As much as the modern workplace might like to shout about its dedication to flexibility and family, the reality remains quite different. The fact is, whether we’re working in marketing or medicine, we’re still judged on how early we arrive at the office, how late we leave it and how much self-flagellating time we put in, away from our kids and spouses.
It’s a barbaric Hunger Games-style battle to see who can survive the longest and get processed up that career ladder the fastest.
For single parents like me, this situation is magnified. With nobody at home to pick up the slack when I’m slogging away – and with full-time childcare prohibitively expensive – it’s clear why women in my situation struggle to make their finances, and their desk time, add up.
I found myself between this work-based rock and a hard place last year. As marketing director of a large ad agency I pulled incredibly long hours, relying on extortionately priced childcare, or my parents, to look after my children while I was out earning.
I felt stretched in every part of my life – spread far too thinly at work, home and in relationships. I craved both harmony in my family life and more time with my children. It felt like I couldn’t please anyone: if I left work early my boss would be disappointed, if I stayed at work late I’d be in trouble with nurseries or babysitters, and miss precious evening time with my kids.
Something had to give. So when I received an email-based dressing down from my boss after a particularly stressful 12-hour shift, I decided enough was enough. I handed in my notice the next day and embarked on a new portfolio career.
Portfolio working is when an individual has multiple strands of income. Often pursued by those who don’t feel creatively satisfied in their day job, or can’t make the traditional nine-to-five work for them (like me), it’s a way of working that is flexible and slightly different to the usual freelance role. This work trend is one that has been growing for a while – fuelled not just by desire but also by post-credit-crunch necessity.
My own career now has three strands. I’m a freelance marketing strategist, working on behalf of big brands to grow their online profiles; I’m a writer; and I also run a commercially monetised blog, More Than Toast. Having these different facets to my career means I’m not reliant on a sole source of income: if one goes I know I’ll still be able to feed my kids and pay the bills.
For a single mum, it’s the perfect solution – though it can work for anyone. Carving out a portfolio career has meant I’m able to flexibly fit my hours in around my children, which might mean unsociable weekends or evening hours but has the knock-on effect that I’m able to do school drop-offs and pickups and join the other parents at sports day.
It feels wonderful to stroll with my kids to the school gates, instead of thrusting them in the arms of childminders seemingly before dawn.
On reflection the standard nine-to-five, (or as it was for me often, 7.30am – 8pm), seems barbaric in comparison.
I spoke to a couple of single mum friends about their own work lives, and how launching portfolio careers has revolutionised their work-life balance.
Kate, who lives in Kent, was a PA in the City working long days. After a stressful break-up with the father of her son, she decided to cut down on her hours away from home, and pursued one of her true loves, writing – while offering social media management to freelance clients and studying for a degree (she graduated with a first).
I asked her if she found herself working crazy hours, as I sometimes do: ‘In the last three years I’ve found a good balance of what works for me. I took on too much in the beginning because I wanted to please everyone, but ended up quite stressed, which wasn’t the aim of leaving the traditional office environment at all.
‘If you’re making the decision to shun the nine-to-five, you have to be upfront with your clients about what you’re prepared to do,’ she continues. ‘I made the decision that my priority was being at home for the kids to give them security. But that flexibility with my hours – which goes a long way to secure work and keep clients happy – would be something I’d be happy to offer. One of my clients needed me online at 7am some days and 11pm others: I was able to do that.’
Anya positions her portfolio career a little differently – working flexibly within the NHS, fitting in other freelance writing work around her office hours and hosting foreign students from a local university.
‘I really enjoy using my brain and the camaraderie of my office: I still get to pick up the kids from school and relax in the garden, so, all-in-all, it’s a good balance,’ she says. ‘I can take a lot of time off during the holidays and the flexibility of this has been a lifeline.
‘At present I let out two single rooms to foreign language students for most of the year, and this makes up the biggest part of and my most reliable source of income. As time goes on I’d like to make more of the other two avenues of income and lose the tenants: it’s a struggle to juggle all three and I’d like to be freer – but it’s the lot of many a single parent.”
As long as you can make your income work for your family’s needs, a flexible career is perfect for single parents like Kate, Anya and me. And anyone else who might want to try it.