Helen Rebanks: The invisible life of a farmer's wife.

Sitting down to talk all about her life as a farmer’s wife and Sunday Times Bestseller: The Farmer’s Wife, Holly Thomson caught up with Helen Rebanks over Zoom recently.

A farmer’s wife is by definition just that. The wife of a farmer, but many of us know that you, they, are much more than that. They are often at the helm of the family, organising, navigating storms, cleaning, caring and cooking. Wearing many hats, that of wife, full-time mother, friend, business partner, and too often their own hat is forgotten in the business of life as a farmer’s wife.

Trying to juggle all the plates at once can be stressful and isolating, not to mention the often rural location’s contribution to matters. This is a narrative of farming rarely spoken about or documented in the media. Instagram has been a wonderful way for this community to flourish and connect, though as author Helen Rebanks believes, there is a way to go for their recognition. Through Countrywoman’s Guide we set out to connect countrywomen through the sharing of stories, just like Helen’s.

Helen Rebanks, author, mother, baker and wife to farmer and best-selling countryside author James Rebanks, felt inspired to do just that, after as she described in an interview with The Guardian, ‘there was a fire within me about speaking up for the women that hold things together.’

Drawing on her own unique experiences in the form of her brilliant book: The Farmers Wife, she lifts the lid on what is often an overly romanticised lifestyle and shares her story with the hope to help other women in similar positions, feel seen, heard and not alone. Whilst also to educate others on the realities of life as a farmer’s wife through her memoir, sharing delicious traditional recipes along the way. Helen tells us the gingerbread is really very good! “There’s an eclectic mix of recipes in there,” she explains, “from Shakshuka to sausage rolls, things I just rely on.”

Holly Thomson, one half of the Countrywoman’s Guide duo sat down with Helen to find out more:

“I wanted to create a book that spoke to women, about the doing of family meals and being the glue that holds everything together. It can be both extremely exhausting and extremely rewarding,” Helen began with a smile, “it’s both simultaneously for me. A constant tussle of trying not to feel overloaded and finding the joy in all the little things I’m doing for family and for myself. Living here I’m outside a lot, inside working on fixing the house, cooking or baking something, thinking about what we’re having for supper tonight for example, it takes a lot of different skills to do all of this.”

Before her marriage to James, becoming a farmer’s wife was not in Helen’s grand vision for her life. Despite growing up on a farm, as a teenager, she dreamt of becoming an artist and travelling, though meeting James turned that plan on its head.

Unsure how to make art pay the bills after she graduated from art college, Helen explains how she, “tried various different things, but nothing was sticking. When I worked in a farm shop and café down in Oxford, I started baking cakes. It was this that led me on a path back to the home and to its values, which maybe I hadn’t necessarily valued during those adolescent years.”

Feeling as though something was missing for her whilst living the ‘city life’, she shares with a laugh, “cakes was the thing! Who doesn’t love a good cake? It brings people together.”

Newly married, Helen shares how, “James was determined to stay and make this farm, which his grandparents had, home. It was challenging to get here and make a life here,” though over the years, through hard work and teamwork the couple have made it, “we stuck to our values of bringing up the kids in a glorious place, appreciating good farming and being there for family.”

Her transition to role of ‘farmer’s wife’ was a natural evolution in the couple’s story of building the life they dreamed of. Though it wasn’t always easy, Helen recalls how in the early days, “James was working the farm and other jobs, we weren’t living here. My day to day wasn’t like it is now where I balance the home around exercising sheepdogs, seeing to the hens and being a second pair of hands. I was very much hands on with our two young (at the time) girls, in a house 17 miles away. There was a lot of driving back and forth.”

“Now, I’m rooted on the farm. I’m involved in all the decision making and I run the home, but I am not the farmer’.” Helen is quick to point out.

The romanticised portrayal of a farmer’s wife would have you believe that they are relatively separate from the farm, busying themselves around the house (in particular the kitchen), their skills stretching only as far as stepping in to endearingly rear bottle fed orphans, warming them in safety of the farm house when required, or lending a hand to open gates for their farmer, though this is rarely the case.

“There is a whole history of women who have done this work before me/us. Who’s to say this isn’t every bit as important as the outside work? It seems to get belittled and pushed away in modern life.”

It is often the homemaker that takes on the family load, yet the matriarch of the house is rarely seen, spoken or heard of as much, especially in the media or in stories. Helen goes on to say, “we’re appreciated in our own families, I’m not for a moment saying we aren’t, but the scales fall heavily to one side. Another aspect of writing my story down and cementing the day to day life of a farmer’s wife into literature, was to recognise how important this work is. The family home is the bedrock of all good things and it starts starts round the kitchen table.”

James, Helen’s husband was keen to express his appreciation for the hidden work of his wife in the back of his best-selling book, English Pastoral in which James thanks his wife for all the unseen work, and being the glue that keeps the family together, doing ‘all the mundane stuff that no one celebrates.’

It was during the pitching process for her book that this idea of hidden work or work going unnoticed really came to the forefront, as her Editor at Faber & Faber picked up during one of their conversations, Helen shares how, “she said something that struck a chord with me, ‘this is a book about invisible women.’ It really made me feel very emotional, she’d seen in my writing, what I hadn’t publicised or said plainly.”

Helen shares wonderful stories from her grandmother’s life in the 50s and 60s as a farmer’s wife, but much has changed since then… “Back then the home was a much more matriarchal set up, men worked for their women on these farms. The men came in and the women were in charge. Women were very much rooted on these farmsteads, in these valleys like ours, and commanded a lot of respect, a lot of them still do.”

Farming families are struggling right now, ‘we looked carefully at how we were farming and have focussed on working with nature to produce healthy livestock from sunshine and rainfall.” Helen begins, “it’s not nature OR food production, it can be both. It is a more holistic approach to look after the land, the livestock and ourselves.”

James and Helen run Belted Galloway cattle and Herdwick sheep with a focus on low input farming. “We don’t look for work,” Helen explains, “the cattle and sheep are outside all year round, the breeds are well suited to where we live in The Lake District which is 1100ft above sea level on hilly land.” 

One thing we try to ask all of our guests, is to share a piece of advice to pass on to our readers, in keeping with the transfer of countryside knowledge and skills down through the ages. I was keen to explore how, with the busyness of life as a farmer’s wife, mother and still being Helen, she managed to approach challenges within her own life. The pressures and demands of holding everything and everyone together as a wife and mother, doesn’t let up, even on the days when you’re struggling with something or feeling down yourself. So, I asked, how did she tackle these feelings or days?

“I try to keep sane in a hectic household by getting outside and being on my own sometimes. I love to swim, walk and read. We live in a beautiful place just over the fell from lake Ullswater and that is my school run every day,” she shares before pausing to continue, “quite often, I will pause on the school, pull up next to the lake and sit on a rock for 10-minutes to have a chat with a friend, take some photos or do a quick Instagram post.”

“I’m pulled in lots of directions, but they’re directions of my making. My life is challenging but wonderful. I have to look after myself enough so that I am not frustrated with everyone and everything, I don’t want to be a shouty mum!”

“’I get so much from each of my four children (ranging from 6-18) and from James, it’s not just a one way thing, we look after each other.”

Finally, we’ll sign off with a quote from Helen’s book: ‘And I remember that this busy life we created grew out of the love we have for each other. I know that we can do hard things.’

Helen’s book, The Farmer’s Wife is available in both hardback and paperback, you can click on the button below to order. This is not an affiliate link.

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