I threw myself on my bed, crying inconsolably. My mother, having tried to comfort me initially, had (reasonably) grown weary of my irrationality and told me to pull myself together. The reason for my tears? I had received a school report, aged 11, that gave me "A"s for every subject apart from (you guessed it) PE, in which I'd been awarded a "B". Yes, one "B" was enough to tip me into hysterics.
I've always been a competitive person who's thrived on tangible evidence of my efforts and achievements. Becoming a mother was the biggest challenge to this. This blog is all about how setting up my cake business transformed my mental health. It's not a guide to mental well-being or in any way a suggestion that this would work for anyone else. It's just my story.
There's no Performance Review in Mothering
... which is some ways is an excellent thing. Who needs someone marking how many hours of TV or fishfingers your kid's consumed in a week? A key principle of parenthood is that every parent is going to do things differently - and that's not only fine, it's essential, as no two children are exactly the same. But in other ways, it's really tough, especially for those of us who like our gold stars. You want someone to give you a tick sheet and tell you you aced that nappy change, night feed, bedtime, birthday party, heart-to-heart chat... the list is endless. But no one does. It's just up to you, and hopefully a supportive partner, to figure it out as you go along. And we're all just winging it, hoping that we'll wake up when our kids are 18 with relatively polite and happy young adults who aren't traumatised by their childhood memories.
I found it difficult to move from academia and then the workplace to being a mum because of this. I had always achieved the top grades at school; accelerated into the year above where I should be in primary school, I'd continued to be a high achiever, gaining four "A" grade A levels and then a First Class Honours degree at university at the same time as being elected for a year as Editor of the university newspaper. At work, I'd done well, always excelling in my performance reviews.
Then motherhood. Much as I loved my daughter and really enjoyed looking after her, I found it so hard that I wasn't being measured and reassured, given specific targets to meet and then rewarded for meeting them. Some people would thrive on this and love the freedom of it, but my Type A personality did not.
Parenting isn't a Pinterest picnic
I know Pinterest is full of uber creative ways to spend time with your children. But realistically most of them aren't that fun for the parent, especially when you are trying to execute said activities with a 3 year old, a 1 year old, and a 3 week old squirming and screaming in a sling. The intense nature of my children's early years, the 3 of them being born very close together, meant that any 'creative' time spent with them was a hard slog, usually involving my house looking like a Jackson Pollock masterpiece and my blood pressure rising to dangerous levels. Throw in a couple of nappy changes and some sibling warfare and it's enough to just make you switch on cBeebies and hide in the kitchen eating chocolate. Forget it, Pinterest.
Happiness levels are highest when we exist in an atmosphere of growth
Studies have found that we thrive when we are in an atmosphere of growth, even if that growth presents huge challenges that we have to work really hard at (and fail along the way) to conquer. And I would say that in some ways parenthood, and my Christian faith, both present a very positive atmosphere of growth, in that you are constantly striving to grow in your spiritual, emotional and mental maturity. I am the kind of parent and wife who loves to read books about personality, love languages, how to get alongside your kids and the rest. I love reading my Bible, going to our church meetings and listening to teaching that inspires me in my ever-growing relationship with God. But I also think that the same God created me to be growing in other ways, too. And after that extremely intense initial period of babyhood, I was ready for another, different atmosphere of growth - one that was focused on my talents, brainpower and creativity.
Living on one salary with three kids isn't always easy, even in Yorkshire
We had had to cut back significantly to enable me to give up paid work to look after the children, and although we were managing, I would say that money was a constant issue for my head. Every little purchase was a matter of worry as to whether I was doing the right thing. So the idea of having a bit of extra money from me working was part of the appeal to take on another project too.
By the time my third child was around 14 months, I was experiencing times when dark clouds would settle over me for weeks at a time and I would struggle to keep going without feeling extremely hopeless. There were many reasons for this, and with the help of friends and family I did talk through them. But I definitely sensed that I was ready for a change and to use the other parts of my personality that had, rightly, been 'resting' for the few years I had dedicated myself and my body to growing and caring for my children.
Three Little Birds, my fourth baby
And so, my business was born. Out of years of baking, dabbling in decorating, and wanting to do something I was passionate about and could earn money from but work around my children, I launched myself into an exciting, unknown and slightly scary new venture.
More work, more pressure... more happiness?
In some ways it's very paradoxical that owning this business makes me so much happier. It's added more work to my life, more pressure, more things to fit into my headspace, more physically demanding work, and yes, at times, more stress. So how can it help my mental health?
1) I'm using all the skills that make me me
They say that to be truly happy you need to do more of what makes you feel like you. Not exactly quantifiable, but I would say that is my experience. I have skills from my various work and leisure roles that encompass budget management, writing, editing, photography, customer service and admin. I get to do all of these things as well as be hugely and joyously creative, every single day. I love marketing, I love writing my blog posts, I love interacting with my customers, I love taking photos and making them look better while editing and I even love getting all my admin straight and sending pretty invoices. And of course, most of all, I love the intense creativity of putting a cake together that makes my heart sing and more importantly, my client exclaim in delight. That's a LOT of love. I believe that as human beings we are hard-wired to create. Whether that's a computer programmer coding or an artist painting, we need to create to feel truly whole.
2) I'm in an intense atmosphere of growth
It doesn't get much more "growth-ful" than owning a small business. I'm lucky in that my business didn't require huge start-up costs, so I haven't had to take a huge hit of investment, and so far I haven't had any terrible disasters. It is SO exhilarating to take on a cake order that demands a totally new technique, practice it and nail it. It's also exhilarating to get that first wedding cake order, to smash my sales target for the month and to see that my turnover doubled from my second tax year to my third in just 9 months. It's satisfying to push myself to try new things, things that are really complicated and don't make any sense to me, and finally get it. I remember after around 2 hours of frustrating navigations around my website editor, finally figuring out how to get my lightbox (pop up that asks you to sign up to my newsletter) just how I wanted it. I actually felt like opening my front door and shouting it from the rooftops. Now that's a lot of added time and yes, stress involved, but the kick I got from knowing I'd acquired a new skill and put the work in to get it was oh so rewarding and 100% worth it. It made me so happy. And don't get me started on macarons. After years of cracked, collapsed cookies, I have finally reached a point where I can teach other people how to make them! Happiness central.
3) I get my gold stars
That look on a client's face when they walk in my kitchen and see their creation for the first time is priceless. It's why I do what I do. I am a person who loves to please people, a textbook Obliger (if you've ever read Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies theory), and I feel at sea if I can't see how my hard work is helping others or if that's not acknowledged. So for me, getting to create something for someone's big day, and knowing that they're happy with it, is just a complete pleasure.
4) I see tangible results
What's much more tangible than figuring out if your kid is any kinder than they were last week is a spreadsheet with cake orders on, a kitchen full of more and more ingredients and equipment, and a growing bank account. It's like my grown up report card - except I've got a lot better at dealing with the 'Bs' and seeking help to improve. Well, most of the time - there are still some tears on the duvet occasionally.
5) It works around my family
This is number 5 but it's the one that underpins everything. None of this would make me happy if I couldn't do it and still fulfill my role in the home. It is harder in that I have to juggle, and sometimes I find myself answering client messages when I should be hanging out with my children and have to force myself not to get up on a Saturday and start writing a blog, but it means I still don't use any paid childcare (although grandparents who like seeing their grandkids regularly is a huge help) and can be there for every single school assembly, drop off, pick up and Christmas play. I can pop a load of washing in while I sit and do quotes, or fill in school forms while I'm waiting for ganache to set. What a privilege to get to 'have it all' in that sense.
I know this has been a mega-post, so if you got this far, thank you for your time. If you're thinking about setting up a business yourself, I would really encourage you that for every daunting thing you can think of, there's a nugget of happiness to be found in overcoming it. As I said at the start, none of us are the same, and what works for me might not work for you. But I wanted to share my story, and as always, I want to thank you all for getting me to where I am. None of the growth, the excitement, the joy, the creativity and ultimately the happiness would be mine if I didn't have the best bunch of friends, family, clients and cheerleaders a WAHM could ever ask for. So again, thank you so much. You've all helped make me a far healthier and happier mum, wife, entrepreneur and person.
If this has resonated with you or you have any comments or questions, I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments below or on my Facebook page where it's posted.
For birthday, wedding & celebration cakes in West Yorkshire (Keighley, Bingley, Bradford, Saltaire, Skipton, Ilkley, Menston, Guiseley, Silsden & beyond!) visit:
Last image courtesy of www.andrewkingphotography.co.uk