In many ways, Dame Helena Morrissey acknowledges, life could be worse. Just before lockdown was announced and made such behaviour socially unacceptable, the Morrissey clan – Dame Helena, her husband Richard, eight of their nine children - including 25-year-old Florence, her husband and their two children, aged two and three months - and Buddy the Cockapoo, decamped from the family’s house in West London to their second, larger pad in Berkshire.
Only their oldest son Fitz, 28, is absent, socially isolating nearby with his wife.
Now the family, who – with two married, three at university and one at boarding school – rarely live under the same roof, are “adjusting” to communal life.
“We don’t lack company, it must be terrible for people who live alone,” says Dame Helena. Nonetheless, living in what she calls an “isolated crowd” has challenges. “I do have moments, when I’m wrestling with the laundry and I think, ‘But I’ve just done a huge mountain!” she sighs. “And the house is not immaculate, you reach the point of thinking, ‘I’m going to go mad if I trip over that again.”
The 54-year-old might be the unofficial queen of the City - having been appointed CEO of Newton Asset Management aged just 35, founded the 30% Club in 2010 to boost female representation on boards, and been interviewed for the Bank of England Governorship - but there has long been as much fascination with her personal life, as her professional one.
Dame Helena and her Irish-born husband Richard, 56 - whom she met at Cambridge, where both were studying philosophy - have always been reticent to put their family life under the spotlight. But earlier this year they began to record a podcast, with an accompanying blog, called ‘Brit Family Morrissey’ about their extraordinary set up. The first episode launches today.
“We’re not planning to be the Kardashians, the children wouldn’t allow it, nor are we as fascinating,” Dame Helena assures me.
On the fascination point, I’d disagree. Indeed, one of the reasons they are doing the podcast is to answer the question Dame Helena is constantly asked: “Just how do you do it?”
The couple also wanted to use their platform to defend the institution of family, which they see as endangered.
“We feel it’s time to reinstate the family as an absolute cornerstone of our society,” says Dame Helena. “There is such a rise in mental health issues, everybody seems to be like a cork bobbing along in the sea without the foundation that a family provides. It’s not about judging - but there does seem to be a sense that we can’t talk about some of these things in case it offends people who are single parents.”
The Morrissey’s dedication to family is in no doubt. After child four was born, the logistics of holding down two careers was pushing their marriage to breaking point. So Richard left his job as a financial journalist to run the home. Having originally planned on five children, they saw no reason not to keep going. “Not because we’re Catholics or in a cult,” Dame Helena says. “We just enjoyed it.”
Although they’ve had “help” they’ve never employed a live-in nanny. “Helena’s not some person on a computer all the time who doesn’t want to be distracted. She sorts out the children’s clothes for school, she does the ironing. It’s not like she hands over the children to me so she can work,” explains Richard.
Little wonder she has earned the ‘superwoman’ tag - one she hates because it implies she’s a domestic goddess. “That’s absolutely not true,” she insists. “I heard our younger children saying ‘Well, Mum may be CEO in the office but she’s not CEO at home.’ Then they ranked us, and out of 11 people in the house I came in at number 10. Richard was number one.”
It saddens the couple that Richard’s contribution is often belittled. “We sometimes say if you wrote obituaries mine would be all ‘She founded the 30% Club…’” says Dame Helena. “But for me there’d be nothing,” interjects Richard. “Both men and women who stay at home are nurturing the next generation, but everyone is telling us we’re only valued if we work.”
He was ordained as a Buddhist priest, mainly in order to have something to tell people who asked what he did all day. “But I’ve long stopped caring about that,” he says. “He’s a Christian now, he’s come full circle,” Dame Helena adds.
The couple had no idea their podcast would coincide with a pandemic, but say it’s made their advice more timely than ever. Indeed, many of the strategies the couple have long advocated for a happy family life - playing board games, watching sitcoms together – are coming into their own.
“A lot of families are rebalancing their lives and have gone from one extreme to another, especially if they were high-octane career parents,” says Dame Helena. “Just before [the lockdown] happened, I was sitting next to a big corporate guy at an event who said: ‘I’ve been comparing notes with colleagues and for the first time any of us can remember we’re all enjoying family meals together.’ “I thought ‘Wow, this is what we’ve been urging people to do for years.’ This time is giving many families an opportunity just to hang out, which they’ve never normally had.”
The Morrisseys haven’t had that opportunity for a while themselves and are settling into being a clan of 13.
Richard is the cook. “But today he said, ‘I don’t know what to make, I’ve cooked everything,’” says Dame Helena. “Normally we’re not all at home at the same time and shopping isn’t problematic. Now a trip to the supermarket takes at least two hours, so we’re subsisting on basic supplies from the Marks & Spencer at the local petrol station. We haven’t gone hungry but there have been days when we’ve been a little unsure where our next meal is coming from...”
The children have been tasked with jobs such as laying tables, and loading the dishwasher, but they also have academic work. Tuppy, 22, Millie, 20 and Clara, 19, are students at Oxford. Until the Easter break, Octavia, 17, Theo, 14, Cecily, 12 and Bea, 11, were being home educated remotely by their individual schools.
“It’s much easier now it’s the holidays, not having to find desks and quiet spaces for everyone,” Dame Helena admits. “Bea and I had been starting each day doing Joe Wicks [online workouts] together, but I haven’t been too strict with myself - I felt it was adding to the stress.”
At least, pre-pandemic, she was getting used to working from home, having left her job as head of personal investing at Legal & General last year. For the past six months she has been pursuing a “portfolio career”, with a non-executive role at St James’s Place wealth management and pro-bono work, all of which she’s continuing - when she can find a quiet spot to make calls. She’s also hosting video-conferences for the Diversity Project, a campaign to make the investment industry more inclusive.
Oh, and last year, she launched an Instagram account showcasing her feminine style and encouraging other professional women to dress with confidence in the boardroom. She is continuing to post daily but the snaps tend to feature her in jeans and trainers, looking distinctly frazzled - one recent picture was taken just after Cecily had been throwing up all night.
And with that, our conversation is interrupted by a yell of “Mum-my!” It’s time for Dame Helena to put on another wash and tackle that ironing pile. How does she do it?
The Morrisseys’ podcast and blog are available at britfamilymorrissey.org