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Actress, and now children’s author, Madeleine West, may have her hands full as a mum of six, but she’s not about to let it stop her from setting out to achieve her career and personal goals, including releasing her new children’s book series.

For almost 18 years, Madeleine West has been gracing our television screens. Most memorably, she played fan-favourite Dee Bliss in Neighbours and boasts an impressive filmography, with appearances in Australian household shows such as House Husbands, Underbelly and The Wrong Girl.

But what you might not know about West (37), is that she is a super busy mum raising six children, Phoenix (12), Hendrix (10), Xascha (7), Xanthe (6), and twins, Xalia and Margaux (3) with her partner of 13 years, Vue de Monde restaurateur and regular MasterChef guest judge, Shannon Bennett.

And with six children and two big careers, it often means that near superhuman feats of patience, strength and organisation are required.

“It doesn’t matter how many children you have, whether it’s one or twenty, their purpose on being on this planet is to turn your life upside down and give it a good hard shake, and empty your wallet”

West says, for her, it is the little things, like keeping track of multiple To-do lists, having ‘back-up’ school lunches organised, and only allowing her children to pick one extracurricular activity per term which are important to everyday function of the family.

“It has been difficult [to juggle family life and career],” she says. “But no more difficult than any other challenges that life throws your way. It doesn’t matter how many children you have, whether it’s one or twenty, their purpose on being on this planet is to turn your life upside down and give it a good hard shake, and empty your wallet, but if you accept that, and with that accept all the amazing joys that they bring to your life.”

“It’s about balancing schedules, being extremely organised and just being aware there has to be some give and take, … [and] not having unrealistic expectations.”

But West believes that “nobody should be scared of ambition”. Her own motto is “don’t make excuses, make it happen”, which she made up herself when she realised that achieving her ambitions means “being brave enough to take opportunities that comes your way, and taking risks at times”.

“Everybody has dreams and ambitions—even as mums. The onus is on us to fulfil them.”

And, for West being able to work on to work on her projects is about being able to carve out little pockets from amongst the chaos.

“It is about finding ways to do what we are passionate about, the thing that keeps you sane”.

“I have always been a creative person, and to be the best version of myself I can be, I need to give time to that. I have always explained that to my kids from a very young age that ‘I am Madeleine, your mummy’ but that I am also ‘Madeleine, Shannon’s partner’, ‘Madeleine, the actor’, ‘Madeleine, the writer’ and ‘Madeleine, who likes to bake cupcakes’… there all parts of me, they make up me and to be the best mum I can be, I need to give a bit oxygen to all of those things”.

West’s creativity is certainly evident in her love for stories and storytelling which has led to her newest endeavour, the children’s book series, Lily D V.A.P.

West has long-held a deep desire to write, even writing short stories throughout her time studying Law and Literature at The University of Melbourne. “A famous quote that my friends often quote back at me is that I say, ‘Words have incredible power, and if you treat them with respect, they give you a voice’.”

“It’s such a beautiful, powerful medium that I pray will never be replaced by social media or screen time”.

The series, which was published in May by Hardie Grant Egmont and illustrated beautifully by Joanie Stone, features many constant recurring themes for West’s own life, including her drive and ambition for meaningful accomplishments. “At the heart of good writing is writing what you know. It’s important to harness on what you know and what you have experienced in life, in order to pass on that knowledge”.

And West’s new series certainly has a lot of knowledge to pass on. West says, that as a mother of six, she wanted to challenge the expectations of contemporary fame and celebrity culture, and was inspired writing a children’s book series that helps teach children that success comes through hard work and respect.

“I wanted to create a fictional character that wants to be in the entertainment industry, but for all the right reasons, and that is to tell people’s stories, and to walk a mile in another person’s shoes…because with that comes what I believe is the most important lesson we can teach our children, the greatest gift we can give in this world, is to treat others with respect and kindness.”

“And it’s about achieving that special sense of satisfaction when you work hard to achieve your goals.”

“These are traits that I feel have kind of gone missing in the modern age. It is nice to hark back to these themes and give them some emphasis again.”

Madeleine was also inspired to a write a series that allows parents to, very gently and organically, open a discussion with their children about social issues that they face, such as bullying, illness and death.

“I am hoping that I am providing parents with a vehicle to help them dive into these more awkward conversations, through the medium of a children’s book.”

And despite how busy life with six children continues to be, West says that this is not the last time we will see Lily D V.A.P, with three more books in the series due to come out later this year.

More than ever before the modern world is experiencing uncertainty and change. As a result, many of our boys are struggling. But what impact is this having on the men they will become? Claire Armstrong chats to renowned child focused educator Maggie Dent on how to raise remarkable men in a modern world.

It was an emotional Maggie Dent that spoke in awe of her latest book, Mothering Our Boys; A guide for mums of sons. This is the book she believes she was put on this earth to write and carries her heart and soul. And even with her long list of credentials in the parenting realm, Maggie feels the pressure of how audiences will respond. But as sales climb beyond 10,000 in the first few weeks, it is clear this book resonates with today’s parents.

At her core, Maggie is a mum, a self-claimed, imperfect mum, to four wonderful boys.

Maggie with her sons

“I openly claim I was an imperfect parent, but I always had an intuitive sense my boys needed freedom and times and places without my direction or input,” she says.

“Allowing my boys to take risks, fail and recover, was not easy but it greatly helped build confidence, courage and gave my boys incredible resilience.”

Maggie speaks of modern lifestyles, full of game consoles, social media and an education system so focused on academic results, diminishing the freedom to just “be kids” and providing fewer opportunities for unstructured play, as having a major consequence on our boys’ development.

“We have spent so much time trying to safely guide our children and prevent bad things from happening to them that we are dissolving their ability to judge risk for themselves which ironically sets them up for disaster.”

Today’s boys are struggling.

They are more likely than girls to go to prison, be illiterate, die young, be in remedial classes, have ADHD and more. And we are also seeing poor examples of masculinity in our society via the news and social media.

So how do we show our boys what healthy masculinity looks like and raise men capable of being able to hold their hearts open in relationships?

“The big message in my book is other women can positively influence other people’s sons. Boys observe all humans and learn from everyone around them so it’s important we are all that warm, gentle presence in young boy’s lives.”

Maggie lets Offspring in on a few secrets. A couple of little secrets about raising boys.

“A big secret is play,” Maggie quips.

Could it really be that simple? Maggie explains the real secret to raising boys into happy, well rounded young men, is to let them play and allowing them the chance to make mistakes, get dirty and occasionally get hurt.

Playing together also teaches kids how to behave socially around winning and losing, an experience far more valuable than playing games on screen, which show no emotional response from competitors.

“The play code developed from playing with other children is fundamental for boys to negotiate conflict in adult life,” Maggie says.

She suggests games with only one winner. When they lose, they’ll get better at learning to deal with it. Play is also how we learn to wait, to take turns and develop the art of strategy.

Most boys struggle emotionally due to the inner conflict between hormones, brain chemicals, slower and poorer verbal and emotional processing and social conditioning for boys to appear powerful and successful.

There is a mistaken perception that boys and men don’t feel emotions as much as girls and women — here is another secret – they do. They just process and communicate them very differently.

“Boys need more time to work out what big feelings are all about, whereas girls tend to move from experiencing the emotion to interpreting it much quicker,” Maggie explains.

“When boys feel emotionally vulnerable, they tend to have a default setting straight through to anger, which is often not acceptable in everyday settings.”

Traditionally, boys have been told to toughen up when faced with adversity. Maggie dispels this saying a more nurturing approach is far more helpful for boy’s development.

“All children need to know they are valued and loved. But we need to meet the unique needs of boys. They want close one-on-one chats, but they don’t want them straight after school when they haven’t had time to process it yet.”

Another secret many mums of boys will have already learnt is that non-verbal cues are a primary form of communication. To feel loved many boys just need to know you are “present” to them.

It sounds easy, but in reality, parents are busy people. But Maggie urges anyone with boys to acknowledge that moments of non-verbal connection are incredibly valuable.

With Christmas coming, Maggie reminds parents that boys don’t need the latest fancy toys, instead the best gift would be using the holiday to spend time together playing and making magical memories. It’s about presence not presents.

Some tips on communicating with boys:
• Boys respond to non-verbal connections. Wink, make funny faces, give high fives and thumbs up.
• It’s about presence. Join them in their chosen activity. Watch their favourite show or build Lego together.
• Engage in spontaneous hugs, cuddles and tickles. Launch a ‘surprise bedroom tickle attack’ (for older children!)
• Let them know you think about them when you are apart. Hide notes or jokes in their lunch box or on the bathroom mirror.
• Make eye contact and ensure they are listening before you start talking. Keep verbal instructions short.
• Give choices and ask, rather than demand.
• Help boys with emotional coaching. Teach calming strategies and model quiet times especially with big feelings.
• Create a bedtime ritual. The last thing your son should hear every night before entering the land of nod is how much you love them.
“I always told my boys, ‘I love you more than all the grains of sand on every beach, more than all the stars in the night sky and more than all the hairs on all the bears’ and even now they still remember it.”

 

Madonna’s ex-nanny, Perth-based Angela Jacobsen, chats to Offspring about the challenges and benefits of working for high profile families.

When Angela Jacobson decided to swap her dream of flying planes for a living for a career in childcare, she couldn’t have foreseen she’d end up dancing with her boss, Madonna, for the royal family in India, as a kind of cobbled-together entertainment. The down to earth thirty-three-year old laughingly describes the experience as her, “most bizarre nanny moment,” yet.

“When I was in India with Madonna on her family vacation, we were staying with a king and queen in a palace and all the women were forced to dance for the king, and the princes around them actually, because of the sexist world that they live in,” she explains.

“Madonna made me dance, and she made me wear a sari. That was my weirdest boss moment…I just had to. All the women had to get up and dance for the men. We were in the palace…so I, very begrudgingly, danced around in a sari.”

It was one of many strange celebrity encounters Angela experienced in her 18 months working for the Material Girl who, during her tenure, acrimoniously divorced film director Guy Ritchie. As the sole carer of Madonna’s adopted son, David Banda, Angela joined the singer’s entourage and toured with her, as well as jetting to far-flung locations from her New York base.

Madonna, famed for her discipline and work ethic, is also notorious for demanding her staff work equally punishing hours. According to media reports, the gruelling lifestyle eventually took its toll on Angela and, when she handed in her notice after a year and a half, the furious pop star told her to leave immediately.

“All Madonna’s employees work incredibly long hours, so it’s no surprise that Angela had had enough,” a source told a newspaper, at the time.

“If you work for Madonna you are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s no such thing as a weekend.”

Angela later refuted rumours of a rift with her famous employer, saying, “She was a great boss and I mean it was obviously quite a full-on experience. She was fantastic to work for and a big motivation for me…She’s very much a loving mother.”

Melbourne-born Angela’s experience as Madonna’s nanny was a far cry from her childhood goal of being a pilot. It was a dream she was forced to jettison after her parents divorced when she was seventeen, and she was left in charge of her brother and the family home.

“I didn’t foresee this path,” she says. “I wanted to be a pilot and I was in the Air Force Cadets…It wasn’t as though I set out to do this, it chose me. And as much as I’ve tried to move away at different times, it’s brought me back. It seems that’s what I am now. I’m a carer, and that’s what I do.”

“If you work for Madonna you are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s no such thing as a weekend.”

Nannies inhabit a rarefied space in families. They’re privy to the day-to-day interactions between spouses and parents and children, while being required to maintain a discreet distance from the inner workings of a family. It can be an uneasy mix, this intimacy with strangers.

“You learn a lot,” says Angela, diplomatically, of the trusted position most nannies hold.

“You learn how to treat your husband, how not to treat your husband, what to do with your kids, what not to do with your kids. It’s trial and error for everybody but you learn so much just by being in someone else’s family…I’ve got kids, now, all over the world so to speak…A lot of them are teenagers now and I’ve got them on Facebook…There’s so many positive rewards to come out of it.”

Indeed, Angela, who studied childcare, and has worked as a nanny for average families as well as elite sports people, royalty and celebrities, believes that working overseas as a nanny is one of the best options for young, travel-loving Australians, who might otherwise earn their keep toiling in a cafe or a pub.

“If you’re a nanny you get to live in a beautiful house, you eat lovely food, you go on lovely holidays…it’s hard work but everything in life is hard work. I think that for a young girl, it’s the best way to see the world and also save money. It can set you up for later in life.”

While Angela has used her earnings to invest wisely for her future, she reveals that working for a celebrity boss doesn’t necessarily mean getting paid a celebrity salary. Payment for working for a ‘civilian’ family is on a par with, for example, working for royalty in an Asian country.

“You generally get paid a weekly rate as a nanny,” she explains. “The saving side of it is just incredible. I’ve got two properties. One overseas, and one here in Australia in the city. They were from two different jobs…I basically just set a budget for both jobs.

You don’t pay for anything. You don’t pay for accommodation, or travel. I had a driver in Asia and I had a driver in America too. Or you have a taxi account. All the food is cooked by chefs and all the housekeepers are buying your food, and what have you, and they give you a phone and the internet, all that sort of stuff, so it’s a great way to save some cash. It definitely beats working in a pub!”

Not everyone is cut out for looking after other people’s children, however Angela cites flexibility and patience as the key qualities for being an effective nanny.

“She was a great boss and I mean it was obviously quite a full-on experience. She was fantastic to work for and a big motivation for me…She’s very much a loving mother.”

“You need to be very hard working, as all women do, and all mothers need to be. You need to be flexible, patient, obviously loving and caring. The upside is that it’s a job, so you can leave at the end of the day, or have the weekend free to yourself, and still have your own life, whereas mothers don’t get that break.”

The downside to the job that can offer worldwide travel, a luxurious lifestyle, numerous perks and a window into the cocooned world of the super wealthy, is leaving the children you have become so attached to.

“They’re not your actual children and leaving them would be the hardest part of being a nanny,” Angela says.

“I now put a two year maximum, because I stayed with a family in England for about three years and it just is so hard on me and the children. The baby had grown up just with me. She didn’t know anything else so it was really difficult for me to leave.

 

There becomes a lot of emotional blackmail with the parents as well, at that point, because you are going to upset their children and you are going to upset their life if you move on but, also, you’re a young person that needs their own life. So there’s a fine line.

So, now I like to go in and go ‘okay, I’m doing this for eighteen months or I’m doing this for two years’. It can’t be too short either because that’s not fair on the children to go in and only work for a few months and move on. So to have an outline of how long you’re going to stay for makes it easier…you can see a finish, because sometimes things aren’t that great. So… you…set a goal and say, ‘okay I’m going to work this long and I’m going to earn this amount’. ”

“The upside is that it’s a job, so you can leave at the end of the day, or have the weekend free to yourself, and still have your own life, whereas mothers don’t get that break.”

That focus and determination have seen Angela use her years of professional experience to develop a burgeoning, nanny-related, media career, as well as a number of side businesses. She has written two books, Baby Love and Baby Food, and is just about to start filming a new television show Family 360 (working title) in Singapore.

The show, which Angela describes as having a different focus to the phenomenally successful Super Nanny program, will see her work with local Singaporean families on any problems they may have.

“We go in at the top level, being the parents, and work out the issues that are going on there, because they obviously stem through to the kids,” she states.

“So whether it be nutrition or fitness, or what have you, we tackle it as a whole family and not just go in and put a band aid on and leave. We’ll do eight episodes with one family…and really make it more educational than drama.”

Family 360 is a concept she has discussed with Australian media personality, Steve Vizard, and Profile Talent Management, in the hope the show will be developed in Australia. It’s early days but, so far, the feedback on her idea has been encouraging. Along with her TV show, a project with Google and an interactive Nanny/Babysitting site, utilising Facebook, are also in the works.

Despite her budding media and business careers, Angela is keeping her hand in with the work she knows best and, this time, she’s staying close to home. She recently turned down a job working for the royal family in the Middle East, for a stint as a nanny for an ordinary family in suburban Noranda, Perth.

“I’ve been there and done that with the celebrities and that kind of lifestyle,” she explains, cheerfully.

“I’d much prefer to work in the suburbs of Perth…Everything’s just normal. The kids muck in and help you with the dishwasher unstacking. There’s no maids running around, and all that sort of stuff that I’d got used to.

She pauses for a moment, then laughs. “It’s kind of refreshing to be working back in Australia.”