helen hayward

life writing

Month: January, 2014

18 hints to new mothers – in no particular order

  1. 1538924_345302258945601_670626895_nKnow that what’s good for your children – security, love, creativity – is good for you too. Surrender isn’t the same as sacrifice – it feels much better!
  2. Make your own traditions, your own ways of doing things – at least as many ways as you inherit.
  3. Find time for yourself every day. Guard it like a hawk. Being with your children is a form of emotional work that you’re entitled to have a break from. You’ll be nicer for it.
  4. When a child shows a spark of creativity, foster it. Creating the conditions for her creativity will help her to take herself seriously, and give her a sense of flow. Her interest in a particular activity may fade, but her capacity for absorption will stay with her.
  5. Do things together that you all enjoy. Being there for your children is devotion enough. Doing things that they like doing, but you don’t, is martyrdom – which unconsciously they’ll pick up on. Equally you’ll all know when everyone is enjoying themselves.
  6. Loose time is more sustaining and restful than entertainment. Children with nothing to do will eventually find something to do that chimes with a deep part of themselves. Breaking through boredom is crucial for self-development.
  7. Learn to love your local library and playground. They are full of helpful people who support children’s curiosity for life. Let your children know that the library and playground is their space. Not theirs alone. But theirs by imaginative right.
  8. If it’s possible, have two children soon after each other. Once through the nappy stage, they’ll be able to play together. This in turn will free you up.
  9. Rather than asking your children, ‘Shall we go to the park today?’ say, ‘When shall we go to the park today?’ This way going to the park or for a walk is non-negotiable. It’s just what you do. Keep in mind that no child – or mother – ever comes home from the park in a bad mood.
  10. If you become less intimate with your partner on having children, than prior to conception, don’t panic. Childhood lasts a long time, for parents as for children. Let your relationship bend, and you’ll find new ways to be intimate.
  11. When conflict arises with your partner, try to be kind rather than critical. This is very hard to do. If you let your partner change in ways he needs to change – and to let you down now and again – he’ll thank you for it. Family life is too complex to get right.
  12. If you end up doing the traditional thing by putting your children first and career on hold, it will take time to get your foothold back once your children start moving out of childhood. Regaining your worldly confidence will be straightforward as long as your self-esteem remains intact.
  13. Try not to look to your partner for direction when it comes to your career. Look to friends and colleagues who know you well, rather than your partner who will inevitably see you through the prism of family life (ie late at night when not at your best).
  14. Walk out of the room whenever your children start fighting. Once they understand that you won’t judge on their behalf, that their relationship is their relationship, the conflict between them will escalate less than if they think you’ll rescue them. If they want their relationship to last, and to have someone to play with, they’ll soon learn to look after it.
  15. Monitor screen time from day dot, and avoid technology in bedrooms. If you don’t have devices in your bedroom, then it probably isn’t ideal for your children either. Downloading material avoids many of the pitfalls – and ratty temptations – of commercial television. Childhood passes quickly enough without rapid-editing it.
  16. Eat with your children, often and well. Cooking for a family is nearly as hard as cooking for a restaurant – most of the work is prep, the hours are terrible and customers regularly complain. When a meal goes well, know that it’s just as valuable as a banker closing a deal, or an artist putting the last touch on a painting. If, on the other hand, your children are young and unruly, consider reading to them from a picture book during meals. You’ll be amazed at the quiet that will descend.
  17. Growing vegetables is good for a family’s soul – even when it’s only radishes, spinach and mint. And start from seedlings!
  18. If you leave off having children until middle age comes on to the horizon, don’t fret. As the old saying goes, change the things that you can, and accept with grace what you can’t. Now that you know your time on this earth is finite, don’t waste it being dutiful (ie Saturday morning sport for kids isn’t mandatory). Above all start doing the things you care about most today.

Painting by Helena McGrath (helenamcgrath.com)

Just a little posy


When I was sixteen Mum and I used to argue about whether to take a gift when we visited people. She wanted to take a posy of flowers from our garden. Or a packet of shortbread from The Women’s Work Depot. She felt she had to give something, that it was only good manners. I felt people would be glad to see her anyway.

As with many mother-daughter relationships, it wasn’t until I had my own children that I came to understand Mum. I’d always loved her, of course. But in those days my love was troubled. Doing church flowers for a wedding, taking children to the dentist, judging a charity fashion parade, sorting laundry, attending sports carnivals, cutting school lunches and supervising fairways at golf championships – these, I told myself, don’t add up to a real job.

But once I had my own children I changed my mind. Maybe I didn’t completely come round to Mum’s way of seeing things. But I did develop a real sympathy for her. Most of all, once I had children I became convinced that bringing up a family is an important form of work. Not more important than the kind of work that we do in offices, but just as important.

About a year ago, during one of our late night phonecalls, Mum asked me what I thought she was really good at. Taken by her candour, I replied that she was really good at looking after people. And gardens, I added. She sounded satisfied with my answer, and our conversation drifted on to other things.

Sadly, when I was younger, I often experienced Mum’s desire to look after us as nagging or fussing. And not as loving, which of course it was. It’s only now that I’ve spent so much time and energy looking after my own family – who are more grateful than I ever was – that I recognise the value of this quality. And, in particular, how hard it is to express this devotion without falling into nagging or fussing.

This love, this devotion, was at the core of Mum’s life for well over fifty years. As I look around this church – and this includes all the people Mum cared about who couldn’t be here today – I sense that we’re all trying to do this same fundamental yet tricky thing. All of us – friends, daughters, in laws, neighbours, clergy and business people – are doing our best to look after ourselves and each other.

Mum found getting old difficult. I think this was because her frailty prevented her from expressing her love for others – and to some extent herself – in practical ways. She couldn’t, for example, go out into the garden and make a posy for a friend, for fear she might fall. And without that posy, she felt she had no sure way of showing of her love.

The person who exemplifies all these qualities best – an angel during Mum’s twilight years – is my younger sister Margo. She is the one who showed me, not through words but through countless actions, just what it means to love someone deeply.

I was away, living in London, for many years. I didn’t have a garden and never took people shortbread. But now all that’s changed. Now I’m the one picking flowers from the garden for people I visit. Just as this, in a way, is my posy to Mum.