The one where Pinchy gets a proper job (sort of)

So I haven’t blogged for a while. I’m sure you’ve all been feeling terribly deprived of my wit, pathos and insight since November, but hey. I have been busy, people! Busy doing what, Pinchos? you may enquire. Busy getting an actual grown-up proper job, THAT’S¬†WHAT!

My new walk to work :-)

My new walk to work ūüôā

Yup. This die-hard solitary writer now has a regular income for the first time since leaving my last salaried employment, 14 years ago. And actual colleagues! Since the start of January I have been working for one of the very biggest PR consultancies in the world, supporting the EMEA marketing team with copywriting, editing, editorial consultancy, social media content, training, and other word-related stuff.

Cool, huh?!

It’s¬†been a very slow burner, but there was something inevitable about it. I’ve been working with this team since my earliest days freelancing: as soon as I resigned as features editor of trade¬†mag PRWeek on a whim in 2001, my now-boss commissioned me to help her with some case studies, and to turn a couple of PR campaigns into entries for industry awards schemes. We discovered we worked well together. We became friends. Over the intervening years, our combined skills built an incredibly efficient, successful awards strategy, which has helped¬†the consultancy become¬†the most award-winning across Europe. I worked for her throughout both of my ‘maternity leave’ periods (which don’t really exist when you’re self-employed), and was even editing stuff¬†to meet a looming deadline while strapped up to my drip on the chemo ward.

I also started doing¬†award entry writing, editing and training for other agencies, of all sizes, around the world. I created a niche: there aren’t many former journalists who really get public relations and can do this sort of stuff well. My clients were often¬†shortlisted and frequently won. But there was one problem. It was a rollercoaster. In the run up to awards entry deadlines, I was rushed off my feet, working for clients in several time zones, all charging PELL-MELL¬†towards the same cut-off date. At peak times, midnight shifts (and beyond) were common. I was working while the children were at nursery, and then school, switching to mummy mode for a few hours, then back to my desk when they were in bed. I was frequently juggling dozens of pieces of work, including many first drafts written by people whose first language is not English, all of which had to tell an equally engaging story to convince the judges, all at the same time.

But then, the week after deadline: silence. I never quite worked out the trick of doing marketing and filling the pipeline with other non-time-sensitive stuff while you are rushed off your feet, so my working life was essentially manic peaks and then depressed troughs. I could have been writing my taking-bloody-forever novel during the down time, or spending hours in the gym, or decorating, but mostly I used to sit at my desk fretting. (And pissing about on Twitter, obviously.) Not having a deadline doesn’t really work for me: I descend into the slough of despond pretty bloody quickly if I haven’t got a pressing to-do list.

On paper, I had an amazing work-life balance. I worked school hours, was able to¬†drop off the children and pick them up every day, and was¬†there for every single school thing, while still earning a good living doing something I really like and am good at. In reality, I was stressed out and constantly worried about¬†money – cash flow was ridiculous, as some months I’d be billing thousands and then other months, practically zero. And when you haven’t quite had¬†the five-year¬†sign off from your oncologist, this level of stress is probably a bad idea.

Something had to give.

Last summer, as I hit my 41st birthday (so much less dramatic than 40…) I took some time to reflect on what I had achieved with my career, and what I wanted my next decade to hold. As I pushed towards the 10th anniversary¬†of starting my limited company, Besparkle, in August 2015, I knew I had two choices. The first was to change things dramatically to make it into a real business rather than a winging-it one-woman band. This would involve sorting out¬†childcare, working pretty much full time, finding¬†other contractors and partners, and investing in marketing. Maybe even writing an actual business plan for the first time! (Told you I was winging it…) The second option was to chuck it all in and find a job.

I dropped my biggest client¬†a casual email, on a whim (this appears to be a pattern): if anything came up at her agency, job-wise, that she thought I might be a good fit for, would she let me know? She read between the lines (and presumably¬†decided she didn’t want to lose me to a competitor) and within a couple of weeks had created a new job description, just for me.

At that point, obviously, I got cold feet. I felt utterly torn. One the one hand: oh my goodness, the bliss of never having to worry about whether I was earning enough again! And it wasn’t even that big a leap: I would still be doing a job I know and¬†enjoy, with someone I work really well with. On the other hand:¬†do I want to give up my independence, my flexibility, the children being my priority? Did I want to hand them over to¬†a nanny? Do I want my days to be owned by someone else? Could I still go to all the school things? Aren’t I happy just working alone? Do I really want to do any commuting at all? Do I need colleagues? Do I want to say goodbye to my business? It’s only little, but it’s still mine, and I built it, and¬†I’d just had my most successful year since having children.

Many of these points of resistance were incomprehensible to DH, who was just over the moon I was even considering it. He’d never really forgiven me for¬†resigning without any discussion with him, and doesn’t exactly embrace¬†financial insecurity. But he had another, more positive, reason for encouraging me, too: he reckoned that having colleagues and getting out of the home office¬†would do me good personally, in terms of my happiness and emotional stability. Other high-flying (mostly male) friends also told me to basically ‘get over myself and get a job’.

Then HR got involved, and it became apparent that¬†what they could offer me in terms of a full-time salary was below what I’d need to earn to factor in childcare and travel. The numbers weren’t adding up on either side. But we all persisted, going backwards and forward on possible scenarios: the will was there to make this work, somehow. Then I had a lightbulb moment: Option 3 – let’s stop talking about employment, just¬†put me on a retainer contract for a few days a week instead. This was a win-win: they wouldn’t have all the overheads of a new employee but still had priority over my time, and I would get to stay in control and keep my independence. Essentially, this is the holy grail for a freelancer.

And so that’s what happened.

The logistics have sort of fallen into place. After a couple of false starts, we finally found a fabulous, cheerful, capable after-school nanny who does pick up, tea, homework and bathtime, enabling me to work two long days and spread my other hours out over the rest of the week. The smalls are in breakfast club a couple of days, too. And despite my worry about not being there for them, they are, of course, absolutely fine. They are eight-and-a-half and six-and-a-half this month, after all, rather than babies. I still mostly work at home, I can still do school stuff (though the school campaigning has had to go on the back burner) and still do some work for selected other clients, and still manage my own time.

The best bit, though, is Wednesdays. My London day. My grown-up, proper job day. The day I get up early and put on a smart dress and get on a packed train and go to a big open-plan office and see my inspiring, clever, creative colleagues, new and old. I have a half-hour fast walk from Waterloo in my trainers, through a historic bit of London that is very easy to love (I only forgot shoes and had to buy a new pair of fierce heels once, honest), and get sushi for lunch, and have meetings in cool little break-out areas with some of the cream of the communications industry.

It’s the one day of the week where I’m a professional first, and mummy second. I leave before the kiddies are up, and DH does the morning routine and school run. I get back around 7.30pm to find tired, happy, freshly-bathed kiddies in their PJs watching the Simpsons with a glass of milk, with the nanny having handed over to daddy. That this is possible, and everyone is OK, is a revelation for me.

I know this is already a very long post but I have to make one final point: I could not have done this without DH. He has totally stepped up. He has a greater childcare role than ever before and has taken on more of the domestic burden without blinking. I feel like he takes my work really seriously for the first time in a long time, and he is doing his bit (thankfully with a pretty flexible employer himself)¬†to make sure this new level of formality in my career works for all of us. We’ve always been a team, but now it feels more like we are equals again. It’s turning out to be good for us. And I have to admit that¬†he¬†and our friends, who are all a bit ‘I told you so’, were right all along, damn them: creative solitude¬†is all very well, but sometimes you’ve just gotta put your lipstick on and get out there. Who knew it could be such fun?


My house-shaped silver lining

Soooo, after a¬†fun-packed birthday-loaded summer hols that came hot on the heels of 10 months of caaancer treatment, it’s time to take it easy for a while, don’t you think?¬†Slip back into work, get the kids settled in Year 1 and pre-school,¬†keep things quiet and calm and normal for a bit, yes? Er, no. The thing to do is, OBVIOUSLY, buy a derelict house.

We weren’t looking. Well, I wasn’t. Apparently DH was. He had casually mooted moving out of Guildford earlier in the year and I tried to love Camberley, really I did, but Guildford is home now. It’s where my two babies were born and where my best friend lives. It’s 20 minutes from my sister, and 20 minutes to London. I had a dream of¬†exactly which area we would move to,¬†at some point before secondary school applications in five years, but in reality couldn’t see how we could ever afford a bigger house two miles down the road, even with the extra bit of cash left over from the critical illness insurance that has supplemented my income all year.

And then at the end of July DH presented me with some property details. A four-bedroomed, late 30s detached house, in exactly the right place.¬†And it was pricey, but much less so than other similar houses in the same suburb, thanks to needing what I think the trade would call ‘extensive modernisation’. It was empty, as the old lady who lived there had moved into a nursing home, and none of the 10 people who had viewed it in the three weeks it had been on the market had put in an offer, presumably baulking at the scale of the project for that sort of price tag. The agent had advised DH that we should just try putting in ‘a silly offer’. So we looked round, quietly fell in love with it, and did exactly that.

We made a pact that we would do this in a spirit of non-attachment. We knew what we could go up to, and we knew what we had to sell our house for, and if the process turned out to be smooth and easy, we decided that this crazy project was fate. If, on the other hand, it was all a bit strained and effortful, and the numbers started being stretched, we would walk away and start looking again next year after DS starts school and nursery fees would be freed up to contribute to a bigger mortgage.

DH put on his Super Negotiator red cape and went for it. Meanwhile, we put our house on the market, since the vendors weren’t going to accept anything until it was sold. We sold it within 24 hours, for¬†exactly what we wanted for it, the day after my birthday. So far, so meant-to-be. Our parents came to have a poke round. Everyone started getting excited. Then, after a nail-biting day waiting for the agent to tell us the response to our final offer, which was still a cheeky 15% less than the asking price, DH called me with the news: WE GOT IT!!!!! I remember shrieking with joy. I¬†couldn’t stop grinning. Now that’s what I call the best birthday pressie E.V.E.R.

Chez Pinchy, soon.

Our new home has blue shutters, and a 150ft overgrown garden you can get lost in, and a monkey puzzle tree in front that will look amazing decked in Christmas lights. It also needs an awful lot of work. It’s structurally sound, but that’s about it. But when I drive past (as I go out of my way to do almost every day, sometimes parking in the drive for a few minutes to say hello) I don’t just see a house with huge potential, or somewhere that will eventually be our dream forever house, or somewhere within walking distance of a really good secondary school.

As well as all of those things, I see my silver lining. Our family’s silver lining. The payoff for enduring the sort of year no-one should ever have to go through. We all need a fresh start. We need to draw a really tangible¬†line under the past year (yes, it’s nearly a year: I was diagnosed on 13 October 2010). Embarking on this new adventure feels like exactly the right thing to do, for all of us. The house with the blue shutters has never seen me throwing up after chemo, for one thing.

¬†I’m under no illusion about the amount of work required, or how long it will take, or how exhausting and stressful it will be, or how much money it will cost. DH is more worried about all those things, because that’s his nature, but we are pretty much on the same page and ready to work as a team. He has the final say on technical and practical stuff, along with his dad (handily, a heating engineer with great trade contacts), and I get the final say on aesthetics. We’ve been reading books on 1930s style, and a vision is emerging of somewhere with a lot of black, white and grey, with splashes of colourful fabrics and dramatic wallpapers and fabrics, clean-lined furniture, and seriously luxe bathroom and shower room. (I have a theory that a bathroom with two basins is the secret of a happy marriage.) And, eventually, maybe, some sort of¬†extension with a lot of glass.

We started packing books, files, and photo albums¬†at the weekend, junking and recycling as we went. It’s impossible to pack a photo album or an unlabelled file without opening it, so there were a few unexpectedly emotional moments: absent friends, my dusty university dissertation (the poncily-titled ‘Literary Games in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and AS Byatt’s Possession’), dead cats (actually pictures of an alive cat, now deceased. Pictures of dead cats would be macabre).

DD is excited because she likes her new bedroom and is making noises about a chandelier, of all things¬†(She’s five, FFS. Where does¬†she get these ideas from?). DS is a little more reluctant, initially saying he ‘wasn’t coming’, but I think we may have won him round by demonstrating proximity to his favourite park, and reassurance that his Fireman Sam stuff and the Toy Story DVDs¬†are coming¬†too.

We’re due to exchange in the early part of next week, and our chain is aiming to complete a couple of weeks after that. Naturally, this will coincide with one of my big annual work deadlines, so that’ll be fun. But while I like the idea of a calm, quiet life in theory, and should probably slow down and take it easy for a bit, right now I’m kinda into¬†having plenty of energy and being, well,¬†alive. Plus, these days I have a policy of never doing anything with a ‘should’ attached. Carpe diem. Or in this case, carpe domus…

Reality bites

I breezed through my first chemotherapy day last Thursday. Came back from 11 hours at the hospital and four different drips (herceptin, then pertuzemab, then carboplatin chemo and then doxetaxol chemo) feeling absolutely fine. A bit tired as I hadn’t slept the night before (rehearsing the day, you know how it is when you’ve got something biggish coming up), but otherwise, feeling rather proud of myself.

The night before, DH presented me with my Team Pinchy t-shirt that he got my lovely aunt and uncle to print for me. I wore it all day and the nurses loved it. (We’re doing some more, ¬£10 each with all proceeds to the amazing Fountain Centre complementary cancer care unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, so let me know if you’d like one.)¬†Mummy was with me all day, and I was so well looked after by my own lovely research nurse Celia. She was a complete legend – kind, gentle, funny, and smart, and hugely reassuring.

The worse bit was the cold cap to try and prevent my hair falling out too much. That was fricking cold – a -5.5 degress bright pink cycling helmet hooked up to a cooler to keep the temperature constant for more than three hours. The first half hour was almost unbearable, after that I sort of forgot about it, though picking ice out of my hair at the end of the day reminded me of going face down into a snow drift in Val d’Isere.

But today is Day 5, if we count Chemo Day as Day 1, and it has to be said, I feel like crap. The euphoria of finally starting treatment and it being absolutely tolerable on the day rapidly dissipated when the side effects started coming, thick and fast, on Friday. Nausea? Check – and the anti-emetics made me feel how I imagine a heroin addict feels going cold turkey, like I wanted to crawl out of my own shaky, twitchy skin. I didn’t know what to do with myself, it was the weirdest feeling. Sore mouth? Check – chemo blasts the cells in your body that replicate themselves most quickly (hence hair loss), including all your mucous membranes, so the inside of my lips, mouth and throat feel like when you really burn your mouth and then have that horrible taste for days because it’s full of dying cells. Everything tastes disgusting. I get hungry but don’t fancy anything. Ice helps, a bit. Manuka honey, too (trust me to need the pricey stuff – a girl’s got standards to keep up!). I keep getting weird little aches and shooting pains in random bits of my body.

I’m beyond tired – proper feet-not-working fatigue. My wonderful M&D took the kiddies back to their place on Friday afternoon (described by¬†my 4yo DD¬†as a ‘mini-break’ !?).¬†DH made me a day bed on the sofa and for the first time ever, other than a week or so after each of¬†the babies were born, I have been forced to accept that I have to rest. ¬†This is Brand New for me. As a freelancer, I didn’t even have maternity leave with either of them, cracking on with writing and editing and cleaning during their naps. I don’t find it easy to stop, sit down, relax, do nothing. I am always busy. There is always something to do in the house, for the kids, for other people, for my clients. But now I really have no choice but to do bugger all.

Also for the first time, I am starting to willingly accept help instead of my usual refrains of ‘It’s ok, I’ll do it, no thank you, I’m fine’. Some of S’s delicious homemade butternut squash soup? Yes please. DH cleaning the bathrooms, hoovering and doing the cooking? Yes please. Pops doing the ironing? Yes please. Lovely school mum friends popping into Sainsbury’s for bog roll and making us a lasagne? Yes please. I am learning to accept, with grace and gratefully, any and all offers of help and support.

I’m not used to this, at all, but maybe it’s one of my big lessons from this whole caaancer thing. I’m not alone. I don’t have to do everything myself. I don’t have to be superwoman. I don’t have to cope. There’s being capable and Just Buggering On (all good things in my view) and there’s being stubborn,¬†anally perfectionist,¬†and martyr-ish. One of the promises I’m making to myself, my family and my friends right now is that there will be a lot less of the Resentful Saint about Pinchy from now on. Which I’m sure will be a blessed relief for you all.

Right, I’m off to read some chick lit in front of the telly and try to ignore my mouth ulcers. Amen.

I don’t know how she does it

A friend of mine who has finally given up the stress of corporate life and is setting up her own business part-time from home asked me this week how I compartmentalise work and family stuff. Here’s what I said.

Work days/half days are work days. Mummy/family time is family time. When I’m in the office and the children are at nursery, I am at work. if I’m not on a deadline, I also do some household stuff during work hours, just so I’m not always doing laundry/tidying/ironing/shopping around the children.
When I’m not in the office, I’m running the family business. I dip into emails/Twitter on mummy days/afternoons/weekends to keep up. I’m thinking of getting a Blackberry, but actually as soon as I start responding to an email I’m in work mode and notice I’m not tuning into the children when they are¬†talking to me, so I’m not sure that’s a good idea for me. If I’m busy,¬†I go back into the office when they are in bed.
If a client desperately needs my help on a non-work day, I try and sort grandparents or friends to help out, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. If I really need him to, DH will leave work early or work from home if I have a networking do or something and need him to pick the kiddies up from nursery, bath and put them to bed. He’s the breadwinner, but actually when my work time is all accounted for, I can sometimes earn more than him in two and a half days a week, and he is well aware (thanks to good conversations and bad rows!) how important my job is to our financial situation as well as my own sanity, so it’s in his interest to be as supportive to me as I am to him.

Like most husbands, he mostly needs specific instructions on household stuff, but he is pretty good these days at mucking in and seeing what needs to be done around the house. I don’t think he actually knows how to use the washing machine, but he does iron his own shirts if I don’t have time! And although I cook, he’s a pretty good sous chef and is happy to chop onions and wash up. Again, if I request something of him, it usually gets done.
I use a big whiteboard in the kitchen for family dates so everyone (ie DH) knows what’s going on each week. This has hours of the day and days of the week, plus a section at the bottom for future dates. This is known as My Brain. My memory is not as good as it once was – too much stuff leaks out if I don’t actually write it down. I also use Outlook for birthday and anniversary reminders as well as work appointments.
My big regular clients who are more like friends know exactly what my weekly official office hours are. No-one else does. When I first went back to work part-time after having DD nearly four years ago, I got my knickers in a twist about letting everyone know when I was working and getting annoyed and resentful and stressed when they didn’t remember/know and wanted something done when I was on mummy time. Now I let people assume I’m available five days a week in normal hours, and just respond to emails and phone messages as soon as possible.

I do occasionally say, when relevant, that I need to pick the children up from nursery, but only when I know I’m dealing with someone who won’t have a problem with that being the reason. Otherwise I’ll simply saying I’m leaving the office at a certain time, or will be out of the office all day tomorrow, or whatever – just like they do. I’ve also done a fair bit of changing nursery days and hours over the past year or two to suit me and the children, and it gets confusing if people think they know you work all day Monday and then find out that’s no longer the case. So I don’t make a thing of it. It doesn’t hurt if people assume you are just busy and successful!
My office, by the way, is a self-contained ‘shed’ in my garden. It is just a few yards from the house but it has a door and a lock and a separate phone line, so the start and end of office time feel physically very defined for me. I do use the computer in the house to check emails, and everyone has my mobile number.
On paper, my life looks pretty well balanced, and I am broadly quite good now at keeping work and family separate, but when you’re running your own business part-time there are lots of times when you need to be flexible, not only doing bits of work when you’re meant to be in mummy mode, but also dropping everything when a child is ill or something else comes up. Sometimes this juggling act gets stressful, and I need to ask for help, change things so they work better, drop balls etc. Sometimes,¬†I feel like I’m not giving either my kids or my clients 100%.

But it can be done, and a good week where everything has worked smoothly is enormously satisfying.

Toleration busting!

I had an amazing day last Thursday. It was the first of the Action Accelerator Days as part of the FaB coaching mums programme I’m doing with Amanda Alexander.

Basically, the idea is that you list all your ‘tolerations’ – ie things that you are putting up with, whether an unstarted or unfinished task, filing, phone calls, admin, dealing with a situation etc.

The eight of us on the course were invited to phone Amanda on the hour every hour from 9am to 5pm, telling her what we were going to deal with in the next hour and reporting on progress.

Each call was no more than a minute or two but I was amazed how motivating it was to break the day down into chunks, state my intention for the next hour, and tick so many things off my ongoing and ever-growing to do list.

During the day, this is what I achieved:

 By 11am:

Ordering ink for printer (plus got refund for sending back dodgy one!) (Ink Cycle)

All the filing

Order a swimsuit that fits before weekend away (Landsend) (nb I have to say wouldn’t buy anything else other than magic swimsuits from these guys)

 By 12pm

 Finish filing

 Declutter and clean desk

 By 2pm

 Finish desk tidying and hoover office

 Tidy up/organise kids’ art box

 Recharge camcorder and fit new battery

 List 2 ebay items for sale

 By 3pm

 Post ebay parcels, meter reading, thankyou card etc and cancel papers

 Order new front and back door mats

 Initial thoughts on new besparkle product for PR agencies

 Arrange night out with old friend and book family lunch

 Book oven cleaner

 Plan for bottom of garden

 By 4pm

 Wash make-up brushes and clean out make-up tidy

 Edit feature for client 

By 5pm

Quick trip into town to buy birthday presents for godchildren before picking kiddies up from nursery at 5.

Phew! It was a Very Busy Day. Full of energy all day, though towards the end I was flagging and starting to run on adrenaline so I slowed down and made sure I had a break from the house and office before seeing the babies. It just goes to show what I can achieve during the day if I put my mind to it – no more excuses for procrastinating! And this week the payoff has been working on a clean, ordered desk in a tidy, spacious office that is no longer a dumping ground. I’ve been finding it¬†tricky to be creative with piles of crap all around me, so investing a day in spring cleaning/clearing the decks has blown all the cobwebs out of my brain too.

Order, order…


Evidence: our toy cupboard

I regularly do stuff that to other people might look like complete lunacy. Tomorrow morning, for instance, as every Thursday morning, I will start my day, post nursery-run, with a frantic tidying of the house, otherwise known as ‘cleaning for the cleaner’.

DH thinks this is loopy, but I patiently explain, every week,¬†that there is method in my apparent madness. My crack team of Brazilian cleaners (three people, only in house for 1 hour, great as I work at home) can’t get to the floors, surfaces etc to clean them if they are covered in the daily detritus of life with a young family. If I don’t put away the toys, clear away the breakfast dishes and laundry, pick up the dirty socks DH deposits by the sofa every single night, and generally tidy round, I’m paying the cleaners to tidy, not clean, and it’s the cleaning bit I don’t have the time or, frankly, inclination to do.

Plus, I have A System. I have friends who think I’ve got mild OCD tendencies, but I like things how I like them. I like order. I think it’s perfectly reasonable – nay, desirable – to have piles of things stacked up around the house and office, as the first stage before dealing with them. I like dishes that won’t go in the dishwasher to be scraped and stacked neatly on the side, because I don’t always want to wash them up straightaway. I like orderly piles of paperwork. I like my towels to be rolled spa-style in the airing cupboard. I have even been known to stack absent mindedly at friend’s houses, and once received a text from a dad asking if I had been tidying while I was meant to be looking after his daughter for a couple of hours.

I know exactly which cupboard and storage box every single toy car, Waybuloo magazine, pink hairclip, crayon or wooden carrot goes in. Last time I organised the kids’ play corner of our dining room, delineated by a rug and a dresser full of small storage boxes, I actually took photos of how it all fitted together, it was such a thing of order and beauty. I must admit I get a bit itchy when friends chuck toys in any receptacle to help ‘clear up’ after a playdate, because I’ll have to do it all again later.

Writing this down, I can see how mad this sounds, especially as I barely have time to wash some days, but again, I think there is sound thinking behind it. If the kids know that that basket has all the play food, that one has all the play crocks and cutlery, and the pans are inside the cooker door, they play for hours: Cooking, Parties, Making Tea, Baking Cakes etc – without getting frustrated and asking me to help them find some crucial item from within a black hole of a ‘tidy tub’.

Mind you, perhaps the very gazelle-like leaps of a child’s mind are better reflected in less rigid¬†‘storage solutions’. DD does do wonderfully imaginative things with small, apparently random collections¬†of plastic items. I think my borderline obsessive need for order might be rubbing off on her, though. Being a three year old, she is still obviously a bit crap at tidying on any level, but the other day I heard her say to DH: ‘Daddy, that doesn’t belong there, it goes in this box’. I was only three-quarters thrilled…