Women In Business

A single mum’s guide to surviving and thriving in business

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Are you a single Mum in business? Then you know it’s a rollercoaster ride with dizzying heights and gut-wrenching lows. But if you can just hold on tight, the thrills will outweigh the low points and the strength you’ll gain is life-changing.

Everyone has their own story but the fundamental challenges are often the same – the mother guilt, the juggling of priorities (work, children, household – In what order?), the long hours, the late nights, the self-doubt, the aloneness as well as loneliness and the tears shed behind closed doors.

Oh, the tears!

I never used to be one to cry but I have certainly shed some tears and even shocked myself by crying and simultaneously shouting out words of “anger-grief” when presented with yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

And did you know that anger is a secondary emotion – Always masking sadness and / or fear? Well that’s where the anger-grief shouting comes in. Generally followed by shock, awe and the words “gees Louise, you must be losing it. Pull yourself together girlfriend, you don’t have time for theatrics”.

Firstly, let’s talk about the mother gulit – We all have our different versions of this but in the medical profession it goes like this: You’re woken up by a child with a high fever, rivers of nasal discharge and a hacking cough. You have a fully booked clinic starting in a couple of hours and a large number of patients in hospital under your care – one of whom was extremely unwell overnight and requires urgent review before the clinic starts. You frantically start calling the sitters who care for your children on a regular basis. (Did I mention that your Ex isn’t helpful and you’re living in a city over 1000 kilometers away from your nearest family member?)

Then your very sick child says “Mummy, please stay with me today. Why can’t you stay with me when I’m sick?” And how may I ask do you explain to your sick child that the sick people in hospital are really sick and that there’s no one to cover you at the hospital or the clinic so that you can stay home?

So all day you feel terrible that you’ve left a sick child at home in the care of a sitter and you know that no matter what you do today, there will be unpredictable challenges that will prevent you from getting home early. And you’ll still have to stop to pick up your other child from after-school care before finally making it home to your sick child.

This puts the spotlight on the constant juggling act of single motherhood. This amounts to prioritizing all our parental, work, household, social, community and self-care commitments. I suck big time when it comes to the last three – Those balls don’t even make it in to the juggling act. They just lie there on the floor for me to trip over.

And if you’ve ever seen me juggle, it just looks like I’m re-enacting some drastic 80’s dance moves.

Thankfully, my children laugh when I burn the sausages into charred oblivion and forgive my many failed attempts at edible meals. Much to my surprise though, they did ask me when they were 7 years old why I couldn’t be “a normal mother”. I was more intrigued than offended and asked them what “a normal mother” was? They patiently explained that she was a mother who joined the tuck shop roster and regularly attended her children’s classes to assist with reading or maths.

I have to admit that I did carry this “abnormal mother” label of shame with me for some time before asking them when they turned 10 what their “perfect mother” would look like. They both stared at me in bemusement and said in unison “You! You’re our perfect mother”. I reminded them about their earlier wish for a “normal mother” and they just laughed at me – “But then you wouldn’t be you and we love YOU!” Lucky that because I know I will never fit the “normal mother” mould.

Then there’s the financial stress of everything being down to you and only you – When you’re a self-employed single Mum, you’re managing your business expenses, children / household expenses, insurance expenses, superannuation and every other outgoing expense. Cash flow is an ongoing concern and the thought of taking even a few days’ leave can trigger a sense of throat-constricting panic. If you’re in the Personal Services Industry, a sole trader or similar business, taking leave means there’s a whole lot of money going out and no money coming in.

So what can you do to not only survive but thrive the challenges that keep rolling in when you’re a single mum in business?

Tip number 1.Find a tribe of helpers

Set about finding your support crew and list them with their contact details / availability in an easily accessible document. That way, when you need last minute help and your stress levels are hitting the proverbial ceiling, you can calmly contact a savior or two.

I like to have three or four contacts for child care assistance and a number of virtual assistants (VA’s) that are happy with casual work – I’m lucky to have found a number of VA’s who can help me with both personal and business tasks. Word-of-mouth and social media are great ways to find reliable VA’s. I also seek assistance using contractors who operate through apps such as Freelancer.com and Airtasker.com.

If you live in a large enough city / town, don’t forget to consider online supermarket shopping or “click and collect” – You can even use a trusted VA or child care assistant to collect the groceries you’ve ordered. (That way, you can avoid the delays and seemingly huge delivery time “windows” that can complicate online grocery shopping.) There are also plenty of wonderful companies offering nutritious, great tasting fresh or frozen pre-prepared meals that can be delivered to your doorstep.

When it comes to IT services and web design / development, marketing etc I strongly advise that you consult widely with friends, colleagues and mentors – Seek out providers with a strong track record in delivering high quality work within the timeframe that they promised it.

Try your hardest to find a team of financial advisors that work for you (as opposed to themselves) – Ask every wealthy and successful person you know who they’d recommend for general financial advice, business management / strategic planning input, accounting & tax expertise, property advice and any other advice you’re likely to need.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I’ll ask for help – For example, if I’m stressing out about how to book the car in for a service, get it there and pick it up, I’ll ask for help from a VA (and good friend) who lives locally. If I need help planning a holiday, I’ll ask my wonderful Sister-In-Law and VA who lives interstate for help with that task.

There’s also the barter system – If you’re short on cash, you can often offer others some of your own services in exchange for theirs. And don’t forget to look around for community groups and government – funded organisations offering free educational, social / networking and wellness events.

Give some thought to seeking out a performance or life coach – This has been one of the greatest investments I’ve made and has improved every aspect of my life. I’ve once again learnt the hard way that the best approach to finding a coach is through recommendations from high-performing friends, colleagues, mentors or other contacts. And always start with a small financial commitment – You can increase this commitment once you’ve found your ideal coach.

Tip number 2. Simplify everything

Take a good look at every aspect of your life and see where you can simplify it. Divide all your commitments into categories and list the most challenging activities or responsibilities associated with that category.

For example: Children. They may have multiple extra-curricular activities that demand a lot of energy, expense and time. This is a really good opportunity to ask your children what activities they love and which ones they see as being the most useful to them. Work out which activities are “must dos” based on your own values and the benefits to your children. Then look at those activities that are “beneficial but not must-dos” and those that are “dispensable”. (Feel free to come up with your own classification for these.) Then, look at the “must-dos” and “beneficial” activities. Work out which ones take a lot of effort or time – Is there some way to make these “easy” or less burdensome? Could they be arranged at a location closer to home or school? Could someone else help take the children to and from these activities or are you able to share this responsibility between several families?

Are your household responsibilities too much for you to manage? Are you happy with where you live? This is a very individual and emotive issue, especially if the children need stability and are likely to be distressed by changes to their living space or location. But for me, I learnt the hard way that I was not able to maintain a garden or any sort of residence requiring regular upkeep. I now live in a secure unit complex that suits my fly-in-fly out work but that still allows access to a beautiful garden (including a community herb / fruit / vegetable garden), BBQ facilities, swimming pool, media room and gymnasium.

Even just de-cluttering and / or down-sizing your possessions can go a long way to simplifying your life. There are some fantastic online, print and audio-visual resources for getting started with this (e.g. Marie Kondō’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Joshua Becker’s online articles Becoming Minimalist and the film, The Minimalists).

Tip number 3. Redesign your life

Take stock of your life – Is it everything you dreamed it would be? Firstly, make a list of all the amazing aspects of your life (in all categories: Work, Children, Relationships, Leisure, Creativity etc). Next, make a list of the things you’d like to change or improve and be as specific as you can. Now, for each one of these write out a couple of hypothetical scenarios for changing them. The trick here is not to judge yourself or discount any idea that could change or improve the way you’re currently approaching your life.

For example, under your “Work / Career” category, if you’ve written something like “the hours are too long” or “the hours don’t suit my wish to spend as much time with the children as possible” then write out as many strategies or changes that you can think of that might bring you closer to your “ideal” work hours. This may require a multi-step process or a massive shift in the way you work but regardless, write down every idea that comes to mind.

My own work “redesign” is still a work in progress – I chose to leave a very stable but soul-destroying salaried position to work for myself. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve managed to design a fly-in-fly out work schedule that works well with my current “week about” custody schedule. So that when the children are at their father’s house, I work that 7 days away and when they’re with me, I’ve managed to modify my work hours to fit in with school hours.

Differing custody schedules and full time single parenting commitments (without anyone sharing in the care of the children to any significant extent) will influence your own life redesign but even an “aspirational” life redesign plan can have some psychological benefits, helping you to feel less stuck.

The other consideration for all of us is that next chapter in our lives – when the children finish High School. I’ve seen a number of my friends reach this milestone with the sudden and often painful realization that they hadn’t planned for this next chapter. Even though it may seem an exceedingly distant possibility, it’s one that’s worth thinking about in your life redesign. (Seriously, how much fun and adventure is just waiting to burst forth in that next chapter?)

About Dr. Merryn Thomae

BMedSci (Hons), B Med (Hons), FRACP, Endocrinologist and General Physician has had an exciting medical career across the public, private and military medical sectors. Early in her career, she served as a Medical Officer in the Australian Defence Force, with postings in Australia, the Middle East and East Timor. Merryn left the military in 2001 to pursue her Specialist training in Brisbane, Australia, before setting up her Private Endocrinology Practice in 2009. In 2012, she qualified for her second specialty in General and Acute Care Medicine. Dr.Thomae provides a unique, holistic specialist care service, offering comprehensive health assessments and strategies for living well. Dr.Thomae aims to empower the individual and their primary health care team to improve overall quality of life and health outcomes. www.merrynthomae.net

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    2 Comments

    1. Trevor.Sofield@utas.edu.au'

      Trevor

      June 12, 2018 at 5:20 pm

      VERY sound advice, Merryn; you have covered so many issues profoundly yet concisely. The twins are so lucky to have you as their mother.

    2. Trevor.Sofield@utas.edu.au'

      Trevor

      June 12, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      PS I need to take your advice on decluttering things and making life simpler!

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