Dame Helena Morrissey has an enviable capacity for filling each millisecond of her day with productive activity.
We’ve just spent an hour chatting in an airless basement studio. It’s a sweltering July day and Helena has a succession of radio interviews lined up, but between each there are a few minutes’ pause, during which most people would draw breath and gather their thoughts. Not Helena. Because we’ve more to discuss, she rushes out between each interview, picks up the conversation where we left off, rattles off a few sentences — she speaks so fast I’m frightened she’ll run out of breath — then dashes off.
And so her day continues for the next few hours. ‘Oh, I’ve talked about everything this morning!’ she cries. ‘Brexit (she’s a committed supporter), big families, women’s pensions, the environment . . .’ Her sharp mind switches adroitly between each subject.
The phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it’ could have been coined for Helena. Even her relaxation is timetabled.
Dame Helena Morrissey, 52 (pictured) revealed how she maintains a balance between working as the head of Legal & General, campaigning for equality and the environment, being a cancer charity trustee, governor at Eton and mother-of-nine
She had achieved a stellar City career by the age of 35, and for 15 years earned a seven-figure salary as an investment company CEO. Now, aged 52, she is head of personal investing at Legal & General, which has £983 billion worth of assets under its management.
At the same time she campaigns for gender equality and the environment, is a trustee of a cancer charity and a governor at Eton, her sons’ school.
Were this litany of triumphs not enough, she and Richard, her husband of 27 years (a former Buddhist priest, now a stay-at-home dad) have nine — yes nine — children, aged nine to 26, and a seven-month-old grandson.
She is the poster girl for an elite club of high-flying career women — women who not only sustain hugely demanding jobs, but embrace motherhood on an epic scale.
Only last week another hit the headlines — technology entrepreneur Eileen Burbidge, who at 47 is trying for her sixth baby through IVF. And, of course, there’s Nicola Horlick, 57, perhaps the first to set the bar for working mums impossibly high by balancing a dazzling career in finance with raising six children.
I expect Helena to be crisp, businesslike, a little daunting. Actually she is warm, chatty, accessible, self-deprecating.
‘My days are like university exams, really taxing and full-on,’ she admits. ‘I work pretty intensively for ten hours, and most weeks there’s a 12-hour day when I get home and just can’t talk to anyone. I’m human. I get exhausted. I have to decompress.
‘Richard wants to talk. I don’t want to, which is good, I suppose, because I just listen.
‘People say I’m superwoman, a role model; that I make it all look so easy. But it isn’t! I’m professional at work, of course, but behind the scenes there are cars failing their MOTs, washing machines that break; all the usual domestic disasters.’
Yet today she is a paragon of effortless elegance, slender as a willow wand in her Roksanda sheath dress and standing six foot tall in her stiletto heels. After nine pregnancies, how does she still have a washboard stomach?
Helena revealed she went back to work quickly after each child (Pictured clockwise from far left, Fitz, 26; Octavia, 15; Millie, 19; Helena; Richard; Clara, 18; Flo, 23; Tuppy, 19; Theo, 12; Bea, nine; and Cecily, ten)
‘All my family are slim. I think it’s nervous energy,’ she laughs. ‘I do Pilates to keep a waist. I try to go three times a week: once in the early morning, once at lunchtime and once on my way home from work. I use a studio near where I happen to be, so I’m not wasting time in transit.’
Helena practically apologises for not being terribly adventurous with her wardrobe: ‘I don’t have a stylist. I have a very simple formula: I’m comfortable in brightly coloured dresses in distinct shapes and neutral shoes. It’s an easy recipe.
‘And I’m not embarrassed to admit I wear high heels because I feel more powerful in them.
‘I’m not quite as bad as Mark Zuckerberg, who wears the same grey T-shirt every day, but there isn’t much imagination about what I wear.
People say I’m superwoman. But behind the scenes there are cars failing their MOTs and washing machines breaking down
‘I shop online. I have six or seven dresses that I know suit me and I wear them almost in rotation. I’ve got a red one that I wore until it practically fell apart, then I bought exactly the same one on The Outnet in the past season’s sale.’
I comment that she must have breezed through her pregnancies — how else would she have coped with those arduous working days? — but she wails: ‘No! I had pre-eclampsia with my first and through the others I was very, very sick, morning, noon and night, which makes me slightly masochistic.
‘I’d struggle to work by bus and then Tube, and I’d often have to get off the train twice to throw up. I had to work out which stations had open bins so I could rush out and be sick in them.’
She galloped back to work after each child, spending the least time out — five weeks — with Millie, child number four.
‘I bled a lot with her and had to go into hospital,’ she recalls. ‘She was born a month early and it was a difficult birth.
Helena had all of her children on the NHS. Four of her children live at her Notting Hill family home full time : Clara, 18, Octavia, 15, Cecily, ten, and Bea, nine
‘It was also my annus horribilis at work because I’d had a bad year on fund performance. I had a computer at home and I’d torture myself by looking at it all the time. I made a pragmatic decision to go back five or so weeks after Millie was born. It was too soon. I regretted that.’
These days, ‘only’ four children live at the family home in Notting Hill, West London, full-time: Clara, 18, Octavia, 15, Cecily, ten, and Bea, nine, all attend independent schools nearby. Theo, 12, is about to start at Eton where brothers Fitz, 26 — now married and doing a PhD at Oxford — and Tuppy, 19, also at Oxford, preceded him. Millie, 19, is at Oxford, too.
Meanwhile Flo, 23, a singer-songwriter, married to musician Benjamin Clementine, gave birth to Helena’s first grandchild Julian seven months ago. Helena was at the birth with Ben (as she points out, she has quite a bit of experience at having babies).
‘Julian was born, like Flo, on Christmas Day, so there was a nice symmetry about it,’ she says.
I’ve become a granny a bit sooner than I anticipated
‘I loved having babies, otherwise I wouldn’t have had so many. I had all my babies on the NHS because I don’t like being fussed over — and I had fairly good labours.
‘But after about 12 hours they suggested an epidural for Flo, but I knew she wouldn’t want to have drugs.
‘There was a tough love moment when I said, “You’ve come so far. I know you’ll regret it afterwards if you have one now. It’s not without risk.” Although I couldn’t bear to see her in pain, there was no real reason for an epidural, so she didn’t have one. Afterwards she thanked me.’
Helena’s first grandchild safely delivered, the family convened for Christmas lunch at home: a holiday could hardly have been more productively spent.
I wonder whether Helena, pitched into grandparenthood when her youngest is only nine, will be more indulgent as a granny than she is as a parent, and she insists: ‘I’ve always been the fun parent, the one who says “Yes”.
Helena (pictured right) admits she’s become a grandmother sooner than expected. Her husband decided to stay at home to look after their children after their fourth was born
‘I’ve become a granny a bit sooner than I anticipated, and it feels only recently that I was holding Bea.
‘So it’s not as if I had to deal with empty-nest syndrome.
‘I don’t want to be an absent grandparent, but we’re going to have to think through the numbers!’
There’s scant chance, I’d have said, that Helena will ever want to be a fully present one, either.
When she and Richard had ‘only’ four children, he gave up his job as a financial journalist to look after the home — with the help of a daily nanny — while she became the sole breadwinner.
‘I don’t enjoy the music clubs, the play gyms, the coffee mornings,’ she says. ‘I find them quite frustrating.
‘My husband is very patient. He’s a member of the Parent-Teacher Association. He’s already planning the school Christmas Fair!’ (She rolls her eyes.) ‘And he’s prepared to sit and debate what kind of fabric the school sweaters should be made of. But for me, half an hour spent discussing the proportion of polyester to wool is time wasted. Life is too short!’
I’m not like Margaret Thatcher. I don’t make a virtue of sleeping less and less every night
Richard builds the solid structure around which her frenetic daily life pivots: the transport to school; regular mealtimes; and ‘cocktail hour’, during which the family convenes, after Helena’s return from work, not to quaff exotic alcoholic drinks but to eat raw vegetables served with crisps and dips. A ‘shared moment’, as she calls it.
Helena’s day begins at 5am when she wakes, showers, dresses, puts on the laundry, ‘gives the dog a cuddle’ then powers through emails. Richard — a comparative slugabed — isn’t up until 5.45. He makes breakfast, unloads the dishwasher and lays the table, then at 6.20 the children are roused.
Helena sorts out their clothes and sports bags, and does the girls’ hair. She admits that she was once thrown into turmoil when two children piped up: ‘We need a Robin Hood/Mexican costume today.’ But she set to, improvising from the dressing-up box.
Before the older girls catch the school bus and Bea has left with her dad to walk to school, Helena is out of the house (usually around 7.30am). She still travels to the City by Tube. ‘But I’m not a complete hair shirt,’ she says. ‘I do business-class flights to the U.S. You need to arrive in good shape if you’re working.’
Helena gets home by 6.30pm each day to eat the meal her husband has prepared. They met as undergraduates at Cambridge University
By 8am, she’s at her desk. One of her missions is to encourage women to invest more in their pensions; to experience the thrill of seeing a pot of money grow.
She’s home by 6.30pm, ready to eat the meal Richard has prepared — they’ve never had a housekeeper or chef — and I wonder if they have tussles over the chores.
‘Richard hates the way I load the dishwasher. I’m very shambolic. People would say it’s because I don’t want to load it properly. He’s very precise. I’m a bit messy generally. He tidies up after me.’
Richard admits a househusband’s lot can be a lonely one: ‘I’m neither a housewife with friends, nor a man in the public domain working and earning a living and playing golf with colleagues. And yes, it has sometimes been aggravating and frustrating for me.’
Richard, a Catholic raised in Southern Ireland, and a former Buddhist, has now come back to Christianity.
Having nine children, I just can’t go to every sports day or concert.
He and Helena met as undergraduates at Cambridge University, and I wonder if his Catholicism is the reason for their large family. But apparently the answer is even simpler: ‘We just liked the idea of lots of children.’
Richard tries to temper Helena’s urge to fit extra work into the evening, but invariably she sends a few emails. Family TV time is factored in at around 8.30pm, then Helena is off to bed around 10pm.
She’s a restless, fitful sleeper. ‘Although my advice is, “Don’t spend your nervous energy worrying”, your problems seem so much worse at night,’ she laments.
‘I’m excited if I manage six hours. But I’m not like Margaret Thatcher. I don’t make a virtue of sleeping less and less every night.’
I scrutinise Helena’s face for signs of work done to atone for the stress and lack of sleep. There is none. I don’t think she could sit still long enough to have Botox.
Helena will have spent several millions in school and university fees by the time all their children have finished education
‘I can’t remember the last time I had a facial,’ she says, ‘Although just before Fitz’s wedding I had some kind of heat treatment on my face to stimulate collagen production.’
Her beauty routine is low-key. She dyes her hair and uses Boots No7 Lift & Luminate skin products (‘marvellous’), having discovered that expensive face creams do not yield any better results.
Helena is not interested in accruing possessions. When the second family car ‘fell apart’ she declined to replace it. ‘I’m so bad at cars!’ she cries. They now have a seven-seater Land Rover Discovery so if the whole family goes on an outing, some travel by train.
Of course, she concedes, she earns a lot of money. So where does it go? Well, they will have racked up several million in school and university fees by the time all the children have finished their education. Then there are holidays and a country house near Wokingham, Surrey, to maintain . . . and just think of the weddings (six girls!)
She isn’t motivated by money, she says. ‘But when I see a problem I genuinely want to try to do something about it. It’s the way I’m made. And the higher up the career ladder you are, the more power you have to influence and effect change.
‘And I love work when you’re doing something that feels meaningful. But I wouldn’t want to do something that didn’t have a purpose.’
Richard, meanwhile, is at home. Does she feel she’s missed out?
‘Having nine children, I just can’t go to every sports day or concert. But Richard does. One of my daughters said, “Sometimes I’d like to talk to you more”, and when I had time off work (between jobs) I was conscious of how wonderful it was just to let the day unfold.
‘I missed out on that because I always had to leave in five minutes. So now I’ve learnt — or tried to learn — to look out for moments when the children need one-to-one time with me.’
She’s still talking as she clatters upstairs to her next assignment; not wasting a breath, not frittering away a single valuable moment.
Dame Helena Morrissey has just launched Legal & General’s environmental campaign Own Your World: ownyourworld. legalandgeneral.com