Seven months ago, I wrote my first blog (here) about how hard it was to go back to work after my daughter came into the world and the identity crisis that came with that failure to pick up where I left off as a ‘successful’ (in inverted commas because success has since been redefined) career girl.
And I’d like to tell you that this second instalment is a story about how the story ends. Loose ends all neatly tied, professional superpowers returned and confirmation that she lived happily ever after. Amen. But of course, it isn’t. Because this is real life. And that would be a bit boring and not at all true.
So here goes. Warts and all, the story of what happened next, and what I’ve learned from it all.
In May 2017, after a 16 year break I became a student again, retraining with Digital Mums on their Social Media Management Associate Course which in layman’s terms is a six-month course to upskill mums with a marketing or comms background in social media using a real-life client as a guinea pig. The end goal, flexible work that fits around family life. Ace concept and I got lucky with my client, a coffee start-up in Bristol – New Kings Coffee – who brewed up the brilliant idea of serving freshly ground, kind to the planet and people, coffee in teabags.
Weeks one and two passed and I was encouraged to learn that my brain still functioned.
Then in week three I had a miscarriage at ten weeks. It was shocking and heart-breaking and everything that anyone who has experienced the same will know. Just as my sense of self had started to resurrect I was rocked again. But at the same time, I was grateful for the distraction of the course. Something positive to throw myself into. And credit to Digital Mums, they were understanding and supportive and everything you’d hope from an organisation with a social mission like theirs. I felt like, despite the grimness of it all, I was in the right place – not trying to have the awkward conversation with an employer about something so personal and raw or having to act as if nothing was wrong when actually I was in freefall.
My cohort, four other mums who quickly became pals, came into their own around this time. It’s kind of weird sharing something so personal with people you’ve never met in real life but the thing about the intensity of the course is that you develop this kind of friendship on steroids. And with the support of those girls, of family and friends I popped out the other side and life, somehow, carried on.
I enjoyed learning again. I remembered I was good at it (/a geek). The model of being forced to apply newly acquired knowledge to a real-life business before I felt ready was in equal measure horrifying and really good for me. And herein the first lesson. Just do it. Don’t wait for it to be perfect. Don’t wait until you’re an expert (experts, are, I suspect, mythical beasts anyway). Make mistakes and accept it is the best way to learn. Do stuff before you’re sure you can.
I got a real buzz from the strategy and planning side of things. I loved coming up with my campaign despite it being the first week when shit really got real and I had to call in emergency grandparent support to get everything done that week. Anyone who can do week six in 15-20 hours is superhuman in my book.
And then, ten weeks in, I was running a live campaign, flying by the seat of my pants and working my ass off. I was easily working 30 hour weeks with all of the lessons, assignments and running a full time campaign. With only two days of childcare, this was like trying to shoehorn a double buggy through a (narrow) revolving door. I was definitely learning but it ate into life in a way I wasn’t expecting. The concept of work:life balance felt pretty laughable at times. Was it me being a perfectionist? Probably. A Bit. But we all felt it. My entire cohort were doing well over the 20 hours advertised by Digital Mums and felt ourselves falling out of love with it a bit. This wasn’t helped by (not all but some) pretty dated training materials, a general lack of feedback (most of us got 100% for every assignment which is all very flattering at first but quickly becomes a tad farcical) and a bonkers schedule of twiddle your fingers weeks followed by weeks where you had more work than you knew what to do with.
I read so many blogs from Digital Mums in training before I started the course and didn’t find any that prepared me for this. So I promised I’d be honest about it when it came to my turn. It doesn’t negate the fact that I still think it’s a brilliant concept, I really admire what they stand for and I would do it all again. But it is by no means perfect and I would have loved a more frank heads up about the challenges before I started so I could have gone in with eyes more open and a bit more support on the bench.
Onto the positives though, because there are plenty. I made it through to the end of the campaign. I nailed my KPIs, I passed and my client was happy. But so, so crucially for me, I achieved what I set out to do. I got my mojo and self-belief back. I remembered what I was good at. I learned equally what I do and don’t want to do (hang fire for this bit). I made some pals who will be pals for life. I discovered a great group of Bristol-based Digital Mums on my doorstep who rock, and I’ve now got access to hundreds of digitally (and generally) savvy women across the country via the alumni group you become part of when you finish.
I’ve learnt that I don’t want to be a social media manager but that doesn’t mean that the course was a waste of time. Far from it. I didn’t love the campaign execution bit – but I’m damn glad I know what it takes to do it and how to plan campaigns that work in (virtual) reality. Not just in my head. It was such a natural extension of the skills I needed to be reminded that I had and I’ve already started to package up the old Sal and the new for some new clients mixing brand and sponsorship strategy with a bit of social media training and planning – hello Level Films and This Mum Runs. I’m also continuing to work for the brave guinea pig of a client who provided me with the freedom and opportunity to do all this in the first place. Thankyou Jason and sorry again about the serial competition entrants thing. The less said about that the better.
As much as social media management absolutely does offer flexibility – both in terms of when you work and where – it can also be all-consuming. Setting boundaries and sticking to them is bloody tough. And for me, I’ve realised it needs to be part of what I do but not THE thing. There were times I felt that I was living my life through pixels and 140 character word limits and it just wasn’t healthy or fulfilling. Being asked by a six year-old whether working for ‘YouTwitFace’ was my real job was also a tricky moment. And I suspected (often) that despite the best strategy and tactics in the world, social media is actually powered by witchcraft. I am yet to prove this theory.
One thing is for sure though. It’s been an epic seven months. I’ve had some pretty dark moments and some genuinely life-affirming ones (especially the time a few weeks ago when I managed to explain to my 90 year-old granny – with genuine authority – how to remove ‘that Kardashian girl’ from her Instagram feed. True story). But in all seriousness, one of the best moments happened a couple of weeks ago when I was introduced to the girlfriend of a former colleague who had had my first blog shoved under her nose. She wasn’t a mum but had reached a similar crossroads in her career and she told me that reading my blog had been a lightbulb moment for her. She’s now living and working in Dubai for a digital and social media agency and is generally nailing life and work. That felt pretty cool. To know that what I’d been through a) wasn’t unique b) had genuinely helped someone else through a tricky moment in their life and that c) what I’ve been through isn’t just a mummy problem. It’s a human one.
Speaking of big human stuff. There are two other things I need to tell you before I finish.
- I came out of the course pregnant with our second baby due in February. I’m not crediting DM’s with this biological miracle but it did happen to two of us in my cohort so make of that what you will. Clearly there was still some time for recreational activity and the ‘it will take over your entire life’ is a mild exaggeration.
- We are moving to Switzerland. The hubby has bagged a job there and so we’re starting to pack up our lives ready for the next adventure with a toddler and (if all goes to plan) an approx. one month old baby
While I know that being in a new country with two young kids, no pals at first and a hubby who’ll be travelling a lot with work isn’t going to be easy, I’m excited and optimistic. And I know I’ve got the resilience, skills and sense of humour back to deal with it. Sod career crossroads, with two small people to juggle and sanity to maintain in a foreign place, I know there’ll be times when it feels like the road has fallen away completely but I feel more ready to deal with it this time. And when the pommes frites are down, there will be cheese. And chocolate. And mountain air. And proof positive from the last seven months that I can do it. Even when I can’t.