Humans at work — Stephanie Fletcher, Working and Stay at home mum

My photo project Beyond Work captures and shares stories about humans at work, with no judgement or glorification. This is my attempt at unearthing the social, cultural and functional world of work, that’s become invisible to a lot of people. The kind of work that happens behind the scenes, late at night or is just hidden in plain sight.

The value in this project is in the looking and observing of everyday life, and in turn inspiring as many people as possible to be more aware and sensitive to the needs of humans at work.

From my observations and stories, I want the people that manage, create or have influence over our workplaces and working lives to think about people not as a resource to include in a profit and productivity calculation, but as daughters, dads, sisters, friends and above all else humans with needs way beyond money.

For a bit more background, you can watch a talk I did recently called Something About Work.


This story is taken from a recorded interview and is transcribed with very little editing to preserve the details.

My name’s Stephanie Fletcher. I look after Erin (my 3 year old daughter) most days apart from one day when she’s at nursery from eight till six. That involves a lot of cleaning, tidying, feeding and running around, entertaining her. On the day when she’s at nursery I try and do everything else that doesn’t fit into toddler time, so dentist appointments and stuff like that, which is just harder with her.

I also have a small sewing business. I only take on what work I think I’ll be able to achieve because if there’s ever any issue, somebody is ill or anything, I can’t get it done because I only have the one day. I can’t work in the evenings because my sewing machine is noisy and it’s right next to Erin’s room. I’m very limited so I’ll only take on a small amount.

On becoming a mum

Probably the first time that it was properly just me would be one of the first times Nik (my husband) went back to work after paternity leave. I remember being really chuffed with myself, I’d manage to get us both washed, dressed, fed and downstairs in the house by 9 o’clock. I managed to keep us alive till the end of the day when Nik came home from work.

It’s scary, but we we’re very lucky that Nik had six weeks off. It’s not as scary as it could have been because we had a lot of time to kind of settle in a bit and get used to things. You know when they’re really teeny and you’ve just had them it’s really scary, but after a few weeks you’re like ‘Okay so I think I get how this works’. So it was scary, but there was also the feeling of elation of like ‘I can do this, you know I’ve got this, it’s going to be fine.’

How did it compare with ‘normal’ work

There is an end point usually in most other things. There is no end point with children, they just keep going. I knew it was just the beginning and it was going to probably be very challenging for a very long time. It wasn’t going to be any different really. It was just going to be constant 24/7. I personally felt that it took a long while for me to stop feeling like, not that I’ve made a huge mistake or anything like that, but that I’m stuck with this, I can’t change this, and I can’t do anything about this.

“You’re weighed down with your responsibility, not necessarily trapped in it but weighed down by it.”

And it’s not nice because most things in life you can do something about, but you can’t do anything about having a child, you’ve got it and that’s it. There is no ‘I just want two days on my own’. You can arrange it but it’s not easy. I don’t really want to be away from her, you just want something that’s not even possible to have. You know your life is going to change but it changes in a way that you can’t ever prepare yourself for or you can’t explain it to anyone, you can’t prepare yourself for it. It’s very, very difficult I think, to come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to have the life you had before. It’s never going to come back. You can get bits of it back, it changes.

I feel like the stage I’m at now where she’s two is great because I actually get to be me quite a lot of the time. I don’t have to be mum all the time and she is more independent, so she allows me, to be me a lot more. She’ll allow me to have a shower or to spend some time choosing some clothes while she plays with something. We go out together and it’s like we’re friends as opposed to ‘hi, I’m me, I’m stressed and tired and I’ve got small screaming thing with me’.

It’s the same as going to work and having to wear a uniform. No-one wants to wear a uniform, it sucks. Well, some people do but mostly in general I would say that uniforms are not liked because it stamps on your individuality. So when you don’t have time to choose your clothes in the morning and just put on the same baggy pair of trousers you’ve been wearing for three days and a top with last night’s milk stains on it, it doesn’t make you feel good, it makes you feel a bit rubbish. You feel like your child has taken some of that away. I’m not there anymore, I’m in a different place now to how I was then.

I definitely felt like I knew that would probably happen. So I had to let myself just let that happen for a period of time, until I felt like I had enough mental strength to start to figure out who I was again. It was hard enough just trucking on each day, without having to worry about that as well.

With your hierarchy of needs, Erin is at the top. She’d be dressed perfectly and clean, but I’d be in scruffy old clothes you know. It didn’t matter, I didn’t even see, it just was so irrelevant to me.

Has there ever been a time when you’ve had this sort of feeling before Erin?

Probably not. Not necessarily working but studying. I did art related things and I remember the night before my A-level stuff was due in. On the weeks running up to it I was just not bothered about anything other than just working on my art stuff, because that was the most important thing. But that’s such a short period of time and you definitely have a very strong end point on hand in day. Then that’s it and then you can go to bed for a day, get up the next day and be fine.

Having a child

Well, It wasn’t a surprise. We’d been trying for seven months. It wasn’t like ‘Ooh I’m pregnant my life’s going to change’ you know, it was more like ‘Finally I’m pregnant my life’s going to change’.

I stopped work as early as I possibly could because the job involved walking up and down three sets of stairs and standing all day. So from my point of view I didn’t want to work any longer than I had to. They did provide a chair after a while but it was awkward, uncomfortable and not really practical for the job. So I left as soon as I possibly could which I think was about 30 weeks so I had a long period of time before I actually had Erin.

I decided not to go back, probably early on, around about six months in. We also did the sums money wise. I literally would have been paying just for nursery and I would have missed out on seeing Erin at those times. It just didn’t make any sense. I was lucky to have that choice.

Is being a parent a job?

I think it’s very very hard because obviously I don’t feel like it’s a job. I think that would be disrespectful to say that, it feels wrong to say that, but then again it is my job. It’s everything that I do and if I didn’t do it that wouldn’t be very good, especially for Erin. No one else will do it, someone has to. It’s just life I guess.

After a while it does become a bit more second nature so it feels less like you’re switched on constantly, but to begin with that feeling is overwhelming. There’s just no break, there’s no ‘I have five minutes I’ll go and get a cup of tea and a biscuit and sit down’ or ‘I’m just going to pop to the shop’ you know, the kind of stuff that you might do in a regular 9 to 5 job. You know, ‘on my lunch break I’m going to sit on the beach and have my lunch for an hour’. There’s just none of that, it just doesn’t happen. I guess the job satisfaction is pretty high. I think that’s what you’re getting out of it. Seeing your efforts paying off in the development of someone.

Daddy’s at work. We say that a lot so I guess Erin probably assumes that mummy doesn’t work but Daddy works. Sometimes I’ll tell her I have some work to do, when Nik takes her to the park and I do a bit of sewing or something. So maybe she does have an idea that I do a job. She probably just thinks that daddy goes to work and mummy stays home. Nik’s pretty good. He never makes out that I don’t do anything or I don’t work, only in a jokey annoying way. Without me around stuff wouldn’t get done, no one would be looking after Erin so I definitely have a valuable role. His is still termed very much as work and I don’t know whether mine is.

A typical day

I get up in the morning, Erin needs to go on the potty, I pop her pants on because she still wears nappies at night. She can’t wait. She can’t take herself to the toilet or anything, so it has to be straight away, as soon as I wake up. Then we’ll come downstairs and have breakfast or she’ll get dressed straightaway depends on her mood. I prefer PJ’s for breakfast because it’s messy but sometimes she wants to get dressed first. Sometimes we watch a bit of TV then go upstairs get dressed and then decide what we are going to do.

Sometimes we’ll go to the park, beach, shop, anything that’s just a bit of outside time. We might have arranged to meet up with a friend or sometimes we go to toddler gym. Then it’s lunchtime. I’m going to be making that and providing it, cleaning up afterwards and then we’ll do something in the afternoon. We might go out to the garden or she loves loves loves painting, sticking, glueing, cutting, any kind of artistic craft which is fine only that it’s so messy. So yeah as long as I’m feeling up for it, we’ll do something like that.

We do watch a fair amount of TV, but she doesn’t nap in the day. If I don’t have some periods of time where she’s sat in front of something and I can just have a cup of tea quietly, I would really struggle. Then dinner is pretty early, like half 4 or 5, so I’ll be thinking about that about four o’clock thinking ‘right I’m going to get dinner on at some point what am I going to make her.’ And then I’m entertaining her really until it’s time to go upstairs and have a bath.

And then I’m putting her to bed, about 8 million books need to be read and then I have to sit there in her room in the dark until she falls asleep. Sometimes that’s five minutes and sometimes that’s half an hour to an hour. I don’t know what makes the difference. She goes through phases, so at the moment it’s like half an hour, but sometimes she’ll go through weeks of laying down and going to sleep. That’s brilliant, amazing.

Then I come down and I tidy up because there’s usually toys out. I’m pretty good at getting her to clear up and only getting one thing out and then clearing up. Because we have a small house, she can’t have all the toys out all over the floor you wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere, and that keeps us both sane. We’re in a tidying routine, we tend to keep things clean and that makes us both happier. It’s not too bad but generally I do have some cleaning and tidying, dishwasher unloaded and cook dinner for myself and Nik.

The whole night I’m listening for her and she might wake up. Last night she woke up at midnight, I had to go in and hold her hand for about 15 minutes while she went back to sleep. Just when we were trying to get to sleep she started coughing for no apparent reason, but obviously you can’t sleep when your child is coughing because you’re laying there thinking, is she ill, is she going to suddenly throw up, what’s going on?

“I don’t sleep well. I’m often up in the night several times.”

I’ll wake up and I think ‘I’m awake I’ll just go and check her’ but then of course that really disrupts your sleep. You end up having a few blocks of like two or three hours but you’re never getting that kind of six seven hour block where you really need to get properly refreshed. Occasionally I’ll wake up in the morning and be like ‘my gosh I didn’t get out of bed last night at all. Like, what happened?!’ and it feels so weird.

When she’s in the house I’m never off. Like the only times I feel really relaxed is now because she’s not here and I know someone else is looking after her, and I’m not worried. If she is staying over at my Mum’s then I feel very confident that she’s completely fine.

That happens rarely because my mum works full time still and she’s on her own. She commutes down to Brighton from Uckfield, so it’s a full on job. She works in the NHS. She’s tired and toddlers are really exhausting so it’s a lot to ask of her to have Erin for a weekend. Because she then doesn’t have her buffer of recovery before she starts her week.

What do you find most difficult?

Not having a break. Obviously you can arrange breaks, but not having your own autonomy, I think that’s it. You’re so controlled by someone else’s needs all the time. You wouldn’t have it any other way because they are more important, you are their primary caregiver. But it’s just so, you know it’s just exhausting. You come to some days and just think ‘oh I just wanna do something on my own, I just wanna be on my own’.

If I didn’t have these buffer days where I am on my own we’d all really struggle. She’s been having one day at nursery since she was one and it’s made a massive massive difference to my mental health. But the hardest times I think are when you’re ill, not when they’re ill, but when you are ill because all you want to do is sit on the sofa or go to bed and watch movies and sleep and that’s it, like that’s what you do when you’re ill. You make yourself better, you rest and it’s completely and utterly impossible to do that with a child. If they’re ill too then you’re looking after them as a priority. If they’re not ill they are full on, they want to do everything they normally do, they don’t understand that you need to rest, that you can’t be jumped on right now and that’s fine, why should they. But you can’t go and stand in the park in the freezing cold when you’ve got a chest infection, it’s not possible.

And we don’t have the kind of society where there’s loads of people around who can just look after her for a bit you know. It’s just not like that anymore. I can’t call my mum, she’s at work. Nik’s working. It wouldn’t be looked at positively if Nik took loads of time off every time I was ill, or every time Erin was ill. So generally you’ve just got to get on with it. The hardest times, those are the times where I just wish someone would just come and take her away for a bit.

The beginning of sewing

In 2008 I got really bad repetitive strain in my arms. I’d been crocheting a blanket for a friend, a baby blanket, so I was trying to do it really quickly because she was having a christening. I got to the point where I couldn’t hold a toothbrush and brush my teeth. I had a load of physio and it really really helped but it took a long time for it to calm down enough for me to do any typing or anything like that. So I had time off and in that time I did a lot of sewing because sewing didn’t hurt my arms in any way. That’s when it kind of sparked in me, it was something that my mum had taught me, to sew. Suddenly I was like ‘ha you know what, sewing is great, I’m kind of good at this, I like this, it’s really enjoyable and I can sew all day long’.

Work now

I have a small sewing business which is very fulfilling, I really enjoy it. It’s something that’s just mine, it’s something that makes money. It fulfils my creative need, my need to make things and my need to be looking at colours and patterns and stuff, it just makes me really happy.

What doesn’t make me happy is if I take on too much work and then I stress about it, that’s where I have to be super careful, about how I manage that. The reusable products I make are in demand so I could make myself very busy. It’s really hard, because naturally you want to take on lots of work, especially if people want you to do it. As a self employed freelancer you always want to take on as much as you can, but it’s a terrible idea, it’s tricky to balance that desire.

If I didn’t have Erin that’s what I would be doing, I’d be building myself up an amazing business, pushing my business as much as possible. Instead I feel like I’m very quiet about it and most of my business is recommendations from other people.

“I would like to build up my sewing business, that’s definitely what I would like to do.”

I enjoy ink pen line drawings, and mixed media and the idea that can then become a design on something else, like fabric design or surface design in that way, so maybe that’s a direction that I’ll end up going. Because I always feel a little bit uncomfortable with doing the same thing over and over again. Some people love it but I get bored very easily.

I like the variation and I have a few different products I make so I’m not always making the same thing. That’s just enough to keep me ticking over and not be fed up with it. I want to build up the sewing business and do more of it. Maybe I will outsource the labour, not to a big company in China, but to other stay at home mums or other work at home mums.

Erin’s going to be doing two days at nursery soon. I will get a little bit of extra time, two days in a row to be able to focus on my business. I find at the end of the day when I’m working on my business, it’s really hard to switch back into being mum. And equally it’s hard to switch out of it at the beginning of the day.

Hopefully I’ll be able to take on a little bit more work and just develop things a bit more, but also to have a bit more me time. It’s kind of weird and I’m probably just gonna miss her terribly. That’s the ridiculous thing, now she is more of a little person I feel I really miss her when she’s not around, whereas when she was just a screaming child obviously she was a person but there wasn’t as much interaction with us, there wasn’t as much of a strong strong bond. So actually when I didn’t have time with her I just felt relief, a large portion of relief. Now I feel like ‘ahh, I kinda miss her’ and I remember the little things she say’s and in the house I can see all her stuff around.

Stress

Some days are stress free. Those are the golden days of being a stay at home parent, the days when there are no tantrums, everything goes right, it’s easy, it’s sunny out, you go to the park, you spend the day playing and you chat with friends. They’re rare, but they happen, and those days are stress free.

Stressful days are days when you’re trying to do things that don’t necessarily align with what Erin wants, what the child needs. If I have loads of errands to run and Erin is just not interested, she wants to go and play, she wants to have a chocolate biscuit, whatever. But when you’ve just gotta get stuff done, those are the most stressful days, because those two things just never line up.

How do you deal with stress?

Bubble Bath. Trying to take time for myself. So if I know I’m feeling really stressed out about stuff I will try and make sure that there is time at the weekend that Nik can take her out for a bit, for a few hours to the park. Anything that just means I’ve got some time to myself at home and that will nearly always counteract any amount of stress I’m feeling. When I feel stressed I mostly want to be left alone and again that does not work with a toddler who just wants to be picked up, carried around, held and played with all the time. So having time for myself, going upstairs to have bath with the door closed whilst Erin and Nik are downstairs and I know they’re fine and I can ignore them for a bit, that kind of stuff is just what I need.

What does a day off mean to me you?

The freedom of just walking wherever I choose without anyone needing me to go anywhere, without needing to be anywhere, without needing to do anything. Just being myself, free.

So a day off for me would be, Erin being away for a weekend sort of thing, so overnight as well. I wouldn’t have to have an end point where I have to go and get her, that would be the following day. Then I’d feel the freedom of not needing to go anywhere, do anything, be anything to anyone apart from myself.

When Nik went up for job interview in London, we went up together. Erin was at nursery that day and my friend picked her up, brought her back and put her to bed. It was bizarre, I put on different clothes, clothes I wouldn’t wear when I’m around her because they either would be a bit uncomfortable for sitting on the floor or I’d worry about her spilling milk over me. I got to walk around London being a different person to the person I normally I am. Still me, but a different facet of me, like a part of me that isn’t often my main personality. It was amazing that I felt really liberated, especially in a big place like London where you could be anyone, that’s what I love about London, that you can be anonymous.

What do you think are the qualities of a life fully lived?

So I’m not sure this is even the right answer. I guess when you’re dying and you’re laying there and you don’t have any regrets, or you’re not thinking ‘gosh I wish I’d worked less and spent more time with my kids’ or ‘gosh I wish I had spoken to that person when they were still alive’ or ‘I should have gone outside more and felt the sun on my face.’

The things that are wonderful and positive about this life are the world itself, nature, the world is pretty amazing. Meaningful and positive interactions with people, and feeling loved.


You can view more photographs and stories at the Beyond Work archive at www.thisisbeyondwork.com Prints and Zines are also available.

Learn more about the work I do in businesses, helping them see and understand their working lives at www.wearefieldwork.com

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