Mothers with young children are the fastest growing demographic of freelancers, according to research explored in The Conversation last year, but what’s it actually like to go solo with a small baby in tow? After a decade working in interiors, most recently at Mim Design, Kate Lee decided to go freelance soon after the birth of her daughter, Frances.
Today we speak with Kate about her first year, the success of which is unsurprising considering her extraord eye and can-do attitude (I shared a mother’s group with Kate and she actually baked for our first meeting, which was in every way unlike Alice Bell’s hilarious The Letdown – a must-watch!)
Kate, you moved into your newly acquired abode the week Frannie was born, and went freelance in her first year – you’re a legend in my eyes. Can you tell us a bit about deciding to go out on your own as a new Mum?
Legend or completely out of my mind, I haven’t worked that one out yet! We settled on our house on Frannie’s due date, and she arrived a week later.
The decision to go freelance was a tough one. I had been working my dream job at a firm with great opportunity, yet when faced with returning from maternity leave I did make that decision led by family and flexibility; I also wanted to see where my own path led. My mother was a driver for me – she studied fine art as a student and, when my brother and I were little, went back and studied interior design. I remember watching her make models and do renders and assignments; she’s now had her own business for almost 30 years, and instilled in us the confidence to trust in our ability and take the leap.
Freelancing and parenthood have a lot in common: spontaneity, chaos and guilt spring to mind. How do you manage to marry the two – what does your ‘village’ look like, and have you been guided by any mentors when it comes to decision-making and balance?
So true, all things I find challenging. I’m a process-driven person, but motherhood has put me a lot more at ease with being out of control; it’s allowed me to embrace it, to a degree.
Though he works in the corporate world, my husband always has quality time for Frannie and I; he’s hands on, funny, full of energy, and a great cook. I see my parents and brother almost daily. Despite running their own businesses, they’re always available for Frannie on the odd afternoon when I’ve got a meeting. My girlfriends are also a huge part of my village; one creative friend, Tori Allen, has been a mentor of sorts, she has a little boy who is one, and also manages an events business. We chat weekly (often over a few bottles of wine) about work, parenting and ‘balance’. She’s always full of positivity, encouragement and sage business advice.
How have you fared in your first year – what projects have you worked on, and what would you consider your peak? With depleted time and energy, how do you stay inspired creatively and abreast of all things interiors?
My first year has far exceeded expectations; it’s also been really hard work. When I left my previous role, Fran was only seven-months-old. I didn’t intend to dive into work, but within weeks I had been referred two residential jobs, both with large scope.
I’ve since completed four full residential fit-outs, one café fit-out, a number of smaller art and object consultancies, plus a couple of photo shoots – all with a healthy dose of mother guilt, as well as waves of self-doubt. Working independently is very different to working in a team, and the adjustment that goes with that can be isolating; keeping up-to-date with the industry through attending events, visiting showrooms, and social media has taken the edge off working solo.
One peak came recently when some great clients had artwork hung by my favourite artist Colin Pennock; artwork is such an enriching and satisfying part of one’s home. The other would have to be the opening of Granger Café in Caulfield; it belongs to my brother who, with my Dad, transformed this old shopfront. It really was an all-in labour of love, with help from my sister-in-law Claire, extended family, and builder friends. I’m really proud of the outcome.
With almost one year under your belt, do you have any advice for other parents looking to start a business while navigating life with a new-ish born?
Manage expectations, both yours and those of your clients. Initially, I said yes to every job that came my way, people pleasing and not wanting to turn anything down. Life quickly began to feel overwhelming, my brain had 800 tabs open at all times, and my quality time with Frannie became clouded with worry over which light fitting would look best over Mrs Smith’s dining table. Time with our babies is limited and precious, as cliché as that sounds. So I try to stay present when I’m with her, to engage and enjoy.
Can you give us a glimpse into how your day starts and end with Frannie?
Rob usually gets up to Frannie for a morning snuggle and bottle, then I’ll hear footsteps up the hall and her little face will land right next to my pillow with a big ‘hello, Mummy!’ We chat, cuddle, then have breakfast, shower and dress to be out the door by 8.30am.
Frannie is in child care three days a week, so my Thursdays and Fridays with her are special. We end our day with dinner, dancing, a bath, and a bottle on the sofa, then books in her room before bed.
Moving across time, what kind of adult might you like Frannie to grow into?
A compassionate, kind, honest, confident, and resilient person. I hope she values integrity and good manners, and most of all that she grows up to be happy.
Children’s clothing brand
Printebebe from Sydney has beautiful Liberty prints; Frannie was the bloomer queen last summer. Pappe in Melbourne do great organic Turkish cotton and cashmere basics, lovely for little babies who don’t get bolognaise stains on their clothes every day.
I bought a David Band block print about five years ago with the intention of getting it framed for a nursery when the time came – it now hangs above Fran’s cot. Also a beautiful blanket my 87-year-old Nan embroidered before Frannie was born. My Pa said he’d never heard so many expletives come from her mouth while she was making it, her fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be, but she was determined to complete it; it’s very dear to me.
Activity or outing
The Mexican Music Man is a big hit in our house, Fran loves to sing, dance and shake. We go and see him at Prahran Market on a Thursday morning and on Saturdays at the Hank Marvin Market across the road from our house – it’s a weekly ritual.
Ilona Staller on Carlisle Street is a constant go-to for us – they do early dinner sittings, the staff are awesome, and the menu always has something new to offer.
Book or show
Frannie loves books by Mem Fox, Chris Haughton, Lucy Cousins, and the illustrations by Oliver Jeffers. Don’t get me started on The Wiggles.