After spending a decade as managing editor of FASHION magazine, Ceri Marsh left traditional publishing to set up Sweet Potato Chronicles — The Never-Ending Story of the Well-Fed Family, a website that has helped countless families to develop better relationships with food (and on a most basic level share recipes that your whole family will eat). We asked Marsh to tell us more about the sense of purpose her work gives her, and how this impacts her life.
Why did you start doing what you do?
When I was on my first mat leave with Esme (now 10) I was editor in chief of a magazine, and only took a few months off and wanted to manage everything, and I just had such a crappy time. Next time around, when I had my son Julian (now age seven) I knew I wanted to take a proper mat leave, and I kind of knew that I wanted to find a way to not go back because my heart just wasn’t into it any more. I had an amazing 10 years at that magazine, so happy and so lucky, but I just had to be honest that I wasn’t into it anymore, which was terrifying.
This was a chance, it was a window, and I think for a lot of women having kids is that window that makes us think, What am I going to do? At the magazine I was out three nights a week and working crazy hours, and I didn’t want to do that with babies at home. I knew I needed a change, and I knew I needed a change of subject, and more flexibility. And it embarrasses me to admit this, but I wanted to do something that was doing good, and that was helpful to people.
I’ve always been someone that makes my career about my life stage, and at that point I had a baby and a toddler at home, and your life revolves around meals and working out what you’re going to feed them at that stage. The more that my business partner Laura Keogh and I looked into feeding families, the more we realized it was such a rich subject, and people wanted someone to talk to them about it in an honest way. We thought, we can both bring our professional skills to this stage and really help people.
What does this bring to your life?
It’s brought me a lot of opportunity and the ability to use what I am professionally, a writer and editor, on my own terms. It’s also taught me a lot. I do more as an entrepreneur as I did the managing editor of a magazine, because I don’t have a team. I’ve had to learn so much about the new world of publishing, which is so different. It’s given me huge challenges and such a lot to learn, but it’s also given me the sense that you can change if you want to do something different in your life or with your family, you can do it. We can all get nervous when something is coming along, and think “I better not screw that up or shake it up,” but if you want to do something different, you really can. It doesn’t have to be all encompassing.
Why is this so important to you?
Sometimes you publish, whether digitally or in print, and as it goes out in to the ether you wonder whether anyone is actually reading it. Now that we’ve stuck with it, we hear from parents that we are actually helping them. We get these really sweet letters from parents where they tell us they’ve tried this recipe, or that strategy really worked for them, and when we hear that — because we’re parents, we understand how good it feels to have a meal where everyone is happy and there’ve been no tears about anything on the plate, — that’s huge to know that people are loving it, or to see your cookbook in someone’s kitchen is so satisfying. (Sweet Potato Chronicle’s second book, The School Year Survival Cookbook was just published.)
Food is such an all encompassing subject for families. We feel guilt over it. We use it as bribes. There are so many emotional layers. The fact that we are able to help people feels incredible. Laura and I know that in our culture people get pretty neurotic about food, and its important that we be eating at home more than we do in North America, but its all okay if you fall down and end up giving them crackers for dinner because there’s always another chance to do better.
Has parenthood changed how you view your work?
I’m aware that my children are watching me, and the choices that I make, and that definitely adds a level of responsibility. Something that my husband Ben and I try to communicate to our children is that we are both lucky to do work that we like. We try not to complain about work, and impress upon them that you should be so lucky to have work you enjoy, and you have to work hard for that kind of thing.
The other thing is that motherhood means my work can’t be all encompassing. I really love to work, and I used to work all the time, and it’s been a struggle to come to terms with stopping work when my children are home, and not always be looking at the computer. It’s like you just get it done, you get it done more efficiently and that’s just how it is. You have to prioritize and not struggle to make everything fit.
What do your kids think about what you do?
They like that my time is flexible, for sure. When I did a contract at Chatelaine they were pretty unhappy. It meant I wasn’t home until at least 6:30 every night and that was not popular. And — this is slightly embarrassing — they really like that I’m sometimes on TV or in magazines and that I’ve published books. I think they like that I have a non-traditional job. But mostly they like that they have more access to me. And that if they need to come home sick from school, I’m here.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/ living with purpose?
Do what you can. There’s no good imagining that you’re going to turn your life upside down to live, I think you have to do what you can and that’s enough. Maybe changing a few small things is enough. You don’t have to change your career to make an impact, or to feel like you’re doing good in the world. Those small things can be life altering. Don’t not do it because it’s not big enough.