I was introduced to Sarah Turner, aka brilliant author, The Unmumsy Mum, by Steph of @dontbuyherflowers, a previous interviewee of @mastersofmany. I'd already read her book and was keen to interview her. I really related to her writing around motherhood and wondered how she'd got to be a successful writer. I wasn't disappointed by her story, and hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I did speaking to Sarah.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to date...
I did a philosophy degree at university, but realised it didn't really qualify me to do anything in the real world. After joined the hordes of graduates desperately seeking work I started a graduate scheme for RBS. I became a relationship manager for their asset finance arm, which sounds boring, but I absolutely loved it. I spent my time pottering around farms in Devon and Cornwall financing machinery for farmers. It was full on, 5 days a week, evenings and weekends. It was all consuming but I secretly loved it - I thought I was going to be a young hotshot in finance.
I got married and we decided to try for a baby. I had this idea that family life would fit round my existing job and I would be this career mum, still pottering around Devon and Cornwall in my nice company car. Then in the evenings and weekends I'd be Supermum. I'd do it all and have it all and it would be great. Then I went off on maternity leave and I never went back!
I didn't enjoy maternity leave that much. There were bits that were great, but baby Henry was a nightmare, with reflux and other issues. I missed work, but I knew i couldn't go back as I wouldn't see him. I was desperate to go back, but also desperate to do the mum thing - I wanted balance.
I skirted around with my employer if I could go back for 4 days a week, but it was with 5 days worth of targets so wouldn't have worked. I cut and ran and took a part time job, which I was told was the holy-grail for working mothers, at Exeter University. I knew instantly that it wasn't going to be the job for me and I 'd felt like I'd made the trade off of working part-time and doing a job that wasn't of interest to me.
I was feeling disillusioned with work, but also struggling at home on my 'days off' (a phrase which makes me want to punch people in the face). I started looking online for stuff that would make me feel better, to know that other people were bored and frustrated, but I couldn't really find anything.
Everything was either factual, the stuff you Google at 2am, like symptoms or how to introduce solids. The content on emotional support seemed to be quite glossy, on aspirational blogs. I looked at them and that wasn't how I was finding it.
I decided to write a blog whenever Henry was napping. I did it as a sideline to my part-time job and being a mum. It was on twitter for a while but it didn't really do anything, but I enjoyed it. I could remember when 100 people had read it. Then I put it on facebook and it exploded. Within six months I had 100k followers. I had to come out as a blogger at work as people started seeing it on their timelines, and it got awkward when they started to see pictures of my children! That was the pivotal moment in my blog adventure. I then had the message of my dreams from a literary agent, saying that they liked what I did and that it would make a good book. I had to come up with a response that was a bit cool, but I was secretly dancing round my kitchen. Then the same week I had another email from another publisher!
I was then in the tricky position where you get an advance that covered us a bit, but feeling that it was irresponsible to blow out the 9 to 5. Sometimes I think these things are meant to be. I decided that I was never going to have this opportunity again. I couldn't work 3 days a week and be a mum and write the book. So I quit my job, wrote the book and I'm now writing the second book. Writing is now what I do, but I'm so busy day to day that I rarely stop and think about this actually being what I wanted to do.
The blog audience is now at 1/2 million, which is unbelievable. People assume you have a game plan on how to grow your audience, but I never did. I am aware that my blog site should look better. It looks like a primary school site! People don't seem to care about the aesthetics of it, and it's worked up to this point.
What made you take the leap to do things differently?
Before I worked part time there was a moment where I'd had a stressful day and I'd given Henry a bath and put him to bed. I remember thinking that these were the moments I didn't want to miss and having a sense of doom knowing that I was going back to work. I remember having a little cry and realising that I couldn't do everything and I had to go part time, although that felt like a compromise.
It's a conflict all of the time. I want to be a good mum, but a lot of who I am is work. For some people who have had high-flying careers, something changes in them when they become a parent and they don't want a career at all. I sometimes think that would be a nice way to be, to be wired differently.
We've had a new moment of working out what our work patterns are recently. I was working loosely on a 3 days a week basis, with 2 days childcare. But between meeting deadlines, sorting emails and freelance work, I couldn't do it in 3 days, so I was working every evening until 10 or 11 at night and starting to burn out. I had a bit of a break down to James (my husband). He's not that into his job (he's a civil servant), so he put in an application to change working hours. It took forever but now he works 3 days a week, and I technically work 5.
It's hard, because I think you can't help but take on board the stereotype where mum looks after the children. It wasn't in any way weird that he was going to reduce days and I was going to up mine, but others see it as weird and ask how I managed to get him to do it. No-one ever asked me that when I was on 3 days a week!
There is a misconception about what working from home is like. In many ways its lovely, but home is also my workspace so I'm always switched on for work and the living room has lost its relaxing role.
I don't like the culture of celebrating how hard we're working. I've had messages from mums - a criminal barrister for example - who went back to work after 10 days, and others who stopped working altogether when kids came along. I feel like there is a celebration of busyness and that mums who aren't juggling are lacking somehow, but being at home all day with the kids is hard! I hate the term 'stay at home mum', as it implies they sit in their dressing gowns all day.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in writing?
I'm quite a cautious person and my husband definitely is when it comes to finances. We've been at that point where you're putting the food shop on the credit cad and it's not a nice place to be. We treated the book advance as a salary, but I was already looking at jobs online when the book came out, thinking my money or luck would run out. But then the first book came out and before we knew if it had sold copies there was already talk of a second book based on what they'd read. Then it felt like something quite big was on the horizon, but at that stage there was no financial reward for being an author. Going back and doing a 'proper job' would have limited the opportunity for grabbing the writing by the balls and going with it.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs (your freelance writing, the novel, and the blog)?
I think it's just that there's always the stuff that you want to do and it's not necessarily what you should be doing. It's a job and you have to treat it that way.
I still manage all my social media myself, but I have to be careful about not getting too absorbed in it. The community is fantastic and I like to still get involved, but I can't treat that as work as I have to pay the bills, and sometimes that's hard. I do a lot of work for GQ magazine now, which I love; and the book is my bread and butter, and anything else is a distraction.
I am getting better at saying no to certain things, and the blog has gone by the wayside a bit which is sad as its how it all started.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I sometimes feel intimidated or awkward when I'm engaging in book events because of imposter syndrome. I don't have the back-story of JK Rowling banging on people's doors to try and get them to publish my book. I felt for a long time like I'd cheated, and bypassed the steps. I still find myself doing the inverted commas "I'm an author". When I'm on panels at book festivals and literary events, I dread the question of how I pitched my book to a publisher. I have to say they sent me a message on facebook and asked me if I wanted a book deal!
What makes you feel good / powerful?
The most rewarding thing about what I do is when I get feedback from someone who says that the blog or the book or something I've posted has helped them. That's huge. If I never achieve anything else in my life ever again, I'll always have that. It counterbalances the 'you're a fraud' side of things.
Where would you like it to get to?
I'd like to make a move into fiction at some stage, now that I have a platform where people might listen to some of the ideas that I've had. I've been asked to consider doing a bit of script writing too, and at the moment I don't have the time, but in the future there are all sorts of avenues that I could go down.
How do you start your day?
I find it quite hard to be disciplined writing at home, so I spend some of my week writing at the library as they have a quiet study area and you have to keep your head down and work. That gives me a bit of structure. James has the boys two days a week and they're invariably in and out of the house, which is lovely as I get time with them, but it's very distracting. I'm generally much more productive in the morning than the afternoons, starting at 8 if I'm not doing the school run, and then I give myself word goals by lunchtime. I have more meetings now and have to go to London, and try and work on the train, but then I worry that someone is looking over my shoulder whilst I'm writing about things like sex after kids!
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I think it's changed my wellbeing overall. I'm happier now because I'm not conflicted in trying to do two different jobs. There are some days where it's harder because I'm at home but I don't feel like I'm present and in the moment, but generally my time is my own. I'm more my own boss now than I've ever been, which is scary when it comes to things like accounting, but aside from that you feel more in control.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I'll tell them that they don't have to do the same thing forever, or decide concretely what they want to be. It's better to do something and get experience in it, as no experience will be a wasted experience. I hope I'll encourage a work ethic that will match that.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
A very wise friend of mine said, "If you keep finding yourself saying, 'Something's got to give,' it's usually a sign that something really does have to give. You can't do it all."
To read Sarah's blog, go to www.theunmumsymum.blogspot.co.uk