For five years,Suzie Jay worked as a documentary event photographer before taking a break in 2016 to embark on her biggest job yet, Motherhood. She then went on to set up My Little Muse Photography, capturing the beautiful and subtle moments of family life.
In 2015, Suzie and her partner experienced the devastating loss of their son Charlie. This letter is written to Charlie, in support of Baby Loss Awareness week.
Two years ago today I was getting ready to meet you for the first and last time. 21st October 2015, a date made famous by Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future. Growing up, I’d always wondered where I’d be on that day. I never could’ve imagined something so awful, that I’d be giving birth to a beautiful baby boy whose cry I’d never hear.
Though you were born sleeping that day, you were still the most precious thing to us. We couldn’t wait to meet you, to hold you, even though we knew we’d have to give you back. The hospital agreed that you deserved the very best and everyone was so kind and compassionate. When you arrived, our wonderful midwife, Joanne, handed you to me for the first time. She looked me straight in the eye, smiled her big smile and told me you were beautiful. She never faltered for a second. My heart swelled with a mother’s pride. The most bittersweet moment of my life.
That night in the hospital was a drug-fuelled haze of devastation. Surreal and desperately sad. We weren’t ready to say goodbye and thankfully we weren’t rushed. You lay in a cold cot by our sides while we tried to snatch moments of broken sleep. My dreams were cruel, wandering down a maze of hospital corridors looking for you and calling your name. Of course I couldn’t find you. Waking up to the banshee-like screams of other women in the labour ward felt like the cruelest reminder of what we had lost.
During that terrible time, your Dad & I talked and talked. We cried and clung to each other. We planned your funeral. We became closer than ever. Eventually we laughed again. We reached out to anyone who’d listen. We experienced some of the most extraordinary kindnesses, all because of you my boy. We feel proud and privileged to have known you, if only for the briefest of times. You taught us to be open and honest with our feelings, that talking would save us. Through you we learned that life is as messy as it is beautiful, painful as it is incredible.
And to my darling daughter, our rainbow after the storm, we are so eternally grateful for you. Every laugh, every cry, every sleepless night, every cuddle. There are no bad times. Just a rich melting pot of all the feels. And it’s glorious. Did you know that during a pregnancy, cells from a growing baby cross over into the mother? They become part of her. So even after that baby is born she carries them with her wherever she goes. I love that idea, that we’re always connected, even when one of us can’t be here.
Love you forever my babies x
October is pregnancy & infant loss awareness month and there are so many wonderful charities who do incredible work in supporting bereaved parents. Shortly after we lost Charlie, we set up a memorial page to raise money for ARC (Antenatal Results & Choices), a charity who gave us amazing support. If you’re able to make any contribution at all to Charlie’s page we’d be so grateful. All money raised will be donated to ARC. Thank you so much x
Katie Southgate is the founder of Happy BobKat studios. She designs and sells prints with life affirming messages for children which she launched this year.
Mother of two children Dexter (7) and Hattie (4), Katie has become what’s called an ‘Oncology Mum’ since the diagnosis of Hattie, then 1, with a rare blood cancer. In 2014 Hattie became unwell with an ear infection, then a little more unwell with a chest infection, then sleepy and pale. 3 months before her second birthday, she was slowly filling up with Leukaemia. It took 2 full years of chemo treatment at Great Ormond Street to rid Hattie of the cancer. Katie and her family live with the reality that it could come back at any day.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month and special limited edition prints will be available throughout September from http://www.happybobkatstudios.co.uk to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes, the charity that was set up in Hattie’s name during her treatment.
This is a letter to Hattie from her mum, to read when she is 18.
A Letter To My Daughter, Hattie in 2031, aged 18
I write with the pure hope that this letter reaches you at age 18, healthy and lively, but with the full knowledge that this could easily be taken away. So I write every word with “hope” sandwiched in-between each letter.
You won’t know how brave you were. Or how damn hard you fought for your life. Or of the many little friends that passed away around you. What I can guarantee you will know though, is how loved you are. You seemed so small when they told me your body was filled with cancerous blood cells. Doctors told me it was in every organ in your body, yet at times in those early days of diagnosis, it was hard to believe, such as those days when you were screeching ‘DUCK’ at the top of your lungs for a plastic toy that was in fact a chicken!
Since that day, when I pressed Start on your first of thousands of doses of chemo, fear has filled me. I want to tell you something about fear. Living with an enormous level of fear can have two outcomes. It can cripple you, it can make you hide, run and bury your true self. Or, my darling daughter, it can enable you to become more you than you’ve ever felt. It can wash away grey areas and make things feel so clear. The answers become yes or no. The tasks and trials you face are more easily and lovingly overcome. The sun can shine more brightly, because of the fear inside of you.
In times of true and painful fear I find it can be just a small sentence that can change the outcome of how you begin to cope. I just hope I have equipped you with those words, those phrases. I hope that when something big comes along, and at some point it will, you can stand in the face of whatever it might be and feel the power swell inside you. Because my mighty little girl, you were born ready to fight. You are so fiercely tough. All I hope for you is your health, because the rest I know you will excel at – regardless of what path you take, what decisions and roads you wind down as you grow up – you have a greatness in your tiny body that is entirely extraordinary.
I am proud to be your mother.
Lovingly, yours forever.
Find the signs and symptoms for childhood cancers on http://www.bechildcanceraware.org if you know the signs a child will have a better chance of early diagnosis and potentially life saving information.
Limited edition prints will be available throughout September to raise money for Hattie’s Heroes. The story behind these special prints is based on the quote “Even the tallest oak in the forest was once a little nut that stood its ground”. This quote is perfect for Childhood Cancer patients, they really do have to stand tough against the odds. Happy BobKat Studios has collected beautiful illustrations of acorns from incredible artists who have all exclusively donated their designs for Hattie’s Heroes.
Abbey is freshly 40 and preparing to move back to Scotland with Barry the husband and Stanley that cat (after 17 years in London) so that they can share happy times with family. Abbey and her dad, Rikki, are writing and illustrating stories for children with life limiting illness, drawing on Abbey’s experience of having terminal breast cancer as well as her lifetime of working with children through drama. Abbey hopes to create stories in which children can recognise themselves and their medicalised lives but through fantastical, magical tales that will give light to darker moments.
A Letter to my 11 year old self
Dear Concorde (me),
No one is going to remember that type of aeroplane by 2017. No one will have called you that for YEARS, you’re not going to be defined by your big nose. Or your buck teeth. Or your long face. Or your fat arse. Or your cellulite.
You won’t be defined by any of those things because I’m giving you this letter with this almighty tip, the best tip you’ll ever get…
Be kind to yourself.
Don’t be your own worst bully, don’t call names at yourself in the mirror. Please don’t start because you’ll never stop, not until you realise you’ve wasted so much time and now your time’s nearly out.
Right now, you’re 11, you’re at the top of your game, about to be school sport’s champion, fabulous story writer, muscular, a dancer, a keen learner, honest (ish), confident, chatty, popular and a ribby tangle of big teeth and jagged bones.
The school is going to allow a book company to come and sell books to the class and without having to get parental permission you’re going to sign yourself up for some Judy Blume books. That’s when it’s going to start in earnest, the total preoccupation with being sexualised and alluring.
Don’t buy the books, or the Sweet Valley High ones, don’t instigate the BBP CLUB (Boys, Bras and Periods). Keep winning the races against the boys and giving them kiddy backs. You really don’t need to wear that bra you’ve been given by your older friend. Stop hoping the boys are going to notice it and don’t be thrilled when one of them does and gives it a ping.
Don’t see the other girls as competition. They are your sisters.
I’m not trying to deny your burgeoning adolescence, but please listen to me, don’t turn your back on that plucky pre-teen, she’s the better woman.
You are a better woman at 11 years old than I am at 40. Nearly 30 years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough takes its toll.
If becoming a woman is like emerging from a cocoon, you are the vibrant, bright green, juicy caterpillar and I emerged, a drag queen of a butterfly with antennae extensions and streaky tanned wings. I suspected I was a fat moth but I wanted to be a pretty butterfly so badly!
If someone bullies you everyday saying the same things over and over again, you’ll start to believe them, without question. So why didn’t I ever grow out of bullying myself? Why didn’t I stop judging myself as if I was a pubescent boy, obsessing over the biggest breasts and the prettiest face?
I feel such a fool for falling for the beauty myth that I told everyone else to be wary of!
When I got married (yes, that happens, but he’s Barry, not Morten Harket), I had fake hair added to my own, I had eyelash extensions, a padded bra, a corseted dress. Nothing natural was good enough. I wanted to look natural, but with the help of fake things. I wanted to be able to dance with abandon but I didn’t want my ankles to look fat, so I got heels. I battered my skin with an onslaught of sunbeds to get a tan, I got acrylic nails. I dieted, I got thinner.
Then, just a few months later, I got cancer.
Overnight, everything I’ve spent my adulthood cultivating, went.
My hair, that I’d always thought was my good feature (although not good enough for my wedding day), all fell out. Then ALL my hair, head to toe.
A childish, hairless landscape but with lumbering, adult curves and waves.
The eyebrows I’d thought were woeful and my long, thick eyelashes had enough of the insults and left too.
Without hair for coverage I noticed my vagina seemed to have acquired a ledge over the years. My face puffed up and I looked pale, undefined and ugly.
My breast was taken away, the good one that had always been bigger than the other one, “Not so smug now Mrs Left” said Mrs Right. All my very expensive and hugely padded bras were made permanently redundant, push-up only works when there’s something to push.
Lots of scars from complications. Radiotherapy tattoos, crispy, scorched skin.
Then keyhole surgery and my belly fell onto the mattress that night for the first time in my life and it’s never got back up.
An instant menopause and weird comfort eating has made things rub and chafe and I waddle.
But guess what? I don’t care.
I asked everyone to avoid putting photos of me getting married on social media because I suspected it would kill my happy memories of the day. When I got in from having my first head shave I put the photos on Facebook.
I presumed no one would find me attractive anymore so I didn’t care about trying.
I decided I didn’t want to medicalise my body any further and I didn’t have reconstruction on my breast.
I took myself right out of the running and I gave myself freedom and honesty for the first time in a very long time.
For one whole year as my body recovered from the acute treatment I rejoiced in the feeling of being alive and unburdened of the black cloud of regret and bitterness at not being good enough.
I had to be brave and face the world feeling completely naked and plucked. You haven’t started to build all those layers of self consciousness yet, so don’t!
I am sad for what I’ve lost, the body that I couldn’t tolerate before but that I’d love and cherish now. I miss flashing some cleavage, I miss squashing one breast up to the next.
I miss wearing necklines lower than my clavicle.
I miss being trussed up in ‘sexy’ underwear.
I miss my thick eyelashes that never grew back. I miss long hair.
I miss the body that was able to conceive.
I miss having no scars.
But I love being free from that need to be seen as attractive, sexy in particular.
I was so proud of myself for getting to this point, I planned how far my new outlook could take me in life.
Then after a year of the new me, the new me that reminds me of you, I found out that I’m not going to get the opportunity to make this more than just a test drive. The cancer is back but this time it means business.
But it’s not a waste, it’s a realisation and awakening that I’m so glad happened. I feel more fulfilled and open to happiness than I have done since I was you.
So please learn from my mistakes and be bold, like you are now.
Wear flat shiny shoes that can keep up with your strides into adulthood.
Let yourself off the hook, don’t sweat the small stuff. Be well, be healthy, be happy and be free.
It’s the hardest thing to do, but tell yourself you’re brilliant as you are and you’re more than good enough and then make sure that’s true. Live! Make me proud to be me.
If they call you Concorde then fly with it.
With all the love I have,
P.S. I should tell you, because I forced myself not to care, I now smile and pose for photos and I laugh at the bad ones and keep the good ones. Everyone around me is thrilled I want to record our moments together with a photo. I still see the things I didn’t like but I also see good things and I focus on those, instead of beating myself up. I’m no longer ashamed, I actually like what I see, a happy photo is always a good photo. A clever photo might be a pretty one but nothing can beat a happy one.
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her dad
Abbey and her mum
Abbey is currently writing books, which her dad is illustrating, for children with life limiting illnesses.
Until recently she has also been running children’s drama workshops in London: http://www.stripeysocksdrama.co.uk
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.
So, Mum, here goes…
A Letter to my mum
There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.
In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.
I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:
Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.
I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!
To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.
Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!
2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?
I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap! We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.
There were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.
I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.
When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.
A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.
There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!
I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!
In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.
I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!
In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.
No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!
Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?
I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch! Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.
In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!
As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!
I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important. I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.
I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.
I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.
I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life. I love you all.
Nadia Shireen mainly writes and illustrates children’s picture books, (although she does write and illustrate other things as well). She lives in London.
1) How did you end up doing the job you do?
I took a very long-winded route to get here. I’ve always loved drawing and writing, but when I went to university I thought I should be sensible and get a law degree. My English teacher was furious. She glared at me, shook her head and angrily whispered, “That’s it… you’re going to be a bloody lawyer!” (Mrs Aldridge, if you’re reading this… I’m not a bloody lawyer.)
It became clear about half an hour into my law degree that I hated it. But I pointlessly slogged through it. In fact, I carried on and did an MA in Criminology… which was even more pointless!
I eventually moved down to London, rented a very cheap room from a kindly relative and started working in the magazine industry. Everyone told me it would be impossible to get a job, but I just kept turning up to the same office, trying to make myself useful and essentially refusing to leave. I wore them down in the end.
I worked as a sub editor and production editor on a variety of magazines for the next 10 years. I had a lot of fun… but eventually it had become a bit of a drag. The work was unsatisfying and I was bored. I started doing evening classes in illustration to perk the week up. Then I found an illustration course in Cambridge where I could study part time, allowing me to continue working four days a week in London. It took two and a half years. At the end of it there was a degree show, where I displayed my end of term project – a dummy of ‘Good Little Wolf’. To my utter shock and disbelief, some publishers liked it and offered to publish it. I can’t tell you how surprised I was – it was a bolt from the blue – but it was fantastic and it changed my life.
2) What are you working on right now?
My next picture book, which is about a plucky young girl with black curly hair who challenges a big, horrible, powerful monster… Any similarities between any persons living or dead, etc etc…
3) Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
Music has always been the thing that takes my brain to new and unusual places, so I’ll go for the pop stars that formed my musical foundations: The Beatles, ABBA, David Bowie and The Pet Shop Boys.
4) Who would you most like to work with?
Well, it’s not something that can ever happen, but I always loved those ridiculous Monty Python annuals. I think I liked them more than the tv programme. I love all the funny annotations, the way they’d mess around with layout and type and all that. And obviously Terry Gilliam’s drawings and collages are brilliant. I wish I could have drawn a few bees and hedgehogs for them way back when. It might be fun to collaborate with some funny writers and create something similarly silly.
5) Where do you feel most inspired ?
I get really inspired by being outside, ideally in wild, quiet places… places far away from noise and humans, where the sky feels huge and open. That’s when I feel relaxed and insignificant. It’s liberating to remember how little we matter, in the grand scheme of things. I grew up in Shropshire, and you can get to the Welsh border in about 20 minutes. I think about the places we would go to when I was a kid, like Lake Vrynwy, Church Stretton, a little place called Inwood. Now I live in London and don’t really get out into the open much, and I miss it. The closest I get is having a very slow jog around Hampstead Heath. I hate running but also secretly quite like it. I like it when my legs get muddy and achy, and the wind stings my cheeks. It’s good when I can allow my brain to drift into a different gear, so that creative ideas can breath and move around a little.
6) What did you want to be when you were little?
I wanted to be a cartoonist and then I wanted to work for Smash Hits magazine. I’ve sort of managed both, so I’ve got nothing to complain about.
7) What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Always start with the strongest colour, or the most extreme idea. You can tone it down later if you need to.
8) What has been your career highlight to date?
I never thought I’d have a job that would take me into schools, but now I do. When I see children getting enthusiastic about drawing or writing stories, it gives me a huge buzz. Once I watched a class perform a play based on one of my books, where they had winningly adapted ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ into ‘Honey, Honey, Honey’! How good is that? I feel privileged to do what I do, and meeting young readers has been a hugely rewarding aspect of this unexpected career.
9) What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
I procrastinate a lot, which feels like an even bigger sin now my working hours are mostly dictated by childcare.
10) Who is your favourite fictional female character?
It’s a toss-up between Rizzo from Grease and Darlene from Roseanne.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: Hey, Duggee and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom (not entirely my choice, but they are great.)
Reading: The Sellout – Paul Beatty; The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole 13 3/4 – Sue Townsend; Head On – Julian Cope.
Listening to: I typically start the day with the Lauren Laverne show on BBC 6 Music. And then I play around on Spotify for the rest of the day. There is so much music, and not enough time to listen to it all, and that makes me anxious and annoyed. At the moment, my most recently played albums are by: Solange, The Blue Nile, Eluvium, Julianna Barwick, Childish Gambino and Anna Meredith. I also enjoy making comforting playlists full of the same old songs in slightly different orders.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
Georgina Atwell is the founder of www.toppsta.com the children’s books website where children review books and share their recommendations. After a career in publishing and running the ebook store for iTunes, she now mostly works from her home office and tries to forget about the snacks calling her from the kitchen. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children and loves jumping on the train to come into London to meet publishers and discuss children’s books.
How did you end up doing the job you do? I came up with the idea for Toppsta back in 2009 but just as I was setting it up I got a call from Apple, offering me my dream job of running their ebook store. I just thought, I’m never going to get this opportunity again, I need to do it. But after 4 brilliant years and with two young children, it just didn’t offer me the flexibility I needed and I knew that one day I wanted to run my own business. So I quit. Lots of people thought I was crazy but I’ve not regretted it for a second. I love what I do – the publishers I work with, the books we promote, the parents and children we help and all of it around my personal commitments as a Mum. I’m still working 7 days a week and all hours but it just doesn’t feel like a job anymore.
What are you working on right now? We’ve produced this amazing reading list of children’s book reviews written by our reviewers. I’m incredibly proud of it, it took a long time to put together and we’ve had brilliant feedback from parents, grandparents, teachers and publishers. I’m looking at how we can get it out to schools and parents and whether this is something we can put together on a regular basis.
Describe your first job
My first job was working in a deli near where my parents live in Oxford. I’m a complete foodie so I loved every minute. Particularly when my parents came in and I’d be suggesting all the yummy food they should buy.
My first work in publishing was very different. I was doing work experience for a publisher who had just published a book on pornography to accompany a tv series. They needed to return some of the images to picture libraries but they didn’t know which pictures belonged to which galleries. So I had the very dubious task to phone up various picture libraries, describe the pictures over the phone and see if they recognized the description. I was about 18 and absolutely mortified. I swear the other people in the office must have thought it was hilarious. Anyway, it toughened me up and is certainly unforgettable. I think that anyone coming to Toppsta for work experience has it pretty easy in comparison!
What was your B plan if this career didn’t work out? There was never ever a plan B. But to be honest there wasn’t much of a plan A either!
Where do you feel most inspired? After two years I finally have my own office, with a desk. Somewhere permanent for my computer and my books, as well as a door to shut if I need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s pure bliss after working at the kitchen table and having to shift everything back and forth.
But for inspiration, I’m a walker. If I’m stuck on something I’ll grab my coat and just go for a walk and have a think. I honestly believe that we think better when we’re on the move. Sadly I don’t live in a particularly rural area but even a few minutes walking around the block seems to clear my head.
What did you want to be when you were little? It’s funny, I was a huge reader when I was young, I remember hiding under the covers reading the Famous Five with a torch and I studied English Literature at University but I never had any ambition to work with books. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of jobs; the sales, marketing and products and I think I thought that publishing was all about editing. I went for the graduate scheme at The Financial Times but was encouraged to apply for the graduate scheme at Penguin instead, as they thought I was better suited to publishing.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received? Never assume. They were my grandfather’s words of advice and I think it’s good advice for life. Never assume it’s a bad idea, just because it didn’t work out first time. Never assume you’re going to close the deal until you’ve actually signed on the dotted line. Never assume a friend doesn’t want to see you just because they haven’t replied to your text. Never assume the kids can’t do something just because they haven’t done it before. Never assume.
What are you most proud of? I love and I mean really love the emails and messages I get each day from parents via our website or social media. Some of them have really brought a tear to my eye. The mums and dads who have been struggling to get their kids to read but through our giveaways, they’ve been getting excited about receiving books in the post in a parcel addressed to them. The teachers who say that a child in their class has gone up a reading level, encouraged by seeing their reviews published on our website. It’s amazing to think that this idea of mine, run from home is actually making a difference. 90% of our Facebook audience are based outside of London, so we’re genuinely nationwide.
Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life? Publishing is a predominantly female industry but I feel that since the financial crisis it’s become more conservative in the way that it works. I hear an increasing number of stories of requests for flexibility being turned down; people made redundant whilst on maternity leave; and there are sadly precious few women at the top of the publishing houses. That just seems crazy for our industry. Other, more traditionally ‘male’ industries like finance and law are trying really hard to get more women through the door and are offering more flexibility and initiatives, but in the meantime I feel publishing has gone backwards.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day? Not working round the clock. I have a tendency to work 24/7, I genuinely just enjoy the job but I’m trying really hard to fit it all in during the day and then read or watch a film in the evening. It’s a struggle, there’s just so much to do but I think for my own sanity (as well as my family life!) it will really help if I can manage it.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: The Crown (yes I know, I’m always late to the good series…)
Reading: Outline by Rachel Cusk for my bookgroup
Listening to: All the Single Ladies by Beyonce. My daughter (4) is obsessed with playing it and singing along.
Rachel Cathan is a writer from Bedfordshire. In 2001, a mutual friend introduced her to a part-time pub DJ in Southend-on-Sea. A month later, they had moved in together, around seven years later they tied the knot, and a little while after that – just like so many couples before them – they made the exciting and terrifying decision to start a family. And then, like a growing number of couples today, well…not a lot happened.
Throughout the subsequent years of fertility investigations and failed treatments, Rachel kept a diary of her experiences, and it’s from these first-hand encounters in the world of infertility and IVF that her first book, 336 Hours has been adapted.
Dear Speck of Dust (for that was the size of you when we met five years ago),
You might never know how we used to talk about you, even wave to you on occasion as we drove past the turnoff for the fertility clinic where you lived.
‘Hello, little one’ we would call out, and just for a moment my heart would lurch in recognition of the life that could one day be mine. But then I would check myself, realise my foolishness, and feel the searing shame of knowing that this was as close as I could get to calling myself a mum.
Six months had passed since the day you were conceived, and finally the day had arrived to thaw you out from your frozen state and bring you back to your home.
You won’t recall any of this, of course. And nor will you recall the trusty weekend staff who had given up their Sunday morning to perform your transfer; a compassionate gesture since your mother had (typically) ovulated on a day that was not conducive to normal opening hours. But I can see them gathered around us still, the embryologist holding out a miniature straw, no bigger than a sewing needle, containing our last embryo.
‘Mrs Cathan’ he told me, ‘I need you to confirm this is yours.’
I can feel the sweat trickling down my arms and prickling the skin behind my knees, as your transfer was performed to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D-Minor. As we laughed uncomfortably at the dramatic choice of soundtrack, I attributed my sweat-drenched self to the uncharacteristic 32- degree heat outside. But we were in a state-of the-art, fully air-conditioned laboratory, and the truth is I was as scared as I had ever been.
I feared so badly that you were destined to be only a dream, like a beautiful town, glimpsed from behind the closing doors of a train, whose imagined possibilities would haunt me for a lifetime.
Is this what you would come to represent? The road untravelled; the opportunity missed; the one that got away?
The next two weeks passed in an agonising time-warp that seemed to last for months. Like Schrödinger’s cat, you were hidden out of sight, arguably both dead and alive. I analysed every twinge, every pulse and every pinch. Even quantum physics could not bend my mind like the days that would determine your fate.
But that was five years ago. It’s 2017, and I now know the result that those two weeks would bring.
All I can say is it’s just as well that the embryologist couldn’t tell us too much when he introduced our embryo in a straw. He couldn’t tell us that what he held between his thumb and forefinger was a time-travelling collector of dinosaur relics, a superhero fanatic, and a swashbuckling leader of a mutinous pirate crew: the infamous Caption Walrus.
He omitted to mention that, if successful, this embryo would be leaping from armchair to sofa by day, a cutlass whistling through the air above his head. And then sprawling diagonally across our bed each night, a tattered blue rabbit fiercely tucked under one arm.
I’m so grateful that there was no information sheet explaining how the contents of our straw would grow. Because how could I ever have borne the responsibility? How could I have survived the two weeks before the pregnancy test, and indeed the nine months that followed, knowing the scale of catastrophe if I didn’t get you into this world?
You had to be here; it’s so obvious to anyone now. How could our planet ever have been complete without that miniature John Travolta dimple in your chin? How could I bear to be awoken without your face a millimetre from mine, demanding I answer an urgent question about the dubious superpowers of Popeye?
It’s just as well, too, that our embryologist was at a loss to share the less enchanting traits of your character: your stubbornness, which would turn every remaining dark hair on my head a solid grey, and your night-time alertness of a bat.
They offered me no advance warning on that fateful August day that you would be a plunderer, not only of treasure, but also of sanity and sleep. I didn’t realise that the world and its many failings would soon be solely my fault, or that I would so often be walking the plank.
But just as you have no idea of your beginnings, you are probably also unaware that I am secretly enjoying these things to which you drive me each day: every eye roll, every coffee, and every sigh.
I will be forever thankful that you pulled me through those closing doors and on to the other side. And that, whatever happens from here on in, I would every minute choose the reality over the dream.
Rachel’s first book 366 Hours is available now from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures on CBeebies and Catastrophe on Ch4 (not with the same viewing companions, I should add)
Reading: The Unmumsy Mum Diary and Hurrah for Gin (must-have reads for bad parenting days)
Listening to: BBC Radio 2 (I’m no longer fighting the fact that I’m old)
Pass it on: Who would you most like to see featured on this blog? Please suggest 3 people with their Instagram or Twitter handles
Rachael Rogan: @RogansBooks Rachael owns a fabulous independent bookshop in Bedford and made a trip to London to meet with Lucy Mann and Sophy Henn last year. She would be a great contributor to The Muse!
Rosanna Slade: @RosannaSlade Rosanna runs her own yoga practice in Bedford – inspiring woman with a great outlook on life and now a new mum.
Delyth Johnson: @Thischangedme
Delyth is the co-creator of the app, This Changed Me – an inspirational way to use technology to create a better work/life balance and achieve personal goals.