looking after her two sons, now aged 11 and 8, and getting up early after having spent the few hours she did sleep being constantly woken up because of her younger son Mackenzie’s eczema.
“Looking back, I don’t know how I did it,” she says. “Now I’ve got my life back and my work is manageable. I’m not getting up in the middle of the night. I don’t feel hung over all the time, which I did.”
Fiona is speaking about achieving a work life balance at Workingmums LIVE, a one-stop shop on flexible working. Her keynote speech comes after Working Mother magazine in the US noted that elder care is the number one reason women are dropping out of the workforce.
Fiona’s mum was the first to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and it changed her personality. From being happy go lucky, she became anxious and suicidal. “She cried for years,” says Fiona. “There was nothing we could do.”
Fiona has two younger brothers, but as the oldest child and a woman, the main burden of looking after her mum fell to her. Her dad was not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until after her mum’s death. At first the family put his confusion down to grief. It was hard to believe that both parents suffered from the same terrible disease. Her dad’s personality has also changed, but from being quite a difficult, distant person, he has become happier and warmer. Fiona says he is still mobile and she has moved him nearer to her which makes life easier.
“I enjoy being with him now. I love him and looked up to him, but it has been a bit of an unrequited love,” she says. “I feel sorry for the children, though, as they can’t do grandad things with him.”
She says writing the book made her feel very sad, going back over all that has happened in the last few years. “It made me feel quite depressed. I didn’t really want to do it, but my publisher kept trying to persuade me. I thought it was self-indulgent and wondered who would want to read about it. But I’m glad I did it now,” she says.
It highlights, she adds, how important childhood and family is. She has just written the foreword to a book about memories and most of them are about childhood, she says. “You don’t look back on your work life,” she laughs. “In the end, you have to be clear what matters and that is family.”
She admits her tiredness delayed her decision to leave GMTV as well as her fear that she might be throwing her career and a job people would kill for away. “A media job is not like being a doctor or a teacher, jobs where you are always in demand. It’s a man’s world. I used to envy my male colleagues. All of them had children in the end, but their wives took care of all the family side of things,” she says. “All they had to do was think about themselves and their job. I had the washing, the kids, my parents, shopping. Women are competing on a completely different plain.”
She adds that the recent case brought by Miriam O’Reilly highlights the sexism in TV. “How they could say it was ageism but not sexism I can’t understand,” she says. “Women in the media are judged more on their looks. Men can be fat, ugly and bald. Women have to look a certain way. We need to accept age and that age is very beautiful. If we accepted that, things would change,” she states.
Despite being over 50, though, she is still in demand for tv and radio and is still writing her weekly newspaper column in The Mirror. “I need to work. I want to work,” she says, “but I don’t want to be getting up at 3am. Not doing that makes such a difference. It takes over your whole life. All I wanted to do was go to bed, but at the time it seemed normal. I’d dread going to school. Now I skip down to the school to pick the children up and I can’t wait to see them.”
She says she was asked to be on Daybreak recently and said no. “I just don’t want to do that. Life is too short,” she says.
She is very pleased to be doing the Workingmums.co.uk LIVE event and says the way we work needs to change to make life manageable for everyone, but especially for women. “Flexible working makes for a happier workforce and a better workforce,” she says, “but things are still too rigid. You still have to be seen to be in the office.”
She adds that women need to stick together as “we’re all in this together”, adding that women still tend to end up doing the lion’s share of the family work no matter how good their partners are. She doesn’t think things will change much with Nick Clegg’s recently announced plans for shared baby leave.
“If women are breastfeeding it makes sense for them to be off work. They need the time after the birth to physically recover too. They’ve had nine months’ assault on their bodies,” she says. “Children need their mums. You can’t really deny that animal bond. As women we are more tightly bound to our children. It’s nice for men to spend more time with their children, but women do the lion’s share. We can’t deny our natural instincts.”