Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


A mom who works


“Why can’t you come to the bus stop to pick me up?”

DQ asked me this question everyday when she was eight. It would be followed by a list of names of friends whose moms dropped them off in the mornings and waited for the school bus to arrive each afternoon. The children would hand over their backpacks to the obliging mothers and walk home safely.

I listened but didn’t act on her unspoken request. I had returned to work six weeks after DQ’s birth, leaving her in my mother’s care as I rushed out and back again to nurse her during the early days of infancy. I cleaned up the drool on my shoulder with a Kleenex and attended 9 a.m. meetings. As DQ grew older, she got used to the fact that both her parents went off to work each day. She didn’t know any different. I dropped her to daycare and picked her up. I drove her to swimming lessons and took her trick or treating. I showed up for the Easter egg hunt and Christmas performances at her preschool. It wasn’t easy but it was necessary.

I thrived at work –intellectual stimulation, interactions, goals, deadlines, and meetings! My work took me to Switzerland, my salary meant unrestricted shopping and a holiday in Hawaii. I had a life beyond the dishes and laundry. I got great feedback from bosses and coworkers and most importantly, I found value in my work. In a small way, I felt that my work made a difference to people.

Work also meant dealing with diapers, daycare and daily dilemmas. Every time I took DQ to the doctor for an ear infection, I cringed with guilt when she cried out from pain.

“My son didn’t have any infections until he was three, ” claimed a catty mom who stayed home.

“I am so glad I was home to see my daughter take her first step.”

“I make my own baby food.”

I took all comments personally. Every lapse was my fault. Every milestone was marred by the possibility that I had missed “the first” moment my child had uttered a word or mastered a skill.

My mother, the quintessential stay at home mom wasn’t very supportive. She expected me to quit my job after DQ’s birth. Her philosophy was simple, time away from home meant missing out on the best years of your child’s life.

I was physically exhausted and mentally depleted with my hectic life. All I wanted was “balance”. I talked to other women who walked the tightrope between office and home, calls and homework, travel and school events. I found tips like hire a cleaning service or find a daycare on the way to work very useful. Other advice like take an afternoon off and go to the spa, I chose to ignore. I read books with titles like “Downshifting”, books targeted towards working women.

At a seminar on work-life balance, one woman expressed the view that striving for balance was not the right approach. Cutting down on what you like to do, in order to reduce stress was what most women did. She conversely suggested that we find things that add meaning to our life. Put more on my already full plate? My first thought was – how ridiculous! In hindsight, I think that was the best advice I have received.

I signed up for lunchtime yoga classes. I started writing at night after DQ went to bed. I hired someone to clean my home on a regular basis. I read a book while DQ splashed in the pool. I went for an early morning walk on weekends. I found time to take courses in the evenings after work. Some of my writing got published in local print publications. Not surprisingly, the most well received article was one on motherhood!

In a self-help book titled “Find your strongest life” by Marcus Buckingham the author argues that women should look into their life and relive those moments that reinforce your strongest tendencies; instead of balance, he says, reach for fullness. I understand the concept now. The word balance implies a sense of equilibrium, but also conveys stillness, stagnation. One needs to move to feel alive, so move in the direction of what makes you feel good. Even if that means adding one more item to your to-do list!

For me, work fills me with enthusiasm and meaning. When a worthwhile pursuit energizes me, I am a happier person, a better mother. It was no wonder for me when a year later, without provocation, DQ said “It’s OK if you can’t pick me up from the bus stop. You do so many other things.”

For a mom who works, life can’t get better than this.


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Listless and loving it

“Purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

I am not sure where I read this or even when, but as far as I can remember, I have been a busybody, always doing things. It has been a long quest, trying to find life’s purpose and to pursue it, there was always a list.

As a child, it was simple and unwritten, but followed dutifully.

  •  School
  •  Play
  •  Homework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As an adult in graduate school it was still fairly simple; nothing written but unwavering, all the same.

  •  Schoolwork
  •  Housework
  •  Read books (for pleasure)

As a working mother, written lists made an appearance.

  •  Drop and pickup kid from daycare
  •  Work
  •  Drive kid to activities, birthday parties, play-dates
  •  Doctor’s appointments
  •  Shopping – kids clothes, diapers, food, birthday party gifts
  •  Housework – cooking, cleaning, laundry
  •  Read book to fall asleep

As a single mom working from home, my list included

  •   Meet clients, work, send invoices
  •   Pay taxes
  •   Get car serviced
  •   Pay phone, utilities, maintenance bills
  •   Drop teenager to mall, birthday parties, movies
  •   Take Dad for doctor’s appointments
  •   Join girlfriends for lunch for birthdays, women’s day, movies
  •   Order takeout
  •   Read books

As a newly remarried woman in a new country, with a husband and two kids now, I have no list. My day begins when I send the family out to office and school respectively. I read the newspaper as I sip my morning cup of tea. The day stretches before me like pristine sand on a beach, waiting for footsteps to mark it. I have many hours in which I can do pretty much anything I like. I can lounge in front of the TV all day, hang out in air-conditioned shopping malls on Orchard Road, join a group of housewives for an impromptu lunch or just chill. How wonderful to have so much unstructured time on my hands! But I am stuck.

With no “must-do” lists to execute, I am lost; a lonely traveler without a map in a strange country. Well, not literally lost in Singapore, although it is still a fairly new country to me. I seem to have lost my inner compass. Having always prided myself for being a karma yogi, a period of inaction seems wasteful, criminal almost. Seems pretty rotten to whine about this wonderful time in my life where I can just “be”, without constantly having to “do”.

I think a part of my angst stems from the feeling that my life should have more meaning than checking off a daily timesheet, even if I score “excellent” on the routine tasks that fall in my wife/mother domain. I completely identified with the young Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady – “I will not die washing up a teacup.”

It’s a question of identity. Whether I have lost mine, which was predominantly defined by my working woman/mother persona. Does being a stay-at-home mom take away from my core identity, the one not defined by my career? Does the fact that I am not earning a salary or regular income make me feel “less than”? These are superficial manifestations of a deeper concern, the one about the purpose of my life. My head has always been the dominant part of my personality –thriving in logic and organization, seeking control, looking for purpose in the lists I made (and executed sincerely). But now I am letting my heart lead. This new life feels strange but soothing, calm and carefree. There is a peaceful pattern to my days. There is less stress, fewer expectations and total freedom to explore other avenues and therefore a feeling of not doing enough.

How do I turn this feeling around and make it work for me? I put this question out during my meditation. I laughed at the response that came from the universe – make a list. How simple and intuitive! My head has been hurting, from all the disuse, now that the heart is leading. So my compassionate heart, is pulling my head into the game once again. Go ahead, make a list, it sends out a challenge.  Here it is.

–       Read books

–       Write!