Working mum designers on how they manage stress: part one

Research recently found that working mothers are “up to 40% more stressed” than other people – in the first of a two-part series, we speak to female designers with children about work pressure, sleeplessness and impeccable time management, as well as the need to think about themselves.

Francesca Tortora, freelance graphic designer and founder at Doing it for the Kids, London

Experience

“I have two children aged three years old and five months old, and technically work 2.5 days a week. I inevitably end up working a lot of hours around my kids, such as in the evenings and at weekends to keep on top of everything.

Life is definitely stressful. There is so much going on, all of the time, that the smallest of things can mean trouble. For me, as a freelancer, a lot of my stress stems from fear — fear of work drying up, fear of the kids getting sick and having to take time off, fear of childcare cancellations, fear of invoices being paid late or not at all.

In fact, money is a big factor full stop. As a freelance designer, I work to a time-for-money model and, since having kids, I have very little child-free time and therefore am earning very little money, which isn’t ideal when you live in a country with one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world.

How I cope

Working freelance means I have some control over who I work with — my clients are increasingly people who also have kids themselves. Just knowing that they totally understand the chaotic existence I’m living, and that they won’t judge me for asking to push a deadline because my kid is sick makes life a lot less stressful. You don’t have to pretend your role as a mother doesn’t exist.

Advice

It’s also been an absolute lifesaver to connect with other parents who are in the same position and face the same challenges. Being part of a community of other working parents doesn’t take my stress away, but it definitely makes coping with it a hell of a lot easier.”

Francesca Tortora is also founder at Doing it for the Kids, a community organisation for freelance parents.


Becki Wilson, creative director and founder, The Loft

Experience

“I have two boys, aged four and eight. I work full-time running my design studio, but I leave work early two days a week to pick my children up from school. I work in the office four days, and work from home on Fridays.

I’m happy to say that while there is daily stress, I’m now able to deal with it. But that wasn’t always the case. It came to a head a few years ago when I had a panic attack in the middle of a client presentation. It followed a number of late nights working in the studio until 4am, which wasn’t unusual for me, but it was a wake-up call and made me realise that I needed to start slowing down. If I wanted to be able to look after others and my business, I needed to be looking after myself.

At that point, I was trying to be all things to everybody and failing miserably. As a female creative director I wanted to be taken seriously, so I would hide the fact that I had to collect the boys from childcare or take them to an appointment. I was blowing all the work stuff out of proportion and letting small things feel much bigger than they were. But I’ve now learned to look at things from a new perspective and can balance my passion for my work with being a great mum.

How I cope

Exercise has helped me enormously. After the panic attack, I discovered running. It takes me to a headspace where I can keep things in check – it’s a mental workout as well as a physical one. I also discovered meditation and mindfulness which has helped me to be more present and park the things that don’t matter as much as my brain tries to tell me they do.

Advice

Make sure you do exercise, and meditation really helps. Brene Brown and Fearne Cotton have some great books that have helped me reframe my thinking when it comes to ‘doing it all’ and look at my life with a different perspective. Lastly, I would say, go with your gut, trust yourself and your intuition and surround yourself with good people — don’t be afraid to ask for help.”


Becks Skinner, senior designer, Supple Studio

Experience

“I have a 19-month-old daughter, and I currently work three days a week, from 9.30am – 6pm. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I look after my daughter.

I’m amazingly lucky to work for a company that values work-life balance and the importance of family (Jamie Ellul, our founder and creative director takes a ‘dad day’ every week). Working three days a week provides a good balance for me and as a result I’m able to manage my stress levels.

What does make me stressed is the pressure I put on myself to do good work and my drive to succeed. Before I was a mum, if I hadn’t cracked an idea by the end of the day, I would just work on. Now when it gets to 6pm, I want to be at home with my daughter, and this adds extra pressure.

I sometimes find it hard to balance trying to be the best designer I can be, alongside being the best mum. On a number of occasions, I’ve found myself scribbling ideas during my daughter’s nap-time. Being a designer is quite emotionally involved and it’s hard to switch off when it’s time to be a mum again.

How I cope

To manage my stress and time, I try to compartmentalise my head into mum brain and designer brain and am learning how to switch them on and off! It can be overwhelming trying to juggle both and so being mindful of this and trying to focus on one at a time ensures I don’t get distracted and I’m able to make the most of what I’m doing. I also really value my walk into work as an opportunity to practise some mindfulness and clear my head.

Advice

Accept the fact that you can’t be a full time mum and a full-time designer. There’s a lot of guilt and stress that comes with feeling like you’re not doing either of these things well — it’s unfair and exhausting. Try to negotiate working part-time if that’s what you want to do. It’s not common enough for designers to work part-time but with the right team and support around you, it can work really well. Also – write lists!”


Amanda Schutz, creative director, Curio Studio

Experience

“I have one two-year-old. I currently work full-time, 9am-4.30pm, Monday – Friday. I’m self-employed, so I try to fit pockets of work into other time, like after my son goes to bed or over the weekend. Often these extra hours make up for time off I have to take when my son is sick and needs me, when I need to meet an aggressive deadline or when I want to take on an extra personal project or volunteer work.

If I wake up well-rested and our family is organised, things feel like they begin smoothly and it sets the stage for how things will play out that day.

Running a studio involves so many aspects; business development, managing projects for my team, finances, administrative tasks and then most importantly, creative work. I want my business to succeed but even more importantly, I want to be a present and capable mother to my son.

My main contributor for stress is balancing all of this gracefully, while running against the feelings of not being enough for everyone and everything.

How I cope

The main thing I do to manage stress is yoga three-to-five times per week. I also have a strong support system of a loving family, amazing friends and reliable colleagues. My husband is a respiratory therapist specialising in sleep, so he is constantly reminding me to get more rest (easier said than done!).

Advice

Try your best to carve time to recharge so you can come back to your kids feeling healthy and focused. Communicate your needs to your partner and share the weight of the tasks at home. Accept the fact that your life will sometimes look and feel messy.”


Claire Harrison, art director, London School of Economics (LSE) in-house design studio, and creative director, West 9 Design

Experience

“I have two girls, aged seven and 10. I work full-time, made up of four days a week at the office and one at home. My day is generally split into eight hours of work, and six hours of childcare. Other childcare is a mix of a childminder and grandparents.

My role managing the in-house design department at LSE is full-on. LSE was brilliant when I first became a mum, agreeing to reduce my hours to four days, with one day at home. This level of work has given me a good work-life balance. and having one day at home allowed me to spend quality time with the kids when they were little, then when they went to school, allowed me to get through household chores.

How I cope

My stress levels vary day-to-day. Stress comes from workload demands, and pressure I put on myself, including proving myself. Demands of home include admin, chores, being personal assistant (PA) for my family and trying to plan ahead. In my day job, managing a team of designers as well as designing myself can be tough, so my day at home gives me a breather from meetings to concentrate on creative work, which I still love.

Having children has helped my stress levels in some ways — it helped change my perspective on my career, and my two maternity leaves allowed me to reassess, come back to my role fresh, ready to progress the department and push my creative work. On days when things are tough at work, thinking of what’s important in your life allows you to rise above the situation.

Juxtaposed to this, I also find the creative process of designing helps reduce stress from family pressures. I love getting absorbed in a project and it can be good to switch off from everything else.

I’ve recently taken the decision to leave full-time work and open my own design studio. I’m excited by this new challenge and hope it brings more harmony between my career and motherhood.

Advice

Over the years one thing that has really helped me is having great childcare. I’ve been very lucky to have had excellent childminders and nannies. Not only did I feel secure in that they were great carers to my children but also that they worked hard and were flexible, such as when my kids were ill. I was lucky to not have to take much time off for my kids’ sickness.

My advice would be to get a cleaner if you can, as it helps having the extra help at home. And also take some time for yourself — I’ve discovered running since being a mum and am now training for my first half marathon. I love nothing more than getting outdoors to clear my mind. I also help coach at my kids’ primary school running club, which is great fun.

Finally, try not to feel guilty about work or parenting, and just do your best — that’s all you can do. Be realistic about what you can achieve.”


Are you a designer who is also a mum? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Comments
  • Agni February 5, 2019 at 6:37 am

    All very lucky ladies. I am a single mum and a freelance creative. I work up to 16 hours a day to keep all clients happy and earn enough money to support my son, myself and pay for the court case against his abusive father. There is no stretching deadlines. There is no understanding. The less someone pays, the more demanding they are. All my clients know that I am extremely efficient, they also know I am a mum, but being super good at what you do does not buy you a credit to allow for flexibility and childcare.

  • Milon Harman February 5, 2019 at 8:56 am

    I have a 1-year-old daughter and recently gone back to work full-time (8am-5pm) as Head of Design & UX. I must say, it is definitely challenging to run a department and manage daily stresses like waking up in the middle of the night, this really does throw me off, especially if I have a packed day with loads of meetings. My husband and I have a systematic routine where he wakes and drops her off and I pick her up and do the bedtime routine so we both get to spend time with our daughter but it’s still hard to find that balance. I’ve started to do an early morning spin class to help manage my stress levels but I definitely want to try other techniques like meditation.

  • Ruth February 5, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    I would love to know how you have found freelance work, unless working from home, where you can leave at 5 or 5.30? In my field, it’s expected that freelancers stay late which means it’s impossible to use afterschool childcare.

  • E February 6, 2019 at 8:25 am

    There’s no getting around it, it’s tough!
    Some days more than others. Me and my husband both work full time and commute into London, (I work from home on Fridays, which is a relief!). I do the morning routine, so up at 6.15am get ready myself then wake my boys (9 and 4) at around 7am, get them dressed, head downstairs, get the brekky, wash, brush teeth, and they watch some morning telly. At 7.45am we’re out the door for drop off (walk or bike). Ideally I make the 8.20am train. And then my husband does this in reverse for pick-up. I’ve included the timings because thats how regimented it needs to be sadly. Any tantrum, which there are plenty only adds to the stress!

    I’ve always loved my job, and as an Art Director I have a pivotal role in the team and I’m relied upon to produce great work, so the pressure to prove myself is always there, I’d say it’s pressure I predominantly put on myself!

    It’s a tight-rope of a balancing act, I don’t have time for loads of exercise as I get home at around 7.30pm (if the trains are running ok). The pit of guilt is hard some days, especially when you get the ‘I don’t want to go to Nursery’ wobble in a morning. And if the boys are sick, we have to take time off to, which means working from home to make sure nothing falls behind, whilst making sure we’re taking care of them!

    I wanted to be reply and be honest as I’ve read a lot of articles like this and they ‘sugar-coat’ it. Hats off to the single mums. They are the true champs!

  • L February 7, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Sadly the design industry in general is pretty archaic when it comes to work life balance and flexible working.

    You would have thought that with the evolution of technology and collaborative ways of working remotely that more people would be understanding but it’s not the case.

    I always hear… “Our team are expected to work out of the studio, we can’t let you work from home” To that I say, if you can’t trust them to put in a days work without looking over their shoulder, then they aren’t the right for you, or you have some serious micro-managing issues.

    Personally I’d rather spend 4 hours coming up with lovely concepts at home, than sitting on a packed train every day.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions and I’m sure there are some really good agencies that promote a more balanced approach, but I’m yet to count them on more than one hand.

  • Jo February 7, 2019 at 10:50 am

    I really feel for Angi – in these comments. I am also a single mum to a 6-year-old girl. I am a sole parent and get no support. It is very stressful trying to juggle running a freelance design business as well as being a mum. I can’t afford childcare – so work a lot in the evenings when my little girl has gone to bed. I haven’t had a holiday in over 5 years. I am constantly tired and worry about meeting my rent and bills. BUT – I am so grateful that I have the design skills to enable me to work around being a mum and also to work in something I really love. It’s not easy and I haven’t found any solutions to doing this stress-free. Good on all you wonderful working mums. Well sone xx

  • M February 13, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Such a shame to see an important topic wholly focussed on mums only. What about dads who fulfil this role and experience these issues?

  • Sarah Fountain March 20, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    Great article.
    I am a freelance designer, working from home. My husband and I made the decision to leave the South East and move to Shropshire (where I grew up) so that we could balance work and childcare better. Mortgages are so much cheaper that we could afford for me to go freelance (I originally went back to work full time after our son, and he was full-time nursery).
    As the ‘flexible'(!) freelancer, the thing I find toughest is having to pretty-much always be the one to have to drop everything if there’s a problem. We have a 4yr old and a 21 month old. So my stress is always about worrying about them getting sick and needing my care, which means my deadlines, which are often tight anyway, get tighter!!
    …I genuinely love my work, its really important to me (I design, illustrate and write children’s books), but the constant fear of not being able to keep on top of deadlines for mummy duties is a toughie!
    I think all parents are superheroes – and finding our own time is definitely the key. Cycling, swimming and gardening are the things that keep me sane!
    Sarah xx

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