An e-mail was Karen McDaniel wasn’t something Kate had expected to see when she fired up her computer. Still fuming from the previous evening, her finger hovered over the delete key but something made her open it.
I’m sorry about last night. Shelia was out of order. I’m afraid it happens at some events – the organisers get a bit protective about me. I can assure you I’m perfectly capable to fighting my own battles, as are you.
I think I can see where you are coming from. We make light of the challenges running a business and family, but it isn’t easy. In that respect, I hate to admit it, you do have a bit of a point, even if it didn’t come over very well.
I’m staying in Solihull for a couple of nights to attend a conference at the NEC. Do you fancy catching up for a coffee later? Don’t worry, I’m not going to lecture you about the joys of children, I looked you up on-line and just fancy a chat. We have more in common than you might think.
Kate re-read the message a couple of times. What did she mean by “more in common than you think”? OK, they were both in business, but surely that was as far as it went. A little Googling had brought up an interview where Karen and her apparently perfect family were photographed in a smiling group. Her husband did something in publishing and they lived in a nice house in Lewesham.
On the other hand, a coffee wouldn’t hurt she decided. Kate prided herself in not walking away from a fight, although there seemed to be an olive branch being offered. There was something about Karen that intrigued Kate, and anyway, she told herself, making contacts was her job and you never turn down opportunities when they arise.
Karen was already in the coffee shop when Kate arrived. Sitting in a booth with a latte and a laptop, she was obviously perfectly comfortable with working wherever she found herself. Carefully arranged on the table were a slightly chewed Biro, a Moleskin notepad and a mobile phone. She looked up from her keyboard when Kate arrived and declined the offer of an extra drink, but added that she could murder a small muffin as she’d had to skip lunch.
Ordering herself a drink and a couple of muffins, it seemed to politic to join in the eating and a little more time on the cross-trainer would take care of the extra calories, Kate wondered how the conversation was likely to go. She’d considered several different openings, from a matey “How ya doing” to another apology. None seemed to hit the spot so she hoped inspiration would strike when the time came.
As it happened, she needn’t have worried. Karen smiled and opened with, “Kate, thanks for coming along. I wasn’t sure if you’d want to see me after yesterday evening.”
Taken aback, Kate replied, “Oh. I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me again either. Sometimes my mouth overtakes my brain!”
“Forget it. I know what you were trying to say, even if some of the audience didn’t get it.”
“You can say that again. I’m still waiting for an e-mail from Shelia banning me from the group.”
Karen laughed, “Don’t worry about that. I calmed her down after you left. There’s no point in running the groups if we can’t deal with a few disagreements. This IS business after all, not a bloody knitting circle.” She paused and looked at Kate, “Not that there is anything wrong with knitting you understand…”
It was Kate’s turn to laugh, “I don’t know about that. Not my thing at all, isn’t it something you take up when you abandon any interest in fashion?”
“No! It’s quite trendy apparently. I was reading that Julia Roberts does it on set between takes, and Ryan Gosling.”
“Ryan Gosling? I’d happily help him with his needles!” Kate blushed
“Kate Smith! You little minx. I thought you were all about business.”
“Well, a girl has to have some outside interests I suppose. I think I’ll give it a miss though and stick to the gym. That and Olly and Horatio of course. They probably would like some balls of wool around the place.”
Karen cocked her head to one side, “Olly and Horatio?”
“My cats. I’ve had Olly for years, but Horatio kind of adopted me after our last job.”
“I didn’t think they were children. That would have been very weird.”
“I’d certainly have been drummed out of the Brownies if they found out I had kids after last night. What about yours though, Iona and Hamish isn’t it?” Kate sipped her latte and looked at the screen of Karen’s phone. Staring out were two faces she recognised from the interview.
“Well researched”, Karen smiled, Yes, my pair give me plenty of trouble, but I wouldn’t be without them. Iona is just starting secondary school.” Kate did some mental arithmetic. Secondary school started at 12, which would mean Karen was, “Twenty five.”, she answered to Kate’s unsaid question. “Yes, I was a junior marketing executive for an oil company at the time. Andrew and I had been married for a couple of years and she just appeared. I mean, kids had always been part of the plan, but we hadn’t decided quite when. Then fate, or at least a faulty contraceptive, took a hand. Once we’d had one, well a second a couple of years later seemed to make sense.”
Kate leaned back, “But what happened to your job?”
“Oh, they were very good about it. I took my maternity leave of course but when I came back I was a bit shocked to discover life had gone on without me. Everyone had a years worth more gossip and another years worth of projects under their belts. I’d stayed in touch by e-mail and Facebook, and dropped into the office a couple of times with the baby, but you miss the day-to-day chat.” She bit into a chunk of muffin. “Mmmm, this is good. Do they make them in-house?”
Kate looked at the counter. She normally grabbed a drink from one of the big chains. This local coffee house wasn’t normally on her radar. Biting into her own muffin, she had to agree that it was rather good. “So you came back to work, and then left again? Weren’t they a bit annoyed by that?”
Karen wiped her mouth. “They couldn’t say anything, but I got the feeling that my boss wasn’t too impressed when I told her I was pregnant again.”
“Yup. Female boss. Alison. Nice enough, but she didn’t really approve of women, or at least I always got the feeling that she preferred working with men.”
Kate realised that Karen was staring directly at her. “Hmmm. Sometimes I think she might have a point. Not sure how keen I’d be about one of my staff nipping off all the time.”
“Hey, I wasn’t nipping off, I was having a baby!” Karen chided.
“Yes, but it means the business has to cover the work, and keep the job open for when they decide to return. And you get the rest of them going all gooey when the kid gets brought it.”
“But there is more to life than business Kate. Don’t you ever feel the need for a break?
Kate stared into the dregs of her drink. “I don’t know. My business means so much to me. No-one cares about it as much as I do.”
“That’s what I thought. But then I had kids and they gave me a bit of perspective. You find that you have to think of other things than work.”
“That’s the problem”, Kate protested, “Someone has to keep the place going or they will all be out of a job.”
“And are you the only person who can do this?”, Karen paused and finished her muffin. “I mean, the people who work for you can’t all be useless. I don’t see you as the sort of boss who employs idiots.”
Gareth’s face crossed Kate’s mind. “No. OK, my partner…”
“Partner?” Karen interrupted
Kate smiled. This wasn’t the first time someone had added one and one to get five. “Business partner. He’s good at having contacts I suppose, but you wouldn’t want to leave him in charge of anything important. Gareth’s a nice guy, but it’s a bit like dealing with an overgrown schoolboy sometimes.
“OK, but you’ve got other people working for you.”, Karen finished her drink, “You’re not the only one who can do some research you know.”
“Yeah. Most of them are OK. One or two are picking up the business really well and I’m hoping we can hang on to them.”
“Right them. You need to get your head around letting them get on with it. The secret of running a business is not trying to do everything yourself. Let others share the load a bit.”
Kate pondered for a moment, “Is that what you’ve done? I don’t see anyone else listed on the website for the network.”
Karen smiled, “No, the Empowerment Forums are all my work. However, I do have help – Andrew has always been happy to share the work with the kids. After Hamish was born, my firm offered me the chance to take a longer break.”
You mean they chucked you out?”, Kate looked shocked.
“Sort of. There was a bit of a re-organisation and a streamlining. They needed less staff and strangely, mine was one of the positions that were no longer required.”
“Can they do that?”
“Their lawyers kept them just on the right side of legal. I’d half expected it. Much as I loved my job in some ways, I wasn’t as disappointed as I’d thought I would be. Part of me felt it was time for a change.”
“So that’s when you started up the forums?”
“Not quite. I got myself a part-time job first. Partly for the money, but also because I needed to get out of the house. That’s where Andrew came in. He wanted time with the kids, so we downsized a bit and both cut our hours. Things weren’t easy, but it was the right thing to do.”
“Andrew sounds like a great guy.”
Karen smiled. “He is. We’re a proper team. I can’t tell it’s been an easy few years. Parenting and working full-time is not as easy as some of the articles you will read. We don’t have a nanny and if one of the kids is ill everything goes out the window. I have to tell you settling Iona into school was one of the hardest three months I’ve ever worked. Tears every day while I’m trying to run off to meetings. You get good at working on three hours sleep!”
Kate sipped her coffee and nodded.
“But I’m getting into mummy territory. I love my kids, but I was also a person first, and was for many years before they came along, and I wanted to keep that part of my personality. Andrew understands and between the two of us we have come up with a way of balancing our lives and the kids so there aren’t any compromises, or as little as possible. We get our ‘me’ time and kid time too.”
“So where did the forums come from?”
“I’d had this idea in the back of my mind for a few years. Once you’ve been to a couple of mother and toddler groups, you find that the mums can be split into three groups: Earth mothers who basically want to sit in child sick all day and wear something easy clean. All they care about is their little darling. Sadly, they are probably raising kids who will turn into serial killers when they hit adolescence.”
They both laughed. Karen continued, “Then there are the yummy mummies. Hubby earns enough to keep them in Boden and the kids in Tootsa MacGinty jumpers while they sit around drinking coffee in freshly laundered gym clothes passively-aggressively competing with all the other mummies.” she looked at the empty cups, “Talking of which, I need a refill. Same again?”
Watching Karen join the queue for drinks, Kate pondered the conversation. It wasn’t going the way she had expected, but oddly, this didn’t seem to matter. Karen’s life seemed really chilled, there might have been lots of plates spinning but it all worked because of her relationship with her husband. Surely it couldn’t be that simple?