“I’ve started exercising really regularly and that helps keep me level after a disappointment. But I think now I am trying to put less pressure on myself to succeed in a conventional way and weave my work into a life that feels rewarding, sustainable, meaningful and a little slower.” Rebecca Schiller on work and home life…
Rebecca Schiller (37) is an author, freelance journalist, co-founder and trustee of human rights in childbirth charity Birthrights, and a sometimes doula. She lives on a smallholding in rural Kent, is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The Observer Magazine and is busy working on two new books for publication in 2021. She also runs writing courses and retreats for mothers.
How long have you been in your current line of work and what led you to it?
I’ve been writing freelance for the past eight years and started writing my first book as part of the Guardian Shorts series in 2014. I’d always loved writing but it wasn’t until I became a mother and a doula (and I started blogging about my experiences and thoughts around women’s rights in childbirth) that I was approached to write something for the Guardian. Since then writing has gradually become the main focus of my confusing portfolio career.
What were you doing previously?
10 years ago I was Associate Director of Development and Outreach at Human Rights NGO, following a War Studies MA which switched me on to the potential human rights has to protect and empower.
Since becoming a mother my career has taken lots of twists and turns – mainly driven by what interests me, my activist spirit and a desire to find a way to combine work with a balanced and fulfilling family and home life.
I’ve been a doula (and still occasionally attend births); CEO of Birthrights (which grew from a tiny voluntary organisation to an impactful national charity with a staff team under my leadership) and a media spokesperson on pregnancy, birth and motherhood.
My writing started off as a way to promote my doula business and tell stories that were important to my activism but it has since evolved into something I love and do for its own sake. I think women’s writing is hugely important part of the feminist movement, but that writing amongst all the other things we have to do can leave us feeling pretty wrung out.
Was there any training/studying involved for your current career?
I did an English Literature and Language BA and some student journalism but I’ve largely learned on the job.
Do you do it for the love of it, money or both?
Definitely the love of it, though I also need to make it work financially. I’m motivated by an interest in people and a commitment to causes and I’m still working on combining this with financial success! The writing retreats I now run are helping me work towards a mission I believe in while building an income stream that enables me to write my own books and work flexibly around my family. I love it because I’m caring for women who are often doing the caring at their own expense and providing a place where they are freed from domestic/emotional labour burdens and able to think creatively, read, research and have stimulating conversation.
Which career moment are you most proud of?
Signing a deal with Penguin Life (after a six-way auction of other publishers) to write my revolutionary, feminist guide to pregnancy, birth and beyond felt pretty good! Shortly after I was invited to talk to the then-Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, about women’s autonomy in childbirth leading to a government commitment to uphold women’s rights in this area.
And your lowest point?
Finding myself burned out, anxious and overwhelmed trying to juggle an ever-expanding CEO job with parenting and a career as a freelance journalist and an author. I had to make a very difficult decision to step down from the job I’d created and follow my heart to become a full-time writer to get some balance in my life.
What are your daily work challenges?
Work life still feels very full, particularly as I run a smallholding in my spare time and balance writing with tending my animals and plot. Getting outside and taking a break is essential for my mental health but I can easily go into adrenaline-fuelled overdrive and so my main challenge is to pace myself. In addition I’m still adjusting to losing my regular salary, so it’s taking some strength to hold on and believe in myself when building a financially sustainable freelance career.
How do you cope when things aren’t going as you’d like with work?
I talk to my long-suffering husband, who’s also freelance and understands what it’s like. I’ve started exercising really regularly (I wrote about it for the Guardian, here) and that helps keep me level after a disappointment. But I think now I am trying to put less pressure on myself to succeed in a conventional way and weave my work into a life that feels rewarding, sustainable, meaningful and a little slower. It’s hard but I think it’s worth it.
Do you reward yourself after a work success – if so, how?
Mini-successes (like a new editor commissioning an article or securing an important meeting) might earn me an extra break, some time away from my desk hanging out with the goats and chickens. Getting offers from publishers I love to write two new books (still hush hush!) called for a couple of cocktails!
Would you be comfortable to tell us what you earn?
I’d rather not, but ask me again in a few years!
Are you happy with that amount?
No. It’s still a bit of a white-knuckle ride every month but I feel confident in the direction things are going and really proud to be earning almost all my money through my writing and running writing retreats.
What’s the dream/aim/goal – career-wise?
To write books that mean something to others and to love writing them. To earn enough from the work I do to enable me to spend the time I want to growing food and flowers and caring for my animals. To use my writing to tell stories that help change the world.
Three people we should follow, in your industry?
- Author, behavioural scientist and one of my first writing retreat attendees Dr Pragya Agarwal’s new book Sway is out next year and just tipped by Stylist Magazine as a “must-read”.
- Wainright-prize-shortlisted author Clover Stroud has a staggeringly-brilliant new memoir on motherhood coming out in February 2020. I knew I was on to something with the retreats when she called her time on one, “life-changing”.
- Mars Lord is an inspiring doula who does a lot to raise awareness of black and minority ethnic women’s experiences in maternity care and the shocking disparities in the maternal mortality rate.
Anything you’d like to plug?
I’ve announced dates for my 2020 writing retreats and they are booking up fast. I offer tranquil and inspiring retreats with no pressure to share your work (unless you want to); simply a place to make progress on your writing project, meet that deadline, crack that difficult rewrite or just rest, read and recharge your creative batteries with a small group of writers who happen to be mothers. Hosted by me, each retreat is held at one of two beautiful locations in the foothills of Snowdonia and the gently rolling fields of the Weald of Kent, and promises good food, great conversation and a place you will be quietly cared for at all times.
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