Sparks regional fundraiser Helen Farquharson

When Helen Farquharson became a mum, she moved out of London to Brighton, and left behind a job she loved. She’s now managed to negotiate a new flexible role working with the same charity and loves it. We found out how she did it.

What did you do before you had children?

I’ve always wanted to work in the charity sector. After university I travelled for a couple of years before staring my first ‘proper’ job as Fundraising and Communications Officer for Action Against Hunger. I then moved to Sparks, the children’s medical research charity, starting out in the events team and over a four year period progressing to Head of Fundraising.

How did your career change after becoming a mum?

My career changed significantly after becoming a mum. When I was expecting my eldest I planned to take six months maternity leave and then return to Sparks, working part time and in a different role.

However after Callum was born we made the decision to leave London for Brighton. We wanted a better quality of life, which though a cliché, has definitely proved to be the case. I had found London to be a different experience with a small baby. It took ages to get around to see friends and negotiating the tube with a buggy was no fun. Plus I could no longer go out most nights after work!

At this point I knew I would need to find a job based in Brighton so I said a temporary goodbye to Sparks, though continued to keep in touch. This has happily now meant a return to working for a charity that is very close to my heart.

How did you negotiate your flexible working role?

When I first went back to work, Callum was 11 months old and I became Appeals Director (part-time) raising funds to convert a Chapel into a Community Arts Centre. Starting a new job as a mum was tricky as I had to re-establish a reputation. Having gone from being someone who’d be working late as a matter of routine, I was having to leave on the dot for nursery pick ups.

I moved on from that role when I had my second son, Seamus, who is now four. I’d kept in touch with Sparks, and it was fantastic to have the opportunity to come back as a home based Regional Fundraiser for London and the South East. I had to negotiate my part time hours as the post was advertised as full time, but it was worth holding out on this as we were able to settle on mutually agreeable working hours.

I think employers are increasingly flexible around working hours and at Sparks every effort is made to accommodate working parents.

What does Sparks do?

Sparks raises money to fund pioneering paediatric medical research projects that help babies, children and pregnant women.

Every year, more than 700,000 babies are born in the UK. 1 in 30 of these will have an illness or disability that may affect them for life. Our dedicated researchers find cures and treatments to help them.

Sparks funds research to find treatments and cures for conditions ranging from the most common to the rarest. These include childhood cancers, cerebral palsy, premature birth and burns treatments to name just a few.

Our research makes ground-breaking medical breakthroughs possible. It has saved the lives of babies like Oscar, who suffered from a lack of oxygen at birth and was at risk of severe disability or death. Oscar received clinical cooling treatment, pioneered by Sparks, which can minimise and prevent brain damage for babies. Body cooling is now routine in some hospitals, and Oscar is a happy, healthy toddler.

How important is the work you do for Sparks to you?

Since becoming a mum Sparks work has taken on an extra significance for me. During my pregnancies I was extremely aware of all the many things that can potentially go wrong. Meeting the Sparks funded doctors and researchers working so hard to prevent or treat conditions such as pre-eclampisa and brain damage during birth was very reassuring.

I’m lucky that my children have been largely healthy, so far. But I know I can’t take this for granted. When Callum was three he was hospitalised with severe pneumonia and our short stay in the intensive care unit really brought home that it is only thanks to advances in medial research that children can have a chance of surviving these sorts of serious conditions.

Without medical research we will never have breakthroughs like the cooling treatment. Children’s medical research is desperately underfunded in this country and without charities like Sparks this research just won’t happen.

Meeting the families who benefit from Sparks research is a great motivation to go to work.

What are you working on at the moment? 

At the moment I’m working on Sparks annual tasty cake sale fundraiser Bake for Bumps . This is a fun event which gives me a chance to put my own limited baking abilities to the test, and to eat plenty of cake!

Between 15-18 May we’re asking the nation to raise some dough for children’s health by signing up for Bake for Bumps. You can bake, bring or buy some tasty treats to sell at home, school or in the office to fund children’s medical research. Every host and slice of cake really counts!

How does your work fit around your family?

Working from home is great for fitting around my family, though it can have it’s downsides, as I really miss having people to chat to in an office! I work four days a week and on a typical day I do the school drop off in the morning and I’m back at my lap top for 9 am. My husband is self-employed so he has flexibility to make sure I can be at meetings or event

We don’t have extended family near us and to make work fit I rely on help from other parents in a similar position. Between a few of us we’ve arranged after school kids swaps to keep childcare costs down.

Sometimes juggling the diary can get complicated  but generally it works very smoothly. We each save around £200 a month in after school club fees and the kids enjoy spending time with their friends.

You also have a photography business. What do you do and how do you fit it in?

I started my photography business while on maternity leave four years ago. For many years I’d been photographing friends’ weddings and portraits unpaid and I decided the time was right to put a portfolio together and get a website up.

I now do a mixture of jobs – family and child portraits, weddings, product and headshots for websites. I fit it in at weekends and can spend time editing on Fridays. I also do some photography for Sparks. I’ve done shots for the website, annual view and the adverts for our Bake for Bumps campaign. It’s been really rewarding to take photographs of children and families like Keelie who are benefiting from Sparks research.

How important is your career to you?

My career is very important to me and getting a balance is difficult, and different for everyone. There are no rights or wrongs but personally I would have found it tough to do either paid work or childcare full time.

Though working part-time has put financial pressure on us and I miss being able to afford certain things, especially on the travel side, it makes me appreciate both time with the kids and at work.

Now that both my boys are at school I do realise how quickly that time passes and I’m glad I had part of each week with them. I am very aware though that having kids has ‘side-tracked’ my career and it’s a bit disconcerting to have less pay and responsibility career wise at 40 than I did at 30!

I’m looking forward to progressing again as the kids get older but I don’t want my career to take over family life. I don’t think that, looking back on my life, I’d feel that was time best spent.

What advice do you have for other mums about flexible working?

I think that even if flexible working doesn’t appear to be an option when starting a job, a lot of parents find that six months or so into a role they can negotiate. I would definitely advise exploring your options as I’m optimistic that flexible working is becoming increasingly acceptable.

Juggling flexible work and kids looks more difficult from the outside than it is when you actually get started. When I was thinking about how I would manage school holidays and work I just couldn’t see how it could all possibly happen. But once you’re doing it, with some support in place, it seems to come together.

You can read more about the amazing work that Sparks do, and how you can help, on their website