This is the view from our living room veranda. And that’s my boyfriend (or a part of him at least). We live an idyllic life on an island in the Gothenburg Archipelago with our two children. And we think we’re very lucky.
My daughter is 2 years old and has recently started playing the most fun game in the world; running away from me in the middle of the road. But I don’t worry about it so much. There are no cars on our island and no crime. In the mornings, my boyfriend takes her bundled up in her teeny tiny life jacket and goes out rowing, whilst my son Felix (just 3 months) and I, breakfast on our veranda and wave at them; you can’t see it, but just to the right of this picture is our jetty with a little rowing boat moored to it.
Four days a week my boyfriend starts work at 10am in our guest house. The commute is 1 minute as you have to cross the patio to get to there. It counts as a separate dwelling as it has its own doorway. Not only can he expense part of the mortgage on his company, but he gets to make as much noise as he likes in it because it’s soundproofed. As he’s a part-time [loud] musician, this is pretty useful. For him and for us!
I run my online websites as and when I can around my children. It doesn’t take as much work as you’d think because the virtual communities I have built for each one are becoming increasingly involved and generate a lot of the business independently. And every lunch time my boyfriend and I eat together looking out at the family of swans drifting on the quiet sea marvelling at how wonderful life is. But whilst I will never be ungrateful for what we have, or for the privilege which helped make it possible. I can also proudly say we imagined and created our dream life. We built our own reality.
Two Years Earlier…
I was battling with the most tedious of all tasks – company administration – and worse, having to do it in my precious free time after a long Saturday of breastfeeding, dancing on the spot and rattling miscellaneous shapes at my beautiful 3-month-old daughter, when a fellow Mum-in-arms popped round. We were living in a sought after expensive suburb of London, in a beautiful but very tiny rented terraced house, which had once been built by Queen Victoria as cheap accommodation for the railway workers, but now went for £600k a pop.
‘I thought you might like to read this. We got a presentation from the author at Google HQ.’ She said, handing over a copy of a self-help business manual by a guy called Tim Ferriss.
‘In all my huge amounts of free time?’ I joked. ‘What for? Is it good?’
The title, like all good book titles should be, was catchy, self descriptive and sold a dream (even if it did eventually turn out to be misleading). The 4-hour work week.
As a financial director and contractor, I worked between pumping out milk for my baby every two hours, and hired a nanny to ‘sit’ my daughter because although much of my job could be done online at home, it could not be done whilst looking after a screaming baby. My daughter was too young to go to a childminders and we lived far from our respective families. My mother was in Kent and it took two hours to reach her; his family lived Sweden which although ten times further, felt like it took the same time to reach. I – as a freelance consultant – had no maternity money to stay off work with my daughter. I worked and paid for the nanny, in the hope that I would be able to secure contracts which would allow me to cover the expense. But I had to do a lot of work to cover £40K per annum which is what a nanny in Richmond costs. That plus administrating a company for the contracts, meant that I usually put in a 60 hour work week….at least. As I was also up at least once a night feeding my daughter, I felt like stretch marks were forming in my brain.
My boyfriend worked with IT as a database programmer and as our only ‘secure’ income, was forced to commit to his daily grind in Hammersmith, London. Every morning he’d jump on his bike and pedal off, dodging ferocious traffic and breathing in the toxic fumes of the city.
‘The 4 hour work week.’ He said. ‘If I had that I could dedicate more time to forex and music’, his two passions. He was a brilliant technical foreign exchange trader, had studied the variances of the market and programmed robots to open and close trades following various patterns. He was making a good return for his money, but the income was not yet stable enough to give up the day job. Song writing was another passion which paid well for a hobby but whose income was too sporadic to count upon. And the increasing prevalence of piracy on the internet meant that it probably would never be our bread and butter.
‘I used to be a songwriter who did IT on the side.’ He said morosely. ‘Now I’m lucky if I write one song a month.’
It was in this frame of mind that I started reading the 4 hour work week and tried without luck to persuade my boyfriend to do the same. His time was at a premium and reading didn’t it make it on his top ten priorities. Fortunately Tim Ferriss had also recorded the whole book on CD. And my boyfriend listened to the whole thing on his way to and from work – narrowly missing several severe car crashes – until one night we started to talk seriously about our future.
My Boyfriend’s Escape…
Reading the 4-hour work week was about changing a mindset. It concentrates on two major areas; freedom of time and freedom of location. It opens with a story of the author Tim competing in the Tango world championships in Buenos Aires whilst his automated business, supported by 4 hours a week of checking in on mobile technology, earns him money.
Having children meant that a ‘mobile life’ like the one Tim recommended wasn’t for us. We were in the midst of starting a family and our free time would be spent mainly at home and on passions that could be worked around our child and our relationship – the two top priorities. Plus travelling with a toddler would make anyone think twice about long haul flights. I was more likely to move my arse to go to the pub for a pint with friends, and enjoy it more, than winning the world championship tango competition. What the 4 hour work week gave us, along with other literature like ‘The Secret’ which I had also read, was the freedom to dare to imagine, and manifest, more.
So as my boyfriend and I sat down to design our ideal life, we defined what was important to us.
- We wanted to be geographically free to live in a place that had a lower cost of living.
- We wanted that place to be close to the sea and nature where our family would be safe.
- We wanted our home to be big enough to welcome the many friends we had around the world.
- We wanted to spend more time working with our passions.
- We wanted to spend less time working overall.
‘I’d like to live somewhere hot.’ He said.
‘Ooh how about France?’ I said, dreaming of the fabulous life in Nice.
‘I don’t speak the language.’ He said. ‘Plus it’s even more expensive than London.’
‘Is the language thing a prerequisite? It doesn’t leave us many choices. You only speak Swedish and English.’
‘Well, I guess the important part is getting geographic freedom first, and then we can decide where we live later.’
So we set our first goal to spend 3 months the following summer in Sweden (the only time when it was vaguely hot) – but which seemed an impossibility when my boyfriend got only 4 weeks paid vacation a year. He had to be able to work remotely and we had 12 months to plan it.
- Phase 1
The first thing my boyfriend did was to ask his work for one at home day a week. Importantly he asked for that one day to be a trial only. The request was designed in such a way as to give his managers the control of being able to stop it any time they wanted….and because they had that power, they didn’t.
The reason he gave was that with the time he saved going to and from work, he could take over from the nanny when she left at 5 instead of me cutting my work day short on that day. Respect for family balance is high up on any employers’ agenda nowadays and such a request will be taken seriously.
As he could work via VPN and remote desktop, accessing his office computer from home, actually doing the work wasn’t a problem. However there was a daily morning meeting they called a ‘scrum’ which he proposed was moved to skype. This move proved very popular with some other team members as they could also benefit (mostly to sit at their desks playing solitaire). He made a conscientious effort to be ever present on skype and set the volume on his computer to high so he never missed a call even when he went to grab a sandwich for lunch. He worked late on those days and took every opportunity to send constructive emails with a time stamp on them. He was as accommodating as possible which instilled them with trust in his ability to perform without supervision. The trial day was eventually made permanent after a few months and because it was such a success, we moved onto phase 2….
- Phase 2
Once more, we based our argument around family. Again, it’s the aspect of your personal life that employers are forced to take seriously. You can’t ask them for time off to do quad racing in the Sahara desert really, but asking – as we did – for the time so that our daughter could get to know her grandparents and heritage in Sweden, was regarded as important. Finding the reason that drives a decision into HR is crucial; finding a reason which also doesn’t express dissatisfaction with your work is also important.
‘Above all I don’t want them to think this is a move for me to leave the job,’ my boyfriend said. ‘I have to be able to persuade them that this is in fact my dream job and even more so, that if they allow me to go to Sweden for 3 months, it is a job I will really try to keep because of the leeway they offer me.’
During one of his personal development meetings in the previous months, they had also discussed the possibility of him going down in hours to 80% to facilitate his desire to write music. Whilst 80% of the job meant 80% of the salary, he had recently secured an advance contract with the music publisher BMG, that money covered the loss in salary. Nevertheless, our finances were stretched tight since my income was sporadic and the need to move out of London to somewhere less costly, was on our minds at all times.
In less than a year then, he had already achieved a working week which was divided into 3 days working in the office, one day working at home and one day working with music. We needed to get the other three days working remotely. We discussed that the only way we could get those do it was by proposing a foreign trip. Very few companies will accept that you work from home if you live so close to the office (35 minutes door to door).
We went over several drafts of the email that he sent to his managers. It contained several important points.
- That making sure his daughter got to know her culture was very important to him
- That to make this happen I was taking her to Sweden for the summer with or without him
- That the prospect of us gone for the entire summer was very hard for him
- That he would be willing to mix holidays and unpaid time into the 3 months in order to accompany me
- That his working online was very successful and he actually got more work done at home than at work
- That he loved his job, but this was a head and heart decision …and that really, they didn’t have a choice. He had to be with his family.
After two meetings, they agreed.
- Phase 3
We rented a house on the small island of Brännö (population 800, no cars allowed) over July, August and September. Double renting was expensive but September was free since it wasn’t peak season.
During the first two weeks, which we took as holiday, we found out I was pregnant. It was planned…sort of. In the way that, since I wasn’t getting any younger we had thought it better to start trying a year after my daughter was born. But our luck at getting pregnant precipitated a move out of Richmond. Our house was simply too small and too expensive for two children and one income. We considered many options, but Sweden and more specifically Brännö, held numerous advantages:
- Childcare in Sweden is [practically] free
- Parental leave is paid for 13 months (even retroactively for our daughter who was born in England)
- We had family close by
- It was next to the sea
- Close to nature (in fact it was the nature)
- We could get a house which was twice the size for half the cost
For all the resources at our disposal it made sense. Childcare alone would increase our wealth by 40K. And if we could get parental leave, it was worth almost 15K alone. Of course convincing my boyfriend’s work that he could reside permanently here was the biggest hurdle. Once more a very careful email was written.
‘I feel like I’m dancing on eggshells’ I said. Needles of anxiety and anticipation prickled in my stomach. The closer our dream came to reality the more surreal and fizzing life became.
We’d sent the email after hours of rewrites (I’ll credit that with starting my writing career). But my boyfriend had good odds in the negotiation. He’d already admirably proved that he could do all the work remotely. And he announced to them that we couldn’t afford to stay in London because I was pregnant once more. My pregnancy wasn’t designed to be used as a manipulative tactic – it was after all – the truth. But nevertheless, we regarded it as a very useful negotiation tool, yet another resource at our disposal. If we had to move out of London anyway, they would either have the expense of losing and having to find another person, or accepting that they got the service from someone who worked out of the office. And for whom they didn’t have to pay the overhead.
After several email exchanges and a few meetings, their sticking point proved to be that they couldn’t have an employee based in Sweden risking to be affected by Swedish employment laws. Promptly we offered to transform his employee contract into a rolling 6 month contract invoicing via the UK limited company and he agreed to come to the office every 2 months for a few days. Which meant that they got a contractor for exactly the same price as an employee with no risk on their side.
He’d done it. And one month later, we moved to a place where we were richer than we’d ever been. In our new home, we are comparatively well off (in money terms) and – of course – hugely wealthy if happiness is the currency.
We’re not all the way there…our next goal is to figure out how to spend the winter months in a rather warmer climate. I’ll keep you posted…
Two children, check. Head wrecked through lack of sleep, check. Immunity to smell of poo, check. It’s been over two years now I have been breastfeeding and changing nappies non-stop. Once Head of Decision Support Excellence (that’s a finance job to you and me) on an international assignment in Milan to a Mum who barely washes her hair once a week, my fall has been far. But the landing has been a far softer one than I thought.
As a financial contractor whilst immobile and pregnant, I created situations through my network where I could get work and perform it online. Start-up companies seemed to be a great target market for my services – they rarely had offices and needed kick-arse financial plans to persuade investors of their brilliant business models. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child and helping one such start up when I said cockily
‘No worries, I’ll be back in the saddle before a few weeks are out – I’ve heard women in the rice paddies in China just give birth and carry on picking.’
(I honestly said this – what a bloody idiot)…and having promised my latest boss that I could support him through his search for funding, I started work again, albeit totally unprepared, and with permanently unwashed hair, after 4 weeks (new mothers are the single largest target market for ‘dry shampoo’).
When the contract ended, I sat back and took stock. At that point in time I felt I never wanted to leave my daughter again. I was suffering from severe post-natal anxiety although I didn’t realize it; and trying to juggle everything all at once was part of the problem.The nanny sat downstairs and every three hours I would come out of my office to breastfeed and then leave my baby to continue working, hearing her thin, helpless, cries claw at my hormonal heart. It got so bad that I worked often blinded by tears at my computer and in the end I had to block her crying out with headphones. That’s when I started pumping out milk so that the nanny could take her out of the house…away from my hearing, and out of my shredded heart. Denial was my only recourse and refuge, for despite having been on high salaries all my life, my new venture into consultancy work meant that I was ineligible for any maternity leave and I needed the money.
It was this trauma, which gave rise to my determination to change things for me and for any woman (or man) forced back to work before they or their children are ready. A passion was born, and I went to war against our corporate patriarchal legacy. I needed –
- The ability to work online
- The flexibility to work whenever I chose
Naturally few companies wanted to employ me. Two hours of work at 3am after breastfeeding and 3 hours of work during my newborn baby’s afternoon nap, wasn’t what they wanted, but was only what I could offer.
What to do?
During the move I went painstakingly through Tim Ferris’ ‘The 4 hour work week’ and tried out many of his ‘tips’. I tried to outsource admin to a virtual assistant in India (worse than useless, created more work, cost me money) I tried setting up an automated reply on my email to ‘reduce’ the amount of emails I got (resulted in annoyed customers and didn’t cure me of my ‘inbox refresh-5-times-an-hour addiction’).
So my own personal application of geographical freedom resulted initially only in tremendous ability to use online ‘sharing’ management and communicating tools. I video conference via Skype or Zoom, manage writing projects via Google docs, use Dropbox to store all my files. Our accountant was based in the UK and she held the address for our registered office. As well as hugely practical (since the tax authorities communicated directly with her), it also eradicated company mail. She scanned all mail and remotely organised into relevant folders in my Dropbox. Yet the finance contracts were sporadic at best…
And then I tried experimenting in writing papers to automate a portion of my income. I also started a blog to document my progress (like everyone else). The last one worked better and thus began a different career… not in finance, but in writing. I plucked up the courage to self-publish my book, which then got picked up by a small indie publisher leading to another. And now a third. (A fourth and fifth manuscript wait patiently on my hard drive). And at the time of writing, a film option for my first book is awaiting review.
On the other side, I have completely failed at reducing my working time to 4 hours. Right now it’s more like 40 hours. But of stuff I love doing. And when I reflect upon it, I’ll bet that Tim Ferris doesn’t work a 4 hour week either unless he counts writing and promoting his writing as a hobby.
So when I’m not attending to my two children, my writing, activism & related activities take up all my spare time. It fills me with joy when I see it all succeeding and despair when I fear all will turn to shit. But it is winning against the odds.
My work seek to satisfy that most basic need in all of us – to be free. You, me – we should consider ourselves worthy of being free to choose and not ‘locked’ into the corporate system by the fear of not being able to provide for our families. I know that I am worth that. And my children deserve a mother who shows them that the dream is possible.