Tamara and her husband James founded travel website Mr & Mrs Smith ten years ago: they were both awarded MBEs in the recent New Years Honours List for services to the travel industry. They have two children: their daughter Alex is four, Tom is six. They live 15 minutes walk from their office and have a nanny from 8am to 6pm daily, who’s contract offers profit share should they ever sell the business.
Q: Tell me how you organise your time?
I work full-time. I am supposed to have a half-day off a week but it’s been two months since I took it. Every week our nanny asks if she should take Friday afternoon off…. We’re going through a period when the business is taking a lot of time. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel guilty but that kind of rigidity doesn’t really work for me.
I like to get into work before other people so I can switch my brain from mum mode to work mode. It takes me time to get my mind into gear. I get home at 6pm for TV, bath, bed and stories. Then I get back on my computer.
Q: Do you feel you are doing justice to both your family and the business?
Never. You never feel 100% on either. At work I always feel I could be doing more. The business is like a third child. It could take as much of our time as we give it, a never-ending project. I could dedicate every minute of my life to the business. And that makes me feel guilty sometimes when I am not doing as much as I could for it. But I also worry I am missing out on my kids when they are young.
Q: Would the business look different if you didn’t have kids?
Crikey… if I hadn’t had kids… Well, I’ve always wanted to live in New York and if we didn’t have kids I think we would have gone there to support our office there. We would definitely be travelling a hell of a lot more. We used to travel every week – it is why we moved near Heathrow – and now we travel once a month with the children.
We took six weeks in the summer with the kids – visiting Singapore, Melbourne, Sydney, Bali and Hong Kong – we took the nanny as we had to work. But we also had lovely time as a family. You never totally switch off: I’ve never had a holiday when I wasn’t in touch with the office. I don’t know what that feels like.
Q: Did you ever doubt the plan?
Oh yes! We started out as publishers of a guidebook: the idea was to sell the idea of a travel guide to a publisher but no one would take it. They all said we were crazy.
Q: What do you sacrifice to run the business?
By the time I had kids I’d already had three years of working locally on my own business. I was working all hours and networking and having fun. And now it is just work and children. I don’t do anything else. My husband and I keep a shared Google doc of the most amazing things that we want to do - once the kids don’t want to be with us anymore we will go and do them. But now they need us and I want to be with them.
It kills me when the nanny sends us pictures of them during the day. I don’t want her to stop – she sent me a picture of my daughter ice-staking with a penguin the other day and it was like a dagger through my heart. I wanted to be there! I will make sure that sooner rather than later I get to send more time with them.
Q: Does your husband James feel the same?
He doesn’t feel the guilt that I do, if he did I guess he’d do things differently. He is an amazing dad and he enjoys time with them, especially now Tom’s into football. It was hard for him when they were very little because they wanted mummy so much.
Q: What do you think the other mums make of you?
I know the mums whose kids are friends with my children but I don’t have time for all the social stuff. I’ve no idea what they think of me! I don’t worry about it too much, there is nothing I can do it about it. Too busy maybe?
It takes me a long time to make friendships but I have been lucky that my son Tom’s best friend lives very close and my friendship with his mother has fostered well. I don’t need to have a huge amount of friends to be happy.
Q: How do you manage your childcare?
We’ve had the nanny for four years. She allows me to go to work and not worry. If I was worried about the children then I wouldn’t be able to able to function. She is brilliant and calm influence in my life.
Our nanny is on profit share of the company. If we sell the company she’ll get a bung if she stays. Because I can’t have her leaving. She is too good, I need my life to work and she is a force of calm in my life. And I couldn’t deal with choosing another one. It was traumatic enough last time.
Q: Will you sell the business?
Who knows. Not quite yet. We’d like to create a hotel concept one day.
Q: What advice would you give your kids about work and families?
It is very difficult when you are not a mum to plan what you’ll feel like when you are one. Some mums realise that they never want to go back to work. That wasn’t me. I think I am a better mum because I have another part of my life. When I spend extended time with my kids I need some escape.
I skip home from work because I want to see them and have missed them but I’m not ready to be a mum 24 hours a day. If they weren’t at school we could travel more with them. Getting them up for school is stressful and I look forward to the days of holidays and weekends. I have no shortage of ideas of what to do with them. I never find that the days drag on but maybe it is because I am not a stay at home mum. I love the arts and crafts, painting and making things. That ‘what will we do with the kids?’ question doesn’t resonate with me.
Q: Are there times it doesn’t work?
It gets hard when we don’t travel. This quarter has been quite tough because we did the big trip in summer and haven’t travelled for three months.
I think the build up to Christmas is quite hard on the kids in terms of demands made on them. We’ve had some tough days where there has been solid whining and then I go into work thinking ‘hooray the weekend is over’. You need to find happy places for yourself. I think about how to make every day brilliant.
Q: How do you support other mums in the workplace?
I think that, rather than strict policies, what mums really need is flexibility. So we have flexible working hours and we are understanding. We don’t put in meetings at 5pm. It is a way of working and a respect for them as parents that is important rather than any policies about what they can and can’t do.
Q: What could the government do?
I think large companies need to get around this culturally… it is not about the rigid rules but a culture of understanding in the workplace. The worst thing for a mum is to feel the tutting because she has to leave a meeting at 5.30pm to meet the nanny.
Q: Thriving or surviving?
Surviving. There are not enough hours in the day. I do love it but I feel I could do more. Recently I got a bracelet, which is like Nike Fuelband, which monitors my sleep. I thought I had a problem getting to sleep but I don’t… but I wake up in the night. I was sleeping an average of five to six hours. Now I’m edging up towards the seven: it feels better.
- Christine Armstrong is a founding member of communications firm Jericho Chambers.