Saturday, 24 January 2015

How They Make It Work - Jenn Ashworth

I'm very pleased to introduce you to Jenn Ashworth. Jenn is a critically acclaimed, award-winning novelist (and a very modest one) who also lectures in the subject at Lancaster University. She holds a doctorate, she's a hugely innovative writer and she is constantly developing new projects that push the boundaries of what fiction and creative writing can encompass. Anyhow, enough fan-girling from me, here's how Jenn Makes It Work...

Photo by Martin Figura

What do you do for work?

I'm a novelist and short story writer, I set up and help run a small publishing collective (it's brilliant and it's called Curious Tales, check it out...), I lecture in Creative Writing (see Jenn's academic profile here) , I mentor, edit and run freelance writing workshops and writer development programmes. 

What's your home set up - where do you live and with whom, how many children do you have?

I live in Preston, where I grew up, and about 30 miles away from the University campus, which means a bit of a commute a couple of times a week. I have two children - a ten year old girl and a four year old boy, and we all live with my partner, who is, at the moment, a stay at home dad. I don't have an office at home, but I have a tiny desk jammed into the corner of my bedroom, and a bigger office on campus at Lancaster. I work from home as much as I can, but it is useful to have that private space elsewhere available if I need it. And I keep all my books and boxes of papers there, which makes home feel more like a home and less like a very tattered and badly curated library. 

How do you manage childcare? Has this changed over the years with experience/changing circumstances?

I moved in with my partner when my daughter was four, so for her pre-school years, while I was studying for my MA and writing my first novel, I relied on my mum and my daughter's father to take care of her a day or two a week so I could work. I also got used to working in short bursts, while she napped, and at night, while she slept. I have a big, complicated family - my daughter's father and step-mother are very involved - so we take turns with the kids at weekends, during the holidays, doing the school run, etc. It involves a lot of diary juggling and it isn't always easy, but it is what is best for my daughter, we've always been consistent about that and it allows us a lot of flexibility.

What have you learnt about childcare and work from doing it this way - for instance do you have any tips about having au pairs, interviewing nannies or choosing a nursery - or how to manage without?

We've had childminders and used nurseries in the past and it's always been a good-enough experience. I sent my son to an Ofted rated 'outstanding' nursery which he hated, and after two months there some of the staff still didn't know his name. I pulled him out and sent him to a lower rated nursery which he loved, and was very sad to leave to go to school. That taught me to trust my own judgement, and to be led by what my child preferred and needed, rather than trusting in some outward, very flawed system of validation. We've never had an au pair or a nanny - to be honest, I don't think I'd want one. I can't imagine what it would be like having a stranger in the house when I was trying to read. The single thing that has made my working life possible is having a partner who wants to be, and is very good at being, a stay at home dad. It's skilled, difficult and demanding work and he is very very good at it. 

What's the hardest thing about combining work and parenthood? Any real low points that you can share?

The hardest thing, for me, has been the logistical element - if I get offered some work that involves being away for a week or so, it involves a diary meeting with the other three parents. That can be tricky, and humans being humans, means that the planning isn't always seamless. But it is worth it, and it has trained me in project management and work planning skills that I use in all other elements of my career. I am a fearsome list maker and diary keeper because I have to be. I guess the lowest point I can remember was being called up while I was teaching an Arvon course (a week long residential writing course) to be told my daughter had been taken to hospital with a bad asthma attack. Usually her dad would have handled this, but at the time he was in the same hospital having chemotherapy. It took a little juggling but the nurses moved dad and his IV to my little girl's bedside, and both step parents had it covered. Although Arvon were fantastic and offered to drive me to the train station, I decided to carry on with the teaching I had committed to do, and shed a tear or two in the evening, once the crisis was over.

And what about the best bits - what makes it all worthwhile, and keeps you going at the end of a long day (or week, or month...)?

Low points like that are rare - most of the time what I really value about my work is its flexibility. I hardly ever miss nativities and school plays and parents' evenings, I can be around for either the morning or the afternoon school run most days in the week, and although I do work away a few weeks in the year, that allows us to take some proper time off over the summer and Christmas holidays without worrying too much about lost income or getting behind on my projects. I suppose what keeps me going is how incredibly lucky I am. I love my work, I love the people I work with, I find it interesting and stimulating and challenging. I love it that I can work from home most of the time, I love it that I can do the school run, and I love the chance to get away from home for a week or so a few times a year and travel a bit. I'm really proud that my son and daughter see ambition and hard work in a female role model, and nurturing and caring and domestic work in a male role model. I think that gives them lots of options for how they want to structure their own lives when they grow up.

Jenn at university

What products, brands, items of clothing or other essentials couldn't you manage without - what are your Working/Life Heroes?

My car - it's just a battered old Nissan Micra, but it is my own, I can jump in it and go anywhere, it's a mobile office, a little sanctuary where I sit and take time out during the working day if I am on campus, and allows me and my family a lot of independence. I know it's a luxury to run two cars, but it makes the logistical nightmare that life can be sometimes much more possible. And my diary. I write EVERYTHING down - every half hour of most days is accounted for. I don't have an electronic version of this - the act of writing something down means it is in my head. I have it open on my desk all day, and on my bedside table all night. I feel lost without it. It's a bright yellow moleskine. Clothing wise, I have a big brown cardigan with a zip up the front which I wear when I am writing. It feels like a little hug. And it was a present to replace a tattered big brown cardigan with a zip up the front that lasted ten years in the same role before giving up the ghost. It isn't pretty or glamorous, but it is essential. 

How do you maintain energy and cope with the demands of your life? What tips or tricks have you evolved to do so?

I multi-task, constantly. I make sure I account for every half hour of time - so I always know what I am supposed to be doing and don't have to think about it. I suffer from insomnia and I have worked really really hard to get on top of that - no caffeine except for a single cup of black tea in the morning, and swimming or the gym as often as I can. A lot of writers have back and posture problems and I'm just starting to see the effects of a life spent hunched over a laptop, so I am working on some steps to improve my strength and flexibility, with the reasoning that I can't write and run my life at the pace I do if I am in low-level pain much of the time. I think a lot of time can be wasted on pointless and easily avoidable drama, so to avoid this, I meditate, on and off, which keeps my frantic mind healthy, and a few years ago I made a promise to myself never to work with or spend time with people who treat me badly. And I never ever do. Call it radical self respect, if you like. It makes such a difference.

How do you relax?

Not as much as I should do, I expect. I love to read big fat absorbing novels in genres that I don't write myself - something entirely different. I like horror novels and films. I watch trashy telly on Netflix. I do origami with my daughter, I crochet and I'm developing an unhealthy obsession with spirograph. I find these things relaxing. I love to get out in the lakes and in the Forest of Bowland and walk, and I've been taking boxing lessons - after an hour and a half of boxing training and pad work I feel amazing.

What's on your:
Bedside table

Two empty mugs, a teaspoon, my yellow moleskine diary, a red Parker fountain pen, a black moleskine notebook, my kindle, books - B.S Johnson's Trawl, John Grindrod's Concretopia, Ted Hughes' Tales From Ovid, some Body Shop Hemp hand cream, Clarin's Blue Orchid face oil, nail file, ear plugs, a bulldog clip and some origami paper. 

Sky plus
We haven't got one of these. Well, we might do. There are some boxes under our television but I have no idea what they are or what they do. Not my area, sadly. 

Amazon wish list
Some books about interactive fiction and gaming, that I'll probably end up ordering from the library, a load of novels about boxing, a black 1950s style Lindy Bop dress, a Karlsson Flap Clock and a huge poster print of the original cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Muriel Spark is one of my favourite writers.

Most used apps
I don't really use a mobile phone - I have one for emergencies, but I don't like being tethered. I would not be able to get along without Dropbox though - it makes working between home and the office, my car, on trains and wherever else I happen to end up entirely possible.

In your handbag?
Notebooks, books, pens - hundreds of them - umbrella, handkerchiefs, my laptop, hand cream, mints and chewing gum, nuts, keys, more pens, kirby grips, a hair-clip in the shape of a christmas tree, pain killers, some bits of paper to do with my tax return I should have dealt with yesterday and didn't, herbal tea-bags, fluff, whiteboard markers, paper clips, bulldog clips.

Any final advice for fellow Dualistas?

Give yourself a break. I see women get wound up in trying to intervene in every single aspect of their children's lives. Let them be bored, let them have a private life, and let the other parent(s) take some responsibility. I have no idea what size shoes my children wear and that's because I trust their dads to deal with that side of things. And they do. Don't get too worked up about the details. Forgive yourself. So long as everyone is fed, gets washed now and again, gets read to and knows that they are loved, everything else is a bonus. Don't settle down with someone who thinks, even secretly, a tiny bit, deep down, that some kinds of work are for men, and some aren't.

Monday, 19 January 2015

How They Make It Work - Caroline Simpson

Caroline is a friend and someone I admire hugely - yoga teacher, mother to two beautiful children and super stylish, I think you'll find her as inspiring as I do.

What do you do for work?

I teach an Ashtanga Yoga Mysore programme in Bristol. Ashtanga is a daily practice, ideally done in the morning, so I get up around 3.45am Monday to Friday to do my own yoga practice before teaching 6.30-10am.

What's your home set up - where do you live and with whom, how many children do you have?

We live in Bristol. My husband is a marine biologist – a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. We have two children, 7 and 4.

How do you manage childcare? Has this changed over the years with experience/changing circumstances?

It’s constantly changing. We made the decision for me to stay at home for the first few years, which was the right choice at the time, but I soon missed India. Going back to study at KPJAYI ( didn’t seem like a choice, it was something I knew I had to do, even though the logistics of travelling there year after year with young children were challenging.

After I’d been practicing Ashtanga for about six years friends started asking me to teach them, so I agreed to start a small class at my home. Seven years after my initial trip to Mysore I was Authorised to teach.

As soon as I was listed on the official Ashtanga website everything went a little crazy. As the only Authorised teacher in Bristol, I started getting new enquiries every week, my students would tell their friends, my classes kept growing. At one stage I had students spilling out of the yoga room and practicing in the kitchen! I quickly went from teaching four students weekly to 40+. Renting a space, setting up a website, making the necessary business decisions that go along with that, it was a little overwhelming. And of course, figuring out childcare.

Our basic set up is that my husband is in charge of the children in the morning, gets them to school and preschool, then I do both pick-ups and the rest of the day. If we are very lucky he might be back home for dinner, but he often works late and we prioritise family time at the weekends.

I’m very conscious of setting up the programme in a long-term, sustainable way. My own practice and continuing study is a priority, as is my family. I have four assistants, two of whom teach a weekly session, and they can cover me during school holidays or if anything unexpected comes up with the children. They are, as my son would say, totally awesome.

What have you learnt about childcare and work from doing it this way - for instance do you have any tips about having au pairs, interviewing nannies or choosing a nursery - or how to manage without?

Learning to ask for help is a skill. It’s something I’ve been very poor at, historically, but I’m getting better. My mum comes to stay as often as she can – I see her and the children getting so much out of their developing relationship. I also have an amazing network of local friends who all help each other out - playdates, shared pickups and sleepovers all help the children grow in social skills and confidence as they experience different households and develop their own friendships. We also have an ad-hoc child-minder who covers anything we can’t manage within family and friends – although she is also a friend, who loves hanging out with our children. It’s a win for everyone.

My main tip for working parents is to get a cleaner. The last thing either of us wants to do in downtime is clean the house, but actually living in a nice environment is crucial for my sanity. It’s a peculiarly British quirk, not to outsource cleaning when you’d happily pay a mechanic or a plumber, but it’s made the biggest difference to our quality of life.

What's the hardest thing about combining work and parenthood? Any real low points that you can share?

Tiredness. Being physically and emotionally exhausted way before the children’s bedtime is really hard. When my husband is away, or back late, I make sure we eat an early dinner, run a bath, read stories in bed and get an early night. I have no shame in going to bed early. Even if I don’t sleep straight away I read for a while and appreciate the time to relax. Rest makes everything better.

And what about the best bits - what makes it all worthwhile, and keeps you going at the end of a long day (or week, or month...)?

I love my job. I don’t really class it as work. Teaching Ashtanga, passing on the method just as it has been taught to me…. It’s what I am supposed to be doing.  It feels right. And although the hours are outside the social norms it’s actually really family friendly – I’ll be able to collect my children from school for their entire childhood and be there for that afternoon ‘download’ time.

Seeing new students fall in love with the practice is pretty special. When a student overcomes an obstacle, manages to do something for the first time – there’s nothing like that feeling. I live it along with them and have been there myself (many times over). It’s a tiny miracle, when the impossible becomes possible, and you are giving yourself the chance of creating that miracle every single day.

What products, brands, items of clothing or other essentials couldn't you manage without - what are your Working/Life Heroes?

Elizabeth Arden 8-hour cream. Is there anything this can’t fix? I use it as lip balm before heading out into the cold morning.

A warm hat. It’s really important to cover your head after practice to prevent loosing heat too quickly. My kids bought me one with a massive bobble for my birthday. I totally love it!

Kindle. Essential downtime. How else can you carry around 100s of books in your handbag? Perfect escapism with a cup of tea.

How do you maintain energy and cope with the demands of your life? What tips or tricks have you evolved to do so?

The main one is to eat really, really well. I have a terrible avocado and kale habit. Stay well hydrated with lemon water or herbal teas so your body has the best chance of recovery at all times.

How do you relax?

Is it too obvious to say yoga? Ashtanga doesn’t have a reputation as a relaxing practice, and for good reason. It is physically demanding and has challenged me to go beyond my limits on a daily basis. Ashtanga works - not because it is relaxing, but because we are learning how to relax in difficult and sometimes frightening situations. This translates into everyday life – through daily practice we are more able to stay calm in stressful times because we’ve practiced doing it, over and over.

What's on your:

Bedside table
Elizabeth Arden 8 hour cream
Hand cream
Most of the This Works ‘deep sleep’ range

Sky plus
Mainly kids films. I can’t be the only working mother to utilize the Pixar babysitter in order to get my tax return in on time?!

Amazon wish list
Nothing. I buy books all the time and get through them at a rate of knots.

Most used apps
Sleep cycle. I am verging on obsessed with this app. It has a sensor that wakes you up in a period of light sleep within your chosen 30 minute window – the theory is you are almost awake anyway at that point, so the wake-up process is not nearly as harsh as an alarm dragging you out of very deep sleep. It makes my pre-dawn start way more manageable. It also gives you a graph of your sleep pattern and a percentage ‘sleep quality’ for each night. Total sleep geek-out.

In your handbag?
Bobble hat, wrist warmers, gloves. Eight-hour cream. iPhone. Kindle. Sunglasses. Shala keys, house keys, car keys. I don’t carry anything around that I don’t need and clear out stuff like receipts or empty raisin boxes at the earliest opportunity.

Any final advice for fellow Dualistas?

Lead with your heart. If I’m ever unsure I try to just listen, usually the answer is there already. Being truly honest with yourself always gives you strength. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, or what anyone else thinks. It’s YOUR life. You have to do what makes your heart sing.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Books Worth Your Time - Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

I love reading - of course I do, I'm a writer. Fiction is a big love. But I find it hard to read much of it when I'm writing a novel of my own, and I fall asleep not long after my head hits the pillow these days, and lazy Sunday afternoons with a book aren't quite the same when a small child is sitting on your head demanding to be fed raisins with a toy spoon so her fingers don't get sticky. I end up reading fewer books than I used to (often using the Kindle app on my phone), and abandoning books far more frequently than I used to. I actually don't see the latter as a bad thing - books need to earn their keep both on my bedside table and in my headspace. Life's too short to stick with novels you aren't enjoying out of some sense of duty.

So, the books that I'll be recommending on here will be ones that have done just that - earned their place on my shelves, in my head and often, in my heart, and this first novel is one of those in every sense. Shotgun Lovesongs is a fantastic debut novel from author Nickolas Butler, and it's everything I want in a book. Great characters, a compelling and well constructed story, a strong sense of place - a real atmosphere of its own. It's about four friends - Hank, Leland, Kip and Ronny - from a small town, Little Wing in Wisconsin. One of them is a rock star, one's a rodeo rider - it's all-American but utterly universal as well. I'm really proud to be quoted in the UK hardback, and what I say there stands true:

'It's nostalgic, touching, funny and wonderfully written, full of characters who you fall in love with and who keep you reading to the very end. It's about growing up, friendship, the mistakes we make along the way and the people we keep coming back to - it's about home, and it's just lovely.'

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Pram In The Hallway - Some Thoughts on Writing and Babies

I wrote this piece almost two years ago now, when my daughter was about nine months old. Alot has changed since then, but at the same time, much is the same. I'm still writing while she sleeps, but she goes to nursery now. I'm still usually doing two things at once. I'm still trying to find a path through the chaos, still making decisions on the run, still wondering whether I'm doing it right. I think we all are. I'm putting it up here in the hope that it'll be interesting and useful to some of you working around your babies in whatever way, of whatever age.
The Pram In The Hallway - Some Thoughts on Writing and Babies
Actually, ‘the pram in the hallway’ is misleading; you can tell it was surely a man who described the particular challenges of writing with a baby in this way. If only it were that simple.
For, as those of us who write around babies know, it’s not the pram in the hallway that’s the problem (apart from when you’re tripping over it on one of your hundred and five trips up and down the stairs) – it’s the baby strapped to your chest, ready to wake at the too-heavy hit of a finger on keyboard or a shift slightly in the wrong direction in your seat, trying to get your leg to come back to life. It’s the baby at your breast,  holding on to you with grabbing, fat little hands, pinching your flesh between their fingers and pulling your attention back to them lest it should dare to wander. It’s the baby on the video screen of the monitor, blurred and slightly pixellated in the night vision camera, turning their head and sighing in their sleep – are they waking? Or merely murmuring?
It’s baby brain – but not what people usually mean by that, the confused, key-losing new mum wandering around the supermarket staring blankly at the shelves, trying to remember what baked beans are. It’s the baby in your brain. It’s  her presence ever-hovering at the edges of your consciousness, her image blurring with those of your characters as you dream them into being. It’s shouts from the TV and the call of a seagull and the whistle of a kettle that meld into a question mark of – is that her cry? And the tug on your whole being as you are jerked back by it, back from the world you are trying to create into that of the one you have created.
So, that is the problem. Or, because it feels a bit wrong to call your beloved baby a problem, that is the challenge. What, then, is the solution – if there is one?
Here is mine – how I have approached things thus far.
When she was tiny I wrote with her in a sling, strapped to my chest, as I sat mostly on one of those big inflatable balls, bouncing gently in an attempt to keep her sedated by movement for as long as possible. This worked pretty well for a number of weeks – I was editing my fourth novel when she was 3.5 weeks old, going through copy edits at the 3 month mark, checking proofs a while later. Once I had started writing, I couldn’t stop – I wrote a spec TV script, two short stories, two book proposals, two more TV outlines… It churned out of me in an urgent splurge. The time I had to write in felt so compressed, the need to achieve something pressing. I walked, for miles along the seafront, the wheels of the buggy trundling along, coaxing her to sleep and my brain into action, emailing myself notes on my iphone as I began to plan and plot a new novel. I read on my kindle, and then on the kindle app, as I sat up in bed at night feeding her.
Then, as newborns do, she woke up. And suddenly she could no longer be relied upon to sleep, folded up like a sheet of crumpled paper on me. She wanted to look around, explore, pull hair and earrings and gaze up, smiling in that most distracting way. Out went her fourth trimester and with it, my peaceful hours of time to think and write. Now when I pushed her along the seafront I could not focus on the characters clamouring for attention, because she was craning her neck up at me and her need was greater and more beguiling than theirs. I could not read at night because I was busy walking up and down the bedroom floor, counting to a hundred once, twice, five times before I could risk laying her back down in her cot and praying that she would stay soft and floppily asleep. I couldn’t lay her in a swing chair to gurgle contentedly up at a dangling toucan for half an hour at a time, as she was straining at the harness and kicking her little legs determinedly. She turned into a little owl, her head swivelling around to almost 360 degrees, following me wherever I went.
So I changed things again. For a while I stopped, my focus directed on getting her to sleep, nap away from me, gently attempting to slip her into a sleep in a cot rather than my arms, a sleeping bag not a swaddle, a pink rabbit to hold as she drifted off in place of a breast. Easing her from a world with no edges and no corners into one where things happened at certain times and she was expected to learn a new way of living. A routine, where before there had been simply her, and me, and her wants, and her needs.
And now she is almost 9 months, has almost been out of me for as long as she was in me, and she is gradually moving further away from me still, happily rolling across to the other side of the room in great swirls of movement – though she is not yet efficient enough to reliably work herself back, so frequently strands herself under the sofa, or too far from my side where she flaps her hands and demands rescue. She naps in the morning and again at lunchtime, and though the sand of the timer is always slipping through my fingers as I do so, I write, turning on Freedom and pushing the internet aside so I can power through words, challenging myself to write faster – can I get 1400 down in an hour? 1500? Can I push it to 2000, if I run downstairs as soon as she is asleep, and I don’t make a cup of tea before starting and the dishwasher remains unemptied as my bladder?
I have discovered the advantages of planning. Whereas in my previous four novels I have worked to a vague road map, a collection of ideas and a sense of the structure, this time I have become rigider in my approach. Before I started writing proper I spent a month in front of a spreadsheet, fitting scene outlines into little boxes, setting up columns to track locations and dates and characters and themes, so that when I sit down and open up the document I can pick up from where I left off the day before easily, so that I know exactly what I am meant to be writing in each session. It’s not inflexible – at the end of every day, semi-brain dead in the evening (usually in front of some recorded drama or DVD I am watching for research, the sort of thing I would have previously allocated to the slow afternoon work slot but which now gets pushed into the evening and dinner and downtime), I amend the spreadsheet, adding in what I have written that day, altering what is to come next accordingly. I make lists, I read in the bath, on the train, on my phone as I feed her still. I continue to send myself emails with hastily typed ideas for plot twists and scenes as they occur to me while walking along the seafront. I thank the Gods of technology for all the things that allow me to work in this way – Freedom and Scrivener and Apple and occasionally even a pen and piece of paper, or more usually the back of a receipt I should be saving for my tax return. I walk, and I write, and I watch as the baby in front of me grows and the baby in my brain shrinks a little, and I weep for the day that she will one day turn from me and I try to remember that before long I will long for these hours of holding her close to me in the still of the night to return, and that I will have long forgotten the feeling of being constantly pulled down two opposing paths, always in more than one place, never quite able to mentally be entirely present anywhere, and I will remember only the soft fuzz of her hair rubbing against my cheek, and the pull of her fingers and the soft little sighs of her turning in her sleep.

Hero Product - Micellar Lotion

Ok, so we all know we should be properly cleansing twice a day, yes? Not with cleansing wipes, but a decent cleanser and hot water. Not with wipes and definitely not with baby wipes. (Though I have, in absolute extremis, made a not terrible job of it with some Neal's Yard Baby Oil and a load of hot water, and this product is lovely for softening the scaly skin and cradle cap of newborns, by the way).

Anyhow, that's the ideal. I like a balm cleanser, Eve Lom is lovely and has that deliciously medicinal smell that makes you feel as though it must be really Doing You Good, but it's very expensive. Emma Hardie is similar, a bit cheaper and I much prefer the cloths that come with hers - they're soft flannel on one side and muslin on the other - and also smells lovely. I've recently been given one by Temple Spa, who make some great products and whose spas are fab, which I'm enjoying, and it's good value as you really don't need very much - it's their In The Beginning cleansing melt.

If you're on a budget and want to try a cleansing balm with little risk, then I'd recommend Soap and Glory's Ultimelt Hot Cloth Cleanser. It's eight quid, you get a good sized tube and I really like the packaging, which helps - you want something that looks nice by your sink, whether you're spending a fiver or fifty quid.

So, that's the routine. But one thing we all know about routines is that sometimes, they just go to shit. Babies won't sleep, deadlines don't get made, gin gets drunk... and we find ourselves standing in front on the bathroom mirror with the clock ticking till you have to get up and do it all again, and the last thing you want to spend those precious minutes on is a thorough cleanse. 

This is where micellar lotion comes in. Big bottle, pack of cotton wool pads, drench one, wipe all over the face. Repeat. Collapse. It removes eye make up without rubbing and scratching, it gets all the crap off, and, crucially, it does it quickly.

My favourite is Bioderma's (it comes in various incarnations, for dehydrated and senstive skins) but I'm currently using one by Garnier, which is also good. I have a big bottle at home, and then a small plastic bottle (the ones from Muji are brilliant, you can also get them in Boots for a few quid) which I decant some into for travelling, or days in town where I might want to do a make up change on the go. Other recommendations to suit differing budgets from Sali Hughes in her Guardian column, here. Do let me know how you get on, or if you have other top cleansing tips!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

How They Make It Work: Sali Hughes

What do you do for work?

Im a journalist, magazine columnist, broadcaster and consultant, and have recently written a book, Pretty Honest. I also have my own online forum, at

What's your home set up - where do you live and with whom, how many children do you have?

I live in Brighton with my two sons, Marvin, nine, and Arthur, seven. My assistant, Lauren, lodges in her own little flat on the top floor.

How do you manage childcare? Has this changed over the years with experience/changing circumstances?

I stayed at home for the first three years of motherhood, which basically drove me bonkers. I felt very depressed for the first year or so. Social networking didnt exist then, my father had just died, I was still living in London and felt bereft of my career. It was a grim and confusing time. I sought therapy and gradually, felt better. By the time I had my second child I was freelancing again from home, and understood that it was not at all good for my mental health to stop. Im very fortunate in that I dont work in an office, and to a certain degree, can manage my diary as I please, around my family. I can almost always commit to school concerts and doctors appointments, for example, so I feel very lucky. I just have to be very canny with my diary. I try to block all London meetings into two days a week, when my partner can do school pick up. Im pretty much always home for either breakfast or dinner. I work a lot when the boys are in bed (I would say that well over 80% of Pretty Honest was written while everyone else in the house was fast asleep). That said, I do have to travel a lot and I need to work hard to pay for everything, so I sometimes rely heavily on my partner and assistant to help with childcare.

What have you learnt about childcare and work from doing it this way - for instance do you have any tips about having au pairs, interviewing nannies or choosing a nursery - or how to manage without?

I had au pairs for five years, simply because they are the only form of childcare that can adapt to an unpredictable and unsocial work schedule. I am a single mum with a silly job - there was simply no way around it. But it certainly wasnt easy. Having someone live in your home is rarely ideal for any of the adults involved. I would strongly recommend choosing someone who likes going out and meeting people, someone mature and independent but great fun, and of course, someone who really loves kids - that seems obvious but youd be surprised by how many applicants Ive met who, it turned out, were actually hoping for a break into journalism. You need to know what happens at weekends - are they likely to go away, or go shopping and clubbing, or mostly sit around the house? Any of those things may be fine for one family, but not for others. Be realistic about your priorities. Is cleaning REALLY as important as playing games with the kids? No one is brilliant at everything, so you will need to compromise somewhere. If youre employing someone from overseas, Skype as much as possible in advance of a job offer.

What's the hardest thing about combining work and parenthood? Any real low points or disasters that you can share?

My lowest point was my divorce, without question. You feel youve massively let down your kids. That entire period was worse than anything Ive ever known - I dont think you ever get over it - but you do learn lots too, and in a weird way, it brought me even closer to my children. We are happy. Day to day, I think that for most working mums - myself included - the hardest thing is the constant feeling that youre doing everything a bit crap-ly, instead of one thing really well. I very often think Im the worst mum in school, because everyone else seems not to work anything like as much as I have to. Just recently, I left a school concert as soon as it finished to get into a taxi waiting at the school gates to take me to Heathrow. I thought I bet no one else here is now leaving their kid to work in New York for four days. I felt terrible. But this is all so subjective - I think all mums, whatever their responsibilities and lifestyles, beat themselves up in the way dads dont. On these days, I comfort myself with the knowledge that my children are being taught that nothing in life comes without effort and expense, that mum busts a gut for them, and that hard work is very important in life. Thats essential stuff, I think. Because people with a sense of entitlement are the pits.

And what about the best bits - what makes it all worthwhile, and keeps you going at the end of a long day (or week, or month)?

I love Saturday nights. We never go out and I never do a stroke of work, however important. We order a takeaway, put on pyjamas and snuggle down as a family to watch whatever crap is on telly. We laugh a lot. We remember that despite any nagging, squabbling or absences throughout the week, we all really like each other. I look forward to it all week - youd have to move heaven and earth to get me to miss it.

What products, brands, items of clothing or other essentials couldn't you manage without - what are your Working/Life Heroes?

I cannot live without my MacBook Air and iPhone. They mean I can do my job anywhere - train, home, cafe etc. Theyre also essential when Im not working so that my children can FaceTime their dad, who theyre very close to, whenever they want. 

I live in dresses during the week - you just pick one in seconds, whack on your heels (I never do flats, ever), and your outfit is done. I wear heaps of Whistles, APC, Ganni, ASOS, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Isabel Marant - all are great for short girls. I’m a sucker for bags and because I don’t work from an office, I need to carry loads of stuff in it. I buy few so I want them to be great quality and BIG. I usually carry a Saint Laurent or a Mulberry.

How do you maintain energy and cope with the demands of your life? What tips or tricks have you evolved to do so?

Im not sure I do, really. I work too much, there is no doubt I need to improve that. But also, I have much more flexibility and freedom than people who work in an office, so its swings and roundabouts. I wouldnt swap. I constantly think I should be doing better though. I should go to bed earlier, I should learn not to say yes to everything Im interested in doing - the list of areas for improvement is endless. But on the whole Im extremely happy and grateful for my work and family. If I have any strategy, I suppose its to work hard, ring-fence weekends for family and not to waste personal time on people who dont care about me, nor dwell too long on why they dont.

How do you relax?

I love doing nothing. Sitting around with a cup of tea and a book or watching a DVD with the boys is a state of grace - I dont think it can really be improved on. I walk a lot and I love the bath too. Some candles and a glass of wine, some treaty bath foam. Perfect. Equally, I adore a girls lunch, night out or weekend - lots of laughing and prosecco. I need to have at least one of those in the diary at any given time. Its something to look forward to.

What's on your:

Bedside table

Micellar water and cotton wool discs (for occasional overtired / drunken cleansing), Kindle Paperwhite, facial oil (the fastest, most reliable way of reviving tired, overworked skin overnight), hand cream, water.

Sky+ box

Heaps of kids films and cartoons, Gogglebox, lots of documentaries, Cheers, Mapp & Lucia and Esio Trot from Christmas, loads of my TV appearances that have been there for ages but which I have no bloody idea how to transfer to DVD or computer file. The box will inevitably die, and I will lose everything.

Amazon wish list

Im bad in that I dont consider books a luxury - if I want a book, I buy it without guilt. Ive just finished Lissa Evans Crooked Heart and just absolutely loved it. Its a big, warm bath of a novel. Newly downloaded and ready to go are We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler because Ive only heard great things, and Sleep Tight by Rachel Abbot, because I love reading thrillers as a way to unwind.

In your handbag?

So, so much stuff. About nine lipsticks (Im addicted and also, write a beauty column), overstuffed make-up bag, specs, little MacBook Air, iPhone charger, card wallet, spare battery, purse, large Smythson diary, about 12 pens (I am never, ever knowingly pen-less), receipts, perfume, Mason Pearson hairbrush, Kindle, notebook, tissues, anti-bac wipes, hand cream, kids stuff like confiscated NERF bullets, chocolate buttons, Moshi Monsters etc etc. Its quite embarrassing, in all honesty.

Most used apps

Instagram - its just pure joy, no stress. 
Train Tickets - essential as I live in Brighton and travel to London lots by train. 
Pingit - I cannot believe anyone would not have this. I rely on it so heavily. 
Maps - my sense of direction sucks really hard. 
Get Taxi - by far the best London taxi app. 
Asos - the most brilliant service and the best selection of clothes on the internet. 
Pointless - because I adore quizzes and always have at least five games on the go at any given time.

Any final advice for fellow Dualistas?

Not really. I really dont have it sussed. I dont think any of us do. Good enough is just fine, I think.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Hero Pieces: Cigarette Jeans

Or ankle length, but cigarette jeans sounds a bit chicer, somehow. I love skinny jeans, but I'm not blessed with endlessly long legs, and sometimes there can just be a bit too much jean down the lower end of things to get bunched up over boots or to arrange around trainer tops. Cigarette jeans cut out all that. They look great with trainers and leave a little bit of ankle free to let some fresh air in (this is what I'm wearing today):

The best thing about them from my POV though, in Dualista terms, is how versatile they are. They work with flip flops, trainers, ankle or biker boots, you can chuck a pair of stilettos in your bag for a quick day-to-night switch, you can do strappy sandals in the summer, either flat or heeled (here's Reese Witherspoon doing just that, and if it's good enough for Reese then it's good enough for any fellow Dualista).

I love the Koral ones she's wearing in this picture - they're the ones I'm wearing in the first photo as well. They have a good amount of stretch, don't need ironing and are super flattering as well as comfortable. I also have two pairs by Goldsign that I really like, and I was given a pair of MiH Breathless jeans for Christmas which are very slightly longer, but also fantastic.

I also like the look of the Kylie by Paige Denim - I haven't tried these, but Paige do great jeans.

Current/Elliott's Stiletto jeans are excellent, I have them with a gold star print, and I like this 'Reckless' wash (though the model's thigh gap is frankly terrifying)

I'm currently pondering an oxblood/burgundy pair, and I love these Paige ones with an ankle zip in 'Black Cherry'. I can't copy the photos from the website but they're here in Trilogy's sale...

I know the ones I've listed so far are at the higher end of the scale budget wise, but I spend so much time in jeans that I find it's worth spending money on them. Having said that, ASOS has lots of good options around the £30-40 mark, and Zara has some nice looking ones in the sale in some sizes still, and I like how they're styled here:

I do find though that Zara rises can be VERY low and unforgiving of any hint of post-baby muffin top, if that is an issue for you as it is for me, especially in January...

If you're making your first purchase of this sort of jean, I'd be inclined to keep it classic and go for an indigo wash, or a lighter/mid blue (like the Koral ones) if you'll be wearing them for mainly casual. Then when you're hooked you can start expanding your repertoire - as well as the dark red lovelies, I'm quite fancying a leopard print pair for Spring...