Spinning Plates

Penny Clayton and Wendy Reus have done most permutations of the working mum thing so they are eminently qualified to write a book giving advice on all issues relating to work life balance. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to them.

Penny Clayton and Wendy Reus have done most permutations of the working mum thing. Wendy worked in HR for Marks & Spencer, had her own consultancy business offering support to people facing redundancy, worked for a tv production company and has been a freelance executive coach. Penny was a headteacher, has done teacher coaching and been an educational management consultant. As she approaches retirement, she is focusing more on writing. She is working on a book with her cousin in America about changing family life in the US and UK.

Both have worked at home at some point as well as in a more traditional workplace. They have also been members of a working mums’ support group which was set up in the 1980s so have met many other women like them. They know the territory so they are wholly qualified to write a book giving advice to other women seeking to do the whole work life balance thing.

Sitting side by side in the snatched hours they have had between working over the last four years Wendy and Penny have been writing up a kind of working mums bible, giving tips and advice gained from first-hand experience and covering everything from returning to work to how to multi task with the ultimate efficiency.

We felt there was a need for support for working mothers and we wanted to capture what we had gained. We do it with a kind of missionary zeal to create a guilt-free zone for women. It’s not that we are fervently in favour of mums working, but once they have made that decision to work we want to do all we can to help them make it work,” says Penny.

Interestingly, the two women feel that things have not got a whole lot better for working mums over the last 30 years or so. Yes, there’s flexible working, but people are also expected to work longer hours, they say, and many employers still don’t get the mutual benefits of flexible working. Plus women are very vulnerable in the current economic times.

However, they feel that personally being working mums has been a huge positive. Penny says being a mum meant she could do something that was a complete contrast to her working life and that she was delighted to see her children at the end of a working day. “We loved being together as a family,” she says. Wendy adds that she felt she was “a better mum” as a result of working and also a better employee as she was able to work more effectively.

Here they outline how they came to write the book, the ups and downs of being a working mum and what the impact has been on their families of them being working mums.

Workingmums.co.uk: How was your working mums’ group formed?

Penny and Wendy: Penny had appreciated the company and support of the NCT during her first pregnancy and beyond missing it once she’d returned to work. She searched for a group to join and found only one and that was based in a few connecting streets in Clapham. Sue Smith from the NCT Clapham Working Mums’ Group, apparently the first of its kind in the country, was most helpful and inspired Penny to start a similar group in her local area. Penny put an article in the local NCT newsletter, entitled, ‘Nappies in my Briefcase’ and invited anyone sharing in a similar situation to meet at her house in September 1981. Seven strangers gathered and the group was formed.

WM: How many people did it have at its largest?

Penny and Wendy: There were probably around 40 at its largest which stabilised to 30. The current list hovers around the 20 mark.

WM: How did it work? How often did it/does it meet? Is it now meeting online or in person?

Penny and Wendy: A planning meeting was held each January usually at Penny’s house helped along by mulled wine and nibbles. During that meeting the dates, topics and venues were agreed for the year ahead. Monthly meetings were arranged rotating the days of the week to ensure those with regular other commitments would be able to attend some of the meetings and all were held in members’ homes. There was always a balance of topics throughout the year, some focusing on children’s issues, others on work-related ones and lots of opportunities to support and nurture each other. As children grew up and moved away, women began to retire and grandchildren became a distinct possibility, the group ceased its core purpose and morphed into a new group, MOOCOWS (Mature Or Otherwise Company Of Women). These group members continue to support each other online and meet monthly at a pub, sometimes a theatre visit or a walk and always a wonderful convivial Christmas meal.

WM: Do you know of many other such groups?

Penny and Wendy: Following our group, several others sprang up around the country. Penny has helped other groups get started.

WM: How did it help each of you?

Penny and Wendy: Penny has loosely continued to lead this group for 30 years because of the mutual support. It helped remove the isolation that could sometimes be felt, providing a place of stimulation and comfort amongst this caring, knowledgeable and powerful group of women.

Wendy had returned to Marks and Spencer’s full time after her first son was born. When her second came along she planned to take some time out before going back to work. Wendy found herself in a village of people she didn’t know and with a husband working abroad much of the week and no family nearby. Having been an independent woman she thought she could manage but found life with two toddlers tough and at times isolating. Through her first children’s nanny she met another working mum in the village who was a member of Penny’s group. That led to Wendy joining and suddenly finding this group of like minded supportive women. That was 20 years ago.

WM: What made you write your book?

Penny and Wendy: Penny wanted to capture the wisdom of women gained over the many years of being a working mum herself and learning so much from others. This was the book that she could have done with when she was going through the various stages. She hoped that by writing it, others may be able to benefit, know they are doing the best they can and eradicate the guilt that seems to bedevil so many working mums.

Wendy had often thought about writing a book on motherhood “Balancing Acts on being a Mother” had come to mind, so when Penny said she planned to write this written version of a wise friend she felt it resonated strongly. Here was an opportunity to work with someone she respected and liked and would hopefully result in a book full of support that many working mothers need and value.

WM: What do you each think is the hardest thing about being a working mum?

Penny and Wendy: For Penny, it is the nagging doubt that she may not be carrying out any of your roles well enough. The ‘what if’ question can drive you mad. What if I was a full-time mum, would I have made the birthday cake myself? What if I didn’t have children, would I be staying later at work to do.. . . . ? The other huge issue is having so many plates to spin which sometimes can seem overwhelming – hence the title of our book.

For Wendy, accepting that she could enjoy her work and could still be a good mum.

WM: What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Penny and Wendy: For Penny it was that ‘the quality of time spent with your children is more important than the quantity’. This helped her ensure that those times spent with her boys were special.

For Wendy it was to accept that more time could be spent at work or being a mother, yet it might not be any better. It was important to be focused on where you are at the time.

WM: Quite a lot of attention is given to children’s perspectives in the book. Do you think too little attention is paid to children’s perspective in similar books on working mums?

Penny and Wendy: We felt that there were many perspectives to be considered as a working mother – the employer’s for example. The most important though we felt was the child’s perspective. We had the benefit of being able to talk to our now much older children and to realise that many issues which haunted us had never even registered with the children! Seeing the issues through their eyes can help working parents focus on the real issues and be less concerned about things which might bother us, but not them. It isn’t to say they govern what we do but listening and observing them can give very useful information e.g. being at the sports day could be very important for one child, but another may prefer you to attend something else, and neither child may be worried if you don’t make your own cakes for the stall! It was very important to us that we tackled wider perspectives than those of the women themselves. We wanted women to be equipped so they could dispense with guess work and guilt, knowing they’d done the best they could, given the circumstances.

WM: How old are your children now and do you think they benefited from having working mums? Do they think they benefited and what was the main benefit they gained?

Penny and Wendy: Penny’s sons are 31 and 26. She believes their communication skills were enhanced at an early age as they needed to make themselves understood by those outside the family, caring for them while she and her husband worked. They were always interested in Penny’s job especially as they were soon able to relate to school life, they enjoyed helping her plan assemblies and other events and had a mother who was fulfilled and always thrilled to be spending time with them, whether it was the early evenings or the holidays. Her oldest was married last year and horrified that the registrar did not want any information on his mother’s occupation as he regarded it as relevant as his father’s! One son commented that he grew up respecting and valuing women as a result of Penny always working. The other son felt he did not ever notice any differences and considered the important point to be the quality of the mothering not whether they worked or stayed at home.

Wendy’s children are 22, 20 and 16. Wendy thinks they are adaptable, having to deal with different child care and to have to take some responsibility for themselves. They value one another’s company and the family unit and appreciate their parents more. Wendy’s daughter feels her mother has been a good role model and that it has taught her men and women can aspire to do what they want to, regardless of gender. She feels their father became more hands on and involved with the three of them, because Wendy was working, and that might not have happened if the majority of child care responsibilities had gone to Wendy. Her daughter also said it was exciting when Wendy came home from work as they were both very pleased to see one another. Her second son felt that the main benefits are the work and life experiences that are passed down from a working mother. He considered them to be really helpful when facing similar situations as he planned to join the world of work, As a younger child he really enjoyed going to family work days and meeting a wide range of work colleagues and their children and being more aware of different types of work. Also, seeing his mother as more than a mum – respecting the person she is. He made the observation that there may be less risk of children being spoilt and indulged if children are the only focus for a parent. It may also have a have negative impact on parenting if a woman’s ambitions and drive are not fulfilled.

Wendy’s eldest son felt the main benefit was the ability to interact with new people having had different people caring for him from a fairly early age. He felt he gained in confidence, for example, in being involved with interviewing nannies and felt comfortable talking to older people, even at a young age. Most importantly he said was the support from someone who worked in business and particularly HR as he was able to call upon this when applying to university and work.

WM: Have you had any reaction yet to your book or is it too early?

Penny and Wendy: It is a little early but several people have described how accessible it is. As the word ‘accessible’ has actually guided us through the writing of the book we have been delighted with this observation. We have received one email describing it as:”funny, true and informative” as well as like having an older sister with ten more years experience being available to help with ideas and tips. A comment has also been made that there isn’t anything else out there that tackles the issues in the same way.

Spinning Plates is available from www.spinningplates.co.uk, price £14.95.

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