Working mum designers on how they manage stress: part two

Research recently found that working mothers are “up to 40% more stressed” than other people – in the second piece of a two-part series, we speak to female designers with children about family chaos, immaculate planning and the freedom of freelance, as well as how to develop a support network.

Marina Willer, partner, Pentagram


“I have two twin boys, aged 11. My kids are at school and I work full-time, as well as being a wife to my husband and a mum. I don’t have much childcare support; it tends to be myself, my husband and family doing it together.

Stress is an understatement – and it’s not like I’m doing a job that saves lives. Designers are not brain surgeons or astronauts. I’m lucky to have a wonderful family and a normal job, and generally just a very normal life. I’m also lucky that it’s a job I happen to love.

It’s a marathon though, and often it feels like everything is spinning in different directions; having twins, being partner at Pentagram, living on the other side of London from my office, trying to keep my mind remotely awake, while finding time to read, water the plants, brush my teeth, think and not fall asleep on the tube or cycle into a bush. Last year I added a feature film on to my to-do list, and then it got really fruity.

My day starts at 6am with the school-run, generally with ‘Mummy, I can’t find my pants,’ that sort of thing. My husband is also a partner at a design studio and works mad hours.

We finish the marathon late at night among a combination of disjointed stuff, including the vacuum cleaner being broken, the train being late, my husband being in San Francisco, and the client having changed the brief last-minute.


See your children as life-savers and a reason to cheer you up. Frequent discussions with my kids are around black holes, white holes, do bacteria have armpits and what’s for dinner, all at the same volume at the same time. My husband also often saves me from catastrophe and is my inspiration.”

Nyatetu Waigwa, design director and co-founder, Niftyworks, based in Kenya


“I have one child who’s two years old and am currently expecting another. I work full-time from home, and I would say I spend 60% of my time working and 40% on childcare.

I would say I am not overly stressed, as it comes in seasons. For instance, I get more stressed when I have a deadline on a project or my nanny falls ill and I have to take up her duties for the day. Being self-employed comes with its own stress levels such as how do I grow the business, following up on clients for payment and staying positive in a tough economic climate. Also, my husband is self-employed, so whatever stress he gets, it also flows down to me and my household.

How I cope

To manage stress, I try to disconnect from electronics and social media for at least two hours during the day, and one hour before bedtime. I also exercise – yoga, go for walks, and meditation. Then I also try to delegate – I’ll ask my nanny to do chores, give work to my workmates, and always ask my husband to help out. I also try to organise a playgroup, where every afternoon, I gather the neighbourhood kids and ask their nannies to take them to play outside. It gives me time to myself and to think clearly.


My advice would be, don’t be shy to ask for help from your nanny, husband and other family members; don’t check your phone first thing when you wake up; and have a planned routine for your work and your household.”

Annabel Banks, director, Face37


“I have one child who is nearly two years old. I run a design studio Face37 and font foundry F37 alongside my husband, Rick Banks, having joined when I returned from maternity leave; I was previously a designer at Hingston Studio. I work part-time from home, Monday to Wednesday, and I would say I split my time as 60% work and 40% childcare.

I work from home with my husband. My home-life and work-life are completely intertwined, which can be extremely challenging! I have to-do lists for both home and work but being in the same environment means I don’t ‘escape’ either, which can be very stressful.

How I cope

I’ve always believed that as a designer, no day is ever the same, which I guess is the same as being a parent. A lot of factors are always out of my control; my son recently fell very ill, and in the same week we received feedback from a client, which caused huge levels of stress and anxiety. Before, there wasn’t much that wouldn’t stop me working late, but now, being a mother will always come before being a designer.

Flexible working is one of the reasons why we work from home, so we don’t have to do the standard 9am-5pm. And more importantly, we work for ourselves. I don’t have to feel that ‘guilt’ about saying I’ve got to leave, or I can’t work late. I can pick up the work in the evening or simply continue the following day.


Be organised: this is something that was engrained into me as a junior designer at Browns. Writing to-do lists, using digital calendars, prioritising and being aware of deadlines, helps me manage workload and time. I set alarms on my phone to remind me of the simplest things, like buying milk!

Be honest: be completely honest with whoever you’re working with, about your commitments as a mother — our clients know I only work on certain days.
Ask for help when you need it, never let something get to the point where you feel like you can’t handle it.

Be inspired: when I had a baby, my mind was 100% on him, so trying to flip a switch to being a designer again was incredibly hard. I lost touch with looking at design inspiration, and when coming back to work, felt quite stressed that I couldn’t talk about the current design trends, a recent rebrand, or a foundry’s latest typeface. I now use Instagram as my main source of daily inspiration. We also have hundreds of books in the studio — so even if it’s just for five minutes when having a coffee, take the time to have a quick look through some of your favourite books, or a quick scroll on Instagram.

Take time out: it’s very important to have ‘me time’. Make time to see friends, go for a drink or to the gym — it will not only make you a better mother, but also a better designer.”

Pauline Lock, self-employed designer, focusing on brand and strategy


“I have two girls, aged three and five. I work part-time from home, three days a week. I probably average around 30-35 hours a week of work and 27 hours a week of childcare.

Design, like many of the creative industries, are so immersive and so much is required from your brain and soul, that it makes a creative career quite incompatible with motherhood. Part-time positions don’t really exist in the industry (with the exception of negotiating an existing position post-maternity leave) and freelancing three days a week is a pretty tough sell. Working for myself affords me flexibility that a permanent position, or full-time freelancing, wouldn’t. Clients are generally more flexible than design studios.

However, working part-time and being a parent creates a constant backlog of work. There’s just no slack in the system; if I’m not officially working then I’m parenting, so there aren’t the extra hours I can steal to make up the time. I’m unable just to work late, or at the weekend, as there are other (more important) demands on those hours.

I work for myself, direct to client, so work frequently carries over into non-work time, when I don’t have the capacity to do it. Workloads and deadlines tend to build and simmer away in the background. I’ve worked for myself for eight years, which does afford me greater flexibility to run the show and organise my own time and projects. However, it lacks a wider support system that might feature in a permanent position, which would help control workload on non-working days.

How I cope

All I do is try my best to segment my time, so I have distinct periods when I’m working, and the remaining time is work-free. It works semi-successfully!

When things get really tough, I have a ‘rule of five’ system based on the fact that the brain can only really think about two things at a time. The rule of five means I prioritise the two most important tasks, and these are the ones I work on. Then there are two more which I plan to work on next. The fifth task is the one that probably won’t get done. So, by allowing yourself to concentrate on two tasks only, you can forget about the rest. It works!


On a day-to-day basis, I use all the tricks I’ve previously used in running a team before working for myself. I schedule, schedule, schedule. I have an old-fashioned paper planner and I slot work in over the course of one or two weeks, as this is much more achievable to work through than a list as long as your arm.”

Vicki Lovegrove, director, Seventy Three Design, works freelance from home


“I have two kids, a son who is 11 years old and a daughter who is four. I work Monday to Thursday, and have Fridays off to spend with my daughter, who is in nursery the rest of the time. Both children were in nursery from three months old, as I don’t live near family who can help. I’ve previously relied on after-school clubs as well.

Four days a week, I work until 5pm, dash off to nursery, then come home to cook dinner. At around 7.30pm, I work for a few more hours.

I would say I am probably 70-80% stressed all the time. My day just never stops. I am fortunate to have a good reputation, so I am busy. I also hate to deliver a sloppy service, so am really on it all the time.

I’ve tried all sorts of things to unwind: mindfulness apps, meditation, but with my schedule I tend to forget to use them! My best way of relaxing is taking the dog for a walk before I start my day and listening to a podcast. Podcasts and BBC6 Music literally keep me sane.

I think the most stressful part of my day is finding time to actually do the work! As a freelancer, I have to find the work too, so I’m out networking, creating quotes and proposals, then if they all come off, you obviously then have to get the work done.

Some days, I could actually clone myself. Having had the stress of running design studios and managing people in the past, I never want to employ anyone. So I have to take the feast and run with it, because inevitably there will be a bit of a famine around the corner.

Recently, my four-year-old has decided to stop sleeping. It’s horrific, but you still have to carry on. School holidays are hard, making sure kids are safe and not plugged into the PlayStation 24 hours a day, while still managing to work.

The most stressful times though were when I was pregnant. The first time I lost clients, which was disappointing. I guess they assumed I would take maternity leave, which I didn’t.

Then the second time I kept it completely to myself, didn’t tell any clients, but another designer got wind of it and felt he had to tell some of my clients I was pregnant, therefore not available for work. I was fuming. Again, I didn’t take maternity leave.

There is an assumption that because you are female you will have a year off work but to me that is such a luxury! But then I’d rather have it my way and have the flexibility of being freelance. I have no idea how employed women manage it. Especially in a studio scenario, where there is often a culture of working overtime.

How I cope

I am terrible at managing my stress but I do try. These are the basics I use just to function as a business:

Delegate: use childcare — it doesn’t mean you are a terrible mother. The kids have a great time and are well-mannered, articulate little people at the end of it.

Outsource stuff: especially admin. Virtual personal assistants (Pas) are an amazing resource. For things like accounts, use an online service like Xero — it has saved me hours. I also get my accountant to do more too, which costs but will save you time.

Network: I belong to a networking organisation, Business Network International (BNI). This is a great support network, and also helps you find new business.

Use a phone answering service: it stops you being disturbed by people selling or trying to help you claim payment protection insurance (PPI)! It also helps when you have your head in a design project.


If you find yourself suddenly quiet, don’t panic. I did for years, and I still do a bit, but now I’ll take an afternoon and just go out. If you are lucky to live in a city then do something relaxing like visit an exhibition. Sometimes just leaving your house and immediate surroundings is enough to stimulate your brain and chill you out.”

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

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  • Kate February 7, 2019 at 8:46 am

    I think this is a really good debate especially the last comment.

    We need to enforce part time work in studios and client corporations, for mothers. Workplaces are inherently selfish.
    This also means mostly male CDs which I am all for. Or even if there is a MD husband and a female CD wife that might work too. But big CDs of big studios of big clients will mostly be male. But they should hold assistant roles for females in 9-3work. Or two-three day shift work. And this needs to happen all across the world. It needs to become law. Because mothers are being punished and shut out of studios.

    I’d had to think how a solo mother designer fare.

  • Kate February 7, 2019 at 8:47 am

    You can almost hear Kevin Roberts gender debate sparking up!

  • Miss C May 10, 2019 at 10:29 pm

    So so glad you’re running articles on this! Finally!! For years I’ve been thinking. This needs talking about. Motherhood with Design seems to need reworking somehow – I had to give up my full time employment after having my first son – not only did the finances not work out, but I was working overtime most nights and that doesn’t easily go hand in hand with parenting. I in my job and I just couldn’t make it work. i since went on to have another baby and will look to go freelance when he’s in more regular nursery/school hours.
    It’s just a real shame that the design world can’t be more flexible to accommodate working mums in the studio, so they can go back to the there as opposed to WFH. I totally get why – creative or print deadlines etc etc – but it seems like mums find it tougher in this industry than some others.

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