Sophie Livingstone: 'I have other identities beyond motherhood'

POWER MUMS: The head of volunteering not-for-profit City Year UK wanted to climb the career ladder before having kids, but wasn't convinced by 'hypno-birthing'.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 25 Jun 2015

Sophie Livingstone is chief executive of City Year UK and had a baby girl ten months ago. City Year UK is a not-for-profit that recruits 18-25 year olds to volunteer for a year as mentors, role models and tutors in London and Birmingham. Last year its volunteers spent more than 220,000 hours helping more than 10,000 children.

How are you feeling?

Eliza was up twice in the night. I thought she was getting over waking up, but last night was awful. She’s dribbling - do you think it’s her teeth?

Are you enjoying it?

Oh yes. She’s in a lovely phase, crawling and desperate to walk. The more she is turning into a person the more fun she is.

How much maternity leave did you take?

I came back part time in month four and did two days a week for a month, and then four days for another month. It was good to transition, as it enabled our nanny to settle in, but this is more than a full time job, so towards the end it was frustrating doing neither one nor the other in a proper routine.

How was coming back to work?

It was the switching off from work that was very difficult. Coming to meetings while I was on maternity was interesting – it gave me a different perspective. It made me realise why trustees ask particular questions. It helped me step back and have an outside perspective.  

How does your day work?

Eliza is my alarm clock. The nanny starts at 8am, then I battle the Northern Line and do back-to-back meetings. At the end of the day I leg it out to get home at 6pm for her dinner and bath. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough time with her, but mostly it feels about right and I focus on being ‘there’ when I am home.

How about your husband?

He’s special adviser to the secretary of state for international development, so his day isn’t as flexible as mine. We try to do things together but it doesn’t always work out. I’m lucky we have a nanny because when he travels it is hard going. We both had to go to party conference and one day I found myself handing over an over-excited baby to the nanny at 6.30am, wondering if it was the best decision.

How’s having your daughter changed you?

It’s changed my perspective. You know you’ll love your child but you don’t really know until it happens. It changes my view of what I do at work because I am focused on young people and it makes me more passionate about it.

Has your sense of your identity changed at all?

Embracing ‘being a mum’ is strange. You know, it’s a funny thing but I think you have to earn your ‘real mum’ spurs, and I don’t know if a ten month old baby is enough to quite do that. I think I swing between contexts - being a professional and a mum. Of course I have other identities beyond motherhood, and it's important for her to see that I work and care about things in the world because I hope she will too.  

What advice would you give someone else?

Set your life up right: a reasonable commute, a budget for childcare. Have a plan with your other half and know your expectations. And go to pregnancy yoga and build a network – for us it was better than [parental charity] NCT. Don’t overlook professional friends who might be able to help you too – I took a lot of advice.

Be honest with what you can cope with – for me it was very important to keep in touch at work and take responsibility. It really annoyed people when people said that I wouldn’t know how I’d feel with a baby. I do and I did.  

What surprised you?

I think people aren’t very honest about birth and how much it hurts. Knowing it is going to hurt and thinking about to manage that is important. We did hypno-birthing and, while I get idea of relaxing and managing pain, it only takes you so far. We should be honest about this. I stayed with it through grim determination, but next time I think I might take the epidural...

Has it changed perceptions of you do you think?

It’s humanising for our staff, especially more junior people. Which isn’t to say I’m a robot, but people ask for pictures and about what she’s doing. Young women who volunteer with us in Birmingham told me that they, and the young people they support, didn't know that there were women who ran companies, let alone mothers.

Has it changed your husband Simon’s life as much as yours?

No. Partly because of the physicality of it. When she cries I have a gut-wrenching feeling that he doesn’t have. His bond with her is growing though as she gets bigger but, [after] being with her 24/7 for four months, it is a different bond.

Are you glad you waited to have your kids until your career was established?

I wanted to get as far up the career ladder as I could before I had kids. My sister did the opposite – she had kids and did university and her career later. It was hard for her to start from scratch with the children and I take my hat off to her for doing it. On balance, the later approach worked for me. It’s not just your career – you also need to find a partner to do it with that you know well enough to make it work.  

Thriving or surviving?

Depends on the day!

Christine is a contributing editor of MT, owner of www.villas4kids.com and a partner at Jericho Chambers.

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