We talk to 3 busy working mums about how they do it!

Stylist Grace Woodward, Red Features Director, Sarah Tomczak and BBC Director, Ellen England talk babies and working life!

  • Ellen, can you tell us about yourself?

Ellen at work at the BBC studios

Ellen at work at the BBC studios

Ellen:  I’m a News Director for the BBC at their Headquarters in London.  I’m part of a massive team who work across all kinds of news output  that gets sent and viewed all around the world and here in the UK.   I mostly work for BBC London News, the regional TV programme for London and the South East.  

Grace, can you tell us about Graceland and how it came about?

Grace: Graceland is in a way the amalgamation of everything I've ever done. I've collected clothes since I can remember, even before I was a stylist thinking this would be great for a shoot or a client, I looked at clothes as parts of the puzzle you used to build the visual of your personality and so getting rid of anything seems like losing a part of me. However I've collected so much stuff I felt keeping it all was starting to feel like I was going to end up on one of Ch4 hoarder programmes, I decided i needed to share the love finally. So I now have a shop full of things that I love that are both old and new, collectible and trivial, beautiful and odd, that may have been worn by a celebrity or supermodel along the way that I'm looking for new owners for. 

Sarah, Can you tell us about your job and your role?

Sarah: I'm the features director at Red magazine which means I'm responsible for most of the words in the issue each month. I commission and edit the features, as well as writing for the magazine and our website Redonline.co.uk


  • You're incredibly talented and very busy mums, what do you find are the main challenges of being a working parent?


Ellen: The biggest challenge has been a fast-track promotion to ‘Head of Logistics  - England Division’ without any kind of a formal interviewing process taking place as I can remember it... I thought simply just having a child made me up my organisational game ten-fold but as soon as I reintroduced work back into the equation; things really went up a gear.

Grace with Larkin

Grace with Larkin

Grace: Ha thanks! flattery will get you everywhere! It's funny though, I mostly feel like I have been doing a lot of things quite badly rather than one thing very well since I decided that my second child would be a business. And Im nearly always late and I have repetitive strain threatening in my right hand thumb from where I'm constantly working from my iPhone. Speculating on the spend on childcare vs how much a new business brings in is my main challenge right now. 

Sarah: Feeling like I'm giving both aspects of my life enough time and commitment. I never want my daughter, Coco, 2, to feel second best but my career is equally important to me. Both are a huge passion and source of pride for me and define who I am.


  • I remember when my children were younger and I always felt some sort of guilt. What about you? Do you ever feel that awful pang of guilt if you're working?


Ellen: I feel guilt a lot; even though I believe I have just about (and at the risk of sounding smug) found the elusive ‘balance’  by only working three 10 hour days a week.  On the rare occasions that I do end up with a small child clinging to me at the nursery drop off; the guilt bell tolls very loudly in my Mummy brain as I sloop back out the gates and down the hill to the station, everything just seems a bit greyer for a while after that.  Poppy is about to move up to the toddler unit and somehow I get the feeling this stage will be harder than dropping her into the cosy, carpeted domain of the Baby unit; smiley and sitting up unaided at 8 months old.  Those first 4 months of returning to work were done with a very heavy heart and a debilitating feeling l wasn’t managing to really nail it at home or at work.  I did a lot of sighing as I remember...I feel guilt at being at work and then guilt at being at home but desperately trying to catch up with some housework whilst she toddles along behind me or watches a bit of CBeebies (there, I’ve said it!)

Grace: I NEVER feel guilty to working as I don't do it to get away from Larkin, I do it as an investment in all of our futures. I still haven't decided on private school or not but I'd like to have the option. It was harder the first few months at nursery when he'd cry when I left but as soon as I was stuck into things I'd feel that little bit more like myself, I took me a while to understand the changes motherhood had wrought on my identity, having an independent identity can only be good for my future relationship with my son. I don't want one day for him to go off to find his life only for me to realise I'd given up everything for him.

Sarah:  I try not to, because I think I am a better, well-rounded person because of it, I am setting Coco a good example in doing a job that I love and simply because NOT working is not really a choice for me. We need two salaries to pay the mortgage. Also my husband is brilliant and we split the childcare 50/50 so if I'm not there, I know he is.


  • What are your concerns about being a working parent?


Ellen: I do try to simply be ‘in the moment’ during my time with Poppy – not to think about all the small things I need to tick off my list that day or the bigger things that keep me awake at night.  I am a bit of a neat freak;  I would say my house was tidy, I wouldn’t always say it’s the cleanest on my road though…. It’s a bit of a life choice I suppose and a consequence of open plan living I like to reassure myself with from time to time.  Monday morning is our time after I work the weekend, Poppy and I head off to the Children’s Centre playgroup run in an 80’s Portacabin Scout Hut.  I’ve given up wearing anything too decent as I end up covered in paint or glitter or both!  I love getting stuck in the activities just as much as my Bubba does (although personally, I’ve never felt a strong urge to eat the pasta in the big plastic tray on the floor)  I know Poppy has a great time learning things at nursery and I just can’t wait to share them with her when we get our time together. Working evenings works for us a family but I miss that end of the day feeling of switching off in front of the telly, being propped up by my husband Jon.  Having an ‘upside down working day’ means I drop her at nursery at 9 in the morning just to afford myself the ‘luxury ‘ of doing the housework alone before I head off to start my working day. My Mum didn’t go back out to work again till I was about 13, she brilliantly managed to juggle arty things and sign writing from home so as a child I never went to school poorly.  I’m not looking forward to the day I make the wrong call and send my daughter off only to get the call to go and pick her back up as she is ill.  At the moment Poppy can’t tell me where it hurts and I just have to trust my instincts but no doubt making the wrong call will happen to me sooner or later and the guilt bell will sound once more.

Sarah with the Red team

Sarah with the Red team

Sarah: I want my daughter to feel loved, inspired and fulfilled. I don't want to miss the important bits in her life and I want her to feel I am always there for her. I'm lucky enough to work a four day week so Coco and I spend every Wednesday together doing something interesting and special, so I hope that goes some way to making up for the days we have apart (it also means we only ever have two days until we hang out again). Right now it works.


  • How important is it for your children to see you working and to have that role model?


Ellen: I am proud of what I do, my journey to get to directing BBC London News has been pretty hard graft at times.  I’m becoming increasing proud that I manage to balance it all most of the time too. The BBC is full of working Mums who are juggling just as much, if not more than me and it’s great to be surrounded by that sounding board and support network.  In my opinion I don’t believe you can ‘have it all’ and I’m coming to terms with the fact my career is going to tread water for a while.

Grace: Hmm I think it's horses for courses, you can be an Incredibly inspiring mum by being 100% devoted to bringing up your kids in a intelligent calm and nurturing environment. On the other hand having working parents can instill a good work ethic in your kids. I think the bit in between, where if fear I might be which is chaotic, frazzled and over stretched working mums who are manically spinning plates might not have the most ideal results for anyone involved. 

Sarah: Absolutely essential. Both my husband and I are lucky enough to have found careers we adore and I want Coco to recognise that and hopefully find her own calling. Plus we equal divide the domestic responsibilities, which I believe is vital for women to thrive in the workplace so I think it's very important that she just sees this as the norm and expects the same for her own future.


  • Do you find it difficult with childcare? 

Ellen: My sister and Mum live in the same town and the reassurance of having a Plan B just around the corner is worth more than gold to Jon and me.  My Mum has Poppy every other Tuesday and it feels the right amount of time to build a great bond between them but not to blur the boundaries of Nannie time and free Childcare time.  I make a point to steal a glance at my Mum every once in a while to check the arrangement we have isn’t getting too much for her, she is 72 after all (sorry Mum..)  I never want to hear myself simply barking a list of instructions for that day’s food and activities as I pass the child over and leg it out the door.  

Grace and her family

Grace and her family

Grace: At the moment yes, but I'm only a few months in to opening the shop - Larkin goes to nursery two days a week, I need more but they don't have it,  so I'm also looking for a Nanny too but the cost implication is galling. Nursery is great for his socialisation, I've noticed though that as he's spent lots of time with his Great Grandmother (my mum died when he was 8 weeks old) from that one-on-one time where someone was solely focussed on him, that's where he's learnt the most. 

Sarah: We have a good nursery nearby, grandparents who we can call on occasionally and understanding bosses, so it's as good as it can be - though I wish it didn't cost as much as it does!


  • What are the benefits of being a working parent?


Ellen: I want Poppy to see that I love my job and I worked hard to get to where I am when she’s a bit older to understand where I go.  I also want her to understand I work because what I earn pays the bills too.   There isn’t enough spare cash to call for a take away every time we really don’t feel like cooking but we aren’t alone in that. Having said that, we feel incredibly lucky. My husband and I have understanding employers who will let us work as flexibly as we can whilst still being able to tick all the boxes on our job description.  Not all annual leave is for holidays now, some is left in the coffer for emergency childcare when the England family jigsaw doesn’t quite fit together and we have to call for back up. It’s nice to get out of my ‘skinny’ jeans and into my work clothes. I get 20 minutes on the train to stare out the window, send a tweet or power nap down the window of the train carriage.  I like walking with my weekly posh coffee treat out of Oxford Circus tube; not to mention actually getting to enjoy the contents hot without it having to make several turns in the microwave.   I like the feeling that its ok to be the me I was before I had my beautiful daughter; the me who was a little bit more selfish and a lot less stained.

Grace: Sanity, stimulation, identity, fun, earning, independence, looking forward to seeing that little face at the end of the day....

Sarah and her daughter, Coco

Sarah and her daughter, Coco

Sarah: l love the chance that I still get to be ME, as well as someone's mum. I worked really hard to establish my career and although it's more challenging to juggle it with a young family, I know that I'll have many working years ahead of me when they're at school too, so I am keen to keep doing what I love. I also think that time away from your kids makes you appreciate them even more.

  • Was it important for you to return to work after having your child? Why?

Ellen: Financially going back to work just had to happen but it’s been nice to regain a bit of myself.   It’s been great to get a whole new best friend in Poppy but you do crave adult company after a while.

Grace: Yes because for me work isn't just a job it's part of who I am, I didn't really ever stop.

Sarah: I had to financially and I think the media is a fast-moving industry so I've definitely found it beneficial to kit be 'out of the game' for too long. Although I did take ten months maternity leave and enjoyed every moment of it. I am pregnant again now and plan to take eight months maternity leave this time - my husband will take advantage of the new paternity leave law and do two months too.

  • What does a typical day look like for you?

Ellen and her family

Ellen and her family

Ellen: I work from lunchtime till 11 o'clock at night and so as family there isn’t a mad rush to get all us out the door in the morning - and given that I don’t get to bed till after Midnight, it’s a real blessing.  Poppy wakes about 7 and so my husband and I take it in turns to haul her out of her cot and into the bed with me for a bit of a snuggle. Jon brings up a bottle for her and a sweet cup of tea for me.  We watch a bit of telly together and then I start to potter around putting the washing away and making the beds.  If it’s a nursery day, I pack her bag (scrape my wayward curly hair back) and head off on the short buggy push over there.  I’ve realised any time without a child trying to wrestle the phone out of your hand is not to be wasted and so I’ll call a mate or my Mum for a catch up on the way back home. Then its just me, Ken Bruce and a load of chores till I jump in the shower and head off to the station at midday.

Grace: It depends which day and if Larkin is teething. At the moment he waking at 3.30 ish then sleeps till 6. In then try to persuade him to snuggle with me till 7.30 then it's breakfast, possibly nursery, home tackle some freelance stuff a tidy up a bit, I'm writing a kids book so maybe try to get afew thoughts down before opening the shop, pick him up at 6 bath, bed, make dinner, trawl through vintage clothes online whilst watching something like Sons of Anarchy or a film. Bed by 11.30. 

Sarah: I drop Coco at nursery and my husband picks her up, so mornings are always manic as we never seem to leave enough time to shower, get dressed, have breakfast and pack out bags. Coco invariably eats a banana en route to nursery (she has a proper breakfast there) and I do my make up on the train into London! I get to work in Soho at 9.30am. In the office I'll do anything from brainstorming ideas to editing copy to writing news pieces for the website to interviewing celebrities. I take a quick lunch, often at my desk, but usually leave at 5.30pm to get home for bath and bedtime.

  • Do you find time to do any groups or clubs with your child?

Ellen: Ever since I had Poppy the Children’s Centre’s in the town where we live have offered us a huge amount of support from breast feeding to play sessions and swimming at our local pool.   I do take her to commercial play centre’s locally, some are better value ( and cleaner.. ) than others.  Just getting our NCT group back together is good fun for adults and babies a like, we can decimate all manor of establishments in very little time these days..

Grace: We do swimming on a Tuesday as I only open the shop for private appointments then. We've done Heartbleeps in the past too and we're regulars at The Secret Garden in Hitchin.  I'm not the best at that kind of thing but I take him to other kids places so I can chat with friends. At Heartbleeps they made me wear a shower cap and sing, now I know I'm a big fashion show off but I draw the line at parental humiliation as entertainment ..... (I'm joking) 

Sarah: No. We do a variety of things on a Wednesday - my day off, from going to museums, or the park, or seeing friends, or visiting family down on the Kent coast. We also swim together every weekend.    

  • How do you manage everything? 

Ellen: I manage with big list making, a day to a page diary and a Sarah and Duck family calendar.  My husband organises his life on his laptop and phone and regularly tries to convert me so we can share diaries easily, but it helps me to write stuff down to see it in my minds’ eye in a hope it might stick in my memory.  I also manage because my husband and I are in it together and I know he is completely capable of stepping in when I step out.  They say children recognise that each of their parents have their own way of doing things and so I’ve learned to relax and let hubby do it his way with my daughter.   I like the fact they have their own world together on the days he does the pick up from nursery.  Jon has always done bathtime, they have a ball together and while they splash around upstairs I like to tidy round the toys and make dinner for the two of us.  I reset myself a bit from being a Mum to just being a wife again in that half an hour and that helps me tune back into us as a couple.  I work later in the day so I’ve also got a bit of wriggle room to sort something out if Poppy was to get sent home from nursery ill.  Jon has come from work early and I’ve managed to go into work a bit late on the odd occasion.   I do worry about having to take time off to look after her, my job isn’t the sort of job that is easy to cover at short notice and working from home isn’t an option either.  You can’t spend every day worrying about it, you just have to ‘keep on, keepin’ on’ till the time comes and then deal with it.

Grace: Im not one of those women who feels they have to pretend everything is perfect, I'm essential too lazy to spend the extra energy on the facade, so real the answer  not sure I'm managing everything but things are happening none the less and nothing super bad is happening. My diet, fitness and generally appearance have taken a hit, not sure I'll be getting any modelling campaigns any time soon but something's gotta give and if that's afew inches all over then that I can live with for now. 

Sarah: By not having much chance to relax! Life is always pretty manic, but we have lots of friends and are always busy. We try to be super organised and get early nights.

  • Any advice for mums thinking of returning to work?

Ellen: I borrowed this advice from a well known Mothers website but I thought it was very wise on the subject of returning to work: remember your good enough could well be someone else’s exceptional.  I think you’ve got to ease yourself back in and don’t expect too much, too soon.  This next bit of advice I can take credit for: Fake it till you feel it.  Even if you return to work with red eyes from crying after having left your little one, marmalade on your skirt and that feeling your brain just isn’t going to able to free up any more space up there; believe in yourself.   Take a deep breath and smile! One day very soon, it’ll all just get easier…

Grace: Returning to work vs starting a new business is kind of a different thing. I've always been self employed so I never really left work, but starting a new business at the time I did requires good childcare. You can do anything if you know your baby is safe and happy.  

Sarah: Don't succumb to feeling guilty (it's a choice and we put too much pressure on ourselves). Accept that life will be manic - and that things will slip, but it doesn't matter. Remember that you and your partner are a team and he needs to step up to the domestic stuff to allow you to give your all at work too. And don't lose sight of the fact that you are setting a great example for your kids too - they need to believe that you can do a job you love AND have a family, not either, or.

Many thanks to Ellen, Grace and Sarah.