Ideal mum and high-achieving worker: Can a woman be both?

UAE-based radio personality Helen Farmer on peeling off the layers of modern motherhood and making it accessible to children as well as parents


Anamika Chatterjee

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Photos: Rahul Gajjar
Photos: Rahul Gajjar

Published: Thu 9 May 2024, 5:41 PM

Olive is a young girl with questions. Questions that are not always convenient for adults around her but they’re important. One such question leads her to wonder where her mummy vanishes during the day. It also becomes a pressing question because while kids her age are familiar with the idea of daddies being absent during daytime, not all mothers are missing, are they?

Underneath this seemingly simple premise of Helen Farmer’s debut children’s novel My Mummy’s Secret Adventures (illustrated by Pavithra Suresh and published by The Dreamwork Collective) are complex questions: of normalising dreams and ambitions of a working mother, that of making space for all individuals in a family to thrive without demanding sacrifice.

Helen, one of the most popular radio personalities in the UAE, is also a mumfluencer. But she is not the one who’s all about the dazzle of parenting. As her followers know, her insights into the messy side of parenting are often delivered with wit and humour, which makes her all too identifiable to women who may have embraced motherhood but are silently coping with it.

“When my older daughter was about six months old, I was having a really tough time,” she recalls. “And when I looked around to see who else was talking about the motherhood experience, no one resonated. At that time, parenting was very aspirational. We were talking about Baby Dior and children’s dresses worth Dh5,000. That wasn’t my experience.”

So, what was her experience? “Juggling between the new baby and a job I loved.” That’s when Helen began to talk about the messy aspects of motherhood in her blog and eventually took that conversation to her social media channels. It helped that she had been a writer and magazine editor, it ensured that she articulated her vulnerabilities in a way that resonated en masse. “I think the only real way for connection is vulnerability, and that doesn’t mean oversharing. I don’t mind being the first person to say, ‘I got it wrong’ because it can be empowering for other people to respond saying, ‘Yeah, me too.’”

In the age of achievement, even women aren’t exempt from judgement. They are judged when they sit at home to raise children. They are judged when they step out to realise their dreams. In the midst of this is a mind at conflict with itself, trying to find balance between passion and responsibility. “Sometimes, all you need to do is ask for help. I found it very hard to go from a job I was very competent at and really enjoyed to coming home and not knowing what exactly to do with my baby. People say that every woman has a maternal instinct and that she naturally knows what to do with a child. And sometimes you don’t. Moreover, the identity shift from being a successful professional to a ‘failing’ mom can be really, really difficult.”

Where Helen’s voice has truly resonated is in making her children, family and nanny not just passive onlookers but active participants in her journey as a successful professional and mumfluencer. She says she has never hesitated to ask for help, even if it’s from her partner, or mum or nanny. “I talk to my children about what I do. I want them to understand that I have another side to my life,” she says.

My Mummy’s Secret Adventures is born out of this desire to demystify this haze around the choices a working mother has to make. “I have worked all through my children’s lives and it has brought forth some questions — why do I work, where do mums go during the day? So many children think about where their parents go when they are not around. It does not occur to them that they could have jobs, friends or other hobbies,” she says. “My job is quite an easy one to explain, but if you have a job that’s harder for a young mind to conceptualise, it gets even more difficult for the parent. This book is meant to be a conversation starter between parents and children. It’s about a young girl who asks thousands of questions every day.”

Most of Olive’s questions are actually queries Helen’s own daughters have had as young children. “And then there were some questions that could not have been added,” she jokes.

While the book is aimed at children aged between three and seven, Helen also wants the mothers reading the books to their children to read between the lines and be compassionate towards themselves as working parents. “I understand there is a huge amount on our plates. So many women let hobbies slide, give up on what we enjoyed before we became wives or mothers. Any woman, whether she works at home or office, will understand how torn one can feel. But there’s certain comfort in knowing you are not alone.”

In the age of social media, we can no longer be just parents. Those who work in the media are also expected to be pretty parents, PhotoShopping the sleepless nights, the anxieties over changing physiology. “The best thing I have done is curate and control who I follow on social media. If you follow someone who leaves you feeling worse, then simply unfollow,” she says, adding that a more important dimension to this public persona that is crafted by new moms is the support system that actually enables them to do so. “It’s important to acknowledge that there is a child around you who needs care and attention. A lot of women in public eye often don’t do that. Today, I can safely and proudly say that a supportive partner and an incredible nanny have given me the confidence to go out and chase my dreams, assuring that my children will be cared for.”

For years, conversations around working mothers in corporates have included demands for robust support structures like a creche and work from home provision. And yet when it comes to ground realities, few things have changed, even if the pandemic taught us a few lessons. “I think it made us more human,” says Helen. “We are now used to seeing a child running at the back of that Zoom call. We have begun to look at our colleagues and bosses as parents. I hope the momentum is not lost. I worry we will go back to a bit of presenteeism.”

But flexibility, she insists, is not just about motherhood; it can even extend to someone caring for their parents or a relative.

As we wrap up our conversation, we ask Helen in between the various roles women play — that of a mother, daughter, wife, sister — how do they retain something of themselves, something that’s theirs and theirs alone? “It’s very easy to lose ourselves. We only have 24 hours in a day, though I think Beyonce does have more,” she laughs. “But what we need to understand is that we need to fill our own cup, pursue our hobbies and become happier people. It’s not selfish to do something you like. I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro a few years ago and loved the fact that my children could point out on a map that that’s where their mummy went.”

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