Three years ago...
Anna Whitehouse was working as a full-time journalist and copywriter, commuting two hours each way to work and back, and barely seeing her toddler daughter. When a delayed train meant she was fined for being 12 minutes late picking her daughter up from nursery, she knew she wanted to live differently. “I needed some control over my life,” says the 37-year old. “I was broken.” After her flexible working request was turned down, she quit her job. “It was at a point where we really shouldn’t have been taking any risks – we had a mortgage and a child,” she says. “But I couldn’t do it anymore.” It’s a rock and a hard place that has caught many a working parent before, but for Anna, it was an opportunity to change the conversation.
And so, Anna’s business Mother Pukka [motherpukka.co.uk], was born. She set herself up as a freelance writer and launched her flexible working campaign, Flex Appeal. Since then she’s done a TEDx talk about flexible working, written a book, Parenting the Sh*t Out of Life, started a regular radio presenter spot on Heart FM – and had another baby.
Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic has in many ways proved Anna’s point. “They said flexible working wouldn’t work”, she writes in a post on her much-followed Instagram page.“They questioned how you’d manage a team remotely. They refused flexible working requests on the basis that it would ‘open the floodgates’ to others seeking flexibility. ‘They’ are the naysayers; those who refused flexible working requests for alleged business reasons. Well, the floodgates have opened and it wasn’t their choice. In the darkest of contexts, the working world has had to flex overnight. And while enforced remote working isn’t the same as effective flexible working, it proves it is possible. The tech is there, the need is there and I’ve continued working (around the needs of kids as best I can).” It’s a sentiment so many working parents can relate to.
We catch up with the trailblazer about becoming Mother Pukka, how it’s changed her family’s life and why she believes flexible working isn’t just a ‘mummy issue.’
Photography: Lauren Michelle | Words: Katherine Chatfield
How did you feel about going back to work after having your first daughter?
I went back to work when she was three months old, which I think was possibly a bit soon. I was working in Holland at the time, and the thing that made it ok was that there was a transition period; they were very flexible in terms of working policy, you could ease back slowly. It worked well for me, although I maybe would have waited six months if I’d had the choice.
How did your working life change when you moved back to the UK?
We moved back when our daughter was 18 months old and I went straight back into full-time employment as a copywriter. There was no financial alternative, and I was only just covering nursery fees, but there was still a bit extra coming in. But the contrast to working in Holland was so stark; in the Netherlands, there’d been a real understanding that you put humans above your business. Of the three years, I spent there, the first two I thought everyone was slackers. Everyone left the office at 4.59pm and I thought nobody cared about their jobs. Then I realised that in the UK I was engaging in a game of competitive sitting at work; it wasn’t about doing the best job we could, it was about who was sitting there to look like the best employee. That seemed very counter-productive.
Did you just accept that was how the working world operated?
Yes, but I was angry about it. My commute was two hours each way. My mum was looking after my daughter for three days and three nights a week, and my daughter would call for her in the night and not me. I wasn’t living, I was existing. Everyone I spoke to had the same issues; it was breaking people. It wasn’t just a ‘mummy issue’ either. From this one point where employers are pinning people to a desk, everything else was falling down around them like dominos; divorce, a knock-on effect in all areas of their lives. Then, on the day we got the keys to our new house, my husband lost his job. He was the main breadwinner and in that moment I didn’t see how we were going to manage – I realised I needed to earn money. There was a primal need; it was my turn to push forward and support our daughter. That’s when I came up with the name Mother Pukka – it came out of a moment of frustration about how the working world and family world are so unhealthily opposing.
How did you turn Mother Pukka in to a successful business?
I knew the job I needed, in terms of finance and flexibility, was not a job someone else was going to give me. I wanted to support myself and my family in a better way, but also to support others who kept hitting this brick wall. I was still working full-time but I gave myself six months to make Mother Pukka a success. But around the time I got my first pay packet for Mother Pukka work, something else happened. I was running the gauntlet at work as usual – leaving at 4.59pm to pick up my daughter from nursery. Then, a guy got his briefcase wedged in the tube door, which delayed us by 12 minutes. That 12 minutes meant I was the last person to pick their child up from nursery. I sat on a tiny chair while I was told off by the nursery manager for being late, then charged £12 – £1 a minute – for the privilege. I was in tears and thought, ‘I’m broken right now, I just can’t make this work.’ Then I realised it wasn’t me that was broken, but the system. I needed some control over my life. I am a human not a cog in a machine. The next day I went to work and asked for flexible hours. It was rejected on the grounds that ‘if we give it to you, it will open up the floodgates.’
So I quit. It was at a point where we really shouldn’t have been taking any risks – we had a mortgage and a child. But I couldn’t do it anymore. I posted about what I’d done on Instagram and the enormous response I got from others feeling the same really started the Flex Appeal movement.
What is Flex Appeal trying to achieve?
At the very least it’s about starting conversations about flexible working. What’s the fear of it? Why can’t we open the floodgates to allow it? It’s about people feeling seen and heard, and putting the issue on the table. It’s about helping mindsets to shift and holding up companies who are doing the right thing, elevating and amplifying these voices so these issues aren’t just buffered in the corner of an HR department. We’re looking for legislative change from the government. At the moment we’re working with the NHS – one of Britain’s most prized public institutions. They’ve been really open about working with us and although it won’t be an overnight change, it’s a start. I feel as though a boil has been lanced.
How would you advise someone who wants a flexible working agreement to approach their boss?
Don’t wait until you’re at breaking point, like I did. As an employee, you have to keep the business in mind. It can’t be a ‘Mummy wants to see more of her baby’ situation. You need to talk about how you can work harder for them if the set-up works better for you. You need to show how you think it will work and how you will measure it. Say you’re willing to do a trial period and if they’re happy then you can extend it. At the moment it’s easy for businesses to say ‘no’ so you need to set up a relationship that’s based on trust for it to work.
If you’re an employer who’s been reluctant to entertain flexible working arrangements, what should you consider?
Focus on retaining talent and being open to change to make that happen. If you think ‘well, how will I know what they’re doing?’ that’s nothing to do with flexible working – it’s a trust and recruitment issue. The person who watches tv at home is the same person who’ll be stalking their ex on Facebook in the office. It’s about trust, communication and an openness to discussing how people work best.
How has flexible working made a difference to you personally?
Ironically, while fighting for flexible working and trying to make money to support my family, I’d say I’m slightly burnt out. We’re past the point where flexible working is an issue and now we’re in a world of over-productivity. We need to help people switch off – which has been my Achilles heel. I’m not heeding the advice and belief I had at the beginning of this. But I do believe it’s possible to balance those two worlds. I do believe in life and work ebbing and flowing in a way that doesn’t leave you, frazzled, broken or stressed and crying. At the moment it’s not working for me, but that’s my own issue and I need to put boundaries in place. It’s something I’d like to start talking about – the other side of flexibility. What happens when the shackles are released? How do we help people switch off?
When do you get down-time what do you do?
I read a lot and listen to podcasts. At the moment I love The High Low by Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton, and Homo Sapiens by Will Young and Chris Sweeney.
How did becoming the main breadwinner in the family affect your relationship with your husband, Matt?
It’s been hard. We work together now as well, writing about our lives and writing a book together, so that’s going to put pressure on any couple. But we’re finding a way through. I think it’s healthy to highlight the good, the bad, and the potentially quite ugly. Otherwise, we’re giving people a warped sense of the world we’re all living in on nine squares on Instagram.
How are you enjoying your role as a radio presenter?
I always thought I needed to be 20-something, bright and sparkly to make it as a broadcaster. When I was growing up it felt like you were cut off the moment you had kids. But I’m 37 with two kids so for me, it was a huge moment getting a job that’s given me a platform to be able to talk about the issues I’ve been talking about on Mother Pukka for three years. It’s about my two worlds coming together – me being paid to do what I love and also change mindsets.
How did having a second child changed the family dynamic?
It’s been intense, but great. We had several miscarriages before having her so when I was pregnant and people said ‘congratulations,’ I thought ‘don’t say that until the baby’s here, there’s nothing to celebrate yet.’ It was nine months of low-level (and high level sometimes) stress and anxiety. So when she landed and I got to hold her it was a pretty spectacular moment. I was so relieved she was here, I was willing to take whatever was thrown at me.
Do your girls get on with each other?
Not really! That’s definitely a work in progress. We’re getting there slowly. They’re like lion cubs – their teeth are bared but they’re never really going to really cause harm to each other. I don’t leave them alone together though!
What do you enjoy doing as a family?
We love doing the things Matt and I love doing as adults. Instead of gravitating towards the Natural History Museum, we love going to the V&A. There’s a paddling pool in the John Madejski Gardens there, and in the summer we’ll just sit there with coffees, having looked around with the museum. There’s no other kids, and we’re in this incredible space together as a family. That’s one of the reasons I love London. Of course, I spend shed loads of time in rank soft play centres too, but the bits that really stand out are when they’re willing to explore the world in the way you do. They’re little adults trapped in small bodies.
What are your favourite local haunts in Leyton where you live?
There are three cornerstones of my freelance life; I’m writing my book at Deeney’s Café. Their veggie fry-up with vegetarian haggis is brilliant. Phlox Books is part bookshop part library with a wonderful vibe. They do cookies as big as your face and kids are welcome. And the florist Edie Rose is an incredible business, I love going in there.
What do your daughters think about your new career and success?
I don’t think they care! They want a mother and their joy comes from me making a stegosaurus out of sandwiches and cucumber. They get pleasure about me being in the room, with my phone off. We talk to them about money and how that relates to the lifestyle we have so they grow up with an understanding that this isn’t handed to them on a plate. So they understand the fiscal side of it, but success for them is me being at the school gates when I can – it’s those moments. I think they see us as a successful unit – not in terms of what we do but rather who we are.