Talking to Carrie, co-founder of Mumsnet, is like talking to an old friend. Half sentences that make perfect sense, confessions - ‘don’t put that in!’ - and great swirls of guilt and laughter.
She has three children (14, 11, 7), a dog, a lawyer husband who is ‘always working’ and a nanny three days a week whose role, she jokes, is to be my wife. She says her son often wakes her in the morning (rather than the other way round) and then falters ‘I don’t think that makes me a terrible mother does it?’
As we talk, celebrity chef Nigel Slater is doing a webchat in the middle of the open-plan Mumsnet office and we eat Crunchies from a large box - a thank you gift from the actor Hugh Grant...
Christine Armstrong: What were you doing before you launched Mumsnet?
Carrie Longton: I used to work in television. It was my dream job; at school I just wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter. I was in TV for almost 14 years and I loved it. It was stressful - well I thought it was stressful at the time! Weekdays were just about work and the weekends I spent with my husband.
So what made you leave TV?
I tried to go back into television when my first baby was ten months, not sleeping and while I was still breastfeeding. It was a disaster. I lasted three months. I would try and run a team on four hours sleep and leave at 6pm, which wasn’t the TV culture at all, and then get home and cook dinner and do baby bedtime and my husband got home at ten and I fed the baby all night. It was carnage.
So I retired, aged 33! Or so I thought.
I’d met Justine at ante natal classes when she was pregnant with her twins and she had this brilliant idea that rather than getting all our advice from our post natal group – we should be getting it from a wider range of parents on the net. We were both looking for something new to do and we thought we could create a job that would fit in with family life.
I didn’t have a computer and had never sent an email when we launched in 2000, but I was ready to learn and keen to do something that allowed me to work but still have flexibility. Staying at home full-time is hard, hats off to everyone who does it: it is like being Ban Ki-moon running the UN every day but with no recognition or remuneration. I needed something else to do because I wasn’t very good at it. But I also wanted to try and be even half the mother that my mother was. She was very present and she had my back and I wanted the flexibility at work to be able to give that to my kids.
Your mum is your role model?
Yes. She worked full-time as a teacher of five-year-olds, and once left home at 6am on a Saturday morning to get the train to come and help me tidy my house and then dashed back home to cook dad’s tea. No nanny, no cleaner, no help yet she never seemed stressed. What I take from that experience is that it’s OK to be busy. I tell my kids to squeeze life - really squeeze it and get everything you can out of it. She died when I was just 26.
How did Mumsnet evolve?
Well, after six years we had done a TV series, which was fun, and written a couple of books but we hadn’t made any money. I was always on, day and night and weekends, even when I officially worked three days a week. I’ve been in concerts texting and emailing frantically, like every other mum who works outside the home, and I have missed key events.
Sometimes my eldest daughter would say stuff like ‘It’s OK to go Gordon Brown’s thing, Mum’ but I'd still feel guilty. At Mumsnet we have always wanted a culture where it was Ok to have a family and we’ve worked hard to make that work.
I think you have to choose your thing: for me, I very rarely miss a sports match, I love netball so I go and watch my daughter if I possibly can and have been known to move the sales meeting so I can pop out and cheer my son on at lunchtime football – and then come back and carry on working’
Do you feel like you've surmounted most of the challenges now?
Over time it has got both easier and harder. On the positive side, there are more people to delegate to. We have a lovely team of about 60 people and it’s a fantastic feeling to be supported and to support them. They know my kids and they know that netball and footie matches matter to me but that I’ll be there for them all night if they need me.
I’ve learned that it’s all about logistics. I am lucky that I live near the office and near my children's schools and have some control over my agenda. On Wednesdays I bring the dog in – my top tip is don’t get a dog! I love the dog… but sometimes I farm everyone out and then realise I still have the bloody dog!
I still find term time knackering and brutal, it is hard just getting through the week... Some days I think, I can’t do this, I’m just tired.
I don’t ever want to work full time. On Fridays I do what most mums do. Buy car insurance, deal with mice in the house, organise birthdays, go for a run, see friends, go to a prayer meeting or host an open house after school for the kids and their friends. I love that feeling of connecting on a Friday.
Once a year a group of friends get together for a spa day on a Friday and I switch off completely – mostly because there’s no phone reception. But when I last did that, I joked with my son not to get in touch and when I went to pick him up from school found he’d gone home with my sister. He’d been sick towards the end of the day but told his poor teacher, 'Please don’t call my mum, she’s at a spa day'. I felt terrible. And it’s worse when they know you’re the co-founder of a parenting website!
What stopped you giving up and getting a normal job?
The Mumsnetters themselves. In the early days we were missing out on the kids AND not earning money AND missing summer days at the park and I had nothing to show for it. You would think, ‘What am I doing?’ But then you’d get an email saying, 'I wouldn’t have got through the last six months without you'.
People called us the fifth emergency service and ‘a virtual shoulder to cry on’. And we knew we couldn’t stop. Plus, if I’d stayed in TV, I’d never have had the flexibility to attend those netball matches. I work four days a week normally and three days a week in summer. That is getting harder as Mumsnet gets bigger. But in the summer we go West for the main family holiday so both me and my husband can wake early and work in the morning - 12 noon is 6pm UK time - and then turn our phones off and have an afternoon and evening.
Keeping in touch is important for the team and it means you don’t come back to 3000 emails.
Do you still feel like your learning new things?
Very much so. That's what keeps it interesting. I head up the commercial bit of Mumsnet - I don’t think I should say this but I’m only just learning from my fab young team how to run an Excel spread sheet – it was never part of my education - computers hadn't been invented!
I sometimes find it funny that I am doing something which is quite ‘Maths’ when I think of myself as quite ‘English’. But it’s been good in that it has brought out my tenacious side which likes winning. It also requires constant innovation and you have to think outside of the box to give brands what they need.
It uses all my previous TV production skills: persuading people and working out what they really want to achieve and the best way to do it. I also do a lot of speaking events and, even though I am someone who can talk underwater, I have this fear that one day I’ll sit in front of 200 people and won’t be able to speak.
I like to have every word planned out. It sometimes feels like a waste of time and I think if I was clever and confident I would just wing it. But then I think, maybe, it's a courtesy to them to plan and think about it - that's what I tell myself anyway.
So are you thriving or surviving?
Crikey, aren’t we all just surviving?! Wondering when we’ll get found out by work or home? It’s plate spinning and I challenge anyone to say it is easy. But also thriving in that I’m extraordinarily fortunate in my team, the Mumsnet culture and my family.
Meet the other POWERMUMS from the series:
Christine Armstrong is VP of research agency Penn Schoen Berland.