Being brave in a time of adversity

Plus an interview with award-winning journalist & author Saima Mir

Today’s newsletter is dedicated to the many mothers brave enough to conduct live TV interviews when their children are awake. I’m looking at you foreign affairs editor Deborah Haines and Dr Clare Wenham (whose interview is posted above). The show must go on even when your child really fancies a biscuit. Bravo ladies. You are amazing.

Last Tuesday my son went back to nursery for the first time since lockdown, and I felt a huge sense of relief when my husband said the drop-off had gone well. We were all ready for some semblance of normality to return after weeks and weeks of living on top of each other, and I really needed to get some uninterrupted work done.

Like so many other self-employed and limited companies, my business has been impacted by the pandemic - an entire team I work regularly with at a national newspaper has been cut, editorial budgets and contracting work has been paused and of course, I’ve had a toddler to look after. So my energy for pitching to new clients has dwindled week by week.

This strange period of adversity has also made me realise that I'd lost a fair bit of my gustiness post-baby. I've been going for the less risky options and sticking to the areas I know I'm good at - rather than pushing myself to try other things. So you can imagine, losing some regular work has thrown me off a little.

But there is nothing like The Fear to really push you out of your comfort zone and I think it might have been just what I needed.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to be a bit braver. I made a few calls, sent lots of emails and applied for work and sent pitches that made me a bit uncomfortable - in much the same way as I did when I first went freelance and feared failure. And guess what? I landed a new client in a totally new field, doing the kind of writing I’ve been wanting for ages. I'm not saying that it's solved all of my problems, but it's definitely helped fill a hole.

This small win reminded me of how I felt before becoming a mum, when i went after everything without even second guessing myself or wondering how i’d manage it with the nursery drop offs, play dates and sleep deprivation. It also made me feel sad that becoming a mum had me feel like I was less capable when it really should have done the opposite.

So my message to you is this: If you’ve also been feeling a little bit low in confidence and resilience lately due to some Covid-19 related setbacks, remind yourself of how far you’ve come and the strength it takes to be a parent and a freelancer every single day.

We are all far stronger and tenacious than we ever give ourselves credit for, and who knows what can happen when we get some of that old bravery back.

The Interview: Saima Mir

So, enough of my inspirational pep talk, let’s get to the good bit which is my interview with the excellent Saima Mir. For those of you who are unfamiliar with her work, Saima is an award-winning journalist, author and mother to three young boys aged six, three and one and a half. Saima agreed to share some of her wisdom with us on motherhood, freelancing and rebuilding your confidence after having a baby and believe me, you’ll feel pretty inspired after reading this. So sit back, grab a cuppa and enjoy…

Cat: What are you currently working on and how did you become the brilliant award-winning journalist and writer that you are today?

Saima: “I'm currently copy-editing my first novel, The Khan. It's due out in March 2021 and is published by Point Blank. I also write for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times, in between, writing fiction”.

“I started out in local papers, after I landed a traineeship at The Telegraph & Argus. I was recently divorced, and had gone back to uni to study for a Masters in computer engineering. I had always wanted to work in news but had no idea how to become a journalist. I called the Features Editor at my local paper and he was kind enough to meet with me. I wrote a few columns, worked on a feature, and when a job came up, he told me to apply. I was incredibly lucky, but I was also gutsy back then”.

“I wrote to The Guardian and pretty much told them they needed to let me write for them - they said. I freelanced under a pseudonym, whilst working full-time. I applied for every BBC job I could, and finally landed a job working for local news in Leeds. I interviewed the families of the London Tube Bombers, covered the Shannon Mathews story, and the shooting of PC Sharon Beshenivsky”.

“In 2010, I won the Commonwealth Broadcast Association's Worldview Award, and this year I became a recipient of the K Blundell Trust Award, thanks to the Author's Society Award”.

Cat: When did you go freelance and what was the catalyst for doing so?

Saima: “10 years ago, I met my husband, who lived in London. I was a news junkie, and this was my third marriage. I was 35, we wanted to have children, and so I decided to quit my job, and try freelancing and  also use the opportunity to write a book”.

“The timing coincided with me winning the CBA Award, and I spent six months researching stories in Pakistan. Since then, I've had three children, continued to have bylines in the nationals, had essays published in two books, landed a book deal, and had the novel optioned for a TV series”.

Cat: In your personal essay in the book The Best Most Awful Job (which I loved by the way) you said that pregnancy and motherhood left you raw and unable to process comment and criticism. How did this play into your professional life and was your confidence knocked after having your babies?

Saima:“I was under the misconception that motherhood and freelancing were a natural fit. I thought my baby would sleep and I would write - how wrong I was! The exhaustion of motherhood, hormones, and a baby who refused to sleep, meant I had zero time for anything else. I lost my sense of self-worth along the way, so much of what I liked about myself was tied up with journalism and writing”.

“Also, having to rely on my husband for money, was not easy. I realised I had given up my independence, without meaning to. My confidence was knocked by freelancing in general, having babies gave me perspective. I began to approach things differently, having less time made me more productive. I have no time to procrastinate, I work in small increments of time, I concentrate on 'good enough' rather than perfection and have faith that editors will get back to me with questions”

Cat: You write beautifully about maternal rage in The Best Most Awful Job. How can we identify if we're suffering from maternal rage and what steps can we take to try and manage those feelings?

Saima: “Maternal rage - It's that feeling of simmering tension, you can feel it building slowly, like the air in a balloon, ready to pop. I now stop whatever I'm doing and sit down with my child, even if it's on the kitchen floor. I literally quit everything around me for that time and take a break until my husband can take over”.

“Exercise helped me a lot, as well as putting less pressure on myself to achieve, understanding that we all have our own timings for success”.

“One practical thing I’ve started doing is setting a timer for 60s, and just sitting with my eyes closed for that minute. A minute is all I have, but it seems to reset my brain!”

Cat: How did you help to rebuild your confidence in an industry where feedback and criticism are hard to avoid?

Saima: “I've got better at taking feedback and, especially in terms of books, valuing it, but it still take its toll. The first time I was given notes on my novel, I worked through them excitedly, and was confused when I became mentally exhausted.  The thing is, feedback is criticism, and what makes us good writers is our sensitivity and  our ability to empathise”.

“Knowing that feedback is not personal, and that it is the editor's job to make the request for changes, or offer the advice, helps greatly. I take breaks between big projects, and I read novels by writers with completely different styles to mine. I speak to my sisters who talk me down off the ledge, and I have a go-to writer friend, whose work and opinion I really respect. She also has three boys, is an award-winning journalist, and is really grounded”.

“The last thing I do, is imagine what I would say to my children if they were in my situation. That usually snaps me back”.

Cat: What advice would you give fellow freelance parents who are worried about getting their businesses going again after having a baby, and have had a confidence knock?

Saima:“Be kind to yourself. There are projects out there that will work around your lifestyle, and they are a great way of getting back into the swing of things. They may not be exactly what you were doing before but will bring new opportunities”.

“I do some consultancy work for The SI Leeds Literary Prize. It's not journalism or writing, but I work with some amazing women - all of whom understand what it is like to have kids - on supporting women writers of colour.  I started this when my second son was born, and it has been a lifesaver, and helped rebuild my confidence”.

Cat: How has lockdown been for you as a family and how have you managed the childcare/ work juggle?

Saima:“My husband and I have had to negotiate time with each other, because we accidentally fell into 1950s roles. He has a full-time salaried job, and that meant his work came first. This wasn't something we discussed, the precariousness of the pandemic meant, I took a step back. As things became more stable, we realised we'd both fallen into all the patriarchal ideals I rant about, and that my husband equally dislikes”.

“For me, things are actually better now than they were before lockdown. The staggering of school drop offs means I’m spending at least 10 minutes alone with each child, catching up with them. It doesn't sound like much, but it's meant the pressure cooker feeling isn't there. No swimming, playdates etc, has actually been a blessing”.

“I've had more time to write and have finished a first draft of a new book and had a few by-lines in The Guardian”.

Cat: Finally, what  general advice and pearls of wisdom can you give other freelance parents? (what should we worry less about, and what should we pay more attention to?)

Saima: “Here's what I've learned: Work on three projects, the first of these is something that stretches your comfort zone, and makes you raise your game, the second project is something that you've mastered and makes you feel fulfilled with a sense of completion, and the third project is something that is really easy and shows you how far you have come”.

“Most people will understand if you have children chomping biscuits beside you during a work call, a lot will appreciate the honesty, and actually connect with you on a human level”.

“Worry less about the success of other freelancers. It's never what it appears to be”.

Further reading

Saima wrote a brilliant piece last week for Stylist on how mother’s should never apologise for their children Read it here. You can also buy The Best Most Awful Job here, in which Saima’s essay on maternal rage appears alongside 19 other honest accounts of motherhood.

Until next time…

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