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That Mama: Karen Iley

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Our very lovely That Mama this month is Karen Iley – Editor of the Choithrams lifestyle magazine Good Taste and  mum to 8 year old Rosie and 5 month old Tom. A Reuters correspondent for 10 years, Karen moved into magazines when it became apparent that trying to combine real news and kids just wouldn’t be possible (in her words, you can’t ‘drop a breaking story to dash to a ballet class or parent-teacher meeting) and now sculpts work around school hours.
Karen spills all on everything from balancing work and life to the eternal mama guilt that plagues us all  plus shares her family’s favourite spots in Dubai.

Karen for Sassy Mama-19

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

I’m mum to 8-year-old Rose and Tom, who is almost five months old, and I’ve just recently returned to work. I edit Good Taste, the monthly food & lifestyle magazine available at Choithrams. It’s a job that suits me to a tee as the content – loads of recipes, a bit of interiors advice, travel, parenting plus a smattering of healthy, beauty and style – kind of sums up my life right now. I sculpt my hours around school times, plus I get to sit with a coloured pen (as a lover of stationery I always treat myself to a new one as a deadline approaches) and correct, score out and scribble to my heart’s content.

I wasn’t always in magazines though. As a Reuters correspondent for 10 years, I covered everything from conflict and health crises in West Africa to war crimes trials in The Hague. I was even a football correspondent for a while – a job I adored. I still have a hankering to get back into real news, but with children, and especially a baby, it’s just not possible. You can’t drop a breaking story to dash to ballet pickup or a parent teacher meeting.

Karen for Sassy Mama-12

Can you talk us through your career pre and post babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?

We were coming to the end of a three-year posting in Angola when I fell pregnant with our daughter so the time was right to fling myself into the role of mum. Baby swim, singing groups, coffee mornings… that was my life, and for a year or so it was wonderful. But by the time Rose was 18 months old, I was craving a little more adult time. I met up with some old journalist friends and felt, wrongly, that I had very little to contribute; that I needed a topic of conversation other than parenthood.

I got a job editing Time Out Kids (which meant, ironically, that I was still talking about parenting) but as my first foray into magazines, it also proved that it’s never too late to try something new. Of course I was worried about juggling new work responsibilities with family, but in hindsight I didn’t need to fret so much. Rose slotted into nursery with ease, she was – and still is – a contented child, and I was happy to spend time with grown-ups and to throw myself into a non-parenting challenge. This all makes complete sense on paper, but eight years later and I’m going through similar conflicts with Tom, still suffering from the same guilt. I think it’s innate.

Karen for Sassy Mama-10

How do you balance work and motherhood?

With great difficulty! There’s no point pretending otherwise. It’s never easy and I’m sure many working mums have a niggling feeling that they’re doing neither job properly. I admit there are days I could happily quit my job, but then I also value the switch in focus away from children. Work is my me-time but I can be a little controlling, so learning how to accept help and let go a little – both in the office and at home – has been tough, but I’m getting better. We employ a helper at home and she really enjoys those mornings when I’m at work and she gets to look after Tom, so I try to view it as ‘sharing the joy’ rather than me missing out. It’s hard though, and I’m constantly questioning myself and my decision to return to work so soon.

Karen for Sassy Mama-6

How do you save time? What are your organisational tips and tricks?

Honestly, I’m not the person to offer any advice on this. I thrive on deadlines and firmly believe that nothing focuses the mind like last-minute panic! I’m trying to take a leaf out of my daughter’s book who, at the tender age of 8, is far more sensible than me. When she sees me trying to cram too much into the day, she tells me to calm down and have a cup of tea. I can learn a lot from her.

Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Dubai?

Have confidence in your abilities. I meet so many mums who are fearful of returning to the workplace or running with a business idea. Yet I would hire a mum in a heartbeat. They’re super-efficient and so productive, and with constant deadlines and other people’s needs to attend to, there’s no time for faffing about. Mums come in, get the job done and leave. No messing. The world would be a far better place if it were run by mothers. We’d just have to sort out something for the school holidays…

Karen for Sassy Mama-2

Favourite activity with your kids in Dubai?

Getting up early at the weekend and taking jam sandwiches and a flask of tea to the beach for breakfast. A quiet stretch of sand, a play in the sea, a game of boules and (if the baby sleep gods are smiling) a quick flick through the newspaper – that’s when I really appreciate living here.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Dubai?

Our current lunch hotspot is Bystro on Sheikh Zayed Road. The cherry pastries are AMAZING and we’re all partial to the roast dinners. Bookmunch, of course, is one of our favourites for a lingering weekend lunch of harira soup and mini burgers, and we’re big fans of the food and the philosophy at Baker & Spice.

Karen for Sassy Mama-17

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot?

Locally, we loved Anantara’s Desert Island Resort & Spa on Sir Bani Yas Island. We only stayed for two nights but we crammed so much in, including getting up at the crack of dawn for game drives and wilderness walks, and we really saw a different side to the UAE. We got into camping a couple of years back and would really like to do more of that, although we’ll need to crack the preparation malarkey.

We seem to spend more time gathering all the gear together than we do actually camping, but one night (no more) is good fun. It also does us all good to be outdoors, roughing it a little. Like many families, we head home (to the UK) every Summer and hang out with family and friends. I don’t consider this a holiday as I tend to keep working, but we all need to escape the heat and for kids raised in Dubai, there’s nothing as exciting as a bit of drizzle.

Karen for Sassy Mama-9

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?

If either of us were to be romantic, I think the other would be highly suspicious. I guess in our case it’s important for us to do our own thing, so when we do get together we really appreciate our time as a couple. We walk the dog together, which gives us the opportunity to talk, and we play a lot of tennis. True, we usually end up bickering over a dubious line call, but calling each other names is really a way of expressing affection. And chocolate always works of course – even if it’s just a Crunchie or Lion bar. I was once given a mug which said “will show knickers for chocolate” which kind of hits the nail on the head…

Favourite date-night restaurants?

Anywhere al fresco by the sea, and we both love the food and ambience at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse – we would go more often if it was easier to pronounce and I knew where to put the apostrophe.

Karen for Sassy Mama-5

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?

Don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake. It’s good for your kids to realise that you’re not perfect, and learn that it’s ok to make mistakes too. I think it was summed up as try to do the right thing – even when you’re not sure what the right thing is – and forgive yourself for doing it wrong over and over again.

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.

You will stumble from crisis to crisis as a parent, yet most of the time when you look back, you won’t even remember what you were worried about. Just try to ride each wave as it comes.

Karen for Sassy Mama-3

As a mama I wish I were better at…

Listening. Rose can totally see through the distracted ‘uh-huh’ response and knows when I’m not paying attention. Separating work from home life, going to bed early and throwing away plastic tat.

Karen for Sassy Mama-13

My most humbling mama moment was…

When my husband and I were arguing , our daughter walked past with a homemade placard saying, ‘I love you. Please stop fiting’. [sic]

One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…

Tennis. I play two or three times a week – more if I can manage. I play once the children are in bed or early morning on weekends when I’ll wake the baby early for a feed (yes, really) in order to get on court by 7am. My non-playing friends think I’m bonkers but it is the only exercise I actually want to do and I’d go crazy without it – as evidenced by the last three months of my pregnancy when I gave up and went a little bit nuts. Rose is used to reading or drawing on the side of a tennis court, and I plan to train Tom to be the same.

Karen for Sassy Mama-14

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking…

“Why on earth am I awake in the middle of the night?” My sleep is short and precious, so if I wake for anything other than a crying baby, I get rather annoyed.

Even when my children have families of their own, I’ll still…

Need lots of cuddles, especially first thing in the morning. I love those sleepy hugs before the day really starts – it’s when I feel most thankful for having two wonderful kids.

Karen for Sassy Mama-11

My favourite moment of the day is…

See above. But also the drive home from school after picking up my daughter. She’s very chatty and I love hearing about her day. Now that Tom has come along, it’s probably one of the few regular times when she and I can have a natter, just the two of us, so I cherish it even more. And if I’m being honest, I also love that moment when they’ve both gone to bed.

Karen for Sassy Mama-8

I always feel saner after…

A good night’s sleep.

I wish I had more time for…

A good night’s sleep! I’m very guilty of getting my second wind at around 10pm, so when I should be heading to bed I sit down and finish off that article or try to get ahead on the next issue (it’s after 11 as I write this). It’s a bad habit and one I always regret the next morning.

Karen for Sassy Mama-6

Bedtime is always smoother when…

Dad’s not home. When we’re left to our own devices, we have a pretty calm routine which means dinnertime and bedtime at least have the potential to run seamlessly. Add my husband – and his extreme silliness – to the equation and it all flies out the window.


These beautiful photos were shot by the very talented Natalie Robinson of Natalie Robinson Photography

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