The Playful Den


A baby. A pandemic. And a business exit. The story of a working mother of 3 having an identity crisis and opting to #liveplayfully

This month marks a year since I stepped aside from leading the agency, The Pineapple Lounge, that I conceptualised and then brought to life (with help) over 11 years. It was a difficult decision to leave and yet at the same time an easy one.

It was a decision I was scared to make it and yet one I was also confident make happen. Stepping aside, I was hoping to propel myself into a stream of new opportunities, discover an enlightened sense of freedom of time and kick start a pursuit of creative engagements and personal projects. Some of that did happen in 2021, but mainly I recall watching myself run head first into an identity crisis and making the horrifying realisation that I’m somewhat of a hot mess without organised people around me. Gah!! With no one to be accountable to other than me (see prior info = hot mess), I found myself getting in ‘cycles of stuck’. 

 A business card is a tiny piece of card. Anyone can make one. And yet even when there are no face to face events to go to, no people to shake hands with and hand a card to, it is amazing how the removal of a tiny cardboard square with a title and logo that people understand and respect, can make you feel like back at square intern again. 

 By nature I am an explorer. This is my play personality. I like to try new things, learn, discover and I also love change. It is somewhat a surprise to many people in my life, myself no less, that I stuck with building a business for over 10 years. It could be argued, that this is actually a bit out of character for me. I truly embody the ‘free spirit’ type in every other way in my life. I’m always playing, taking on some new personal project, having another baby (sidebar, there will be no other babies), my husband physically sweats when I utter the words “I think we need an adventure / family project / change of energy”. 

 I am therefore well suited to a portfolio career, something I’d never considered or even heard of when I entered the working world. When the ‘hyphenate-career’ started trending and new ways of working were being reimagined amongst career enthused millennials who wanted to be well paid, keep their plant babies healthy and make spin class everyday (sarcasm is in my blood, sorry, can’t resist), I’ll be honest, I was jealous. Meanwhile, my houseplants were dying, I couldn’t fit in any kind of regular spin class and felt I only had time to try and not break any of the plates the big corporate world job had me spinning every day. 

 The first few years of building the business were a lot of fun. I was young, 27, when I started, had 2 kids by the time the business was 3 and I had a lot of energy. I wanted to do things differently. The naivety I had which compromised zero business or management experience when I started out, was energising to me. I love learning and I love new, so I lapped it all up. I couldn’t get enough. 

 But the later years I found very hard. I become somewhat of a different version of myself. I wasn’t learning anymore, and by that, I don’t mean to claim I had completed ‘agency leadership’, beaten Bowzer (GDPR?) and was done, there is always more to learn and do, always ways to update and evolve, but I had more than appeased my learning appetite in this particular sector and role. I didn’t want to take the advanced or bonus levels. When I started out, I felt like I’d created something to set me free. I had started when I was a new mum, looking to break the mould on work-life balance and see if I could balance my completely equal love for motherhood and career. At some point I felt like it tipped and that I’d ended up boxing myself in. I feel a bit guilty saying that. I recognise how much of a privilege it has been to have autonomy, to lead, to make my own decisions, but that is just the truth. I loved the work, the team have always been brilliant, the brand was awesome, but the problems of running a services agency are very cyclical, though they may present differently, you see them over and over. I got bored solving them. It wasn’t fun anymore. 

 Fun is an interesting topic. In adulthood fun is a curious thing, especially in a production-driven Western culture which values output and success above all else. It seems something that can be harder to obtain. A luxury at times. The more responsibilities and pressures that pile up, the more it can seem that fun is a nice to have. It’s not top of most people’s to do list, especially if you have dependents and people who you are caring for. I’m actually obsessed with fun (not in a David Brent kind of way I should add). And I believe if we designed life to increase fun levels, it would change the world. Fun shouldn’t be a nice to have, it should be central to our existence. Of course fun looks and feels differently to us all, something I myself also find, well, fun. 

 Not enough stories are really told about founders moving on with their careers. I can summarise the narratives to these – massive fallout, massive payout, someone went to prison or all went a bit tits up. None of these were really relevant to me. I simply just wanted to find a different type of fun in my work. 

 Have you ever tried explaining to people you’re walking away from something that would probably make you (a bit) rich one day, because you want to increase the amount of fun in your work? The reactions are wildly variably.

 When I left the business I was sent a video from my team about their experiences. Everyone talked about one thing – fun and laughter. That was heartwarming to me. We broke some pretty outstanding industry records, our client list was (still is) completely enviable, we won the flagship briefs and did amazing work together and all of that had to be done with hard work, serious client handling, intelligence and innovation. But also…fun (again, not in a David Brent kind of way). 

 I have a vivid memory of being on a car journey with my dad who looked at me very seriously and said in his Brummie accent – “Em. You’re going to spend a lot of time at work. You better bloody make sure you like it”. Birmingham’s finest philosophical advice. He had a point, it’s always stuck with me. 

 Leaving a job as an employee is a very different thing to leaving a job as a founder and owner. There’s no getting around it, if the business is doing well and you’re good at your job, it’s a pain in the arse for everyone. There’s a lot of admin. Literal admin but also mental and emotional admin. I feel like for a year I’ve been doing a shed load of mental filing, sorting and reorganising: 

So my title was x, ok, that’s gone, what we going for now? … Um, um, just put anything for now, we’ll come back to it

Ok, so this contact that you always talked to about this, now you talk them about what…? Um, um, Leave that blank for now.  

You used to describe your expertise as this, given that’s less relevant for what you’re trying to do now, how do you talk about your experience…? Hello? Emma?! 

 These files are STUPID! Just crumple them all up and stuff them at the back. 

 Ahhh the identity crisis. Just what the lady with her third baby in a pandemic ordered. Fresh off the confidence of building and exiting one successful business and high on the tantalizing prospect of focusing on spaces that inspire my updated fun-seeker tendencies, I believed that starting an all exciting new business would be a bit of a cinch compared to last time. After all, it’s only me, I don’t have a team to manage and I’ve have all this experience that I didn’t have last time. How hard could this be? 

 Turns out. Pretty hard actually. 

At some point I felt like I’d become a meme. 

 What I had underestimated, was how intrinsically linked my personal identity was to me as the founder of my prior agency. I was so deeply entangled in that, it wasnt a case of just moving on, I didn’t know what I was without it. That title, my business story, my experience, vision and purpose rolled off the tongue effortlessly. Suddenly it all seemed to have such a status and gravitas to it that I was now really lacking, it also meant something to other people. That was tough to let go of. I also had face the ugly truth it had given me an ego I had no idea needed feeded. Without all that behind me I simply felt a bit insignificant. That took at least 3 series of Schitt’s Creek and a lot of running in the sea in the cold to work through. My previous business card, the little magical square of paper, used to stand for knowledge, professional, competent, trustworthy, creative, intelligent. Damn, after 11 years in business, I’d even just about managed to explain to my own parents what my job was. Now without, I was lost at sea (ironically had to run back in the sea for that one too). 

 OMG (the meme me was back) I’ve actually just got to be me now. And I’m a freaking HOT MESS!

 I also had the tantalising job of explaining to my family why I was walking away from a stable, well paid job with excellent future prospects, to, um, ‘have a bit more fun’. This was not how things went down in the Midlands when I was growing up. Imagine a 39 year old mother 3 poised on facetime after another online quiz trying to string these things together: 

  •  I’m very passionate about play 
  • I’d love to get people playing more
  • I’ve spent over a decade tapping into childlike wonder, I can put that to good use, it’s a unique talent 
  • Yes I know I never grew up. Yes I’m still annoyed you didn’t keep the Sylvanian Family Treehouse 
  • No, I don’t mean play just for kids. But yes kids too. But grown-ups!
  • Imagine if I can get more grown-ups to embrace play! 
  • Yes work and their own time
  • Still very interested in parenting. And mental health 
  • I’d still like to work with ‘the brands’ yes
  • But in new ways 
  • I’m still working on that 
  • Content, courses, workshops, that kind of stuff, all about playing 
  • Yes this is a real job. But for transparency, I am making it up 
  • It’s not doctor, lawyer or joining the army so I know it’s hard to understand 
  • I’ll use my Instagram channel and start there 
  • 32k followers is kind of a big deal actually 
  • I do know you have 7 yes 
  • No, no one uses Facebook anymore
  • Well actually maybe they do when they get older for groups and buying things 
  • I really should look for a Sylvanian Treehouse on there 
  • Yes 32k people can see what I post on IG 
  • Yes I keep my bank statements out of the pictures 
  • But also. Mobile banking. No one gets statements anymore 
  • I think we’re off topic 
  • Shall we just do another quiz? 

 Nevertheless, understood or not, I did understand myself and off I went. I quit my big girl job to play. Another vision, another dream. I had an identity crisis, yes, but I tackled it like Madonna with a new album (I got a haircut, some new threads and a re-brand. Already have the gappy teeth). I spent 2021 experimenting and straddling the old with the new. This was absolutely the right thing to do. I wanted to try things out and I really did – I wish I’d have been a bit more aware that’s what I was doing instead of giving myself a hard time because I didn’t feel things were moving fast enough. But when I look back at 2021, a lot happened in that experimental time. 

  • I mentored over 25 women who enlisted my services as a strategic partner to help them come up with new ideas to grow their businesses 
  • I made lots of content on IG helping parents understand the power of play and how to observe their children’s play personality 
  • I became a Patreon creator and have a joy-seeking crew of 500 women (some of us met just last week for the first time to take part in a forest school for grown-ups morning!) 
  • I wrote a course, Playful Parenting, with child psychologist, Dr Rudkin, about how to connect parents and children over fun and educated over 50 parents on what play is and how to get more of it into their lives 
  • I become a Nike expert partner and wrote and filmed a 3 month programme for the Nike app – Play Starts With You, a content series supporting parents, coaches and carers with getting kids (and themselves) moving and playing more 
  • I made and sold a #liveplayfully patch with profits donated to Mind to raise awareness of play as a mental health strategy 
  • I launched a podcast with my husband, People Who Play, and interviewed interesting people who have play in their lives 
  • I partnered with Habitat and ran an online workshop with over 300 parents to teach them how to design homes that are play ready (I was on a podcast with Peter Andre, I mean talk about unleashing your inner kid)
  • I started a book (I felt like I had to put that at the end to make sure I finish it)
  • I had fun 
  • No one has a bloody clue what I am doing for a job. Sometimes including me. 

Doing all this in a pandemic turned out to be way more challenging than I expected. I missed travelling, but I fell back in love with my home on the Dorset coastline. I missed my team but I fell back in love with me. Not the corporate CEO me. The real me. I missed commuting to London (who knew). But I fell in love with birdspotting mornings. I missed being in the lifestage of having older more independent kids after propelling myself back to toddler life. But I fell in love all over again with looking from the perspective of a curious 2 year old. I missed the status of having a big job, with big responsibilities, I missed being needed, I missed being the only person in a room who could do a certain thing in a certain way. But I fell back in love with naivety. I adored being back in the trying things out zone. All these years I’ve grown up thinking being naive is a bad thing. Thinking that it’s all about being a poised expert and being experienced. Those things are valuable, priceless actually and have served me well very, but when it comes to creating something new, naivety is actually pretty fun. 

 Here’s to continuing to do well at not really knowing what I’m doing in 2022.