Fiona Phillips: why I left GMTV

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.

Elder care
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 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.”

Comments [2]

  • Anonymous says:

    I appreciate Fiona being so truthful about her feelings and challenges of being a working mum. I have been in and out of employment over the last 7 years since my first child was born, each time trying to hold down a demanding Human Resources job and be there for my baby son and later on for my baby daughter (and to support and make time for my husband!). Suffice to say that it never worked out. The longest I managed to last for a consecutive period of time was 18 months before feeling completely wiped out. After that I tried to hold down my work on a part-time basis, but I can honestly say that I don’t believe there is such a thing as part-time – certainly not in my job when you can’t just turn the lights out in the office and say you are going home when an employee ‘needs’ to talk to you! And it’s not something that you can really fully operate at home either because the employee contact is critical. So to my mind – it’s full-time or nothing. Not an easy decision – do we go without any luxuries or holidays and not work, but at least be there for our kids and partners/husbands, or do we go to work and feel like a rubbish contributor to our own family life? Why doesn’t it work for us? What do I do now to make myself employable in the future, whilst contending with a large disrupted gap in my employment history and possibly be considered ‘out of touch’ because I have not been practising for a while? And yes – my ironing still piles up at home and I still don’t feel I have 5 mins for myself between volunteering in two schools, being a School Governor and completing my Open Uni degree so I can retrain as a Primary School teacher! Life is complicated sometimes – but it shouldn’t be.

  • says:

    I can empathise so much with Fiona’s work life balance theme. I left the corporate world 15 years ago when my daughter was 3 because I felt unable to be the mum I wanted to be and do an 80-mile round trip and relentless long days to conform to the corporate insistence of ‘being present’. I wanted to enjoy being a mum. I didn’t feel ‘guilt’. I felt robbed of the joy of being a mother and having more time with my child and lacked mental and physical energy for the man I love too. So I left corporate work and realised that the only person likely to pay me the level of money I still needed to earn, but give me the 3-day week and 40 weeks of the year I felt I needed was ME! My daughter is nearly 18 now and I’m delighted I made that choice and it’s worked for me, my husband and my daughter (although I respect any woman who makes a different choice). Anne Pink Coach & Coach Supervisor

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