Emily Williamson was widowed at 25, with a toddler and pregnant. She could have given up, but that’s not her way. Catherine Scott reports.
Emily Williamson thought she had it all. A loving husband, young daughter Angel and a baby on the way. She was studying to be a lawyer and couldn’t have been happier.
Then, when she woke one morning, she knew immediately something was wrong. Her husband, Leigh, was struggling to breathe and although she managed to dial 999 by the time the ambulance arrived it was too late. An inquest recorded that he had died of a pulmonary oedema, fluid in the lungs, although they have never discovered why.
“He was fit and healthy and we were looking forward to our new baby and then he was gone.”
Emily was 25 years old, with a toddler and 20 weeks pregnant.
“At such a young age I hadn’t lost anyone before ,then suddenly I had lost my best friend, the person I planned to spend the rest of my life with. Most of my friends hadn’t even got married yet and my life had fallen apart. All I could think about was having the baby – I just couldn’t bear to think what might happen after that. In my darkest days it just seemed impossible.”
She went to stay with her parents until just before her second daughter was born, but Emily is a fiercely independent woman and wanted to have her baby at home in Stoney Middleton, like she and Leigh had planned. But rather than her loving husband, it was her mum and sister helping her through the birth. What should have been one of the happiest days of her life was one of the saddest, as her husband could not be at her side as her daughter, Star, entered the world.
But the birth of Star was only the beginning. Emily was faced with mounting debts, no job and two small children to support.
“Everyone said I should stay at home and look after my children. Even the Citizens’ Advice Bureau said I’d be better off on benefits. But that wasn’t what I wanted – not for me or for my children. They were my family and I had to provide for them.”
Working is in Emily’s veins. Even while she was studying for her law degree at Sheffield Hallam University she had five different jobs before falling pregnant with Angel during her final year.
“Qualifications are all very well but nothing beats actual work experience. I had friends who had done degrees and then couldn’t get jobs because they didn’t have any experience, I didn’t want that to happen to me.”
Much of this work ethic comes from her parents, who insisted their daughter go to university rather than follow her dreams of being a professional singer.
“I sang in a choir and travelled all over Europe, I did think that maybe I could do that as a career but they insisted I do a ‘proper job’. I always thought that I could may be go back to that one day, but life isn’t like that.”
But when she was suddenly left without her soulmate and with two small children, Emily had to take action. “I did have some dark times when it was really difficult to get out of bed, but the children needed me to be strong. I had to be there for my girls. And I needed to get out and get a job.”
Initially Emily tried to continue her studies with an eight-week-old baby, supported by her parents. It just could not work.
“Star was just too young. I was breast feeding and she just cried all the time when I wasn’t there.” Emily had to abandon her dreams of being a lawyer and returned to an industry and skill she had enjoyed while studying for her degree – sales in hotels.
“There were people who said I should have stayed at home with the girls, that they had lost one parent and needed me. But I had to go back to work to keep sane and earn enough money to provide the best for my children.”
She quickly landed the job of wedding co-ordinator at the Peak Edge Hotel, which was just opening in Ashover and was promoted to business development manager. While she was benchmarking her hotel against similar quality hotels regionally, Emily had noticed York’s Hotel du Vin were looking for a business development manager, was successfully appointed and arranged an au pair so she could commute from Derbyshire to York each day.
“Initially we did move for about six months, but then Star got pneumonia and developed kidney problems, so we moved back to Derbyshire where we had a support network of family.”
Now Emily commutes three hours a day before rushing home to try to put her girls to bed. Angel is now five and has started school and Star is three and is at nursery.
“They have never known any different,” says Emily. “They understand that mummy works and that means they can do nice things. I watched my dad work and that’s what made me want to work. My children don’t have a dad to watch work, it is down to me to show to them that you have to work for what you want in life.”
In the past ten months, Emily has brought in over £100,000 worth of business to Hotel du Vin and on Friday was voted Forward Ladies Young Businesswoman of the Year. She is getting her personal life back on track and has just started dating again. But spending as much of her free time as possible with her girls will always be her priority.
“I want my children to think there are no boundaries to what they can achieve – no matter what life throws at them. I also want people to know that no matter how bad it seems you can get through it.
“After my husband died no-one said ‘everything’s going to be fine’ no one gave me any example of someone who had gone through something similar and done well, I have had to do it all myself. If anything people said ‘you can’t do it’ but I have.”
Women in business awards
The Forward Ladies’ Women in Business Awards recognise the achievements of professional business women in the North West of England, the Isle of Man and Yorkshire and The Humber.
On Friday 13 women received awards in separate award categories as well as the coveted Businesswoman of the Year 2012 which went to Liz Colleran.
Other winners included Emily Williamson, Joanne Ronet, Louise Holmes, Lisa Grant, Heather Connaughton, Fioona Kendall, Teresa Galley, Lucy Scott Paul, Julia Gash and Gemma Blagborough. Deborah Robinson of Harrogate received a Highly Commended in the International category.