Karren Brady is listed as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Britain, yet, when we meet, she tells me she doesn't ever feel powerful.
Never? She certainly looks it, sitting regally on a plump sofa at the Covent Garden hotel, hair perfectly coiffed in a sixties-style half-up do, immaculate make up, and with her laptop open at her feet.
'Powerful to me sums up an image of somebody who can do something to other people that they don't want to happen to them,' she laughs, adding that she instead feels 'inspirational':
'When I'm sitting with my team and encouraging and mentoring and leading, and getting more out of people so they feel valued respected, that's when I feel at my best. Inspirational.' she says.
I'm with Karren, 41, to talk about 'lifesqueezing', the latest buzzword in the modern, working mother's vocab. But what does it mean?
'Predominantly, it's about trying to be in all the places you need to be and having the energy to do so,' Karren says. 'As most working mums will tell you, the last thing on the list is yourself - you're just always ticking things off, and then moving on to the next thing.'
It would be reasonable to think Karren doesn't have to worry too much about lifesqueezing or ticking stuff off lists - surely there's an army of staff to look after the domestics whilst she is working in one of her many roles (vice-chair of West Ham football club, assistant to Alan Sugar on the Apprentice, columnist, novelist...). She's also mum to Sophia, 15, and Paolo, 13, and lives in Birmingham with her husband Paul Peschisolido, a Canadian footballer she met when he played for Birmingham City.
'I don't have any help at all at home,' she tells me, 'When the children were younger, I did have someone, but not for the past five or six years. The children get themselves ready, but I have to be very organised. The kids are in school from 7.30 in the morning until sometimes 5.30 if they have sports afterwards, but it's all about making sure someone is there to pick them up and drop them off - predominantly my husband, as I spend three nights a week in London.'
So is there ever any guilt? 'No', says Karren.
'I don't do anything outside of work and the children. And they accept what I do. They are very involved - when I was working on The Apprentice the came on set and on tasks with me, and at the football club they come to meetings and watch the team play. They understand the things I am doing when I'm not with them.
'All the things that are important to them are equally important to me. I think they understand the importance of work, and to like the work you do.
'If I did not like the work I did, or didn't think it was important, there is no way I would leave my children to do it. I think they know that.'
But surely there must be the inevitable work-life clashes that all parents face? Yes, Karren says, but if she has to 'choose' a work commitment over a family one, then the family one wins:
'If I had to choose parents' evening over a board meeting, parents' evening wins. The children are both at the same school though, and the school are very understanding of the fact I work and therefore try and give me flexibility, so instead of saying 'you have to be here at 2 on a Wednesday', they always say 'what's the best day this week you can do and we'll work around you'.
But not all mums have that luxury - what about for the women who return to work because they have to, because it's their income - no matter how meagre - that makes a real difference to their family? What about the inevitable guilt they face at being away from their children, or the juggling and childcare issues they have to deal with?
'You have to simply come to terms with the fact you can only do what you can do,' Karren insists. 'You have responsibility financially and emotionally to your family and you have to separate those two things out. Sometimes you will have to sacrifice one for the other, and I think just accepting that's a choice you have to make - its not a choice you can make, means it's a nice place to be - you want to contribute to the family and that means you have to work, which means sometimes you wont always be there when you need to be. But as long as you have high quality affordable childcare...'
The availability of affordable childcare is something Karren is passionate working families should have access to:
'It's the most important and driving issue for working mothers,' she says, 'Why would you go out to work if all the money you earned you had to spend on childcare? And what if you can't get high quality childcare? Why then would you leave your children? I think those are the things that keep working women awake at night, and I think that's where the government can help.'
I wonder if Karren thinks parents get a rough deal generally - if mum returners are looked upon with derision in the workplace, seen as getting an easy ride by other colleagues because of their family commitments?
'I don't think so, not in my experience. I think most people have either had parents who worked and so know what it feels like, or intend to have a family themselves and so hope they will get the same flexibility, or alternatively simply understand that it is far more difficult if you are trying to manage a family - that urgent things happen to people who have children that don't happen to those who do not.'
Despite this, Karren thinks the onus is on parents to 'separate' their home life from their professional life in the workplace.
'It is important if you work and have a family that you try and separate both things. You have your work head on at work, and home head on at home and the trick really is not to allow one of the personalities to drain the life out of the other. You have a responsiblility to your work colleagues that you can, and will, do the job you were asked to do.'
For more tips on how to manage a healthy, busy and balanced life, visit www.lifesqueezer.co.uk.
Do Karren's words on balancing motherhood and work ring true for you?
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