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“Juggling a baby and my new business led to very dark moments”

Entrepreneur Jennie Rourke on dealing with sleep deprivation, anxiety, and loneliness, as a new mum – and coming out the other side!

Jennie Rourke, CEO and co-founder of online furniture retailer Rock & Roost, had a strategy to cope with the strain of starting a family at the same time as starting a business.

But, as she explains, reality had other plans and soon she found herself struggling with the physical and psychological fall-out of juggling the baby and the business.

I became a mum just over a year ago. By that time Rock & Roost had also been gestating for a while. My dad’s software company provides an operational platform licensed by designers and manufacturers for some of the UK’s leading fashion retailers; I thought we could use it to organise the supply chain for a new start-up: a made-to-order homeware retailer.

The foundations of the new business were in place: we changed the name from Apparel Systems to Rock & Roost, created a brand and commissioned a development team to build a functioning e-commerce test site that could deal with lots of product listings and transactions.

A passion for business

I have a passion for home interiors and relished the process of setting up the business. My dad has incredible contacts in the Indian manufacturing sector, built up over decades, so we also had the necessary production capability to fill a website with beautiful products at competitive prices.

The existing business brought forward profits of more than £400,000, but we decided to investigate other sources of funding to fuel working capital and having decided on a make-to-order business model, a marketing strategy and warehousing for a small number of items we’d need to stock.

We approached Crowdcube and were in the initial stages of discussing a fundraising through the platform. Then we started the application process, which as you’d expect is very thorough. It was about this time that my baby daughter arrived.

Underestimating motherhood

Becoming a mum didn’t happen out of the blue, of course, I’d had roughly nine months to prepare. I didn’t factor in a lot of maternity leave and in my head I thought it would be relatively easy to put the baby down for a nap or pass her to a relative while I got on with being a successful business woman.

My mistake was believing the whole process would be on my own terms. When the time came I was utterly overwhelmed by the experience, by the total lack of control. I had read books on motherhood because it's in my nature to swat up and try to be prepared for anything I take on. These reassured me that A + B would pretty much always equal C.

But babies haven’t read those books. I’m the youngest in my family and I had never really been around youngsters much, so I had no experience of the crazy unpredictability. My daughter was extremely unsettled and cried with Colic for the first four months, so it was a serious baptism of fire.

I also underestimated the bond. When I got married in Italy in 2015 one of my bridesmaids was 33 weeks pregnant and others had young children. I thought they could just pop over and I didn’t get why it was an issue to take time out for a nice break. I had to go back and apologise when I felt it for myself.

The challenge of being a young mum was magnified because I was also committed to my new business. I was in hospital for a week after the birth and was checking emails from my bed. For six months I juggled my responsibilities, taking any opportunity to work while caring for my daughter and snatching sleep intermittently or going without.

Sleep deprivation, anxiety, loneliness, weight gain

My husband was very supportive, but he couldn’t share in the childcare. He’s a consultant surgeon and is regularly on call; it’s one of the few jobs where you really must get a proper night’s sleep. He deals with severe illnesses, which is emotionally challenging and I tried to shield him from the most disruptive elements of becoming a new parent from beginning.

All this led to some very dark moments, particularly with anxiety, which I'd never experienced before. I moved home to a new area when I was pregnant, so I found the early months of motherhood very lonely.

Some days the guy in Costa was the only adult I’d talk to in person. I also gained weight that I had lost prior to having a baby. I had shed five-and-a-half stone and was voted Weight Watchers Magazine Cover Star of the Year. The pressure to ‘bounce back' had a significant psychological effect. There is a lot of pressure on women generally to ‘do it all'.

The good news is that today I’m out the other side. I started to get a real handle on things after about six months. My daughter grew up a little and I worked out how to be there for her at the same time as working on the business. As time’s gone by, I have become better at it.

Getting to grips with ‘doing it all’

My baby has just had her first birthday, she is a total delight and I’m stronger and more focused than ever. I’m quite amazed by how productive I am; when I’m working, I’m working, and as a result I’m more effective in the time I have.

I have childcare three days a week, in which I work solidly, and I’m back at my desk in the evenings when my daughter’s asleep. I’m excited about the potential for Rock & Roost, for which we launched our Crowdcube crowdfunding campaign recently.

We have a test site up and running, furniture factories in India are coming on-stream and of course we have the supply chain systems that will help us link manufacturers to customers. The business has great potential to compete with established brands in the space. The made-to-order model is booming because it delivers choice and quality at a lower price point.

I couldn’t have done this without support from my family, my mother in particular and I don’t know how people cope without that. It’s been interesting to discover how many people go through a similar experience to me; how many competent women hit hard times when they become mums.

I made good friends with a woman who was an Olympic swimmer and a high-flying trader at Deutsche Bank making big money. We met at a new mums’ group. There we were, two well educated and professional women brought down to earth by the reality of motherhood. It has been a chastening experience but also a real-life lesson and a character-building process.

I’m a better entrepreneur for it.