‘Children changed my ambitions. Here’s how I became self-employed’

Could you tell me a bit about you and your life?

I’m in my mid-30s and live in East London with my husband and 2 children aged 2 and 4. I currently work part-time 3 days a week running my own franchise of Sing & Sign. Sing & Sign offers baby and toddler classes to teach families how to use baby sign and develop language and communication skills.

What were you doing before?

I’ve worked in fundraising for over a decade, and had started working in community fundraising (having been involved with RAG at university), but went on to mainly work in major donor fundraising. My last job was as a patron manager.

How did having children change your feelings around your career, money and ambition?

Having children definitely brought about a big shift in my life. I very much thought I would alway work in fundraising, and had goals to progress up the ladder. But my role did demand long days, evening events, and a long commute, and I hadn’t got far enough up the ladder for my salary to be too hard to let go of - although it was a very good wage!

I think unless you’re in a position of having great wealth and/or a great support system, there is always going to be a shift in priorities when you have children. Taking parental leave is a huge change in your routine, and being pregnant itself is a huge lifestyle change.

Having children has definitely changed my relationship to money, as it’s the point in life where I’d had the least amount of disposable income. I also feel more aware of the importance of savings and making sure we have a buffer for any difficult periods, as there are more family members to support. My eldest is nearly 5 and asking more questions about money, so I’m also beginning to think about how to teach her about it and the relationship she’s creating with it.

In terms of ambition - if I wasn’t doing what I do now, I know my desire to climb the ladder wouldn’t have been the same as before children… the mental load, sleep deprivation and surrounding pressures would of made it so hard to push for growth. For me, the early years of parenting felt a bit like survival mode rather than a time for growth.

Tell me more about your 'sliding doors' moment!

The moment that changed everything for me was deciding to go along to a baby signing class with my eldest daughter and saw the huge benefits of her being able to communicate before she was verbal. The classes were quite a distance from my house.

You get videos to watch at home, and there is always a slide saying ‘could you do this, contact xxxx about buying a franchise’.…

I remember being stood in a playground near my parents house around the time I was negotiating my return to work and thinking, maybe I could. None of my friends went to Sing and Sign with me, I can’t even remember where I heard about the class, or what made me go.

In London terms it wasn’t near my house, so it’s strange to think if I hadn’t gone would I have made such a big life change.

How did you make the change?

I didn’t do anything straight away. I spent a long time researching if it would actually be financially viable; making a plan, calling venues to find out costs, running the numbers. I returned to work and two months later the pandemic hit and I was pregnant with my youngest.

I bought the franchise while on maternity leave and ran just one class a week in one venue for 6 months. I returned to work again and juggled both to keep my maternity pay, and then once I had finished my job I started up running classes across three days, in three different venues and the full range of classes.

I was very open with my employer, telling them I was only returning for 3 months whilst on maternity leave so they could hire a replacement. I’m a big believer in honesty and I worked to the standard I always would have done during my return, even staying on a bit longer than planned to help them cover until my replacement started.

Where are you now?

It’s been just over a year since I left that job and the classes are going really well! I’m self employed, learning so much and loving teaching these classes. During my spring term I had 90 families coming to class, which is amazing and very close to my final goal.

I’m sticking with the 3 days until my youngest can go to a local preschool, as a big financial reason for the change was to work within the ‘30 hours of childcare’, keeping our nursery costs down. Once I have more childcare I have plans to open in other venues and grow more.

The pay cut from my previous fundraising job was huge, but my childcare is lower and it fits around school life. I’m hoping it’ll offer us balance, and me the opportunity to do whatever I can with this new business!

How do you feel about the shift now?

I feel like I am being ambitious in the change that I made. Starting a business during a pandemic was ambitious, and I now push myself to make sure classes are full and aim to grow once both my children are in child care 5 days a week. I still feel like I have a career as there are so many opportunities with what I’m doing now. I have incredible job satisfaction, love getting to know local families, watching their children grow, and seeing them learn how to sign and communicate is truly magical.

I feel so lucky to be able to spend so much time with my children while they’re still small, and that making the change has worked for us financially. I don’t feel any less ambitious than if I stayed in my old job. I just have new ambitions, and think there is huge value in parents who change careers and spend that time caring for their children.

Do you have any advice for people scared about the cost of having children, e.g. paying for nursery fees?

Some advice I have is firstly, make the most of the thriving second hand market. We haven’t bought any big ticket items new. It can save a lot of money and you can get great quality items. Though try not to buy second hand car seats as you don’t know if they have been in a crash!

Nursery fees are extortionate and ironically our net take home has been higher since my daughter got her 30 hours funding than if I had remained in my previous role and we had to pay higher nursery fees. It feels like such a broken and frustrating system.

The government has said they’re going to do more, so let’s hope that does start to help and that after the election it may improve!

Finally, definitely make the most of tax-free childcare if you’re eligible. Otherwise, save in advance if you can, look into all your local options, and unfortunately be prepared to have a few years with less disposable income, as it is shockingly expensive.