Helen Ward is a 37-year-old artist and designer living in Bristol with her husband Tim and their children Jet (7) and Della (4).
An accomplished artist and designer, Helen divides her time between working as a freelance product designer for Wild & Wolf in Bath, exhibiting her Paper Entomology work and developing new artistic commissions. When she’s not working Helen enjoys making things (let’s be honest, she’s pretty good at this), swimming and going on holiday.
I first met Helen when our children were toddlers at a local playgroup, which not only saved us the job of entertaining our little ones but also provided an important public service to weary local mums. We gossiped and moaned (think I did a fair bit of moaning) and drank luke-warm tea and hid biscuits from our prying children. Since then our children have started school (mime’s high-five) so we are at very similar points in our lives now: both striving to find creative, fulfilling jobs which pay the bills and fit around the children.
Like so many women it’s not been an easy journey for Helen, both literally and figuratively. Although being self-employed worked when the children were babies’ things got much harder when three years ago Helen was offered her dream job. The job was based in Cheltenham and for 18 months Helen endured a four hour commute every day. That would be exhausting without children, but with the youngest only one-year-old it was too much and the inevitable feelings of guilt led to a decision to quit and work for herself again. The office culture of being chained to a desk nine to five seems as strong as ever unfortunately (please read my article about flexible working and how things are starting to change).
Helen still commutes to Bath a couple of days a week but as any freelancer will tell you, you have to be prepared to go where the work is. So an average week consists of working two full days a week and then during school hours only for the remaining three days. A self-confessed owl Helen often works into the evenings too. But like all of us juggling a family and a career sometimes you have to spin a few plates to get things done (hopefully not whilst serving dinner).
The path to ‘flexible working’ is not a well-trodden one. I often feel most of us are winging it to a certain extent. But what I do admire in Helen is that she is embracing the essence of flexible working without compromising too much of herself. So when the children are at school Helen makes time to go for a swim and when she’s working from home she can collect them from the school and take them “home for cuddles”. But like all families, childcare arrangements can often feel like a military operation and sometimes (but not always…) the women end up doing the lion’s share. “For several years it was me who was always the one who sorted out nursery drop offs and pick ups and this had a massive impact on my working life. It was really easy to fall into a pattern of me doing all the grunt work with this as I was the one who had been off on maternity leave twice.” Helen’s husband Tim was able to work out flexi-time arrangements with his employer which enabled the balance of power to be resumed. It’s so much better this way and not only does Helen feel less put upon but Tim is also more involved with the kids. I have a similar arrangement with my husband and from time to time you need to alter things, but appreciating each other’s professional lives is crucial to finding that balance. Helen’s top tip to achieving this is “team work” and I couldn’t agree more. “There’s no point in trying to be all things to all people at all times as it’s just not going to happen. This is the path to disappointment and exhaustion! Sharing responsibility for childcare made all the difference to us and if someone offers to help you out, say ‘Yes please!’.”
But when push comes to shove (no baby puns intended) Helen is feeling really positive about her future career and although she may occasionally look back on how she could have done things differently, prioritising her children is never going to be a decision she’ll regret. “I often wonder where I would be in my career now if I had left it a bit later in life to have kids – I was 30. I know that if I had waited, I probably could have progressed a bit further with my design work and maybe seen a bit more success before getting into the baby zone…that said, now both my girls have started school, I can feel life picking up momentum again and I am feeling really positive about what is to come!”.
If money were no object would she change paths? Apparently not (which is a sure sign she’s in the right field). “I would absolutely still make things. I would find myself some ridiculous massive studio space with loads of light and craft materials and sit around in there listening to audio books.” Marvellous stuff Helen and you never know it might happen one day…
Helen on social media…
“The only social media I use these days is Instagram. I post my work up on there and I do get commissions from that quite often. Any of this income is then entirely counteracted by me looking at other people’s work on Instagram and spending all that money buying their stuff!”.
I feel your pain Helen and so does my credit card.
Helen’s daily digital routine…
“I was a Facebook user for years, but gave that up 12 months ago as I found the whole thing was just starting to get me down and wasn’t that useful any more. I can honestly say that I haven’t missed it once! I have a pointless habit of looking on the BBC News website which I need to STOP as it achieves nothing. I use Pinterest every day for work and have about a million secret boards for all my ongoing projects. Other than that, I just look on Instagram. I need to get a check on myself sometimes as I do go through phases of looking at it too much. I spent months and months obsessively looking at people who posted up pictures of interiors last year. Eventually I had to do a mass cull of loads of the people I followed to stop myself. I felt better once I had, but I do have a sneaky look back at them every now and then – I can’t help it!!”.
Don’t worry we all love a bit of stalking (in a completely harmless, non-creepy way of course)
“On the whole, I tend not to follow too many Mums that I don’t know. I am always mindful on Instagram that you only get a very contrived view of people’s lives and that the reality of it all really might be quite different. It’s all too easy to berate yourself because some other mum with five children and two dogs has still managed to look amazing, keep an immaculate house and has only fed her children on home cooked organic fruit and vegetables. In reality I like to think they have probably just been crying in a messy corner all day and they’re posting the pictures up as therapy while pretending to themselves that everything is marvelous (surely!). I’m not bitter – I’m practical!”
Thanks for saying what we all feel. Aspirational images, which are often carefully constructed, are the bread and butter of the Instagram and while there is nothing wrong with a bit of virtual day-dreaming I agree we shouldn’t believe the hype.
Victoria Topping: “Vic is a friend of mine and a creative FORCE!”
Clair Meldrum: “Clair is a painter from Aus who I think does a good job of keeping it real Mum styles!”
Karen Davies: “Let’s make Art provide high quality art workshops and events for children and sometimes adults too. Her feed is full of cool ideas for crafts for kids and some little gems from her family life too.”
Helen is currently working as a freelance senior product designer for Wild & Wolf in Bath. She designs homeware, giftware and toys for major UK retailers and the global market. Helen is currently exhibiting her Paper Entomology artwork at the following galleries: Porthminster Gallery, St. Ives; Sarah Wiseman Gallery, Oxford; Byard Art, Cambridge; Foss Fine Art, Battersea. She also accepts commissions –some of these projects can be seen on her Instagram account @house.of.wards.
Interview by Amy White