I just quit my job.
It's been a year since I started sharing little recipes on Instagram and in that year a lot has happened. I’ve learned loads, made friends with heaps of brilliant new parents, signed a book deal (with Penguin Random House's food division, Ebury), been to food photoshoots, design studios, nutritionists' clinics and test kitchens, sat on panel debates, hosted events and been interviewed by blogs and magazines, even a food industry trend report in New York. I’ve set up a company, am returning to university, and have received advice from some of my food heroes: Mary Berry, Rick Stein, Yotam Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell, Bee Wilson, and the super kind and supportive Melissa Hemsley.
I never expected Young Gums to turn into anything more than a bit of maternity leave fun, and no-one's more surprised than I am that it's led me to leave the job I loved so much and worked so hard for. Except perhaps for my family and pre-baby friends. There were a few raised eyebrows when I told them I was going to quit...then actually did.
Last Friday afternoon I left behind a team I love and bosses I admire and respect at a company I've worked at, on-and-off, for eleven years. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to the pang of guilt I felt for the sisterhood as I walked out of the door - I was the first woman to ever do my role, and the youngest person too (I'm...was...head of strategy at a creative marketing agency in London called Wieden + Kennedy).
Turns out book-writing, recipe-developing, studying, and blogging don't squash in very well around a full-time job and a one-year-old. I've tried and wasn't much fun for anyone in our house.
Plenty of times I felt like giving up and focussing solely on my day job. Even though the job was far from easy, it often felt like the simpler option. Over the past few months I've often felt conflicted and confused, but kept thinking about at a scribbled note I have pinned up on my make-up mirror at home: 'mindful baby feeding'. It means taking a second to consider the meal you're about to give to your baby. What's in it, where did it come from, and what effect will it have on your baby's body?
That kind of knowledge and awareness is something, as a modern parent, I feel is taken away from me by the sophisticated 21st century food industry. In making kid-feeding ever simpler and more convenient, it's absolving me of honing my parental instincts about how best to nourish my baby as she grows.
I feel as though establishing and maintaining healthy eating habits in our kids has become harder, not easier, in the era of readily-available packaged baby and kid food. We're detached from where the food comes from. Deskilled in the kitchen. Reliant on standardised portion sizes and a narrow range of ingredients and textures. A bit wary of flavours that aren't kind of bland. And there's less impetus to invite our kids to join us at the family table to share what we're having, a well-documented way of sparking curiosity about food, and learning about the social aspect of mealtimes. Then there are the refined grains and hidden sugars in those cute packets and jars, the heat-treating and chemical fortification. On it progresses through every stage of childhood.
YG's not a crusade to encourage parents to avoid the baby food aisle. I'm a busy working parent living in a big city. I'm hardly the perfect housewife. I see the need for commercially-produced baby food. As disappointed as I am in the nutritional standards I see in a lot of it, I don't tar everything with the same brush.
All I'm suggesting is that we put it in its place: as convenience food, not the staples of our babies' daily diets. And that we find ways to learn how to feed our babies well from our own kitchens. For me, cooking for my baby very rarely feels like a chore. The kind of things I make are quick and not much hassle - to be honest it's the most creative thing I do all day. It makes me happy to see her enjoying something I've made and I've saved cash versus buying everything pre-made.
My day job gave me access to a lot of information about consumer behaviour and cultural trends. I've spent the past decade helping brands - largely in the food, health, fitness, wellness, travel, lifestyle and retail sectors - to see what's coming in their categories by observing how particular groups of consumers think, feel, act and shop (and I will continue to do this working independently as a freelance brand strategy consultant). Earlier in my career I spent a couple of years as a government strategist working on public information campaigns about early childhood health and wellbeing. Here are some truths I've noticed along the way:
Sales of packaged baby food are in year-on-year decline. Over the past ten to fifteen years food has taken on new cultural meaning in various societies all over the world: far more than just sustenance. For a huge amount of Millennial adults food is regarded as a hobby, an interest, a passion*. Scientific progress means we modern parents know more than our parents and grandparents did about how to eat well (often to the point of confusing information overload) and most of us have reasonable year-round access to affordable fresh food, and the means to cook it. Yet there's a tidal wave of diet-related child health problems sweeping through food cultures all over the world.
*Just look at the amount of food-related content packing our primetime TV scheduling and weekend newspaper supplements. Look what's been topping the annual lists of bestselling non-fiction every Christmas for the past few years. Check out the size of the social followership of various food icons and chefs, and the popularity of their video channels. Count the number of friends you'd describe as foodies.
How we feed our kids is one of the most emotive and divisive parenting topics there is. It's a highly-charged subject to put yourself out there and talk about and it's easy to unintentionally seem preachy, judgemental or head-in-the-clouds-privileged when that was the last thing you intended. Infant nutrition is a huge subject that I'm learning more and more about all the time, but I try my best to back my opinions with solid facts and research. I want any parent who stumbles across my recipes to feel better, not worse.
I'm not as prepared as I probably should be to step out of full-time employment. I've never worked independently and I'm scared I won't do it well. I'm not at all confident about running a small business. And I'm wondering if my quite careful recent cash management is going to have been careful enough once the salary cheques stop.
“I still love this, but I want to do something else with my life.”
But I’m inspired by other new parents I’ve met who've had the confidence (plus of course, support around them) to say "I still love this, but I want to do something else with my life." I was lucky to have had caring employers who I could be open with - kind people who helped and supported me with this decision. I know that’s far from the case for every working parent, infuriatingly.
There's a long road ahead and I'm going to have to be careful, creative and conscientious. Starting your own business is always a gamble so who knows what will happen. The first book is well underway with proposals for more, and I've been approached to discuss taking Young Gums in a couple of other directions which I'm grateful for and excited to now have the time and opportunity to explore. In the short term I have a few smaller things planned that I really hope you'll like.
Do you think I've done the right thing? Have you changed your career since becoming a parent? Any advice for a brand new self-employed mama?
I'd love to hear your stories.