Mum On A Farm - Journey to Parenthood

I was recently interviewed on Cheltenham Maman’s GoodMumBadMum Podcast. I really love the format and ethos of Kate’s podcast which is based around giving mums the space to be open about the highlights and lowlights of their parenting journey, without fear of judgement in the understanding that there may be others going through the same thing as you. Kate invited me onto the podcast having described me as having a really interesting journey to motherhood, given that I couldn’t have been further from it!

I guess my journey was an unusual one. I was really a million miles from motherhood when my partner and I got together and subsequently faced the rather unexpected news of impending parenthood! I was living in London, running an International Non-Governmental Organisation and was on a constant adrenaline seeking rush (running marathons, climbing mountains, surfing...). In fact for the past 12 years I’d been either living overseas or continually travelling to projects in developing countries as well as UN conferences. My career and sense of adventure came first, everything else a close second...

I did have visions of starting a family with a Ben Fogle type (don’t we all!) and living a nomadic lifestyle which would be dependent upon where our jobs took us, where we’d immerse the children in weird and wonderful cultures. And then I met Rob, a dairy farmer from Wiltshire, who was perfectly happy spending months on end on the farm, going to the same pub and had no desire to travel.

Levison Wood (a great adventurer and another object of my affection) refered to a gene which apparently is present in 20% of the population, manifesting itself with a desire to travel (take risks, explore new places, ideas, food, relationships and so on). It’s been coined the ‘explorer gene’ and this adventure seeking desire had been the purpose of my existence up until that point! (Clearly Rob not so).

Going back to earlier days, before I came into the world my mother had been a long-haul BA airhostess in it’s heyday. Having flown to far flung destinations, and staying for a week or so before the return flight, she’d developed a great fascination into other cultures. Whilst I was growing up she completed a BA in Social Anthropology and would often reference cultural practices and traits of remote tribes in exotic locations. My passion for adventure and travel certainly came from her.

I spent a lot of my childhood however, confined to the bubble of an English boarding school, where even at secondary school we were forbidden to venture beyond the grounds to the local newsagent.

So as soon as I’d finished school, whilst friends took the well-trodden path to travel Australia and Thailand, I set off to camp in the jungles of Central America working on a conservation project and then moved in with a family and taught in the local school. My eyes were opened, and I since used every university holiday to explore the world, from hitchhiking across Latin America, interrailing across Europe, being kidnapped in Morocco, I learned what was beyond the wonderfully utopian world in which I had grown up in.

After graduating, along with the rest of my peers, I relocated to London to take up teaching. Despite being offered fabulous teaching jobs London’s top prep schools, I opted to take a post at a wonderfully diverse and challenging school where 100% of the families lived in local authority housing and the majority having English as an additional language. I had eggs thrown at me on the way home on day one, but the comradery amongst the staff was unique as was the nature of relationships with the families, many of whom had experienced horrific atrocities. It was hard not to love working there, and develop a real sense of responsibility and commitment to those children. I completed a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) which helped me communicate and teach the children as well as support many of the parents as well as a Masters in International Development, where I examined how the immigrant families in the community found assimilating into British Society as my thesis.

I felt a huge draw to work in the countries and contexts where the families had come from, so set off with VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) to share teaching skills with my counterparts in Malawi. I committed for a year to live in a rural village. It didn’t take long for me to feel at home, spending hours chatting to neighbours, handwashing my clothes and attending all the local ceremonies. I was amazed how teachers manage 100 children in a class, with no chairs, desks, resources and navigating challenges such as the few textbooks provided, being burned as fuel to heat water and cook. I saw huge differences between the UK in terms of gender dynamics, cultural practices and the tragic impact of HIV which was a generalised national epidemic, manifesting not only in the stigma, discrimination and sickness of those living with HIV, but affecting their relatives in terms of caregiving or death, with children having to raise their siblings and earn income in place of absent parents. I developed incredible friendships with my neighbours and colleagues as well as with those living in the cities. I found such refreshing global and local perspectives on life, the value of community and the emphasis of music and laughter in the culture, despite being faced with such volatile contexts concerning clean water, food, employment and/or fuel.

Returning to the UK I experienced Reverse Culture Shock. My attitudes and interests had shifted. Friends were securing mortgages and planning house renovations. I felt like a foreigner in my own country and wanted to return to living and working aboard, and making a contribution to the lives of people far less fortunate than ours.

I took a job in The Gambia where I working to ensure the country met the UN’s Millenium Development Goals in Education by tracking World Bank Funding and lobbying the government for change. It was a fascinating but frustrating job, a far tougher experience than Malawi, living in an urban context, in a Muslim country where as a non-Muslim female, it was hard to integrate but hugely insightful nonetheless. I learned first hand how intrinsic and multi-faceted the issue of FGM (female genital mutilation) is, how policy change just pushes it into the performance of far riskier procedures as a speaker at the UNICEF conference denouncing FGM confided in me she still has her daughters cut or they would be undesirable for marriage.

On return to the UK, I moved into the Sexual, Reproductive Health and Rights sector, with a large focus on HIV. I developed projects in collaboration with local/national organisations in line with funders priorities e.g. Comic Relief or the UK Government, the roles were based in London, but required regular international travel. It was perfect for me. I can share more on the projects and communities in future blogs, but essentially over the course of 6 years I travelled to some incredible communities, learned a great deal about the factors behind why and how people share bodily fluids that expose them to HIV, conducted training on HIV with such diverse groups of people, monitored projects and discussed with UK and international policy makers the best ways to achieve the UN Goals. As specialists in communicable disease with huge stigma my team and I also supported the Ebola response.

Just as I was getting into the swing of the second year of being CEO of a small International NGO, a great friend suggested I went on a double date with her and her partner, a dairy farmer from rural Wiltshire. Just as fate would have it, the stars aligned and after a few months we found out we were going to be parents.

Initially l saw no reason why I could not continue with my career. Many mums find a way to make it work. The challenge being how to juggle your work/life balance; but when your work is based in a different city, and requires you to work long hours and travel internationally, it’s tough and when your other half works all hours, tending to the cows, making hay, ploughing... it becomes an almost impossibility.

I focussed all my energies into being a first time mum, as I made the full transition to the farm, I learned to cook, make a home... (all those domestic skills I never had) and make a life for myself in Wiltshire. I figured the career would return in due course...

The concept for Savannah Willow came, with the incredibly wonderful and generous gifts that had started arriving at the same time as my daughter (whose middle names are Savannah Willow). We received a beautiful mobile from Tanzania with safari animals on, gorgeous stuffed toys from Zimbabwe and Malawi - all from friends who were living over there who had found local community groups who sell such gorgeous gifts. Groups who were not selling to a national or international market, but where the income from the products make a tremendous difference to the lives of the people who make them.

I realised I had the contacts overseas, the knowledge of what constitutes meaningful community development and the passion/drive to make this succeed which would not only give me an ability to use my brain but also support the amazing products and people who make them.

Frustratingly several of the toys that came for Betty are from groups that are so small they can’t pay for all the crazy and expensive tests the EU requires for me to be able to legally and safely sell them here. However, I’ve reached out to many groups I used to work with and have been able to pull together a diverse range of fabulous items, including jewellery, towels, salad servers... all ethically produced from Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia and I’m currently in discussion with groups in Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi and Peru.

Having worked on public education and public health, retail and marketing is a whole new world for me, so thanks for bearing with me as I am getting to grips with this (and social media). It is still very much community development and I’m so pleased to be able to bring these goodies to you!

As for what the future holds for mumonafarm... Sorry Ben and Levison, you missed your chance ;)
I’ve learned to appreciate the comfort of having put my roots down, and the joys of farm! No two days are the same and it’s a constant hive of activity. Rob has made time to get off the farm and willingly accompany me on adventures to Africa and Asia - we are currently on a baby free trip to Morocco! Farming is something every country does so in fact he gets a thrill in seeing how farmers work elsewhere, especially if they get a combine harvester out! For me it’s more than just adventure though, I would love to return to work overseas, I believe it’s the best education for our daughter to learn about the world and Rob would have amazing skills to transfer. It may not be next year but watch this space!

To listen to the full podcast click here: