In Conversation With… Steph Douglas

Steph Douglas is CEO and Founder of thoughtful gift company Don’t buy Her Flowers. Prior to starting the business 2014, Steph worked in brand and marketing on Government campaigns and on London 2012. Steph lives in Richmond with her husband Doug and three kids. 


Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to launch Don’t Buy Her Flowers?  Was it a slow burning idea that you’d pondered over for a while or a Eureka moment? 

I had two small kids and had returned to work part time after both maternity leaves before I launched. But I had the idea when I had my first baby four years earlier – I was sat on the sofa feeling overwhelmed and leaky and exhausted and these beautiful bouquets kept arriving. They were obviously well meant, but it struck me as bonkers that the go-to gift for a new mum was another thing to care for, when she’s doing more caring than she’s ever done in her life. So it was kind of a eureka moment that solidified over a period – after that as friends had babies, I would send them some chocolate and a magazine and a message to say it’s going to be ok, and they were so grateful. It felt like their gratitude far outweighed the gesture – one couple bought me a massage to say thank you for leaving a couple of lasagnas on their doorstep – and I realised it was because I was thinking about them and what they needed. We launched as gifts for new mums and then very quickly customers were asking to send packages for birthdays and get well and lots of other occasions. So the market and our offer is much broader now, but the core is the same – thoughtful gift packages that encourage the recipient to take a bit of time for themselves. 

“People don’t like talking about money, but it’s absolutely critical.”

And what were the biggest considerations you had to take into account before launching?

Losing my salary was a big one. When I returned to work after my second child, I knew I was going to start the business but I went back to work while I developed plans, researched suppliers and started a blog to grow a network and community. There’s a lot you can do while still working, which means (hopefully) you’re not using up all your savings while still thinking around the idea. It’s important to acknowledge that we had my husband’s salary as security so although it was a gamble, we could still pay the bills for a while if I bought in nothing. People don’t like talking about money, but it’s absolutely critical.  

Steph with her brother Chas who is also Head of Operations for DBHF

“..the feedback we started getting straight away, that people sometimes cried when they received their package – I had underestimated that human connection..”

When did you realize you had a gem on your hands with DBHF?

The first Mother’s Day was five months after we launched and orders were crazy – people got it and I’d added a package with G&Ts in it and that was so well received. I also think the feedback we started getting straight away, that people sometimes cried when they received their package – I had underestimated that human connection, that in sending a package that is encouraging someone to take some time for themselves, they’re saying ‘I’m really thinking about you’, and in turn the recipient feels loved, like someone understands. That emotion is the thing that keeps customers coming back and advocating us to others. 

Six years later, Mother’s Day is one our busiest times of the year and we’ve created a Mother’s Day Gift Guide to help customers find the perfect gift or to create something bespoke.

Mother’s Day gift suggestion

We are also launching our Bestsellers Package – where the customer creates their own gift from our 16 most popular products selected by customers, making it a little simpler to choose and The Sleep Package – which, as the name suggests offers customers a selection of products all focussed around encouraging sleep. 

The Sleep Package

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about yourself during the process of running your own business?

I never considered myself entrepreneurial and had no desire to run a business until this idea came along. A part that I absolutely love is connecting with people – the team as well as our customers. The blog and Instagram are also part of that, and I suppose I hadn’t considered myself particularly creative before. I’m also good at staying focused. I always worked hard – I had three jobs when I was at school (cleaning, stacking shelves in Boots, and waitressing) – so I knew I had that in me but throw a purpose in the mix (other than having enough money to go out at the weekend!) and I’m pretty focused.  

“When you’re 70% sure of something, go for it. Don’t wait for it to be perfect or you’ll never do anything.” 

What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis?

To keep that focus! To know what to do first – there is so much opportunity with Don’t Buy Her Flowers, and we keep uncovering more. We haven’t taken investment so we have to stop and work out what we do first, that will keep us growing and allow us to do the rest. 

Steph at the DBHF warehouse in Gloucestershire

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

When you’re 70% sure of something, go for it. Don’t wait for it to be perfect or you’ll never do anything. 

What advice would you give to your children?

To be kind to people – build relationships whatever you’re doing. 

“There’s time for everything but not all at once.”

Any top tips for managing the ‘overwhelm’ – juggling kids, husband, career, your own needs?!
It’s a constant learning curve, but one I’m getting slightly better at with age I think, mainly because I’ve realised that if I don’t look after myself it all goes to shit! Getting enough sleep, eating well, not trying to pack in too many plans. We’ve got better at prioritising our relationship too, accepting that if we want to spend time together we need to sort a babysitter and get out. That’s probably because we don’t have a newborn anymore – it’s hard to do when you’re exhausted and small kids are all consuming. If work is busy, I need to pull back on anything social. There’s time for everything but not all at once. Otherwise I don’t enjoy any of it, and it all feels like chores to get through, even the fun stuff.

Do you ever suffer from ‘mum guilt’?  How do you manage to keep it all in check?
I do but I try and squash it pretty quickly as it’s a total waste of energy and none of us has spare energy to waste. For me it has got a bit easier as the kids have got older – my eldest is nine and he’s lovely and smart and kind so I haven’t screwed him up yet! also started to take an interest in business and it helps a lot when you can sit down and talk to them about running a team and what you do with your day and they understand. 

What are your simple pleasures?
Being with my little family with no plans. Weekends that are clear of birthday parties and football training, we take the kids and their bikes to the park, get lunch (probably in a café because it’s less stressful) and then go home for naps and TV. And then seeing my oldest girlfriends. There are six of us, they were my bridesmaids and life is busy so it’s not often enough, but they know every single thing about me and time with them makes me feel calm.


Right Now I’m…

Watching: Succession. The characters are horrific humans but brilliant

Reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Listening to: Secret Leaders podcast

Pass it on:

Who would make brilliant guests on the Muse? Please suggest up to 3 people with their Instagram and Twitter handles and we’ll invite them to join us.

Laura @themodernnursery

Emma @homemilk on instagram (interiors – I knew her at school and she’s brilliant)

In Conversation with… Kym and Jade

Kym & Jade have been together for 11 years and married for 4 of them. In some ways they are very different, but in many others very alike.   After a couple of (not hugely successful) pet-owning attempts they decided it was time to get serious so they got married in a room full of loved ones, got a mortgage and had a child. Here is their story of an unconventional family.

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Can you tell us about how you became parents?

K: Like any other young couple we had decided that there was more to life than nice restaurants, travelling and lie ins (note we were wrong!) so we decided to introduce a sprog into our little world! We visited our doctor to find out exactly what the options were for lesbians to have a baby together and from there we spent a lot of time browsing donor sperm catalogues, yup it’s a real thing! We then spent a year or so visiting clinics and so on until we got a positive result on a pee stick. Fast forward 9 months and we welcomed our beautiful baby boy into the world.

J: It was something we have always discussed, we both wanted to be parents eventually. I guess we were at that point in our relationship where we knew it was the right time for us. The process was obviously a very clinical one and unlike most heterosexual pregnancies, we took months planning and screening donors and picking which process would best suit us at that time (IVF, IUI) it was all very new to us and everyone around us. We got there eventually and after what felt like the longest pregnancy ever (because you find out so soon with IUI due to the scheduled testing etc) we took home our greatest achievement yet.

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“My biggest consideration and still is, is society’s perception of our unconventional family. I guess I just don’t want my child to suffer the consequences of our choice to bring them into the world.”

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What were your biggest considerations before making your decision to embark on parenthood?

K: I didn’t have many considerations pre-pregnancy, I tend to run away with a plan without always thinking it through. But during the pregnancy I did consider a few times if we were really “ready” for it. And by it, I mean giving up the luxury of not being responsible for keeping a whole human being alive, fed, loved and looked after. Turns out we’re managing quite well.

J: My biggest consideration and still is, is society’s perception of our unconventional family. The world is so hate-fuelled and when things go against the so-called ‘norm’, that becomes heightened. I guess I just don’t want my child to suffer the consequences of our choice to bring them into the world.

What have you learnt about yourself along the way?

K: I have a lot less patience than I thought I did!  And I care more about “developmental milestones” than I thought I ever would.

J: That sleep is a God given gift, don’t waste it! But seriously, I think I’m learning more about myself all of the time since becoming a parent, that’s the beauty to teach your child, yet learn from them too.

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“I sincerely believe that there is no better starting ground for a new life than it being truly, truly wanted.”

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What advice would you give to anyone else who is considering embarking on a similar journey?

K: Do it. If you want to be a mum or a dad. Do it. Being in a same sex couple doesn’t make a difference, I sincerely believe that there is no better starting ground for a new life than it being truly, truly wanted. In our situation you don’t fall pregnant by accident. No amount of drunken nights of passion will result in a baby for us. Our baby was well planned for.

J: If this is truly what you want then go for it! Life is too short to have regrets and although having a child turns your life on its head, you will gain more than you will have lost.

Would you do anything differently?

K: Probably avoid moving house whilst 5 months pregnant. Maybe save some more £s too. In terms of being a parent, I would enjoy those early newborn days way more than I did. Everyone told us it would go fast and it has. I really miss the snuggly, snoozy, totally dependent on their parent, newborn days.

J: No I’m not sure I would have really. The only thing I can think is that I would have liked to ask the donor a few questions because in situations as big as this you will always have questions (as will our child) but other than that I think we did alright for first timers!

What inspires you and your parenting?

K: Instagram and Pinterest give me loads of inspo for meals and educational activities. But mainly our son inspires my parenting. Watching him learn a new skill or say a new word really keeps me going through the long and if I’m honest, sometimes boring or mundane days of parenting stuff like cooking, changing nappies and watching yet another episode of the pink, bratty pig also known as Peppa.

J: My family, my mother and grandmother are two of the greatest (barring my wife) mothers that I know. It takes a village to raise a young one and I learned how to parent from instincts that I have picked up from them.

What keeps you up at night? (if anything!)

K: Our kid! He’s not a great sleeper. He doesn’t seem to have read the memo that says “you feel heaps better after a solid night’s sleep”!

J: I second that! I think I have definitely become more anxious as a parent, so in all honesty I do worry about things that haven’t and possibly will not happen but that’s parenthood, it’s my job to worry. 

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“Be a mix of the parents that you had/have and the parents that you wanted to have.”

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What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

K: Enjoy them whilst they are small. It’s hard, it really is. But even at 23 months there is so much independence oozing out of this small human that it scares me to think one day he won’t physically need us anymore.

J: Be a mix of the parents that you had/have and the parents that you wanted to have.

What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis and how do you overcome this?

K: Managing being a working mum/stay at home mum means I often feel guilty about something or other. If he’s sick one of us has to try to get time off of work or gauge just how ill he is and decide if he can go into nursery or not. If he’s crying and we’ve exhausted all options I feel awful that I don’t “just know” what it is that’s upsetting him. Mum guilt is a constant battle.

J: I work full time and miss out on a lot of his day. It would be ideal to be home earlier and get to spend family time on the weekdays.

What are you most proud of?

K: My family. Every day my son learns something new and blossoms into a new person. Every day my wife gets up and commutes into Central London to afford us luxuries such as a nice home and holidays. Through the sleepless nights and toddler tantrums we are doing it. We are parenting. And doing it well, if I don’t say so myself!

J: I’m proud of us (Kym and I) for cracking on and dealing with this parenthood thing. I am proud of my extended family for being a support network and accepting our family as the norm. I’m proud of my little guy for being such a bright beacon of light and bringing so much into our world.

Do you have any tips or habits for happiness?

K: Lower your expectations. Chase your dreams. Eat your veggies.

J: Meditate, communicate and don’t procrastinate

*****

Right Now I’m….

Watching:

SO much Netflix including Stranger Things and Queen of The South as well as for a bit of balance and all that, Tiffany Haddish and Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy specials.

Reading:

K: Michelle Obama “Becoming” – what a woman!

J: I’ve just finished Akala’s book Natives: Race Class in the ruins of empire. Brilliant read!

Listening to:  Beyoncé is always on the list, H.E.R as well but we’re also big on U.K music like Ella Mai, Wretch 32 and Dave.

Pass it on:

Who would make brilliant guests on the Muse? Please suggest up to 3 people with their Instagram and Twitter handles and we’ll invite them to join us.

Caprice Fox @the.fox.family

Bee Adamic – @mamabossgirl

Kira – @kirasocialldn

In Conversation With… Vanessa Jedrej

Vanessa wrote a letter one day that changed her career and her life. In August 2018 she relocated her young family from London to Plainville, Massachusetts where she now lives and works for international best-selling author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney.

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Can you tell us how you came to have the opportunity to work abroad?

I had a terrific job working as Children’s Marketing Director at Penguin Random House in the UK.  I’d worked there for over a decade and found myself at a career cross road.  I’d wound up in a leadership role where I ran a team of inspiring and capable marketers, and although I loved the business itself, I hugely missed ‘doing the doing’…

I took a risk. I’d been pondering my dream job for a long time and I knew exactly what it would be doing and who I’d be working for.  I started mapping out the job and thought hard about the service that I might be able to provide.  I wrote a role profile and a cover letter on a long car journey back from Exmoor!  I decided to sleep on it and send it at 8am.  The role profile was for a Global Brand Manager for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the company being based in Massachusetts, USA.  I felt I had everything to gain and nothing to lose and wrote exactly these words in my covering letter… I honestly, thought it wouldn’t amount to anything. It was fun to fantasise and I felt like it was a first step to exploring how I might be able to pivot my career in some way.

Jeff Kinney, the best-selling author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and my now Manager, wrote back within 24 hours and to my shock, he was interested.

Awesome Friendly People
With Jeff Kinney and the Wimpy Kid, Inc team at the launch of Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, New York. 

“We were presented with an opportunity that is once in a lifetime… a dream job with an inspirational boss, in an attractive part of the US in which to base ourselves.”

What were the biggest considerations in making your decision to go?

We knew that my husband wouldn’t be able to work on my visa type in the US, which would mean he’d be a full time Dad to our two young sons, a 5 month-old baby and a ‘just-2-year-old’ when we first arrived. And we knew we’d be facing a world where we’d have no help with childcare which would be a challenge given our kids are both part sweet-small-human and part wild hyena!

Of course, we also knew it would be tough living an ocean away from our nearest and dearest.

Yet, flip the flop and we were presented with an opportunity that is once in a lifetime… a dream job with an inspirational boss, in an attractive part of the US in which to base ourselves. We’ve always been travel-thirsty and we thought that New England would be an amazing place to travel with a young family.

Fall Leaf peeping on the Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Fall Leaf peeping on the Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

What are the best and worst parts of living and working as an ex pat?

The best part of our experience has been the sense of adventure and opportunity to explore New England. We’ve been fortunate to make all sorts of whimsical memories already from horse-sledding at Christmas in Vermont to watching the sunset on Martha’s Vineyard and cheering on the Boston Celtics at the TD Garden. ‘Fall’ here is mind-blowing – it has to be seen to be believed.  At weekends we can easily get to a beach or mountains and I often can’t really believe this is my life, I feel so lucky.

Beach
Corporation beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 

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“We are really enjoying living ‘someone-else’s life’ for a while… (at least, that’s how it feels!)”

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Beyond this we love the outdoor lifestyle in general, it’s wonderful with young children. We have such good quality family time out here given we are shorter on the supply of family and friends. We love the space, gyms that offer ‘child watch’, how Americans GO LARGE on festivals and dress their doors and houses for each. I love the dairy farms everywhere; home-made ice cream is never far from reach in New England, year-round. We are really enjoying living ‘someone-else’s life’ for a while… (at least, that’s how it feels!)

And the worst…

  • Nappy bags aren’t a thing over here.  On arrival I resorted to dog poop bags. I had two children in nappies and I couldn’t manage.
  • Missing family and friends. We miss them the most when the kids hit milestones and their kids do too and we can’t be together to share them. Saying goodbye to grandparents is awful!
  • Winter (we’re talking 16 inches of snow, not 6!)!
  • Driving everywhere.
  • The impossibility of being understood when you ask for a ‘waTer’.
  • Having to parallel park in the US driving test! (And having to retake it!)
  • A Christmas without mince pies!
  • The cost of living is high. A loaf of bread costs 3 dollars and in Massachusetts you can’t buy alcohol in most supermarkets, which took me a while to get used to!

What does the future hold? Do you have a five-year plan?

Our visas do have an end date but we’re always reviewing the possibilities. We’ll stay whilst the going’s good and we’re trying to live in the here and now. Right now there is so much to be excited about working on Wimpy Kid, it’s been a career highlight to be in the US to help oversee the launch of Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, which became an instant global bestseller!

I used to plan for the future but, honestly, I’ve never done well on having a five-year plan! We’re delighted to be utterly off course for the plan set 5 years ago!

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“There’s really nothing stopping you from returning home.  I’ve discovered that London will always be there waiting.”

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What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

Think what you’d do if you weren’t afraid. And then do just that…

What advice would you give to anyone else who had the chance to create a new life and career abroad?

Remember it’s not an opportunity that many people are handed. Based on our experience, I’d encourage embracing it!  And there’s really nothing stopping you from returning home.  I’ve discovered that London will always be there waiting.

What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis and how do you overcome this?

The biggest challenge is easily my husband looking after the kids full-time, particularly given my role involves a significant amount of international travel. He’s nothing but supportive to me and a brilliant dad but it’s very hard for him to not be able to work and I’m sure it can be lonely.  We make an effort to ‘stop-check’ during the ‘highs’ and have found ourselves a great babysitter!  And there might be a time further down the road when I’m supporting his career in a similar way.  We’re both open to that.

snow and horse
Christmas horse sledding in Londonderry, Vermont. 

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“Be sure to cherish crumpets, marmite, cheddars and chocolate digestives. And TREASURE the NHS.  Living in a country without a universal healthcare service is enlightening and frightening.”

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What are you most proud of?

Jeff once asked me what I thought the likelihood of this job happening would be when I wrote to him. I said less than 5%.  I’m proud that I plucked up the courage to hit ‘send.’

What makes you feel happy or helps to lift your mood?

When my friends and family living in different time zones leave me WhatsApp voice messages overnight and I listen to them as I get dressed in the morning. I guess the format lends itself to hilarious long monologues, which can be charmingly entertaining!

 Any wisdom youd like to share?

Be sure to cherish crumpets, marmite, cheddars and chocolate digestives. And TREASURE the NHS.  Living in a country without a universal healthcare service is enlightening and frightening.

And remember who’s in charge of your life. You are! And you can change things. I hope our tale might help others believe anything is absolutely possible.

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Right now I’m…

Watching –  Les Miserables, the BBC’s 6 part mini-series (on a British Airways plane wherever I can!)

Reading –  The Tatooist of Auschwitz

Listening to –   Frank Sinatra in a cafe!

Pass it on:

Who would make brilliant guests on the Muse? Please suggest up to 3 people with their Instagram and Twitter handles and we’ll invite them to join us.

  • @bestchildfriendlyholidays My sister, Emma, has created her own business recommending child-friendly holidays!
  • @happyfitmums Lauren Hyett has left full time employment to launch fitness classes for women (and spend a bit more time with her sons). A daring plunge that I know she’ll soar at. 
  • @studio.eris Rose Gardner, escaped the rat race to lovingly make sustainable jewelry from her London studio. A really inspirational story and creative start up. Add some goodies to your Christmas list!

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In Conversation with… Liv Thorne

Liv Thorne was perpetually single at 37, she wanted a baby so she bought sperm, went to a clinic but didn’t get pregnant x 3.  Eventually (after buying more sperm) she went back to a clinic and got pregnant.  Now 40, Liv has a one year old son, Herb and  is the co-owner of a digital branding agency in Oxford.

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Can you tell us a bit about how you became a mum to Herb?

It is a pretty long story, not an overnight decision, but in short: My problem was the primal desire I felt to become a parent and the lack of sperm in my life!  So, in very basic terms, I bought some online from a clinic in Denmark, got it shipped to a clinic in London and on the fourth attempt got pregnant.  My treatment was IUI (Intrauterine insemination), rather than IVF.  So, essentially turkey basting.  Really romantic.  There was no reason why I couldn’t get pregnant as far as I knew, it was just that I didn’t have a partner.  So, as I didn’t want the extra expense and physical stress of fertility drugs if that was something I could avoid, I tried IUI first (against the ‘wants’ of the clinic.  I really don’t think I can call it advice.  They are a business after all).

I told myself that I would give IUI four tries before opting for IVF.  I got pregnant on my fourth try.  I was very, very lucky.  Especially as, statistically speaking, I was unlikely to get pregnant at all as I was ‘old’ (in fertility terms, being over 35 is genuinely called ‘geriatric’) and overweight (I eat my feelings!) However I think most fertility stats are bullshit, but that is a story for another time … don’t get me started!

What were your biggest considerations before making your decision to become a single mum?

I needed to know that I had the support of my family.  My parents died when I was a teenager, so my siblings mean everything to me.  If they were to tell me they thought I couldn’t /shouldn’t do it, then I would’ve had to really consider whether or not I should go ahead.  Needless to say, they have been truly amazing.

What have you learnt about yourself along the way?

That I didn’t need as much sleep as I thought! Seriously though that is a really tricky question.  I am sure that I have learnt a plethora of things, however I am not sure I will realise what they are until I am out of the thick of it.  So maybe ask me again in ten years!

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“Whilst it is has been mind boggling, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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Would you do anything differently?

Nothing. I have been really lucky. Herb is a happy, healthy, funny boy.  I think the first year (and probably the subsequent thirty!) is an absolute minefield, it is all encompassing, it changes you, you dig deeper than you ever thought you could.  If I had changed anything, it might have had a Sliding Doors effect … would I still have had Herb?  So whilst it is has been mind boggling, I wouldn’t change a thing.

What keeps you up at night?

Money. Pathetic isn’t it?  I have a one year old child and for 10 months it hasn’t been him that wakes me up, but the worry of money.  I have always been bad with money, it isn’t Herb that has made this happen, let’s be clear!  However currently there is a perfect storm brewing from the last few years’ monetary situations that is about to implode!  For example, before I had Herb I worked out my childcare costs (I work full time, I have to) based on the old working tax credit system, not the new Universal Credit system.  With the new system I am not eligible for any help.  I earn a good living, but I earn a good living in the most expensive city in the UK (outside of London), with a big mortgage and on top of that the same again in childcare expenses.  Without any help, could you find an extra £1000 a month?  It’s hard but let’s face it, I am really, really fortunate that I own my own house, so things could be much worse.  It is just the one thing that is always on my mind.  So if I’m lucky enough to do an Instagram ad, don’t hate me …

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“You do you”

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What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

You do you.  If you want to breastfeed, great. If you don’t, great. If you want to co-sleep great.  If you don’t, great.  If you want to let your babe play in the mud, great.  If you don’t, also great.

Unless it affects anyone else, then it is your decision to work out how to best live for you and your baby.

P.S. No-one knows what they are doing, there are NO answers.

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“Just work out if that fiver in Starbucks is worth it?  Instead chuck it in a savings account.  You will be SO grateful you did.”

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What advice would you give to anyone else who is considering trying for a baby as a single mum?

Save. Every. Single. Penny.

Seriously.  Apart from the cost of getting pregnant (it cost me £14k in total), everything that comes after that; childcare, shoes, clothes, food, nappies, books, bedding, entertaining them day after day… nearly everything costs money. So just work out if that fiver in Starbucks is worth it?  Instead chuck it in a savings account.  You will be SO grateful you did.  Needless to say, I did not do this.

Other than that, I really cannot give advice it is too huge a decision.

Oh wait, one thing I would also advise is to get second, third, fourth opinions in terms of speaking to fertility clinics; they are a business, they want your money and some prey on your vulnerability, so make sure you are truly happy with what they are suggesting before going ahead with anything.

What are you most proud of?      

Herb.  I made him.  I did that.  He is bloody wonderful.

What is the biggest challenge that you face on a daily basis and how do you overcome this?

Loneliness and money problems.  Both are manageable.  Both are possibly fixable. However both are very, very real.  I don’t know how to overcome either, but I am working on it!

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“My best friend who always anchored me, held me, encouraged me, supported me even though we didn’t live in each others pockets, died in a car accident when I was 7 months pregnant.  I have felt slightly at sea since and I am not sure if it is grief or motherhood.”

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Do you have any tips or habits for happiness? You always seem so upbeat 🙂

That is so funny, as I have suffered from anxiety and depression to varying degrees for years and I suspect many of my friends wouldn’t say I am upbeat!  Tears of a clown and all that.  If I am it is because I have learnt to say no.  For example if there is a party and I don’t want to go because it will make me anxious, I don’t go. I used to go and drink my feelings and wake up angst ridden for days. Now I just say no like the good people of Grange Hill told me to!  I am aware it makes people eye roll, but it keeps my mental health on the straight and narrow, which is the most important thing.  I’m difficult.

I have also learnt not to be arrogant enough to assume a gathering will be a horrific disaster without my sparkling presence!  Turning up because you don’t want to disappoint people, is very rarely a decision based on their feelings, it is about yours.  97% of the time they will have a great time regardless.  I don’t drink as much as I used to as that used to spike the anxiety, so that has really helped. That is not to say I don’t drink, just I don’t drink at home as I think that could be my slippery slope.  Instead I am sliding, head first into the snack cupboard.

Don’t get me wrong I am happy loads of the time, I am very lucky and have a massive circle of friends, but I do have to work at it, it doesn’t come naturally to me.  I don’t have that one person that would call me if the world was going to end, be it a partner, a best friend or a parent and that is an odd feeling.  I would absolutely be on the list of people to call, but I am not at the top of anyone’s list.  My best friend who always anchored me, held me, encouraged me, supported me even though we didn’t live in each others pockets, died in a car accident when I was 7 months pregnant.  I have felt slightly at sea since and I am not sure if it is grief or motherhood.

It is well documented that many comics have had / do suffer from depression and I get that.  Social awkwardness is very real to me … I will always be the one ‘helping’ in the kitchen at parties!  Also, have you seen Herb?  Of course I look happy!!

 * * * * *

Right Now I’m….

Watching –  to be honest I think I completed Netflix months ago … I live alone with a toddler, I watch a lot of TV!

I absolutely love the real life crime dramas like The Staircase (which is ridiculous for a girl who still sleeps with the light on!) Also I have watched Home & Away every day since it started. I record it! It is the only soap I have ever watched and is my daily dose of vitamin D.  Yes, Alf is still in it.  No, I am not sorry.

Ultimately I will watch most things, from what might be considered high brow to the lowest (yep, I am a Love Islander.) My truly happy place is watching people interact, so programmes like 24 Hours in A&E & 7UpSeries absolutely break me … how people care for each other, hold each other. People are amazing.

Reading –  I am terrible at reading, I have some sort of reading narcolepsy, so for years I have listened to audio books. The last one I listened to and genuinely loved was The Wild Other by Clover Stroud. We have both suffered loss & trauma and we dealt with it in very different ways. She is now a friend. How cool is that?

I have also started reading, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read..., by Phillippa Perry.  It is fascinating. Will I finish it?  Unlikely.  Soz Herb.

Of course there is also the endless rounds of Oi Frog! too.

Listening to – I did my degree in radio production. I am obsessed with radio & its intimate place in people’s lives. So now podcasts have changed my life. I wish they had been around twenty years ago when I did my degree, then maybe I would have stuck with it! I would LOVE to do one, but it needs to have a really great hook, the market is getting saturated.

The ones I religiously listen to are Adam Buxton (everything about it is a brilliant; a dog, batshit jingles, intelligent chat, laughs, tears, stupid adverts … it’s the best!); Desert Island Discs (because WHY wouldn’t you?); Table Manners (it is based around food & peoples life stories. I am a nosey glutton, so what is not to love?) and The High Low (Pandora & Dolly are often intimidatingly bright, but it’s like reading The Week, they find out all the interesting stuff for you and point you in the right direction!)

Music-wise … I listen to everything, it is really important in my life.  I first went to a festival when I was 14 when you used to go in your very worst clothes, it blows my mind that people now buy jazzy outfits specifically for festivals!  I bought my first house for its proximity to the local live music venue as I figured it was save me in taxis.  It did, eventually.  My favourite album is a tie, I cannot choose: Nevermind by Nirvana and Graceland by Paul Simon.  I am a white, middle class cliche.  Sorry Kurt.

 * * * * *

Pass it on:

Who would make brilliant guests on the Muse?  Please suggest up to 3 people with their Instagram and Twitter handles and we’ll invite them to join us.

  • @thehotcrossmum – Jess is as brilliant and as honest as they come. Regularly documents about her mental health which is so important.
  • @remi.sade – would happily listen to her talk about ANYTHING alllllll day. She has taught me so much already.
  • @alright.bab – she’s brilliant, and setting up Godiva to help people in situations like she was once in is, whilst looking after her son and just bossing life, she is bloody amazing
  • @ultimategirlgang – Liv is a hugely supportive friend and is pregnant with her fourth little girl! But mainly follow her because she is brutally honest & hilarious!
  • @themindfulbirthgroup – I met Emiliana at a hen do years ago, she now runs this hypnobirthing company but mainly she is becoming a surrogate for her best friend who could not carry her own child.  How amazing????

In Conversation with… Nadia Shireen

Nadia Shireenchildrens book author and illustrator

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.

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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?

Anna Phoebe, violinist @annaphoebe

Chloe Lamford, Set designer @chloelamford

Harrington & Squires, letterpress studio @bobandhorace

In Conversation With… Georgina Atwell

Georgina AtwellGeorgina 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.Toppsta

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.

Pass it on:
The talented Timma Marrett who works with @women_ahead helping women in sport and development.

In Conversation With… Sophy Henn

Sophy HennSophy Henn lives and works in Sussex, England. She studied Fashion at Central Saint Martins, accidentally had a London-based career as an Art Director in advertising, then completed an MA at University of Brighton in Illustration. Now she writes and illustrates children’s books in her studio, with a large cup of tea by her side, and can’t quite believe her luck.
Where Bear?, her first book, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2015. She is also the World Book Day Illustrator for 2015 and 2016. Her latest book, Edie, published 2nd February 2017.

What are you working on right now?
I am working on a book about a little white rabbit who is struggling with his self belief. I wanted to write a book about this as I have seen so many children adamantly refuse to try things or play games with others as they are so worried they are going to get it ‘wrong’. They stop before they have started. But the joy in all of these things is often in the doing and not the result, and we never know what we are capable of unless we give it a go. I can still relate to this as I get such huge nerves before books come out, these feelings never leave us. But we just have to remember to enjoy the doing, be a little braver and have a little more faith in ourselves.
Sophy Henn working in her studio

Describe your first job
I grew up in a smallish town and my first job was a Saturday job in a shop called Robertsons. It was the most amazing shop and was rightly proud of having been described as a miniature Fortnum & Masons.

It had the classic Victorian double fronted shop front and inside carved wooden shelves went right up to the ceiling with gold hand lettering on the surrounds. There were two old fashioned glass shop counters on either side and a big central display. In one of the shop windows there was a coffee roasting machine, where Mrs Roberts the elderly (though marvellously fierce) owner would roast sacks of coffee beans (there must have been at least 10 different varieties), filling the shop and pavement with the smell of coffee.

Now this was very nearly 30 years ago and fresh coffee was something of a rarity, so it was quite the novelty. We had two coffee grinding machines and would grind the beans to the customers requirements (finer for filter, etc) and there was a rather perilous bag clipping/vacuum system for catching the ground beans which would occasionally result in a fine coffee mist!  I had to put in about 6 months on the chocolate counter before I was allowed near the coffee!!!

Oh, and there were no tills, just wooden drawers, with notepads and pencils for adding up. I think my maths peaked at this point as come Christmas people would pop in to buy their Christmas hampers. With so many items to add up and Mrs Roberts’ love of specific prices (£2.73 or £9.56 for example) it was quite the challenge. But there was a constant supply of coffee, chocolates and delicious biscuits and for all her fierceness, Mrs Roberts remains one of my favourite ever bosses.

Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date?
My daughter. I know, I know that sounds utterly cheesy, but it is true. If it hadn’t been for her and her love of stories I would never have ended up doing this, my dream job. It was reading picture books to her that planted the seed of the idea that I could have a go myself. Combined with the fact I have used situations she and her friends have found themselves in for the basis of some of my stories, I really couldn’t have done it without her! She is also super supportive and I really try to be better and braver (specifically when doing the surprising amount of public speaking I find I am asked to do) so she can be proud of me!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What did you want to be when you were little?
Firstly a ballerina, obviously, then a detective. That ambition stuck with me for quite some time, fuelled by The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and Nancy Drew. I still LOVE a murder mystery and haven’t ruled out a Miss Marple style retirement!

What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?
Well, it’s not exactly original, but ‘do what you love’ is advice I have come to appreciate more and more. So much time is spent working, that to enjoy what you do and get satisfaction from it is surely something to aspire to.
Also…don’t always assume that those older than you know more than you. I spent so much time thinking this, and now I am that older person I realise that’s not the case at all!!!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Don’t listen to any advice” from my wonderful friend Lisette. I was pregnant at the time and this gem specifically related to the avalanche of advice you get as soon as someone finds out you are with child! I have passed it on to every expectant mother I have come across, probably moments before giving them loads of advice!

What are you most proud of?
Being a mum. It’s the most stressful, wonderful, hilarious, upsetting, fraught and satisfying thing I have ever done. I have never tried my best this consistently at anything. The second is having a book published, and for all the same reasons!
Sophy Henn's Studio

What has been your career highlight to date?
I am not sure how you can ever beat the thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf in an actual book shop! But another huge highlight was walking through Brighton and being stopped by a Dad and his little girl, they recognised me from an event I had done at a book shop in Hove and wanted to tell me how much the little girl had taken to Pom Pom. I think she was a bit confused as it was very much Pom Pom she loved ( I know my place in these things!), but to hear her HARRUMPHING away happily made me a smidge emotional! AND she went to school as Pom Pom on World Book Day last year! I am pretty sure I cried again, happy tears!

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Time management. Isn’t that everyone’s challenge though? And if it isn’t, who has got it sussed and please can you tell me how? I think it’s specifically the hours between 2-5pm, where do they go?
Sophy Henn's Studio

Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Probably Clarice Bean! Though I love many fictional females… Aunt Mame, Milly Molly Mandy, Tank Girl, Mrs Pettigrew, Miss Marple, both Sophie and her Grandmother in The Summer Book, and any number of Nancy Mitford’s creations (special mention goes to Linda Radlett). Quite a mix.

Right Now I’m….
Watching: Modern Family – box set heaven and sit-com perfection.
Reading: Patti Smith – The M Train – I read Just Kids last year and loved it.
Listening to: The Beastie Boys – always! Oh and Amerie – Gotta Work, after Caitlin Moran reminded me of it on Desert Island discs, it’s great for motivating you through a tricky work patch. And yes, there is a dance routine to go with!

Pass it on:
Lucy of @LaLaandPom who is an utter joy and creates such gorgeous pompomed wonders.
Nadia Shireen for being a total wit, much cooler than I will ever be and brave enough to admit to not liking cheese (I know???).

Stay up to date with Sophy’s wonderful work by joining her over on Twitter and Instagram.

Edie by Sophy Henn