Katherine Ormerod is London-based fashion and lifestyle journalist with over a decade of experience on titles including Sunday Times Style, Glamour, and Grazia. Working as a brand consultant across digital platforms since 2015, Katherine also launched the website Work Work Work last year as a space for women working in creative and aspirational industries to share the less photogenic sides of their lives. From financial struggles to racial discrimination, the site aims to show that not everything is quite as perfect as it seems—especially through the social media lens. Now she’s sharing what it’s like to be the breadwinner of her growing family.
It’s no secret that there have been major shifts in the workforce we know and work in today. In our post-industrial knowledge economy, jobs are for days rather than for life—and for many of us, flexibility, balance, and agency have trumped security and a defined career ladder. But while professional structures may have revolutionized, many of the old social assumptions about how we plan our lives around employment continue to prevail—and that’s especially true when it comes to pregnancy and maternity leave.
Like many other freelancers, business owners, and sole traders, if I don’t work, no money arrives into my bank account at the end of the month. I have no contractual provision for any leave—sick nor maternity—and there is no one who can “cover” for me, even for a few short weeks. Which is an issue, because like 40% of other moms, I’m the breadwinner in my family. My boyfriend and I have a pretty significant mortgage and live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet, so there’s a lot of bread that needs to be won. While I saved throughout my pregnancy to give us some wiggle room, there was just no way I could check out of work entirely. (Not only because I need the money, but also because I don’t want to lose what I’ve built for me and my family’s future.)
And while that might not sound at all unusual, no matter how successful you are as a woman working for yourself, I’ve found there’s still an expectation that if you have a planned pregnancy, your partner must be waiting in the wings ready to take care of you and your new bundle of joy. There seems to be a complete disconnect between the life choices you’ve made and the actual implications of having a child. My boyfriend is a few years younger than me and still building his career, whereas I’m now in my mid-30s and reaping the rewards of the legwork I’ve put in over the past 15 years.
So why should he start paying for everything? And more to the point, how is he suddenly supposed to do that? I’ve never considered that anyone—man nor woman—should be “providing for me,” probably because I was raised by a single working mum who instilled a fierce independent streak in me. My boyfriend was also raised in a single-parent household, which is one of the reasons that I think we have never had any gender-based financial arguments (unlike other relationships I’ve been in where my success has caused serious issues). I have unfailing respect for him in every aspect, but I would never expect him to fuel the ship without me.
I worked up to the day I went into labor, and then wrote my first postpartum story (admittedly it was only 200 words) about 12 hours after giving birth. This is not a superwoman story, but it does highlight what working motherhood entails. Writing those short sentences made me feel grounded and calm. For me, it was better than lying awake in the strip-lit postnatal ward with my head spinning in what felt like an overwhelming environment.
Having a mobile phone has been the single greatest development in the way I personally approach my professional life. Whenever I have a clear head and feel sufficiently lucid, I work. Whether it’s writing emails one-handed or composing pitches and features in my Notes app, where, when, and how I work has nothing to do with a 9-to-5. Ever since I left my last salaried job, my life has been a blended fusion of work and play. While I never feel like I’m truly at the grindstone and certainly don’t work anywhere near the same hours I did when I was on staff at a magazine, I’m never entirely “off” either.
If I’m up feeding the baby at 3 a.m. but feeling “switched on,” I’ll work on an article or transcription, which sounds like a lot. But on the flipside, I’ll never keep office hours again. And that’s why I’m not taking any formal maternity leave—because as a self-employed woman, I can make up my own rules. It’s true that I may have my attention diverted from my baby for a fraction of the day (and it can definitely be stressful to combine the two), but the bottom line is that I will never have that moment of “going back” to work, because work isn’t a discrete facet of my life. Instead, it’s seamlessly integrated into my day. Ultimately, my professional life is the sidenote—fitting into the gaps I find around caring for my child—rather than dictating my schedule.
Of course, there are moments where I feel guilty for not devoting every waking minute to my son or that I should have made other life choices (like living in a cheaper city), but there’s also a part of me that feels the compromises I’m making are better for me than the alternatives. In my opinion, there is no win-win scenario for a working mother—you just can’t wear both hats comfortably on one head. It’s more a question of where your individual priorities lie and what you’re willing to let go of. After going through a divorce at 30, having full financial responsibility for my own destiny isn’t something I’m ever willing to give up again. I also love that our son will grow up to see both his parents sharing work and child-rearing duties, so he’ll only ever know equality between his mum and dad.
While I’m aware that some people might read this and judge my decisions as either selfish or extreme, I also know from my career as a journalist interviewing other women that I am not the only one going through this experience. Many working women are bringing home the bacon, and whether you earn more than your partner or not, your contribution to your family’s finances is often non-negotiable. For this generation of self-employed women, the idea of six months’ to one year’s maternity leave without an element of work in the mix is just not viable. It’s out of step with the way we organize our work and personal lives and simply unrealistic. Work has changed, and it’s time for our attitudes about working motherhood to change, too.