How super is your mom?

May 11, 2007


For many working mothers, just arriving on time and not covered in unidentified baby detritus is triumph enough. For a small group of women in London, though, simple survival won’t do: They are mothers with high-powered jobs in the financial sector, juggling both millions of pounds in assets and more children than will comfortably fit in a Range Rover.

They have been dubbed superwomen, but don’t ever call them that to their faces — arranging to have your legs broken would be just one more small task in their day.

Nicola Horlick is one of these women. She is the mother of five surviving children (her eldest child, Georgina, died of leukemia nine years ago). After working at a variety of banks and investment houses, she founded Bramdean Asset Management in London two years ago. Not long before, attacked in her wealthy Knightsbridge neighbourhood, she fought off a mugger who smashed her over the head with a handgun. (A far cry from the familiar neurotics of chick lit.)

Ms. Horlick sits in the boardroom at Bramdean, her hair showing the same dark gloss as the table. The front door of Harrods is visible out the window. She is dressed elegantly but not with an eye to trends, her voice is posh, her manner friendly but efficient.

The other night, she had to scold her youngest child for playing football in the house and breaking an ornament, then came to work to discuss investment strategies with her clients.

But she doesn’t seem to get stressed out about much — except, perhaps, the “s” word.

“It’s very boring and dull, and, as far as I’m concerned, rubbish,” she says, with the quiet forcefulness of one who can crush kryptonite.

However, it can’t be denied that the British are fascinated with Ms. Horlick and her ilk.

There’s Helena Morrissey, mother of eight, who manages the £36-billion Newton fund, and who was named Britain’s multi-asset manager of the year in 2006. (Her husband is a Buddhist teacher, a profession that must come in handy when managing an octet of children.) There’s Katherine Garrett-Cox, mother of four, who recently moved from managing a top London fund to a smaller financial firm in Dundee, Scotland. And there is, of course, Cherie Booth, who is not in finance but is a high-profile lawyer and a mother of four. She may be more familiar by her married name, Blair.

Like these women, Ms. Horlick, 46, has steamed past shoals that would have wrecked lesser women. After graduating from Oxford (Balliol College, in the first year women were admitted) and working briefly for her father, Ms. Horlick entered the male-dominated world of the City. She decided early on to have children and gave birth to the first, Georgina, when she was 25. You get the sense that if there were any naysayers, they only got as far as “nay,” then wisely stopped.

“I was very junior, but no one objected,” she says. “They questioned whether I could cope, and they questioned me a bit more when I had the second one. By the time I had the third one, they’d given up, and when I got to the sixth one, they’d absolutely given up.”

She went on to create Bramdean — and its spinoff Bramdiva, a boutique investment house aimed primarily at managing the assets of wealthy women. The minimum investment required is £1-million, and it is aimed, at least partly, at rich divorcées.

Despite the high-powered job — she was recently at a conference in Bahrain, where she talked about wooing the Gulf’s affluent female investors — Ms. Horlick says she’s a hands-on mom. On Christmas Eve, for example, she stayed up into the wee hours putting together eight stockings, this after taking her children to midnight mass (in Latin) at London’s Brompton Oratory.

Helena Morrissey, a couple of years ago, outlined a similarly detail-oriented approach when she wrote up her daily diary for the magazine Harpers & Queen. She woke, as usual, at 5:30, followed by a day of sorting breakfasts, homework, lessons and bedtime stories, all sandwiched around that little thing called “managing a pile of other people’s money.”

Many women become exhausted just thinking about such lives, and fertility rates show it. While Britain’s birth rate of 1.79 is at a 15-year high, it’s still in general decline over the past four decades, in line with most of Europe (a notable exception is France, where financial incentives exist to help produce larger families).

Still, families of three or more are uncommon, and anecdotally, exist mainly at the upper and lower ends of the financial spectrum. Amanda Foreman, bestselling author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, frequently writes about how having four young children (with a fifth on the way) has changed her life. In a recent article, she noted that hers is among only 5 per cent of British families that have more than four kids.

The fascination with the power mom may have to do with the fact that their lives seem so clear-cut at a time when every day seems to bring new, and often confusing, research about family dynamics: British children have the worst quality of life in the industrialized world, said a UNICEF report in February; other research suggests that working mothers with small children are among the most discriminated against groups in Britain. Conflicting reports in the past two months have claimed that full-time daycare produces aggressive little brats, or developmentally advanced brainiacs. No wonder Fund Manager Mommy, with her schedule and hair in place, seems like a creature more from myth than the school run.

Those women have carefully tailored their working lives to their domestic ones, of course. Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, has spent years studying the employment history of women. She has argued, controversially, that many women find the demands of motherhood incompatible with the very long hours necessary to succeed in certain high-profile professions.

“All the cases that I’m aware of, these women who have done very well in the financial services sector in London, they’ve always targeted specific kinds of jobs in particular sectors where it’s 9-to-5 working hours.” (Ms. Morrissey seemed to bear out Prof. Hakim’s point when she told the Evening Standard, “My job is about ideas and performance … it’s not about time at my desk.”)

Prof. Hakim notes that wherever there’s a high-flying mother, there are usually two or three less visible women fuelling her tank. “I use the example of Cherie Blair, who, before they went to No. 10 [Downing St.], had 2.5 women working for her — a full-time nanny, a full-time housekeeper and a part-time cleaner.”

Nicola Horlick also exists in this privileged web, which is partly why she bristles at the term superwoman. She has a “very supportive” husband (her second). She has a nanny, a housekeeper, a personal assistant. Survival in the stratosphere is a team effort.

“The fact of the matter is that I would regard a woman living in a council estate who’s a single mother because the man in her life has decided to leave her with three children, who has to work to support the children, who has no child maintenance, who lives in a tower block on the top floor with no lift — that’s a superwoman,” she says

Alas, the struggles of the working-class mom usually exist outside the public eye.

At the Financial Times newspaper, Lucy Kellaway is a high-profile columnist who once covered the energy sector and Brussels, and now writes an Agony Aunt column for business people.

As such, she hears from women who are performing the cirque de motherhood — juggling job and careers — and she can see the fascination with the ones who seem to be riding a unicycle on a tightrope at the same time. “I guess it’s because the phenomenon is fairly recent, and we haven’t laid to rest our fascination with having it all,” she says. “You know — how does she cope? But you realize they don’t do it all, that in fact behind them is someone else doing it all.”

As bosses and co-workers, Ms. Kellaway adds, these uber-moms tend to fall into two camps. Either they’re sympathetic to the sleep deprivation and addled brains of their colleagues, or they think, “I’ve come up through the ranks and done it, why can’t you?”

Ms. Kellaway herself has four children, one of whom she recently forgot to pick up at school (she wrote about this, quite hilariously, in her FT column). “The thing is, he didn’t seem remotely surprised that I’d left him there and had to send one of his siblings to pick him up.”

Three of her four children no longer require a school pickup — probably a good thing for them — but with Ms. Kellaway and her husband holding down big jobs (he edits Prospect magazine), the question remains: How do they make it work?

“Well,” she says, “it’s not a particularly smooth operation. We just barely muddle through at all.”

Back at the headquarters of Bramdean, the ambience is airy, feminine and, most of all, quiet.

On the weekends, Nicola Horlick has eight children in her house — five of her own, and three belonging to her second husband.

“We spend a lot of time ferrying everybody around,” she says, “so I come to work on Monday for a rest.”

Copyright© 2007