I’ve never really had any kind of career plan. The question I dreaded most in job interviews or appraisals was “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, because I never had a clue. When I was 24 and working for an NHS primary care trust in Birmingham I was called into the Chief Exec’s office – he was newly appointed and enthusiastically having ‘development’ meetings with various middle managers. He asked me the dreaded five-year question, and some mischievous impulse led me to reply that I hoped I’d be a stay-at-home mum looking after my four small children.
I don’t think this was the answer he was expecting; I was a graduate of the NHS training scheme which is meant to be the breeding ground for the future top managers in the health service. My ambition was meant to be to be a chief executive myself by 35. But somehow, although I enjoyed a lot about my various jobs firstly in the NHS and then in healthcare regulation, and got promoted to head of department level fairly quickly, I just didn’t have the burning desire to progress higher. I preferred the hands-on, people-facing side of my job, and for a while flirted with the idea of training as a doctor, until it turned out that the lack of science A-levels would be a problem. Who knew?
I wasn’t entirely serious about staying at home with four children either, though. I knew I did want a baby, in fact those who know me best are amazed I managed to wait until I was 27 to get pregnant, but I didn’t see myself as a fulltime mum. Before Anna was born it seemed like it would be a waste of my education, and I assumed I would be bored out of my mind.
After she was born things felt very different. We were lucky that, with a bit of creative accounting, we thought we could get by without my salary and so, unlike many parents of my generation, we did have a genuine choice to make. And when it came to it I just couldn’t make myself think it was a good idea to go back to the office. Was I bored? Yes, literally to tears sometimes. When the initial state of being comatose with tiredness had worn off. Do I feel that my education was being wasted? Well, you certainly don’t need a degree in English Language and Literature for round-the-clock breastfeeding, attending Rhyme Time at the local library, or making shapes with play dough. Would I swap a moment of these last four years at home for any job you could offer me? Absolutely not.
However, by the time Anna turned two I was starting to feel the need for more mental stimulation than life with a toddler can provide. I had an idea for a novel, and my mother-in-law offered to look after Anna one afternoon a week so that I could write. One thing no-one tells you about having a baby is how much more efficient it makes you. I’d toyed with the idea of writing before, but it had never got further than a few scribbled ideas in the back of a notebook. With only three or four hours a week to call my own my motivation increased tenfold, and I found I was easily able to manage a chapter in that time. As my enthusiasm for writing and involvement with my characters grew I started despatching husband and daughter off to the park or a museum on Sunday mornings so that I could snatch a couple more hours with my computer. By Anna’s third birthday I had 75,000 words of completed novel. I say completed; it actually then took another few months of polishing before my agent started approaching publishers. The first few said no, which didn’t really surprise me, it always felt like a dream that couldn’t possibly come true. And then Hodder and Stoughton made me an offer. Of actual money. They were going to publish my book AND pay me for it. That day in September 2012 is up there with my daughter’s birth and my wedding day as one of the best in my life.
And it’s just got better and better. I now get to say, as I did this week, “I’m afraid I’m busy on Wednesday, I have a meeting with my publisher.” I’ve met lots of lovely people at Hodder – my editor, the foreign rights people, the publicity people – who love books and reading as much as I do, and, even more amazingly, love my book. Two for Joy will be published on 6 June, and that is now near enough that I can start to believe it’s really happening. Especially as I have a print-out of the gorgeous front cover in my handbag, and heard this morning that proofs are already being sent out to journalists and reviewers.
Having one book published is certainly no guarantee of fame or wealth. Or, indeed, of having a second or third book published. But what I do feel, for the first time, is that I know what I want to do, and by happy chance writing is a career allows flexible working from home, thus combining very happily with motherhood.
In the meantime, in between meeting my publisher (got it in again!), coming up with ideas for promoting my first book, and blogging, I’m also hard at work on my second novel. And as for that five year plan – well, I want to emulate my literary heroines such as Lisa Jewell, Erica James, Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Noble, and become a successful writer bringing out a book a year. I’d also love a second baby at some point, although my husband seems strangely reluctant on the third and fourth…