'Sometimes I think I might have enjoyed being able to bring up the children without work,' says fashion designer Margaret Howell. But, as she cheerfully admits, she would probably have ended up running something anyway: 'When I was at home for a short while when they were little, we started a play group in the kitchen. I gave Friday morning art classes for the local kids.'
Howell took both her children - Miriam, now 22, and Edward, 18 - into work and breast-fed them as babies. Work has been a constant theme in her life. Since 1969 when she graduated from London's Goldsmiths College, she has built her own fashion and home products business, which now has five UK shops, concessions in 45 Japanese department stores and a 'lifestyle store' in Tokyo. But, like most working mothers, Howell, now 53, has felt torn between her dual obligations to the business and her children. 'There's that constant feeling of being overloaded,' she says.
She has overcome her conflicting interests, combining motherhood with a successful career as one of Britain's most enduring fashion designers, by 'working to the hilt' on weekdays and allowing her kids to absorb her evenings and weekends. As founder of her own company, Howell has been able to set her own itinerary. 'Because I started the company, I've built my life around it,' she says. 'I'd take the children in when they were babies, which seemed convenient, but I was very aware that I was often pushing a pram home in the dark and that I felt very tired all the time.'
Once the kids were toddling, Howell employed a childminder to look after them - although, she admits: 'when the children were ill, I always put them first and would stay home to look after them.' She also drew a firmer line between work and family life. 'When you're bringing up kids on your own, you have to switch off when you get home. There are times when you can't completely, and that's very frustrating. You feel torn: all working mothers feel guilty about not being there enough.'
Being there enough has been a constant struggle. The business has expanded considerably since Howell opened her first London shop in 1977. Within four years, she had clinched a licensing agreement with the Japanese company Anglobal, which subsequently bought a stake in the business and eventually took it over. It then appointed Richard Craig as managing director to work alongside her. 'Richard takes care of the commercial side, which has never interested me,' she explains. 'If I had a title, it would be chief designer, because I oversee the design of our clothing, home products and all our graphics.'
As the company has grown - it now has annualised sales of pounds 50 million and employs 300 people, many of whom have worked there since the 1970s - the demands on Howell have increased. 'As you go along, you take on more and more,' she says. 'I do more now than I've ever done.' She copes by sticking to a strict working regime. She leaves home at 9.30am to drive to the company's headquarters in Battersea, and works through until 6pm or 6.30pm, keeping outside appointments to a minimum. Since separating from her husband 15 years ago, she has raced home to Greenwich at the end of each day to cook dinner. 'I don't feel I have to be home on the dot, but I do feel I should be there to cook for Edward, who's now in his gap year after leaving school. Those feelings go quite deep.'
Once home, Howell rarely goes out again. 'If I did, I wouldn't be able to keep up, because I'd be too tired.' Friday nights are the one exception.
'I have a boyfriend, so it's nice to do something together then. We'll go out for a meal, sometimes to modern dance or the cinema,' she says, adding somewhat regretfully: 'When friends talk about classic films they've seen over the years, I realise that I didn't have time to see any of them.'
Weekends are divided between the house and garden - 'there always seems to be a job to do' - and browsing around local antiques markets, mostly looking for pieces to sell in her shops. Ironically, what started out as an interest, 'has become more like a job', she says. Many of her other interests have become snatched pleasures. She enjoys reading but seldom has time to do more than 'dip into the books beside the bed'. Occasionally, she squeezes in a visit to an art gallery - 'that's something I'd like to do more of' - but rarely goes to other shops, unless helping her daughter Miriam with a 'shop report' for her textiles course at Middlesex University.
Every other Sunday, Howell drives down to Leatherhead in Surrey to visit her elderly father.
Daily exercise is the one thing she always makes time for. Until recently, she went running, but stopped because of a knee problem, and now alternates between swimming, walking and visits to the local gym. 'I've improved a lot,' she says. 'And that's very encouraging: to know you can get fitter as you become older.'
Even on her twice-yearly visits to Japan or the French and Italian fabric fairs, Howell rarely takes time off. It is unusual for her to add an extra day, or even a half day, on to foreign trips to look at shops or galleries, even though she would like to. 'Whenever I do, it's really rewarding because it opens up my mind to new ideas, and that's so important when people look to you for inspiration. But it always feels like a luxury,' she says. 'I bumped into Paul Smith recently on a trip to Japan and, because he doesn't have children, he has much more freedom to organise his time. When you're bringing up children, their demands are fairly constant and you always feel that you're on call.'
Howell is now anticipating the 'the dreaded day' when Miriam and Edward have left home. 'I'm going into a new place in my life now,' she says.
'And I feel like having a bit more space.' It will mean rebalancing her life. But, she says, at work, 'we've got a good team now, and I'd like to move towards delegating more. That's difficult if you're used to doing everything yourself, but I could travel more and work towards taking one day off a week. I would feel freer. I don't think it's good to work so relentlessly.'
Alice Rawsthorn is the FT's architecture and design critic.