It’s instantly recognisable for any mom: the woman holding her tired baby to her chest. She looks exhausted, she’s not wearing any makeup and she’s dressed down in in a T-shirt and tracksuit pants.
“The not so glamorous part of parenting!” Michelle Gildenhuys Adams captions the Instagram pic.
Her husband, actor, singer and TV personality Emo Adams (43), is driving while the former model and Miss SA finalist has their youngest son, Khai (21 months), on her lap.
“We spent a good amount of time last night circling our neighbourhood to get this little one to sleep,” the caption continues.
This is an honest depiction of parenthood, a far cry from the perfect family pics people usually share on social media. Just a regular mom and dad who are exhausted and will do anything to get their crying child to sleep.
And sleepless nights aren’t the only challenge Michelle has had to face in the past year: she also had to close her new business, get through a bout of Covid-19 and, like millions of other parents, adjust to home-schooling her kids.
Today, she’s the picture of perfection in a blue tailored suit and trendy white trainers.
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The mom of four boys – James (9), Kadar (5), Ziah (4) and little Khai – seems to be firmly in control. But she’s not shy to admit she’s only human and struggles to keep all the balls in the air. And the past year has been especially tough.
“Yesterday was just one of those days where I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’m concerned about finances, family, the boys’ health and wellbeing, their future, the messy house, the piles of laundry, my husband’s health, his heart and his concerns, Covid-19 and its effects on everything we’ve worked for, the people we employ, the cost of living – and the list goes on,” she writes on Instagram.
Her worries made her neglect herself, she admits during our chat in a coffee shop in Kuils River, Cape Town.
“I started forgetting to take my vitamins, to do things that make my body feel healthy. I was lethargic because I wasn’t eating healthily,” she says.
“I realised I needed to prioritise my wellbeing again so I could be there for my children. It’s no help at all to my kids if I’m an anxious, angry, unhealthy mom because that affects the family environment,” she adds.
“When you feel this way, you need to take control and realise something’s bothering you. Work out a plan for how you want to go forward.”
Her long, dark locks show hints of grey these days. Michelle says she’s accepted her natural hair colour and stopped dyeing her hair in September last year.
“Everyone asks me about it. If you want to dye your hair, do it. Will I ever dye my hair again? Maybe. But I’m not going to let society dictate that decision. The grey reminds me of my inner strength and it’s also about self-acceptance,” Michelle says. “I hope to let other women feel that who they are is enough.”
The Covid-19 pandemic hit the Adams family hard. Emo, who runs a production company, saw his business grind to halt. Filming and live broadcasts could only resume in August, and all his singing gigs were cancelled.
Just six weeks before lockdown, Michelle had opened a beauty salon in a shopping mall in Kuils River. That too ground to a halt with hard lockdown.
“I cried every time the president spoke,” Michelle says.
“I’d just built this small business and if you’ve used your savings and you’re forced into lockdown, you panic.
“I didn’t know if we’d ever be able to open again. But I also felt I needed to believe in what I’d built, that everything would work out.”
And on top of everything, she and Emo had to home-school their sons.
“That was just a next level of chaos,” Michelle says, laughing.
“And I have to say I’ve never met hungrier children in my life. They were constantly hungry; it was never-ending,” she says. “All they wanted were instant noodles. We should own a noodle factory by now!”
The salon opened again in June and it’s doing well, she says.
The three eldest boys are back at school now and in the afternoon, as soon as she’s finished at the salon, Michelle drives them to their extramural activities.
She and Emo – who also runs the couple’s coffee business – try to organise their days so one of them is always at home to be with Khai. When necessary, her mom gives a hand.
Routine has been their saving grace. The kids are in bed by 8pm so Michelle and Emo can spend quality time together.
“It was important to me last year to safeguard Emo’s mental wellbeing. For someone who usually does 250 shows a year to be down to only three – I can only imagine what a blow that is to your mental health.
“That’s why I was always making sure he’s okay. But Emo is very adaptable and he helped me adapt too.”
In January, they were faced with another challenge when Michelle contracted the coronavirus.
“My dad, who lives with us, got sick first. Though he didn’t have breathing difficulties, he could barely lift his head off the pillow. I was really worried,” she says. “And a few days later I woke up unable to smell or taste anything.”
She also experienced fatigue and wasn’t surprised when the test came back positive. She immediately isolated herself in her and Emo’s bedroom.
“Of course, I have a one-year-old who doesn’t understand what’s going on. When my baby cried, I had to sanitise my whole body, put my mask on and go and comfort him. Afterwards, I had to sanitise again. Then, when he cried again, the whole process would start all over,” she recalls.
“Sometimes, I’d visit the boys but I’d chat to them from a distance. I didn’t want the children talking to me through the bedroom window because I felt that would only increase their anxiety. And because my dad was also sick at the time, I didn’t want to scare them. I wanted them to see me and realise I was okay,” Michelle explains.
No one else in the family got sick and her dad recovered. “Still,” Michelle shakes her head, “what a way to start the new year.”
But despite it all, she and her family are deeply grateful for everything they have. “Our own struggle and challenges at this point are much smaller than many people’s, so we constantly remind ourselves of that.”