Life is meant for taking chances – and no one knows this like Amber Ellis. With a visa in hand and love on her mind, Amber left her successful management career in London to travel across the world and start over with her now-husband in Chicago. Through this move, she rediscovered her passion for fitness and began to pursue her new career path as a full-time fitness instructor in Pilates and aerial fitness.
Through her determination to teach and her drive to succeed, she helped launch and is now the manager of a Pilates ProWorks studio – with a start date on the same day that she discovered she was pregnant with her daughter, Sterling Rose. Regardless of her difficult pregnancy symptoms at the time, Amber’s dedication to her career continues to prove that passion is as important as the challenges that come with it. Here, she tells us her experience teaching classes while pregnant, her workday routine with Sterling Rose, and her advice to first-time expecting moms.
Name: Amber Dawn Ellis
Current Title/Company: Studio Manager, Pilates ProWorks West Loop
Location: West Loop, Chicago
Education: The Brit School of Performing Arts and Arts Educations Schools Of London, BA honors degree in Dance and Musical Theatre
Children: Sterling Rose, 6 months
What was your first job and how did you land it?
I was brought up in a household with an extremely strong work ethic. My dad, being a farmer, was used to working his fingers to the bone and for every hour that God gave. My parents told me when I was 13 that it was time I got my first job, and I started working to earn ‘pocket money’ (does this still happen?! I feel like that’s such an old-fashioned concept?! My parents are very traditional.) So that was that. Not to sound too clichè and English, but my first job was at a local country house estate, Pashley Manor (think Downton Abbey). In the summers it would open up to the public, and tourists would walk the gardens and have lunch or afternoon tea on the terrace. I’m pretty sure we lied on my paperwork, as working at 13 wasn’t legal, but that summer I started as a tea service girl/waitress/maid and worked five days a week during my summer break! Pashley Manor became a huge part of my life, teaching me about hard work, how to save money as well as how to make a decent sponge cake. I worked there every summer for the next five years until I went to University.
You eventually applied for seasonal work at Soho House London and quickly advanced within the company. Walk us through these different positions and how they’ve shaped you to become the professional you are today.
When I started out at Soho House London, I was a Guest List Girl, whose job was to basically stand there, smile, and look pretty. I’m kidding, there was more to it than that — I ticked names off a list. Jokes aside, this job was a huge deal for me. Soho House was a company that was really exploding onto the scene, expanding and growing by the second, and in London at the time, it was the celebrity hang out, and ‘anyone who was anyone’ was a member.
I remember my second or third shift, on a busy Christmas night, I was put on the desk to man the phones with no training. I not only asked Nick Jones (the owner and founder of Soho House) who he was but also put him on hold, only to realize I actually hung up on him. I worked the door efficiently and took care to remember faces and names. I knew that perfecting client services would help my progression within the company.
I looked smart and stylish and took any and every shift available. Most weeks I worked five or six shifts with at least three of them overnights from 6 p.m. – 4 a.m. My hard work and passion soon paid off when after roughly six months I was asked to be Assistant Reception Manager for the opening of the new Soho House location in Mayfair.
Opening a new location was such an eye-opening experience. I gained first-hand knowledge of how professional restaurants are built out, staffed, and prepared for opening day (not just my little country tea rooms), I watched the design team turn an empty space into a visionary feast and worked with true industry professionals/legends. Again after only a few months, another House was set to open, and this time I was to manage a team of 10-15 receptionists, as well as be the Members Relations coordinator. For me, with the company, I believe it was all about showing I had great passion and willingness to learn. I may not have had much experience, but I worked hard, took every opportunity that came my way, and was eager to progress.
As a member of the opening team for various Soho House locations, what traits do you believe are the most important to have in the hotel and restaurant industry?
Diligence. In such a busy atmosphere with a million and one things going on at any given time, it was incredibly important to make sure all tasks were completed in a timely fashion, that no questions were left unanswered or no jobs left undone. Missing one small detail for an event, one name off a guest list, getting a reservation time wrong or not calling back a VIP right away could end up having huge repercussions.
While relocating isn’t unheard of, you made a big move across the world – from London to Chicago. What was the reason for your move and how did it impact your career?
My third Soho House opening was for Electric House in Notting Hill. This time, the team paired with the hugely successful Chicago-based hospitality group, Hogsalt Hospitality. Brendan Sodikof, company owner and CEO, had sent six of his top chefs to London for menu development and training of the Soho team, including Jordan (my now husband). A few weeks into the restaurant launch, my boss and Director of the company gave me the night off after having worked roughly 16 days straight which averaged 12-14 hours each. She told me to go out and have a good night, that she had organized some company for me, and it happened to be Jordan.
After that first night, we barely spent a day apart for the next month. Eventually, it was time for Jordan to return to Chicago. We decided to stay in touch, not knowing what the future meant for us, and having no idea that only six months later I would move to Chicago to be with him, and shortly thereafter we would be married.
To everyone else I was crazy, I was being immature, I was throwing away a promising career on something so new and uncertain. But to me, I was in love and that’s all I knew and all that mattered to me.
The move had huge financial, relationship, and career ramifications for me: quitting my job in London, leaving my family and friends behind, spending my life savings on a visa, and living on no income for nine months whilst my work permit was in process. Needless to say, it was an extremely challenging time, but it all came right when Soho House fatalistically opened a new location — in Chicago — where I once again joined the Management team.
Despite your successful journey with Soho House, you decided to pursue your passion in the fitness industry. Tell us the process of how you changed career paths and the tips you have for people who are wishing to do the same.
After moving halfway across the world, I knew I wasn’t going to uproot my life and just simply continue doing something for the sake of it. Yes, I was extremely good at my job, and I loved the company, the relationships I had made, and the opportunities it had brought me. But, it wasn’t where my heart was or something that got me excited to get out of bed in the mornings. Deep down I knew I wanted to get back to fitness and teaching; I missed being physical, using my body as a way of expression, and exploring different kinds of exercise.
I had been taking tons of classes all over the city since moving to Chicago and I was so inspired by not only the variety of classes but the passion and knowledge of the instructors. It honestly hit me like a lightning bolt – I suddenly knew this is what I was meant to do, and this is what was missing. I started training in two different forms of fitness – Pilates and Aerial – and took the teaching certifications for both in under six months. I started teaching five to six classes a week alongside my ‘day job’ at Soho. What had started out as an exciting and empowering new experience, quickly turned into exhaustion.
After six more months, I took a HUGE leap of faith and committed full time to a career as a fitness professional. My husband was incredibly supportive, not only happy to help financially by supporting us both during the time of transition but excited to watch me follow my dreams and pursue my passion. I was lucky that within just a few months I had gone from teaching six classes a week to almost 20.
But looking back, when I say it was luck, I’m being modest. It was an incredible amount of work! To anyone who is apprehensive and nervous about making that change, YES it’s hard, YES it’s stressful, YES it takes time and a whole lot of hustle, but is it worth it? HELL YES!
What challenges surprised you as a full-time fitness instructor?
How hard you have to work. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s one of those jobs people think of as ‘easy’. For me, all my years at Soho and the long hours, overnight shifts, and high stress from managing that came with it does not compare to how hard and challenging working as a full-time instructor has been. I soon realized that to make as much money as I was making before, I’d need to teach roughly 20 classes a week. Twenty classes a week breaks down to four classes a day, which can easily become a lot on your own time (as 20 classes easily exceeds a 40-hour work week with travel and planning) but also takes a toll on your own body. One of the biggest challenges was managing my own health. Teaching four to six classes a day, six to seven days a week, as well as trying to fit in my own workout was extremely physically demanding. Staying injury- and burn-out-free meant a lot of physio, naps, and not a lot of nights out with friends or socializing. The joy from teaching greatly outweighed the challenges, however.
You paired up with a client to open up a Pilates Pro Works franchise and had a start date that happened to be the day after you realized you were pregnant – talk about timing! How did the news play a role in the launch of the studio?
The day we found out, my world was turned upside down. I was in no way expecting the news, especially the day before I was set to start work on helping design and open a brand new studio. To add a first pregnancy in the mix with the opening of a brand new studio was stressful, to say the least. I knew this was going to be the toughest job I had worked at yet, as this time I was the only manager of the business, and this whole project fell on my shoulders along with the owner, Jessica. I was extremely apprehensive of telling Jessica, as she is most definitely the strong ‘career woman’ type, and I even recall a joke she made once about sterilizing her employees (she’s lovely I swear). So rightly or wrongly, I put off telling her for quite some time, two months in fact, until a week before the studio was set to open. I chose the perfect moment when we were driving back from IKEA with a car full of furniture, doing 80 miles an hour on the freeway. I’m pretty sure she had a minor stroke, but I promised her nothing was going to change and that I wouldn’t let her down. All I knew was that having a baby and becoming a mum was a lifelong dream; but, so was this new job and I wasn’t going to compromise.
Can you explain your pregnancy symptoms and your approach to handling them throughout your workday?
Oh my, where do I even begin? For anyone that has been pregnant or has read pregnancy books, the list of symptoms or potential issues that can arise — I basically had them all. One week pregnant and it all began with me sleeping on the bathroom floor. I was convinced that I had food poisoning or the stomach flu, but after 24 hours of nausea and vomiting, something didn’t seem quite right. After collapsing into bed the next day feeling weaker than I ever had before, Jordan suddenly asked, “Have you taken a pregnancy test?” I laughed, then realized he wasn’t joking and suddenly felt my face turn white as a sheet. It couldn’t be?? And yes it could!
Those early symptoms continued, and at three weeks pregnant, I was admitted to the hospital with what was suspected to be an ectopic pregnancy due to a severe stomachache. Thankfully, all was fine, but this was just the beginning of what was set to be a troubled and terrible pregnancy. I experienced morning sickness as early as the first two weeks into my pregnancy and continued until the day my little peanut arrived. I was prescribed heavy nausea medication, which only staved off my morning sickness but did not permanently relieve me of it. I have strong memories of getting Ubers to work and hanging my head out the window like a dog, to not only get fresh air but to prevent me throwing up in a stranger’s car. I would arrive at work and frantically unlock the doors hoping to make it to the bathroom in time, but inevitably, I wouldn’t make it.
About six months into my pregnancy, I was starting to show signs of preeclampsia which, to those unfamiliar, is not good! My blood pressure was at times dangerously high, and I would be at work strapped into a blood pressure monitor all day long to make sure I wasn’t overworking myself or endangering the baby. My body began to swell like a gigantic water balloon due to fluid retention, and my feet grew more than two sizes. By 30 weeks, I was beyond ready to have this baby. When you get strangers asking if you’re having twins, you know you’re big!
What got me through? The fact that I love my job. I had a place where I could focus and stay busy. I had so much to do during that first year of opening and managing that I was constantly distracted. Being the sole manager of the studio left me with no option but to suck it up and carry on; there was no option to stay at home and “call in sick,” who could I call? The incredible support system of friends and coworkers I had around me was second to none, and I will always be forever grateful to them for all the love and help they gave.
Did you come across any unexpected challenges running a studio and teaching classes during your pregnancy?
Prior to my pregnancy, I was at a personal best in terms of physical strength and activity, so I was surprised at how quickly my body started to feel weak. Standing up for long periods of time became incredibly painful, even at just a few months pregnant due to an anterior pelvic tilt, and so teaching three classes back to back and standing for the duration was a challenge. Honestly, as I look back, I’m not sure how I carried on. I think it was the way I was raised and my dad’s work habit; I was raised to stick through, to suck it up – that English stiff upper lip maybe?!
It’s so refreshing to see someone in the fitness industry be honest and open about gaining more weight than expected. Tell us about your experience.
From the word go I was determined to have a healthy pregnancy and to continue working out and teach as much as before. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t “bounce back,” especially since pre-pregnancy I was in peak condition. Despite my best efforts and continued fitness routine, I gained over 75 pounds by the end, and by postpartum, I felt completely unrecognizable. Although I dropped 40 pounds in the first three weeks due to water weight, I still had another 35 to go and just couldn’t see the light at the end of my dark tunnel. I had an emergency c-section and I was unable to work out for the first 6-eight weeks postpartum. During these weeks, it was so hard to look in the mirror, to feel so different, but not be able to do anything about it.
Coming back to the studio and returning to a regular workout routine was so bittersweet. I felt like myself again and I was able to get back to doing what I loved. At the same time, my body wasn’t the body I remembered.
My muscle memory was dumbfounded, my brain and body knew what they had to do but together were unable to perform the job now with the extra weight I was carrying and the muscle I had lost. I cried. Over and over again, before, during and after most classes. I grew frustrated with myself and my body, and I was unable to stop comparing my current reality to the expectations I had set for myself. I wish this part my story had a fairytale ending, that I am over my frustrations, or that I don’t get sad when I think about my pre-pregnancy body. However, I am on a journey to discovering a new me, a mom who is proud of her body for what it achieved in creating human life, and I am so thankful that I am able to get back to working out and doing what I love, no matter how hard it may be.
Although your pregnancy was difficult, you continued to work right up to six hours before you went into labor. What kept you inspired and motivated?
The love of what I do! I hold a lot of respect for my employees which drives me to continue to contribute to their success and the success of the studio, I care for our clients and want to ensure their satisfaction with their experience. And my incredible stubbornness! I was determined to not leave the studio before I felt they were ready for me to go, and I even continued to send emails to my staff the morning I went into labor between contractions and examinations. I was highly motivated to have a “fit pregnancy” and despite all the many complications and struggles, I wanted to give it my best shot, right through to the bitter end.
Tell us what your current work day looks like, how you decided to handle childcare, and what changes (if any) happen when Sterling comes to the studio.
I’m am extremely fortunate that I am able to bring Sterling to work with me. After finding out what I was pregnant, I was so apprehensive how we would make it work. Monday – Thursday you will find us both (Sterling and me) at the studio all day until 5 p.m. when Daddy comes to pick her up and take her home. Mummy gets a bit more work done after Sterling and Dad leave before the day’s end. Then Fridays are Daddy /Daughter morning, while I teach the 6 a.m., 7 a.m., and 9 a.m. classes. These mornings give Dad and Sterling a chance to cuddle up in bed and read books or play. Later he brings her to the studio to spend the afternoon at work with Mummy.
I won’t pretend working a full-time job and taking care of a baby full time is even remotely easy, nor is juggling our schedules to make child care work. Sometimes, other options, such as babysitters or other help, aren’t there, but I am so thankful for what we do have. The clients love having Sterling there to greet them and it’s been a wonderful way to socialize her from a very young age. The main change I made is working around her naps. I save my client phone calls for when she is sleeping so as not to deafen our members with her cries or hit a slew of buttons whilst she is chewing on the phone. We keep a portable crib at the studio which has been a lifesaver and my instructors are always eager for cuddles, which helps Mummy get breaks from time to time.
Are there skills you’ve learned in your career that have helped you as a mother?
Multitasking for sure. As a mother, you never seem to have enough hands, and you always seem to be doing five things at once. Most days at the studio you’ll find me wrangling a baby in one arm, answering the phone with another, and somehow typing an email or cleaning at the same time. Prioritizing is another huge one.
As a manager, prioritizing was always of high importance, but as a mother, it took me a while to realize that it wasn’t always necessary to get EVERYTHING done every day, that it was okay to leave the laundry unwashed or the house a little messy.
Being totally tidy and neat about our apartment usually, it was hard to let that go, but now as a mother, I have to know that my priority is my baby, and everything else is secondary.
What’s the most challenging part of having young children while working full time?
Gosh, where to start. Not having time to soak up every moment of their childhood or not being able to give them your undivided attention and time. Feeling the ‘mom guilt’ for not being there for her all the time and, vice versa, feeling like I am failing at my job because I am distracted with caring for my child. We always wish we could do more, be more. But I know deep down I am doing what is best for her. Not only am providing her care myself, but I am also working to provide her with the future she deserves.
And the most rewarding?
Being superwoman. It’s true… moms are AMAZING. No matter if they work full time, part-time, or are stay at home. My days seem to have extended by at least 12 hours. I seem to have grown extra limbs where there were none before for carrying/holding/picking up fallen objects. And my capacity for love knows no limits, growing with my baby each and every day. I am so proud and thankful that not only do I get to raise a beautiful and fearless baby but I also get to do a job I love.
How do you and your husband divide parenting roles?
It took us a little while, but we’ve finally found a good rhythm. It was hard in the beginning when I was getting up for nightly feeds and long pumping sessions and there he was peacefully asleep in bed. I took all my strength to not want to smother him with his own warm, drool covered pillow when in the mornings he would wake to mention how tired he was. But he has blossomed into an incredible dad, and I love watching the two of them together.
We actually do a lot together the little time in the mornings and evenings we all get to spend with each other just us three. Our evening ritual of feeding, bathing, dressing, and then cuddling all together is the highlight of my day and I can’t wait to rush home from work and wind down with my little fam. When it comes to laundry and organizing the diaper bag each day, that’s all Mummy, but I like it that way, as I’m hyper-organized and I know if I do it, it will be done right. Daddy is great but left to his own devices, every day would be casual Friday or pajama day! There is one area where Daddy is sure to excel, and that’s food. As soon as we introduce solids, Chef will be in the kitchen creating culinary magic for his little girl every day and she will be getting the finest of gourmet baby food. (Which certainly wouldn’t happen if Mummy was in the kitchen – I’m a disaster) I think we make a pretty good partnership, we know where our strengths lay and we divide the roles to conquer our beautiful, darling, perfect, tiny little monster!
What advice would you give to new expecting moms?
Take each day and challenge as it comes. It’s so cliche but for both in pregnancy and in motherhood every day was a new challenge to overcome, something else I had to navigate and work through.
Be kind to yourself. Some days it’s okay to let the laundry pile up or leave the dishes unwashed in the sink if it means your little one is happy and peacefully asleep in your arms.
Remember how amazing you are. Yes, your body may not be what it used to, you may have those extra pounds hanging around for longer than you’d have like – but you created a human life and performed a miracle, and in your baby’s eyes, you are perfect. Oh and the Swedish are incredible – buy everything Frida Baby makes, those products will change your life.
Amber Ellis is The Everymom…
Best activity to do with your child?
Snuggle up for a nap with her on my chest on the couch on a lazy weekend, or go for long walks with the stroller and explore our neighborhood. She loves what I call “adventures.”
With a baby, its mostly been all about her these days. Latest splurge was a Dock A Tot Grande. We had the smaller size for her from birth and she LOVED it, so much so she wouldn’t sleep in anything else. So we decided as a 6-month gift to her (and us, because let’s face it who doesn’t love a baby who sleeps through the night) we would buy the next size up. It was expensive but has been worth the price tag.
Favorite part of being a mom?
The beautiful smiles I wake up to each morning that have the ability to make everything else seem insignificant.
Anything sweet…mostly chocolate. Although I miss English candy A LOT!
Next place you want to travel?
Italy! We never got to go on a honeymoon so we have been dreaming of touring Italy for the last five years. We’ll make it happen when the time is right.