The elegant Helen Prest-Ajayi is a mother of three beautiful daughters. At 60, her youthful appearance belies her age and that was the first thing that struck me when I walked into her beautiful residence for the interview. An ex-beauty queen, author and literacy advocate, Mrs. Prest-Ajayi, still retains the poise and charm that earned her the coveted Miss Nigeria title 41 years ago. Here, she speaks about motherhood, healthy living and support systems.
FABMUMNG: On the importance of friendship as a mum
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Sometimes, the word ‘friendship’ is a taboo word because we are so scared of opening ourselves up to people because we feel that they would take advantage of us and we would be hurt by it.
And, yes that is true, very true, that does happen, but you need to have friends. I have to be honest with you. As a younger person, I didn’t have friends because I was too rigid.
I didn’t understand what friendship was all about and the moment you did something that annoyed me, I cut you off. Oh, that’s not a good person, I cut him/her off. But friendship is more than that; friendship is about having people in your life, multi-faceted people in your life.
Now, what do I mean by that? Just like you are a person that has many sides, there are many sides to me that people never see but when you see my friends, they reflect every side that I am.
So really, what I would ask you to do is to play a game with yourself and maybe with your friends because there are some friends you see that are together, yet so incongruent. You would be wondering why that person is my friend? They are so different on the surface. But, deep inside, that friend is reflecting a facet of you and that is very important.
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What I’m saying is that you need to have a variety of or different types of friends. I have friends whom I party with and they are fun. I also have other friends, who I read with, we talk about books together and very deep things.
I am very deep because that is a part of my personality. Now, the mistake you will make is taking that friend to a party friend or taking a party friend to a book friend, it doesn’t work.
And people are always forcing people into molds that don’t fit them. You have to understand people, people cannot be everything to you if you keep people in the area that they are most comfortable with, then ask, am I comfortable with this person in that mode? If you are, it’s because they are fulfilling something that you need in yourself. There are other friends I just travel with, they are travel friends. So, if I want to take that friend and put it in another space, it won’t work.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: I find that what people tend to do is that they want that one friend to be everything to them, it doesn’t work like that. You know you have friends that are jealous of you, you know that, but they can’t help it, that’s their make-up. The moment you understand that you are not going to be saying ‘she was jealous of me’.
There is nothing wrong with that, jealousy is a human emotion. It is for you to be understanding, so, if you are going to cut out people because they are jealous of you, then you are not being fair.
We all have pangs of jealousy; you have to relate as long it is not dangerous to your life. Even in that jealousy, you could have love.
FABMUMNG: How can we keep meaningful friendships?
Helen Prest-Ajayi: You have to be mature about friendship if you want to keep friendships; you have to understand that people have their frailties. You will have to recognise that, absorb that, accommodate it and not put people into pigeon holes that they are not supposed to be in.
However, friendship is so important, it brings joy, comfort, company; it is a very important part of life itself. People that have no friends do not live long; you need to have friends. So, be intentional about your friends and don’t overburden them. People overburden friends too much: ‘Oh, you didn’t call me today, yesterday’ and so on. It’s not going to work like that. You are going to lose friends.
All my friends, I’ve kept for over 40 years because I understand them, they understand me. We need to understand and stop being self-centered, it’s not all about you. If you are able to do all that, you will have friends, you will keep friends and you will enjoy all the blessings and abundance of friendship.
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Look at Gale and Oprah, it works like that. That is a prime example of somebody knowing where their position is; Gale has her own life, she has her own goals in life, she didn’t want to be Oprah but wanted to have a meaningful career, she wanted to be in the limelight but not severe limelight. You have a responsibility for friendship, so does your friend. Your friend has to understand your value and you have to understand their value.
If Oprah didn’t know Gale’s value, it wouldn’t have worked. And that’s what we fail to do, everybody wants to be the star. You should understand that there is a time for you to be a star and a time for your friend to be a star. Allow others to shine too, it is not just about you. So, friendship as a mother, that’s a time to make intentional friends because these are the ones that will be with you when you have the empty nest.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: I have a theory on that which is not too different from life’s theory, and that theory is – if you cannot pay, then try and make a physical effort for yourself. Let me explain, just like a family that is having a party, some people donate money, others, they don’t have the money to donate, so they help physically.
Of course, we all love the person that donates money and helps, so there are three options. So, support and help, you must, it’s not an option not to do anything, that’s just selfish and uncaring. When you say how can husbands support their spouses, we have those that can afford to pay for help.
I’ll give you an example – when I had my last child, I had her almost at the age of 40, which means I was quite an old mum and I made up my mind that since I’m an old mum, I would not have the energy.
And I told my husband that I couldn’t cope with the chores, I have done it before, but I can’t. So, when our baby came, he was bragging ‘okay I can assist’. The first day after the hospital he stayed up all night, and afterward said ‘I can’t do this’. So, what did we do?
We got some nurses to help, one in the morning, one at night. That is support. So, I won’t be expecting my husband, after he has paid and he’s got the nurses, to always wake up at my prodding and come and help. Now, if he could not afford that, then definitely, he must get up and help. That’s just life, but you cannot just do nothing. Nobody should support a spouse doing nothing in such a situation because the child belongs to the two of you; the home is for the two of you. Marriage is for two parties, there is no one party that is higher than another, so, both parties have to come together to do the work.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: No, not at all. My daughters’ husband will be my sons. Motherhood is not about you and your desires, it’s about the children that God has gifted to you. Children are not jewelry around your neck, neither are they meant for you to fulfill all your unfulfilled ambitions in your children.
No, your children are separate, God has given them to you to raise and to become useful to fellow human beings and society. It’s not about raising them to be a carbon copy of you and your unfulfilled ambitions, they are individuals that have their destiny. They have their own lives; you are a shepherd to guide them to fulfill their destiny.
You didn’t bring them here to fulfill your destiny, you are not having children because of what you want, you are having them as a gift from God to come into the society and world and grow into whatever the world requires of them.
My prayer is that my children would be useful to the family and to society at large. My vision for every child is to become a useful human being, nurturing, caring, kind, useful, hardworking, intelligent. I raise human beings that will make a difference, that will contribute to making the world a better place. They should come to do good and depart. My children are an extension of me, quite alright, but I hope they are a good extension and they should also be an extension of themselves as well.
FABMUMNG: Thoughts on Mother’s Day?
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Mothers’ Day is a great day to say thank you to mothers everywhere. We need to say thank you. Without mothers, there will be no children. Mothers are really the seed starting points in a home, in a community, in a society, in a country. The quality of a mother determines the quality of society. We need to take motherhood and mothers really more seriously. It is not something that should just be left to chance.
Because when the wife, the woman, the mother is educated, it is likely that the children will be educated; mothers are the first teachers, you can only give what you know. And education is everything. That early education is everything, that’s where you learn about a balanced diet, hygiene, etc.
We currently have Coronavirus and yet some people are behaving as if they’ve never been told to wash their hands before. If you went to school and come from an educated home, you will know that it starts with washing hands.
Hygiene is key, all these you learn from the primary level; and when your mother is educated, it will be instilled in you. So, Mothers’ Day is important for us to remind ourselves of the value of mothers. It is a time to reflect and to thank them. That is, the children, the husbands, and society should thank them because mothers are key. Without good mothers, you will not have an effective society. Well educated mothers are putting time and energy into raising respectful and worthwhile human beings. It takes a lot of work, a lot of energy, a lot of thoughts. And it starts from your home, the community, the society and the country.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Thank you. That is very gracious and kind of you. Really, it’s all about being kind to people and being happy. You know, when I say that, people just think I’m talking, but truly, beauty emanates from inside, and it is what’s inside that influences your outward looks.
How you interact with people, your ability to empathize with people, to be kind, caring, it shows on your face. Of course, you also need to look out for yourself, you need to eat healthily because you are what you eat.
I can’t truly emphasize that more, what you eat in your 20s comes back to haunt you in your 60s. Apart from having a balanced diet, it is more by eating fresh and not cooking things until they are dead.
If you’re going to have ‘Efo’ or something like that, you don’t have to cook it forever, but quickly so that the nutrients are retained. For fruits, I’m shocked that I hear people don’t eat fruits. Please eat fruits with vitamin c and antioxidants. Take your vitamins in fruits, it is better off than taking it in tablets. Try to drink water, I know it’s difficult, but you will benefit from it later.
And then, sleep. Sleep is the time the body repairs itself. Don’t put on too much weight, weight ages you.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Well, mothers should be focusing on getting the best outcomes for their children – that is your duty as a mother, you are responsible for them, you are their primary caregiver.
You are the first teacher of that child; your focus should be doing your very best to raise that child with the core values that you believe will bring the best outcomes. What are the core values? Your children should be kind, they should love their neighbours as themselves, and should be caring.
Once a child learns how to care, it is a huge core value for society and not just your family. This means they will care for the environment because they understand the meaning of care and looking out for other people and not just themselves. If you raise selfish people, they will become selfish adults, they will steal our nation’s wealth for themselves.
The core values are?
So, on core values, I will say raise your children well in those key core values which are love, care, understanding, people-focused not self-focused. Once your child can understand those things, they will be able to relate with the world better, have more social intelligence and make the world better.
They will be able to get on better with their job where they have to relate with other people. And how you relate with other people is not so much of how much you know but how you are able to interact; social intelligence, cultural intelligence, which is politeness, knowing your culture and how to act within it.
Your degree or education only gets you so far, I will say your paper qualification is only 40 percent, the remaining 60 percent is how you relate in the world, how you relate with other people.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Motherhood is a lifetime position; nobody is going to sack you from that because it is a lifetime. But there is a season that is really important and that’s probably the first 15 years, let’s say when your children are in primary school and secondary school.
After that 15 years, your relationship with them changes, you are still their mother, but the intensity is no longer as much. So, it’s important, if you want to keep going or be relevant, not only to your children but to colleagues and your society at large, to use the first season of motherhood to prepare for the season after the primary stages.
That first season is 15 years, the remaining years are a lifetime, so you don’t want to be all washed up after the children are gone and you have an empty nest.
So, you should be mindful about that season and use it intentionally – this is the time to network, the friends you make should be made intentionally. Look for friends that will enrich your life.
You can’t be talking about nappies and diapers forever; your friends should have a broad range of abilities and be compatible with you and what you intend to do in the future.
Helen Prest-Ajayi: Maybe acquire new skills you can learn at home. Today, with the internet, you can learn at home at your convenience, because when your children leave and you have an empty nest, you need to give yourself a choice.
Do you want to go back to work? Start your own business? Support your husband’s business? Or become a stay at home mother who is a super mother, a great cook, and homemaker? So, focus on the children, prepare the ground for when they have left the nest and you will have the rest of your fulfilling life to live.
Just before you go, have a quick look at why Benita Okojie thinks new mums need people around them