Between 1981 and 2016 Mandy Bromley held marketing and, later, HR roles at Trebor Bassett, Cadbury Schweppes and Unilever. Now with two grown up children (Adam and Sophie), she reflects on the impact her career and work ethic had on her family life - and what she would do differently knowing what she knows now.
Tell me a bit about your career
When I started out started in 1985 there were no laptops, you couldn’t work from home. You just stayed in the office until the job was done. Before kids, I had been working late and Saturdays so I lost that flexibility and I found that hard.
There was the daily battle of 5.30pm. You had to get out of the office and get home for the nanny via the M25 and you had no control. It was part of the reason for moving to HR to avoid the culture of team meetings that started at 6pm.
So did the pre-working from home era work better or worse in family terms?
Well it felt like a compromise, but when I was home I was home so the impact on the kids was limited and manageable. I got home tired and wired - but it was OK because it was predictable.
What happened when working from home become possible?
I moved to Cadbury Schweppes into a really different role. For me it was fantastic: for the kids it was awful. All my energy went into my projects, I started to live them, and there was suddenly a lot of travel.
There is something quite sexy and glamourous about jetting off to different countries and being stimulated. But the kids didn’t connect with it. There is no one to share it with it. You’re like a child yourself, you want some acknowledgment. You lose perspective, it’s a kind of hubris.
So how did that change things for the family?
The awful thing was that there was even an element of resentment within me for the time the kids demanded. I’d be doing a telecon on my mobile I would be really interested in the conversation - while dragging my eight-year-old round M&S and not having a conversation with her. Even though she was desperate for my attention.
You know when you are ashamed of what you thought… . I remember flew in from India one morning and had to go straight to the school to see Sophie’s teacher at 9am. In my head I was thinking "aren’t I great, getting off a plane and coming straight here". Like I was a hero! When actually I was a completely absent mother.
What did your daughter think?
She went through a bad patch at secondary school with bullying and I didn’t pick it up because I wasn’t there and I minimised it. I wasn’t there.
At one point she wrote an "Essay on a very bad family" and I was the star villain in it of course. She said "I’ve got dolls from Russia, camels from Dubai but what I really want is time with my mum". When I was at Unilever Sophie wrote to my boss "I haven’t see much of my mum lately. This is because she is working too long and too hard. You need to compensate me. I would like a laptop please." He was really hurt, he saw what was going on. He gave her a pink poodle.
When Adam was about eight he woke me at 3am saying "I didn’t get to talk to you before bed and I want to talk to you now". And you defensively respond – you start defending yourself against your own kids and trying to reason with them like they are adults.
What did you learn?
You have to remember they are kids and what they are telling you is the most important thing that has happened to them today. What is trivial to you is not to them, little things can be a big deal. Don’t compensate by buying them off. They want time not gifts. …. Honour and earmark time that is in a routine that is reliable to them.
What were the positives?
They got a lot of air miles! I took my daughter on a work trip with me so she stayed over when I was running an event. And she stayed in my room and was fine and that made me feel good.
Mine were very different children with different needs. I talked to my son recently and he said "you weren’t available so I just got on with it". I wonder whether he would have done what he’s done without a little parental neglect. He is doing a PhD. He did a lot of experimenting and computer games in his room. I think if I had been at home all the time I would have stopped him doing stuff and tried to restrict him. But having that freedom, he has ended up being able to explore without looking over his shoulder for someone telling him to stop. I wasn’t saying "no".
They have both turned out pretty sane and straightforward adults. They have learnt to challenge and to question; they have a sense of adventure and actually I think they have a much better sense of balance than I did.
Why did you work so hard?
I think you have to look to your own self-limiting beliefs and your own stories, it’s like "because I am a mother I am second-class employee and I have to work harder to prove I am not slacking". I think you over-compensate to prove yourself. You start telling yourself the perfect story so you ignore it when things start to go wrong.
What were the worst impacts?
I stopped listening. Because if I did (and took notice of the negatives I was hearing) the whole thing might collapse. It was like balancing Jenga pieces, I felt that if one piece fell the whole lot would fall down. You can end up being culpable of a kind of middle class neglect. It might be benign but it might not. Because you judge what they need as less important than the external pressures.
You find yourself shouting at the children, it’s a stress transfer, for the tiniest thing, when they have done nothing wrong. It’s "hurry up, hurry up", even now my "hurry up" driver is strong – my kids call it the ‘hup hup’. Sophie used to physically pull my face around – yank my jaw – so I would look at her and make eye contact. I look back and feel awful and think "how abysmal". I can see myself hurrying the kids up on phone calls because I am in a meeting and I look back and think "what message I am giving about their importance?".
How was this all for your husband?
He was also travelling quite a bit himself so we’d end up juggling and negotiating. He was also quite long suffering and also can cook otherwise I'm not sure we'd have had anything more than ready meals!
Could or should you have stopped?
I didn’t want to stop…. No. And we couldn’t have afforded the schools and holidays…. You create this lifestyle and you feel you must maintain it. And actually more than that, you do get a satisfaction from your career. That is the story you tell yourself.
Did you have support networks?
Yes I did but my friends were my mostly colleagues as I dropped out of local networks after the toddler stage. I became quite scathing of women who didn’t work. Maybe I was jealous. There is something about the divide between working and non-working mums and each seeing the other as binary. Partly through resentment. I found the conversations tedious - maybe because being out of the school circuit you have nothing to connect on.
So what is your advice, knowing what you know now?
When it feels too much you must recalibrate. I’d I had my time again I would take control of my time and my parameters. I would do things quite differently. And actually I think I would have been more successful. Through cutting the crap, not doing it all, having confidence that you have a right to confront things.
Do you think workplaces will change for your children’s generation?
Organisations are starting to compromise. If I look at Unilever now there is huge attention paid to well-being. We’ve gone towards more recognition of this at work, you can have these conversations now in the open and that is a good thing. My daughter says she wants a career that is more home based. I guess I’s a rudder swing.