helen hayward

life writing

Month: June, 2017



Once upon a time my children put me on a pedestal, looking up adoringly – or so I like to remember. Today my teenagers eye me off in the kitchen, shoulder to my shoulder, a whiff of unspoken pity. Their pity springs less from knowing that, touch wood, they’ll be on the planet longer than me, than from a long-lost memory that once I was the founder of their universe, the moon above, whereas these days I’m just their mother.


What child doesn’t daydream of what their mother might have been had family life not clipped her wings? An opera singer? A fashion designer? A doctor abroad? A climate activist? A start-up queen? I know I once did. After growing up on a sheep farm, my mother was going to work for the Wool Board, championing natural fibres against the onslaught of artificial ones. She wasn’t going to work for charities, play golf, have her hair done and be at home for my sisters and me after school – which for years is exactly what she did.


I haven’t worked for charities. I’ve never played golf nor attended coffee mornings. However like my mother I’ve been around for my family. Not because I’m self-sacrificing. Ultimately I gave myself to my children, for as long as I have, because devoting myself to them – making them feel wanted, connected, solid – felt as good for me as it did for them. It gave me a lot back. I knew that loving my children unconditionally was to love them just the right amount, and that in surrendering to family life there’d be no sacrifice. I knew that I wasn’t giving anything up which wouldn’t be returned in kind.


Except that I didn’t always feel hopeful enough, secure enough, unanxious enough, to believe this. This was partly because my ambitions as a writer clashed with being there for my children. It meant squaring the circle, which for me was code for feeling stressed. Did I, I’d fret, love my children too much? Was I weakening their life force and robbing from my own? In doing my best for my children, in putting them first, was I failing to live up to the promise given me by my mother’s love?


Fed up of juggling work and family, and despite occasional fretting, eventually I surrendered to family life. There was no particular day on which I let go, succumbed. It just happened. Losing control in this way was scary. It went against everything my hard-won independence had taught me. Quite possibly I’d never have surrendered to family love if my daughter hadn’t upset the careful balance that I’d arrived at with my son. With just one child tugging at my trouser leg I could still focus on my work. With a child tugging at each leg I lost my balance. Their father was there for them too. However his work-life balance never went belly up. His surrender was never complete.


Even when we had chicken pox in the house I never stopped working. I always cared about ideas and writing. I always found time to sneak out of the house to write. And standing in line for the cash register at the supermarket, I certainly never thought that money didn’t matter.


In the end it wasn’t my work that carried me through, that made sense of the swirl that family life has been for me. Something else helped me stand firm. ‘The longer trees grow at first’, wrote Thoreau, ‘the stronger they are at the core. And’, he added, ‘I think the same is true of human beings’. With Thoreau at my side I felt hopeful that if I surrendered to family life my children would grow strong enough inside to one day let me go, at which point I’d be free.


Whatever fantasies my kids entertain about the woman I might have been had they not come along, I feel richer for spending a lot of time with them. And already it’s time for me to start letting them go. This is both a sad and glad thing. In letting them go, in letting them down nicely, with any luck they’ll be free to seek their own horizons. And while being a mother will always be central to me, I can now catch glimpses of my own horizon, which I trust I’ll be brave enough to surrender to.

doing publicity


It wasn’t exactly a fib. I just didn’t respond to the sentence in my publicist’s email in which she asked whether I’d done live television before. Given that I’d already decided not to fly interstate for an eight-minute slot on breakfast television, I didn’t see the point of mentioning to her that I had a thing about cameras. Did she really need to know that I hadn’t felt the glare of television lights since I bent down to eat a donut dangling on a string on kids television, aged nine?


Radio I knew I could do. I’d done plenty of that for my last book. Television, I told myself, was just radio plus camera. Except, of course, that it isn’t.


I arrived at the television studio with time to spare. I’d already talked the questions through with the producer, who couldn’t have been nicer, the day before. I wouldn’t be able to go through makeup, he’d explained, since I was doing the segment remotely. However the lighting in the studio was kind, there would be someone in the studio with me, and all I had to do was look straight into the camera and respond to the questions coming through the earpiece.


Ella set me up with an earpiece, a glass of water, and a background shot of the harbour with Mountain Wellington behind. Then she went next door to test the sound levels. The studio was overwhelmingly black, not a little dusty, and for the next ten minutes, apart from news headlines crackling through my earpiece, all of them bad, I had just the round camera lens peering through black padding for company.


The buzzy earpiece didn’t seem to interest the producer in Melbourne, whose voice I didn’t recognise. He explained that the host who’d read my book had been called to the airport to cover a bomb threat on a flight. The new host hadn’t had a chance to see my book and I would be on air after the news bulletin in one minute’s time.


‘You’re definitely better on radio than on TV’, said my agent in a message on my phone that I listened to as I got my dog out of the car, fifteen minutes later. I called my agent back. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I knew I wasn’t doing well when they cut me off after three minutes, and not the eight I’d expected. I could barely hear the questions for the buzzy earpiece, I had no idea who I was talking to, and my tongue felt like sausage in my mouth’.


That evening, when I should have headed up to bed, I watched the television clip which the publisher had posted on social media. ‘But I look like a hostage asking for ransom money!’ I wailed to my daughter who was half way up the stairs. ’Just don’t watch it’, she said sternly, tripping downstairs and clapping the computer shut on my fingers.


The last time I published a book I didn’t do podcasts. This time round I’ve done three and have enjoyed the form. Being invited to talk for an hour from my kitchen, knowing that any coughs and ramblings would be edited out later, felt far freer than being closeted in an airless radio studio with my allotted minutes counting down in digital orange numbers a metre from my face.


Although I had notes in front of me on giving interviews, mostly I would shut my eyes, listening out for what the interviewer was really asking – occasionally shocked by the intimacy of the question – all the while thinking ahead to a place I might take the conversation that might work for everyone who was listening. A bit like in a dance.


The interviews and launch are now behind me. Two moments stand out. One was looking over at the friend who helped launch my book, to see her holding a dog-eared copy, a pink highlighter running through various paragraphs. The other was when two women came up separately after the launch to tell me that they’d read my book in the bath – just as I’d fantasied a reader might.


This morning, after switching off the square red microphone button for the last time, I pulled the earphones off, put my earrings back on, wrapped a scarf round my neck, and headed back to the car where my dog was waiting impatiently for a walk. A voice message from my agent flashed on my phone. ‘You are definitely better on radio than on TV’, she said. ‘Well done.’ Leaving the phone in the car I headed across the park, clearheaded for the first time in a week.