TV presenter and author Nadiya Hussain, 34, lifts the lid on her life in this very honest interview with Vicky Warrell
You may know her from one of her many cookery books or TV programmes, but now, beloved baker and national treasure, Nadiya Hussain, has decided to open up by penning her very own memoir, Finding My Voice. Each chapter focuses on a different role the mum-of three plays (such as daughter, sister, and wife) and contains witty, sad, and sometimes painful anecdotes from her life. Because of this, the book is, at times, hard to read – for example, Nadiya discusses how she considered suicide after a particularly nasty period of bullying while she was at school, how she was sexually assaulted by a family member when she was just five years old, and the depression she suffered with after the birth of her third child. All of which may come as a surprise to you, as it did to me, because Nadiya has such a sunny, cheerful disposition that shines through on, and off, screen. However, as I discovered when I caught up with her this month, there’s more to the Great British Bake Off winner than meets the eye.
Putting pen to paper
Although Nadiya really wanted to write Finding My Voice, it was tough to decide what it was going to be about – she didn’t want it to be autobiographical: “I wanted it to be little stories and snippets of my life that show what has made me who I am today,” she explains. “As people, we ask ourselves that question all the time and, for me, it’s always been about the roles that I’ve played in my life. I think any woman who takes a step back will realise that all of these relationships – being a daughter, a mum, a sister – shape who we are today. In writing about all of these roles, I managed to go back and think about my life. I loved writing the book, it made me cry, and it made me cackle quite a lot, as well. I think that’s the whole point of it – you should be able to go between both emotions. I talk about finding my voice, and how sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not, and hopefully, when people read it, they can take these words I’ve written and feel like they can find their voice in mine.”
A part to play
Nadiya plays a lot of different roles in her life, but she’s aware that there never really will be a balance between them all. “Some relationships take more work than others,” she states. “Being a daughterin- law is less laborious, and it will always be part of me, but I have my own life. ‘Mother’ is always going to be the most important job. My relationship with my brothers and sisters is always fluctuating between love and irritation [she laughs]. My grandma is the only grandparent I’ve got left, so when she’s gone (God forbid), that’s a chapter that will be closed forever and I won’t be anyone’s granddaughter any more, so it’s about enjoying every relationship and role that I have while I have it. It’s scary that these relationships will end one day, but I feel lucky to have them – and the one with my husband most of all. We have to work at our relationship for the longest and the hardest, because we have no blood ties.”
As there are a lot of personal anecdotes in the book, I ask Nadiya if her children will be allowed to read it. “Absolutely,” she says, firmly. “It’s very easy to be the parent that protects and doesn’t tell their children the full truth, and that’s alright if it works for some people but, for me, for such a long time I felt like a fake parent, I didn’t feel real, I wasn’t authentic. I was telling my kids to be happy, strong, brave and proud, and I felt none of those things myself. Now, I’m really honest with my kids, to the extent that sometimes my husband looks at me and asks if they really need to know that. Sometimes I don’t care what he thinks and I’ll just say it anyway, because I think we need to be honest with our children; we need to tell them the truth, and this is my truth – it’s who I am and the experiences I’ve had.”
A life without anxiety
Nadiya is very open about her panic disorder and anxiety, for example when she spoke about it on the BBC programme, Anxiety and Me, but no longer resorts to using tools to keep calm. “That’s something I used to do,” she tells us. “This time last year, I was using lots of safety-seeking behaviours to try and avoid having a panic attack. This year, I’ve avoided those kinds of behaviours and I’ve learned, through therapy, that I can welcome a panic attack, and I can allow it to come. By doing that, it doesn’t actually manifest itself as a panic attack, it just goes away. What I was doing was reinforcing that negative behaviour, which brought it on even more. Now, I just leave it be and, the longer I leave it, the less likely it is to catch me.” Has she had any therapy, I asked? “I haven’t finished my course of therapy, but the little that I have had has really helped,” she says. “I think that, if I continue and finish the course, I can have a life without anxiety.” While she doesn’t meditate, she finds the fact that she prays five times a day helpful: “Especially when I’m having a busy day, I can just take a step back and pray, and that takes five or 10 minutes, depending on what time of day it is. I find it really therapeutic to stop, do those actions and say those words – it helps me get centred again, feel balanced and be ready for the rest of the day. It’s good for the soul.” Luckily for Nadiya, her sisters are sympathetic and live fairly close, so if she need them, they’re around, but it’s her husband, Abdal, who has been her biggest supporter. “He’s always tried to understand, and having him around means that when there are moments when I’m not having a good time, or I’m having a bad day, he’ll handle the kids. More than anything, though, the thing that helps, is the fact that my children understand anxiety and the fact that I suffer with it.”
When I ask how she juggles work and family life, Nadiya reveals that her and Abdal have a rule about their marriage: “There’s no such thing as 50/50. If you say that everything is split down the middle, there will always be someone who isn’t doing enough, and someone who is doing too much. I think it’s better to say that someone is always putting more into the marriage and family than the other. On days like today, I haven’t seen the kids, and I won’t see them go to bed, which means that my husband is doing most of the work, so that’s how we balance it. Some days, he puts in more, and other days, I put in more, but we don’t strive for half and half because I think that just causes fights and problems, and we don’t need that.” And, to ensure that she spends time with her children and encourages them to open up, Nadiya usually takes them with her on her second walk of the day (she goes on one first thing in the morning, once she’s dropped them off at school). “When they get back home from school, we go around the block and have a little walk and a chat, because that’s the only way I can get them to talk! Otherwise, when we’re at home, they get distracted by our pet rabbit or something,” she laughs.
Sharing is caring
Speaking of family, I wonder what Christmas looks like at the Hussain household [Nadiya and her family are practicing Muslims]. “We don’t actually celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense – we don’t have a tree and we don’t do presents,” Nadiya tells me. “It’s actually my sister’s birthday on Christmas Eve and my birthday on Christmas day, so there is a lot of celebrating happening, just not the Christmas kind. We get together at my house and I cook a full-on meal and everyone brings something (even though I ask them not to every year), so we have the most multicultural Christmas dinner you’ve ever seen! There’s the traditional turkey and Yorkshire puddings, along with things like chicken kebabs, a biriyani and cauliflower cheese. It’s very mixed up.”
This sharing nature extends out further than just what’s on Nadiya’s dining room table. “Every year in the lead up to Christmas, we go to our neighbours and drop off homemade baked gifts and let them know that we’re around, because everything that you don’t want to happen over winter always happens – a boiler breaks down, or the electricity,” she says. “We always ensure that our older neighbours know that they can knock on our door at any time to ask for help or just to sit with us. We try to buy and donate as many toys as possible to charity, too. For us, December is all about sharing and giving.”
Behind the scenes
Nadiya on… her favourite recipe
“There’s always one recipe that we really like and we’ll cook it constantly, and then we get fed up and move onto the next one. The one thing my kids really like is pad Thai, which I learned to make on my trip to Thailand.”
Nadiya on… cooking with her family
“We all eat the same thing. More often than not, on a week day, my kids come home from school and do the cooking themselves. I might leave them a note to cook some pasta or stick something in the oven while their dad is doing other things – he doesn’t cook at all!”
Nadiya on… staying healthy
“One thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that it’s not just about being physically healthy, is about looking after my mental health at the same time. I try to walk 5k every day to give myself some physical exercise, but also to give my brain time to think and have some breathing space to be ready for the day.”
Finding My Voice (£20 Hardback, Headline) and My Monster & Me (£12.99 Hardback, Hachette Children’s) by Nadiya Hussain are out now.