For many people, she is the voice of Dubai, regaling listeners with information about everything from pet care to how to treat varicose veins on her daily Dubai Eye 103.8 radio show, Afternoons with Helen Farmer.
Through her popular blog themothershipdxb, she also shares tales from her own family life as mother to daughters Phoebe, who is nearly six, and Tabitha (Tabby for short), nearly four — tales very clearly illustrating that even though she is quite the celebrity in the UAE, life is no less chaotic or challenging for her than for anyone else.
The divide between working mothers and stay-at-home mums used to be very clear, but the pandemic has changed all that, says Farmer, who carried on broadcasting throughout the period of restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
“It used to be more tribal but this year has gone a long way toward blurring those lines and bridging those gaps. Neither working from home nor working away from home is easy with kids. And stay-at-home mums do work — they just don’t do it from an office.”
Farmer freely admits she was glad she was able to continue working from the Dubai Eye studios during lockdown.
“We’re fortunate here in the UAE in that the strictest restrictions came at a nice time of year. But I’m someone who likes to be out and about and busy so it was a shift for me when I couldn’t do that,” she says. “It was a case of saying ’we’re going to be busy but we’re doing it here’.”
Her daughters are back in school but have all those long weeks of being stuck at home, only seeing their teacher and friends on a screen, done any damage? Farmer admits she has no idea.
“There are little nuances day to day, like telling your kids they musn’t share toys. That’s a very strange thing to communicate to a child when usually we very much want them to share, so it’s a bit confusing. Some kids struggle with being out of their routine — those on the autism spectrum, for example. People who are essential to their lives were taken away, then it was summer and that was taken away. Everyone is having different experiences of what is essentially a shared human experience.”
Farmer trained at the BBC and moved to the UAE 14 years ago when she was 24, and has been a radio broadcaster for more than a decade. Having children was always part of the plan, however.
“I was always quite maternal. I was the one playing with dollies and having tea parties. I couldn’t wait to have babies. People in Dubai either choose not to have children or they have them late, so I was the first in my group of friends here to have them.”
Phoebe and Tabitha were the first girls to be born into her husband’s family for 184 years. “When he saw the scan and it was Phoebe, he didn’t talk for about three days,” Farmer recalls.
Motherhood brought about “a visceral change” in her, she says. “There’s a saying that having kids is like having your heart outside your body. It’s true — you are very vulnerable.”
A difficult experience with giving birth to her second child plunged Farmer into post-natal depression. She says it took her three to six months to acknowledge that her feelings could not be explained by post-birth hormones, so she sought help and was given medication which she still takes to this day.
“I am a big advocate of knowing yourself and knowing what can help you. To anyone who is struggling or whose partner is struggling I say it’s amazing how much help there is out there. But you’ve got to know that you need help and you need to know that getting help does not make a you a weak or bad parent.”
What she is equally keen to stress is that she is no superwoman. If she is able to juggle a busy career with family life, she insists it is entirely thanks to her helper.
“Some women create the impression that they’re doing it all. This is very misleading and it’s a massive disservice to other parents. They ask themselves, ‘If she’s doing it, why can’t I?’ But she’s not doing it all. She’s got help.”
Women don’t need others to make them feel guilty — they do that very well on their own, she adds.
“It’s there all the time. The girls call me every day when they come home from school and every day they ask ‘Can you come home?’ I know they crave that time together and that’s something I’m still trying to reconcile. I don’t want to look back and think I’m never going to get that time back with them, but equally I’ll never get this time back in my career, either.
“When the girls ask why I have to go to work, I tell them what I’m doing, who I’m meeting and how it makes me feel. I also ask them if they like having shoes and remind them that work pays for them!
“Ultimately I hope I’m showing them the importance of finding something to do that you love but the guilt is very real and kids really go for the jugular in making you feel it. When I step back, I realize that working does make me a better mother. I really enjoy the time we have together. I’m productive at work and productive at home. But minute-to-minute, do I feel guilty and regretful? Yes.”
What would Farmer she tell her younger self?
“Probably to enjoy my kids as much as possible. To enjoy this lovely silliness. Try not to make them grow up too fast. Have fun, be physical with them, model good behavior around food and exercise and body image so that it becomes something we do as a family, like going for bike rides.”
“I also think it’s important to show kids that grown-ups make mistakes too. We’re not infallible. During lockdown, Phoebe became very self-conscious about getting things wrong. She couldn’t see that her friends were getting things wrong too. I want my kids to be OK with failing sometimes.”
Helen Farmer was a guest on the Livehealthy.ae podcast on December 9, 2020
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.