This interview is part of my series Leaning In. My aim is to shine a spotlight on successful women who are ‘leaning in’ to their careers. By sharing the stories of other women, I hope to help change the focus from what we can’t do to what we can do and to show other women that it is possible to have it all.
If you would like to share your story, please contact me.
Ursula Tavender has a mission: to support and empower a million mums to rebuild their confidence and reconnect with themselves. After starting her blog, Mumbelievable to chronicle her own battle to regain confidence after her son was born, Ursula discovered her passion for helping other working parents to regain confidence, overcome guilt and achieve better work life balance. She now supports women to manage the demands of being a working parent through live events, online programmes and confidence-boosting products. Ursula has just launched her online programme whereby she assists parents to return to work with confidence. I am a huge supporter of Mumbelievable. I have bought the Mumbelievable confidence cards and proudly display one on my desk at work (photo below).
Ursula is a perfect candidate for this interview series and I am pleased to share her story with you. Ursula and I share very similar values in relation to working and parenthood and I agree wholeheartedly with many of Ursula’s comments below.
Tell us a little about yourself, your family and how you spend your spare time, if you have any!
I’m Ursula and I live on the beautiful River Hamble in Hampshire with my two boys – my husband (and biggest supporter) Tim and our 3-year-old legend, Xav. When I’m not working or with Xav I love to read, spend time with my brilliant and beautiful friends and family and explore the world.
Tell us about your job. What does your work schedule look like?
Last year I took the plunge to make Mumbelievable into a business. Alongside my business partner, Donna, I now support working parents to regain their personal and professional confidence, overcome guilt and achieve better balance in their work and home lives.
We help companies to up their game in terms of provision for employees who happen to be parents so they can become happier, more successful and more productive; which in turn helps to reduce the haemorrhaging of talent among exceptional professionals who are forced out of the workplace when they can’t make their career work with their family. It is by far the most satisfying and thrilling part of my career to date.
I’m also a brand ambassador, writer and speaker and last year I launched the first Mumbelievable product – a set of confidence cards to help mums recognise how incredible they are. We’re also launching an online programme for women going back to work after having children to help them rebuild their career confidence and I’m very, very excited about that.
When I’m not out delivering events for companies, filming or in meetings, I work from home or in local cafes. After long days with a childminder didn’t work out for us, we placed Xav in a preschool that only does short sessions and is term-time only. He’s coped with that much better. It’s a nightmare for me, to be honest, because I only ever get a few hours at a time to work unless I’m delivering events. I work evenings and as and when I need to I bring in extra support to help me juggle my workload. I’m very lucky that Tim runs his own marketing consultancy so between us we can usually manage the pick-ups and drop-offs. Xav is due to start school this September, and I feel pretty torn about it as on one hand I don’t quite feel ready to begin this new phase, and on the other I will be SO grateful for the extra time. 30 hours a week! My goodness, what I will be able to do with all that extra time.
Have your career goals changed since you had children?
They’re completely unrecognisable now compared to before Xav. I spent a decade building a successful career in PR and communications – which I loved – and had pretty big aspirations for. But starting the blog changed all of that. I’ve now created a life that is congruent with my desire to support parents to deal with the identity shift that happens when we have children (which I was completely unprepared for and have spent years trying to make sense of) and to spend as much time as possible with my precious little boy. There’s plenty of time for me to build something fabulous with this new venture, and I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be which is a wonderful feeling I will never take for granted.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when returning to work after having children?
I felt totally disconnected from my former self. I had lost sight of everything I brought to the table and as a result felt incapable which rocked me to my core. I couldn’t seem to shake it off, and it took a good couple of years for me to reconnect with my professional abilities and feel truly confident and capable again.
I also compared my productivity incessantly to my output before I became a mum, which I realise is completely ridiculous given that I used to work crazy hours and had cut that to a fraction of the working week I put in before (through choice, though I have the utmost respect for women who opt to or have no option but to work full-time). I am still guilty of this, though less so than I was at first.
The other biggest challenge was/is guilt. I felt selfish for wanting and needing to work for my own sanity and self-fulfilment, especially when my son has never separated easily and has had some additional needs that we have had to overcome. He has always told me very clearly that he is happier and better off when he is with me. And that’s very difficult to overlook, when the emotional pull of being a mother is so strong. But I’m doing all of this for him too, not just for me and my career. I want to not just tell him but to truly model for him that it is possible to design a life that is aligned with your dreams, passions and what sets your soul on fire.
Have you faced discrimination in the workplace as a result of being a parent?
Thankfully no, because I work for myself and I work flexibly around the needs of my clients. It’s frighteningly common, though. Every time I post about this stuff I receive a ton of messages from people with horror stories about how they’ve suffered at work.
The Working Forward initiative, launched last September by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, found that 77% of women have experienced at least one instance of discrimination either while they were pregnant, on maternity leave or when they went back to work. It’s staggering and makes me so angry, but it is good news that it’s being addressed in this way. That’s a big part of what drives me to do this work.
Do you agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s idea that women need to ‘sit at the table’ and ‘lean in’? If so, how do you implement her ideas yourself?
I am a huge Sheryl fan. I think her work – particularly her foundation to encourage women to set up Lean In circles to support each other across the world – is brave and bold.
I absolutely identify with her view that we need to sit at the table, make our presence more felt and to trust in our own voice when communicating what we want at home and at work. I’ve been accused by other women of being aggressive in the workplace which at the time shook me and made me retreat, but now I just find it ironic and sad.
For us as a species to have such a spokesperson as Sheryl has given me the confidence to reach for things that before I had my son I’d have shied away from. I’m getting better at not underestimating my own value and she has also made me rethink the ways I attribute my success to external factors. I think so many of us women have been guilty of that at some point!
I count myself extraordinarily lucky to have a partner who understands and supports me personally and professionally. He’s my biggest cheerleader and always has been. Because of his willingness to be part of an equal team I’m not afraid to ask for his help at home so that I can relieve the pressure to manage everything and his first response when I’m struggling is to ask what he can do to alleviate some of the stress by sharing jobs at home, preschool runs and childcare. I’m so grateful and I think this is such an important conversation we should all be having.
Do you believe we can ‘have it all’?
I believe we can, but only if we define for ourselves what that means. So many of us are guilty – as I was for a long time – of letting external influences dictate to me what ‘having it all’ meant. Once I realised that it was up to me to decide what would make me and my family happy, I could take steps towards making that a reality, which I’m still working on but just knowing that it’s up to me to shape how that looks has been incredibly liberating.
I started by examining all the areas of my life that are important to me, and looking at how much I invest into each of those areas. When I first did that, there were some that had been seriously neglected and I was in a pretty bad place. I made some changes, and started to even the balance a bit and just having that awareness was transformational.
How do you achieve balance between parenting and your career?
I’m still working on that. I think my idea of balance has changed each year since I became a mum, if I’m honest, and I expect it will continue to evolve as Xav gets older and the needs of our family change. At the moment because this part of my career is so new and I’m building several income streams, the balance feels as though it’s tipped in favour of work sometimes and I struggle with guilt that Xav will suffer as a result. But I try to re-frame the guilt by reassuring myself that he will benefit in so many ways from what I’m doing and that he already has a far happier mum because of it.
I’d say the three ways I try to achieve balance are by re-framing the constant guilt, frequently re-evaluating how I’m spending my time and working out what help I need if I’m struggling.
What do you enjoy the most about being a working parent?
Creating new things that will make peoples’ lives easier and happier. I get so much joy from helping people. The fact that I’m building a new phase of my career that enables me to do that makes me very happy.
I also love the physical independence of my working time. I find being needed and depended on all the time one of the most challenging aspects of parenting. My son is my greatest achievement and being his mummy is the biggest privilege of my life, but I do say terrible things under my breath when he calls my name for what feels like the millionth time.
What aspect of being a working parent do you find the most difficult?
The fact that Xav doesn’t separate easily and would rather be with me all the time than with anyone else. Again, I try to re-frame the guilt and reassure myself that he is happy when he is at preschool and that it is a lovely environment where he is learning to interact and socialise with other children and adults. I also know that if I didn’t work, I would be desperately unhappy. But every single day we’re not together I feel torn, sad and guilty at some point. I know so many others who have this issue and for me it’s the toughest part.
What is one piece of advice you would give to mothers wanting to lean in?
Don’t feel you need to be apologetic or justify what you want. Find a way to make it happen and there will always be people who pass judgment or aren’t supportive. Ignore them; this is your life.
What book or blog would you recommend to working parents?
I absolutely love what you’re doing, Lucy. I’ve already told lots of working parents I know about it, so I’m going to say your blog!
Reese McMillan is a mum of two living in a small close-knit town outside…09 April, 2017