My children, my life

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My children, my life

The Hayward family, Bruny Island, Tasmania. Photo by Carsten Murawski

Is our culture quietly hostile to something deeply important — loving our children in a genuine and attentive way?

Helen Hayward has worked as an editor and university teacher. She is currently senior writer at the magazine Forty Degrees South and lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

2600 2,600 words
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There’s a liminal moment, at the end of each day, when I pull my son’s door to and whisper goodnight. My daughter’s door is already part-closed, and I hope she is sleeping. As I descend the stairs, doing my best not to clump on the painted steps, a layer of awareness slips from my shoulders. By the time I’m at the bottom, I’m mummy no longer, I’m just myself. Some nights, the moment passes without notice. Friends are waiting between dinner courses, or emails blink. All too often, half-made sandwiches sit open on a wooden board. It’s a bittersweet moment: a hint of how I’ll feel when my children — already teenagers — really do leave me. I love them too much to want to be free of them. Instead, I hug the feeling to myself as I pass from the mother I am in the hall upstairs to the woman I am in the rooms below.

I like to imagine that when my mother bundled my three sisters and me into bed, at the end of each day, that she could rest easy — at least until morning. Perhaps this is just a story I tell myself. However, I don’t recall her stealing into her study after our lights were out to start her ‘real work’ — as I usually do after settling my children. Admittedly, she didn’t have to work to support us financially but neither did most of her friends. That, after all, was what husbands were for.

When I was a teenager, I made a vow never to become like my mother. I would never sacrifice myself to family in the way my mother seemed to have done. I would put my own work first — whatever that would be. I would be true to my creativity, my life’s purpose — and would never be swayed by how my teenage offspring might judge me. But I was wrong. Or perhaps just young, which isn’t quite the same thing.

The year I turned 30, my mother visited me in London, where I’d lived for many years. One chilly morning, we walked across Hyde Park and had tea overlooking the Serpentine. Mid-conversation, my mother put down her cup and came straight to the point. ‘Helen,’ she said, with her familiar emphasis on the first syllable. ‘Helen, if you’re going to keep on pushing in your career in the way you’ve been doing, you’re clearly too selfish to even think about starting a family.’ My cup clattered on its saucer. I didn’t like what she’d said, but I heard it.

Yet, as it turned out, I wasn’t too selfish to have children. If anything, my problem has been the opposite. My husband would complain that I haven’t been selfish enough. Like Odysseus strapped to the mast, trying not to hear the sirens’ song, I can’t not hear my children’s calls, even if they sing me off course.

I didn’t become a traditional mother in order to follow in my mother’s footsteps. Yes, a traditional way of doing things chimes with my personality. But it went deeper than this. It was a matter of beliefs. When I had my first baby, I came up against my beliefs about how best to care for him. ‘The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.’ The moment I read this comment, by Henry David Thoreau, it rang true. The more slowly my son grew up — I felt — the more he leant on me along the way; the less jarring the external demands on him were, the sturdier he’d end up on the inside. And with any luck, the more complete his independence from me would one day be.

What credits my sisters and me in the eyes of the world, and to some extent our own, is the work we do on top of the families we raise

From my son’s earliest days, I knew that I couldn’t give him religious certainty. And existential security was beyond me, too. Instead, from that time, and for the hundreds of weeks that followed, I gave him myself. And maybe, by the time he works out that that isn’t enough, he’ll be old enough to find his own sources of meaning and certainty. This has been my gamble. (So far, so good.)

It’s clear that in my children’s minds I’m a traditional mother (though they would never use that term). This is no mistake. I’ve let them take possession of me over the years, encouraged it even. I’ve wanted them to take me for granted — just as my mother did with my sisters and me. Not because I want them to grow into petty tyrants, but because I’ve always felt that their development depends on it — that, by leaning on me, they’ll grow out of me all the quicker. Just as I did with my mother.

‘And what about fathers?’ I imagine a voice calls out from the back of the room. The Harvard professor of literature Susan Rubin Suleiman had, I think, the right response: ‘To know that a man is a father is generally less of an indication of how he lives his life, than it is for a mother.’ Mindful (and envious) of the exceptions, this is what I’m getting at. My husband is active in our children’s lives — no question. However, his involvement doesn’t extend to keeping track of appointments, organising school clothes, filling lunchboxes or returning library books. And it’s caring about the daily necessities — the circus of childhood — that is, for so many mothers, both fantastically demanding and weirdly rewarding.

Thirty years ago, I left my mother at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. While I boarded a plane to London, she drove home to her now-empty nest in Adelaide. Having spent decades of her life barely sitting down, she suddenly had plenty of time in which to think.

Although she’d never use these words, I’m pretty sure she believes that her four daughters’ quest for self-fulfillment is in hopeless conflict with family love. Might she be right? Is our culture quietly hostile to something deeply important — loving our children in a genuine and attentive way? More troubling, are we ourselves hostile to it? Do we really think that loving our children unconditionally is to spoil them? We might work a double shift, when it comes to housekeeping. I know my sisters and I do. But it’s the emotional double bind that’s the real agony.

What, then, should I have done? On looking into my children’s eyes, should I have looked the other way and pushed on with my academic career (following the advice of my mentors, professors Isobel Armstrong, Steve Connor and Anthony Grayling)? Or was I right to take my children into my arms, and let the careers of others overtake mine? Some might say I lacked commitment — I didn’t lean in. Others that my mortgage wasn’t big enough. Still others that I’ve loved my children too much, that I’ve over-invested in my relationship to them.

What I now realise is how hard it is to devote yourself to children and not to lose your way, at least for a while

I am no retiring stay-at-home mother. I write and edit — most recently a lifestyle magazine in Tasmania, where I now live, that went spectacularly wrong. I review, give talks, and am involved in the world. But this paid work has fitted around my children’s needs. I am a traditional mother in the deep psychological sense of wanting what's best for one's children, no matter how inconvenient for oneself. An understanding that, when all goes well, is passed down from mother to child. I’ve longed to make my mark on the world, just as I’ve longed to be a good mother. Like my sisters, I’ve hankered for self-fulfillment and personal goals. Why else, having devoted myself to family for so long, would my ambitions still taunt me? On reaching 50 with a perfectly respectable career behind me, I sometimes feel that I’m on the back foot, my husband and peers having shot past.

What credits my sisters and me in the eyes of the world, and to some extent our own, is the work we do on top of the families we raise. Every day, I pour as many hours into my family and housekeeping than into my writing and editing, yet I’m recognised only for what I do beyond the home. This might be no more than polite social shorthand, but it’s still a sign of our times. My children give me enormous pleasure and pride, a love so profound it escapes words. But my sense of identity and worth, and my inner buoyancy, stem from my work beyond them.

If you called up my mother today, and asked her why her four daughters are always busy, she might sigh and reply, ‘Too busy to see me.’ However, the real answer lies elsewhere. My sisters and I are forever on the go because we’re determined to be more than ‘just’ mothers. We’re not content simply to put our children to bed at the end of each day and put our feet up until morning. We refuse to accept that love and ambition don’t go together: we’d sooner toe the party line that career and family are happy bedfellows than accept the awkward truth of how hard that is. Even if the price is to be forever on the go. Yes, we’ve sacrificed our free time. But at least, we tell ourselves, we haven’t sacrificed ourselves.

No wonder my sisters and I find it hard to relax, given the push-me-pull-you nature of our desires. At once to be there for our families, yet also to get on in the world. Sadly, feminism – to which I was once fiercely loyal – hasn’t been much help. If anything, it’s compounded the conflict by giving me the go-ahead to do and to be anything. It's a licence that often feels — late on Sunday night with a deadline looming — like yet another pressure to perform.

This is why my sisters and I accept a double shift. Not because we’re domestic masochists in thrall to throwback gender norms. But because, if we’re to sustain a rich sense of ourselves, independent of family, we feel we have no choice.

During my 20s I read all, and taught much, of Virginia Woolf’s work. Though I read her less now, I still find myself touched by To the Lighthouse (1927). In it, Woolf reflects on her upbringing, recalling family holidays by the sea. Reading this novel as a young woman, I assumed that it was about the passage of time — the way life happens to you, rather than the other way around. I assumed that Mrs Ramsay, the motherly central figure, was nostalgic. Mrs Ramsay harked back to a time when it was acceptable for a woman to credit her life through family, rather than her own life’s work. She didn’t even cook the beef dish that she served her family and guests, I thought waspishly. She just thanked her cook.

However, now that I’m a Mrs Ramsay in my own family — sadly, minus the help — I find I respond to her very differently. These days, I admire Mrs Ramsay for being vitally present, even after her death. I see her maternal qualities seep into her every relationship — with her children, husband, house, garden and visitors. Above all, I see the way she holds everything together, and credits the lives of those around her as deeply valuable. Her gestures might be passing — the sock she knits might never be worn — and yet they build up into a kind of solidity that, now that I care for my own family as much as for myself, seems all too real.

These days, I see my own mother — like nearly every mother I know — in a sympathetic light. I see her as noble and wonderful, no matter her failings. The good mother that I so railed against when young is now someone I aspire to be. She’s someone who conveys to her children that she’s on this earth for them alone, while yet holding firm to her own ambitions. She’s someone who feels privately convinced that her children will be living with her till kingdom come, while also knowing, in another part of her mind, that one day they’ll be off and away. And she’s someone who, though intimately acquainted with sacrifice, chooses not to dwell on it.

But this is not an elegy for self-sacrificing mothers. For Mrs Ramsay’s story is a warning too. Losing yourself in a deep love for family is, well, just that. It’s to lose your way in the journey that we all make to be ourselves. What I now realise, and didn’t before, is how hard it is to devote yourself to children and not to lose your way, at least for a while. It’s finding your way back that, I now believe, is the crucial part.

My realisation, unfashionable but true, is this. Because of the way I love my family, I enjoy my personal freedom more when I put them first. Until my children reach maturity, my first loyalty is to them. I have other callings, too — I’d have gone mad if I didn’t — however, looking after them is still my principal work. I’ll never put it on my CV, but it’s clear to me that this is what accounts for the holes in it.

So why did I become a traditional mother, rather than the modern mother for which my feminist education — and nearly 20 years of working in publishing, higher education and psychotherapy in London — groomed me? Why did I risk being consumed by a role that might leave me high and dry, a cuttlefish at high tide? In part, I rather unexpectedly enjoyed being needed. Equally unexpectedly, I found being around my children very creative, far more than I’d been led to expect. Caring for them — loving them unreservedly and creating a way of life out of this love — has been a revelation to me. Least fashionably of all, I realised that my marriage might not survive if I didn’t bend, and that bending like a reed was far better than breaking something good. Family life has expressed a deep part of myself that was there, as a potential, well before I had children.

Being at home with my children has given me an imaginative space in which to rethink every aspect of my life, in a way that the pressures of my previous life simply didn’t allow. Just as I had to get to know my children in every mood under the sun before I really understood them, so being around them has led me to know myself better. Yes, these past 16 years have marked a hiatus in my career. But they’ve also been a precious opportunity. I’m now much clearer about what I care about. I now know what I love enough to pursue. Perhaps, I say to myself, I had to let go of the old me before a new me — wiser, older and flawed — came out of the shadows.

Read more essays on childhood & adolescence, family life, gender and gender & sexuality


  • FrenchArt

    Many fathers will empathise with this mother's view. Though their wives may merely observe career advancement, or perhaps even satisfaction, so many curtail their lives or mould themselves for the benefit of their children's well being.

    • Helen Hayward

      Can I sum up in this way. It's okay to middle age. It's okay to be middle class. And it's okay to have mixed feelings.

  • Momma K

    4 years, after almost 30 years of 'balls-to-the-wall'
    Mom/Homemaker/Account Executive, I will "retire". My children are
    appalled when I tell them that my goal is to live on 30 acres in Parke
    County, raise chickens, garden and do stained-glass art. They don't know
    the ME that existed before they came along. The hippie, peace-loving,
    bib-overall woman that has been lurking inside - just waiting for the
    day that she could be free to be again!

    • gvanderleun

      If so, please take care where you drop the "balls to the wal" image.

    • Helen Hayward

      But then retirement from the motherhood juggle isn't at all the same as retirement from a monogamous working life. Every parent, mother or father, lives a blended life. Good luck with the stained glass - I hear it's pretty tricky!

  • andacar

    I can tell you that as a father I am just as much if not more involved as my wife is in the daily activities, planning and organizing of the lives of my kids. Neither of us view being parents as being slaves, or somehow dampening our careers or personal interests. We've set clear boundaries in our family with the kids, and they know that there are times when we want to do our own things. The advantage of that is that now I don't feel I have to run off and "be me" later in life.

    • Helen Hayward

      All power to you, I say. You have a right to be proud of your place in your children's development. Ultimately I think parenting is about the limit of what we can bear as individuals, not just what we want for our children. And this is not solely about gender, but temperament and history - over which we don't have final control.

      • andacar

        Thanks (2 years late!)

  • JTM

    If I wrote as eloquently I could have written this article. As an expat wife and with a respectable career which I juggled it is only of late that I find I am comfortable not to be defined by my work. Like you I never felt adequate saying I was (just) a Mum...but as my children mature and I derive so much pride from their achievements I realise that my role as primary care giver was my greatest legacy. However, with cool objectivity I realise that professional work saved me from being an over attentive mother I suspect...definitely a good thing. What for our daughters? Will they wish to be or not to be us?

    • Helen Hayward

      I wrote this piece after realising that my daughter, now 13, was looking at me now and then and not altogether liking what she saw - or so I thought. Just the way I looked at my mother at her age - a kind of 'why would I want to be like you' look. Little did I realise then how hard it is to square the circle as a mother...but do now.

  • Cristian Marcu

    Anti -Feminism even in Romania ! God Bless Ronald Reagan forever ! Tea Party fans in all Eastern Europe ! :)

    • Helen Hayward

      Perhaps in Romania the concept of shared and community childcare has gone deeper into the cultural unconscious than in other societies round the world...

  • Mum22

    Marriage as in the traditional sense of raising a family is not (solely) about the self-gratification
    of the people involved, it is about future generations. A thought so heretic today its almost mind-boggling, right? Here's another one: A family is not a democracy, children go to bed before adults for example and they do not get an equal share in family decision making. If society still worked that way people would not feel that they had to wait for the children to be out of the house "to be the real me".

  • jill weiss

    Hi Helen---saw your reply [on Twitter] to my response to AMSlaughter's quoting your article. I would like to respond more fully to your writing--which I liked very much--in a few days time. Til then.... Jill Weiss

    • Helen Hayward

      Thanks, Jill. Was very struck by your comment (on Twitter) that you don't know if you trust people who don't Twitter...

      • jill weiss

        Hi must be confusing my comment with someone else's....

        • Helen Hayward

          Sorry! H

  • SeattleRobin

    I am writing from Seattle but spent one of the best weeks of my life this early June in Orford, Tasmania with my daughter, son-in-law and two young grand daughters. They emigrated to Sydney sometime ago and I, a retired attorney, visit as often as I can. Was a heavenly week on a beach and in a small village that seemed like paradise. The people we met were friends, chatty, and willing to share neighborhood secrets about hidden fragments of rain forest and wonderful, level hiking trails. Before we left, we had all fallen in love with each other (again) and the place.
    Do you think, Ms Hayward, that place plays an important role in helping us find ourselves. And what might you think about a grandmother's presence in the life of her daughter and small grand daughters.
    It feels a heavy burden, indeed, to be so far away.

    • Helen Hayward

      Thank you for this sweet-painful response, Robin. My mother-in-law visited us from Scotland in January and, on return, I imagine her saying much of what you say above to friends and family there. Yes, place is incredibly important. For me it's what roots me to the earth. And the sheer beauty of place here is for me unparalled. But it's not everything - it can't do the work of culture and relationships - and it doesn't touch everyone who lives here.

      • SeattleRobin

        Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Yes, Tasmania seems a miracle set apart from the rest of our bling-laden, consumer-soaked world. Perhaps because it is just remote enough and has a population too modest in number to interest global commercial titans. Its physical beauty is amazing. But none of us can stand in a state of amazement all day. Culture is important--museums and gardens, films and books, robust conversation and debate, visual arts and theatre, cafes and libraries--is Hobart big enough to provide some of each of these? About relationships: some we can bring with us if those we love choose to live where we wander. And there is the business of knitting together community where we alight. Is enterprise of the heart--work of the best kind, don't you think?

        • Helen Hayward

          If you'd asked me this question 24 hours ago I might have said yes, Tasmania is a bit cut off from the mainland and Europe etc. But last night, after going to Yoga with my daughter and picking our puppy up from 'daycare', we walked up the Domain towards the Cenotaph, where David Walsh's MONA, in collaboration with a Japanese artist, have sent bolts of white light directly up to the heavens (ie 15kms). It was a cold clear night, there were people everywhere slowly approaching and leaving. There was no commercialism of any kind (visually, I mean) and I felt a sense of calm that we were living, after all, somewhere.

          • SeattleRobin

            Ahhh, MONA. 'Tis a wonder, no? As beautiful a work of art itself as any artifact it displays. My daughter and I spent a fabulous afternoon inside while my son-in-law chased the toddlers on the grounds. Who would have ever imagined such an edgy, vibrant venue in Hobart? Could easily stand in Amsterdam or Barcelona or New York.
            Wish I had seen the light installation. I could imagine being filled with wonder, almost as much wonder as the nightly sight of the Milky Way over Shelly Beach.

          • Helen Hayward

            Absolutely. Perhaps your son-in-law could get a permanent job 'toddler-chasing' at MONA! Knowing them they might be interested...

          • SeattleRobin

            Great idea! ;-)

  • Sam

    This article has got inside my head like no other. Thank you, Helen, for putting a clear voice to all my agonising. It's taken until my late 40s to realise that I can't do it all; I might be able to do 80% of everything (which, face it, is far more than most men even attempt to do), but as to the rest, well, sometimes you just gotta let it go... and pick up dirty washing instead!

    • Helen Hayward

      This was such a scary piece for me to write, Sam. And to let go of. The Angel in the House (the one in my head) scolded me and told me I'd be attacked for it. But perhaps this was a sign that I was letting something important go. Something that just won't go away, no matter how many journalism columns or publicly-funded sociological surveys are produced. Philip Larken reckoned that 'they fuck you up, your mum and dad'. Well, if Larkin had had children himself, he might have added that children fuck up their parents too!
      PS Got to put the washing on...

  • shalini G

    Though i am still not married, your article hits me at several places. We are a career driven generation, but family is equally important. Like you rightly point out towards the end, it helps you know yourself better. I guess the push and pull between independence and interdependence shall always be there, but at the same time i hope that even as family life makes women feel complete, workplaces increasingly make space for married women juggling work and family just as they(women) are for those who matter in their life.

  • Kate

    Hi Helen,
    I met you at Elisabeth Street Food and Wine Store. Loved the article. I am just putting my toes in the career pool again after working from home as a food writer while juggling three kids. It has been the hardest time of my life making the change from career girl to full time mum (part time writer) and working out how and what should take up the 24 hours in each of my days. My twins are 5 1/2 and Charli is 3 1/2 so life has been busy. Now upon returning to work, part time, the reality of what I can fit in and at what level I can work at on the ladder is pretty ego deflating. But I must say the old clique that you wouldn't swap your experience as a parent for anything is true for me. I just need to work out what to do with the guilt while I juggle.
    See you again I'm sure

    • Helen Hayward

      Thanks, Kate!

  • docbets

    Culture demands that we starve our children so that they won't stay dependent. As you say, the opposite is true. If we knew there would be a famine in six years, would we start systematically depriving our children of nutrition and calories to prepare them for it? Or would we feed them up with the best food we could obtain in order to help them ride out the coming scarcity? Of course the psyche is not the body, so the analogy breaks down, but it was very hard to be the mother who did everything I could to nourish my child, to - as you say - be so tuned in and available in the right amounts that she could take me for granted.

    This was what my mother more or less believed in, but was less able to do, for reasons of her own history and the very limited resources she had while a mother. Never mind she had four children to my one.

  • grumpyrumblings

    My children don't come first. My family comes first.

    My parents both worked and, obviously, my sister and I thought it was for the best for us, as there are many valuable things to having both parents work (just as there are probably valuable things to having a parent at home). People have a tendency to think what they grew up with is the best way, because, obviously they turned out just fine.

  • Eduardo Antonio Echeverri

    Crazied world with its own rules spawns sad people who can't explain insatisfaction; find all sort of explanations, come up with theories and omits to see that the core of it lies with being born into a sick, insatisfied, hungry culture......Context is everything.

  • gush

    there is a difference between power and care, feelings of dominance and love, being depended on or being reliable. You fall all in the first.

  • JJ

    Thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful article as well as the interview I just listened to on Radio National. Feminism has - understandably - pushed this issue to one side while women fought for equality in areas outside of the home and family, but now would be a good time to re examine the value of parenting - for both men and women. Presenting parenting as a valid and fulfilling choice, rather than framing the debate around the accepted notions of 'juggling' or 'having it all' is an excellent way to promote deeper discussion of this important issue.

  • Jillian

    Helen. Thanks so much for your article and contemplation on motherhood.
    Do you have any thoughts about this:

    One traditional ideal is of the loving mother in the kitchen cooking for her family. But I find that when I in that role in the kitchen cooking, I don't feel like a good mother - I feel like I am neglecting my children because it seems more important to spend time with them. I end up cooking when they are asleep etc.

    Could strong efforts towards being an all loving mother just be yet another way to exhort the bad from one's psyche.

  • thekidinquestion

    My mom is a working woman. She is the best at what she does and yet she has given up on promotions and other opportunities for us. Somedays i really wonder what she would have achieved if she was a man married to a housewife with more freedom to pursue his own career. I dont know how i even feel about her sacrifice. Guilty? Yes. Thankful? Yes. What I dont like about her sacrifice is that I never got a say. Even if I did i just didnt understand her life. Now that I do, i feel really guilty. I keep wanting to go back and ask her to turn it down a notch.

    There were things which I needed and there were things that she thought I needed. I dont think those two went hand in hand. I visited her a few days back and she was running exhausted just to put together a great meal after coming back from work. I had to stop her. I didnt need the meal. I needed to just be at home and talk. Sometimes motherhood gets equated with other things which just dont matter as much. Like cooking your favorite dish. Or always coming to pick you up at the airport. In the long run, these are nice things but this isnt my mother's greatest contribution to me. I wish I had understood her life when i was little. I wish i could have known how to care for her. All those last minute requests seem so selfish now. Sometimes i wonder if kids even understand what sacrifice is. I sure didnt.

    • Joan Garvan

      I feel the same here ... what I wanted most when I was growing up ... was for my mum to be happy. The mother-child relationship is the most complex of any .. I think we are only just beginning to understand the depths. According to psychoanalysis the mother-child connection is a foundational relationship, it forms a basis for all others. I have found the work of Jessica Benjamin to be of the most value here in Bonds of Love and Life Subject, Love Object. In these she talks about the notion of inter-subjectivity - this is something quite different to what we think of as the maternal role or the good mother. Another terrific author in this regard is Lisa Baraitser. Your reflections here have something of this nuance these authors talk about.

  • Beyond Chocolate

    Want an inspiring and empowering article. There has been a lot written about working/stay at home mothers - this is the best I've come across so far. Thanks for that.

  • nancy

    I am a stay at home mother by choice and I am saddened by usual presentation of this way of life by the media: both mocked as lazy and boring and at the same time derided as impossibly difficult and demanding (?!) In my years nurturing my children I have developed many skills that are admired in the workplace - I sew, and bake and have learnt a hell of a lot of psychology. But since I practice these skills in my home and not for money in a design studio, a restaurant or clinic, it is as if they count for nothing. Yes I am lucky we can afford to live on one wage. But there have been many years when we just about scraped by, because I believed that the job I was doing with my children was the most important one I could do, because it was the one thing that nobody else in the world could do better than me. I celebrate the fact that nowadays women have the right to work at any job they choose. My daughter dreams of becoming a doctor. But that freedom should also include the option of choosing the traditional role if that is one that fits, and being respected for that choice equally. Your interview on RN was a rare breath of fresh air. Thankyou!