It’s Friday morning and Labour politician Jess Phillips, 36, has finished the school run and is now sat in a local coffee shop to meet her five best female friends to catch up. Every week without exception the group of women spend an hour together, in the same location, with the same drink order. “But don’t put the name of the place, because then someone might come along and ask me about Brexit and that would ruin it,” she laughs.
Phillips, who has been the MP for Birmingham Yardley since May 2015 and is also on the Women and Equalities Committee, credits the strength of her female friendships, and time dedicated to her family and two children, as her primary way of coping with the pressures of her career, and well-documented struggle with anxiety.
“After Jo [Cox] was killed and the referendum happened, there was this really horrible time at work and I made a decision to be with my family and friends more,” says Phillips. In fact she had such a change of heart, she will no longer let her personal secretary organise any work commitments before Friday coffee time - “I’m quite regimented about it,” she explains.
In the (almost) three years since Phillips was elected to the Commons, her workload has been unrelenting. And she has no ambition to slow down, in fact the long-standing critic of Jeremy Corbyn, told HuffPost UK she would be willing to stand for position of party leader if the opportunity arose.
But her professional ambition has required Phillip’s friends to be dogged in their pursuit of her time. “I always find a reason why I have to be at work,” she confesses. So instead of giving up, one friend, Alex, decided to chummy up with Phillip’s diary secretary. “They’re pretty good at looking after me.”
Thanks to their persistence, Phillips says that she sees her female friends to socialise in the evenings at least twice a month. “We will go out together, to have dinner at someones house or go out for a curry and go dancing. And when I’m out with them I don’t worry about work at all, people can take photographs. I don’t let it bother me.”
““We will go out together, to have dinner at someone's house or go out for a curry..."”
Every year the women also go on a group summer holiday - accompanied husbands and children. “My friends accept that I’m useless in the organisation of these things so they just make sure it’s in my diary and tell me to bring my passport,” says Phillips. Acknowledging the role they play in sustaining the relationship is crucial to her happiness. “I’m a pack animal, socialising is what I enjoy. And makes me feel normal.”
The women are a mixture of life-long friends with whom she has stayed in contact with from school and those she met at NCT classes after having her two sons. “We were all depressed in the early days together,” she jokes.
Even during the intense periods of local and national elections, when she can’t get away from the office, her female friendships remain a continual thread of normality. “My friends come out and help me. They recognise that if they want to see me during that time, it means coming to me.”
She explains how during the last round of local elections, one particular friend, Amy, bought an “enormous” buffet of crudités and blue cheese dip to the office building where Phillips team were working, because she knew they wouldn’t have eaten. “She bought me the things she knew I couldn’t resist.”
Phillips has also been open about periods spent taking anti-anxiety medication to help her manage. “I sometimes don’t cope I think is important to say I was medicated. I suffer from anxiety and always have. So sometimes I can’t find a way to cope on my own, and then need the assistance of others.”
None of the women she socialises with are in politics and she said that keeping these two worlds separate is key to her wellbeing and mental health.
It’s not just friends she like to spend her spare time with, she enjoys weekends with her mother-in-law spent browsing antique markets. “It’s amazing how quickly you can make time for these things,” she reasons.
She made a promise to help to spend all Sundays (apart from Remembrance Sunday) as reserved only for family. “It makes me feel free and normal to be with them,” she explains. “I would definitely struggle more if I didn’t have my friends and family.”
In ‘What Works For Me’ - a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives - we talk to people about their self-care strategies.