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I’m back in KL and strangely unable to fall asleep despite (or because of?) my fatigue. So I blog!

My return flight on KLM was a pleasure, as always. The flight left on time. The huge aircraft with its recently redesigned interior looked and felt spacious. Their free hot meal, although not the best, was most welcome — fried rice with chicken, cucumber and pineapple salad, a dessert resembling the Filipino maja blanca.

And even though the flight was only 1 hour and 40 minutes long, the flight attendants still distributed earphone so that passengers could enjoy the in-flight entertainment. I was one of those passengers. I watched ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ — the first half on my KL-Jakarta flight, the other half on the return flight. Yup, yup, that’s one of my little secrets: I catch up with the movies I’ve missed by watching them when I fly. It’s not exactly the same as watching them on the big screen or on a HDTV, but at least I get to know what I’ve been missing.

Air traffic must have been heavy tonight because when I took a peek at the flight path on-screen, I saw that the plane made a huge loop somewhere above Malacca. As in, it made a turn just like a car would make a U-turn. Then it continued turning until it made a circle and went back to its original flight path.

So if I’m to go with the heavy air traffic theory, the pilot did it to kill time because he couldn’t possibly have been practicing how to do fancy maneuvers with a huge plane.

Traffic on land was even worse. I’ve never seen KL’s road so full of cars on a Friday night like tonight. It took twice as long as usual to get home which made me all worked up because I got a sick little boy waiting for me in my mum’s house — RoundBoy.

Oh man! He was burning with fever when I touched him! I estimated 38.5º C from the heat emanating from his skin, which was a pretty good guess — the thermometer registered 38.3º (that’s 100.94º F, people!!). So I gave him some paracetamol syrup, gave him a tepid sponge bath (wet a washcloth with tap water, wring off excess water, wipe, repeat) then took his temperature again — 37.8º. Only then did he manage to fall asleep…and his poor mother to breathe normally again.

The only problem left now is how to tell his grandmother that his mother has to fly to Jakarta again on Monday… *groan*

Foreword: I wrote this article for a Polish magazine called ‘Voice For Life’. I wrote it in English, then it was translated into Polish by Ms. Alicja Babkiewicz and published in the January 2009 issue of the said magazine.

I hold a senior position in a Malaysian company that is in the manufacturing sector. My job entails long hours, dinner meetings, meetings during weekends, and a lot of overseas travel. So when people find out that I’m also a mother (and to five children at that!), they always ask me in amazement how I manage to do it.

After considerable thought, I narrowed down the three main factors that are the key to making it work for me:-

1) I am committed to make it work, without losing sight of my main objective. In order to succeed in anything, one needs to work a lot, sacrifice a bit, compromise sometimes, but never lose sight of the objective. This applies to motherhood just as it can apply to sports or business or any other endeavour.

When the twins were born, I took a year off from work. And that year off from work made me realize that, even though I love my children very much, I’m not meant to be a stay-at-home mother. Despite my decision to work, however, my children remain my first priority.

My biggest constraint is my time. Putting in long hours in the office means that I get less time for the children or for myself, for that matter. This is where most of the compromise and sacrifices come in. First of all, every chance I get, I spend time with the children. And whatever little time I get to spend with them, I try to make the most of it. The 15-minute drive to school in the morning can be spent talking about how to tell the age of a tree by looking at its rings…or explaining to them in simple terms how car loans work. If I get up half an hour earlier than usual in the morning, I make them something special for breakfast. During weekends and public holidays, I bake cookies with them, even if it means having to deal with 5 extra pairs of hands in the kitchen.

And since I’ve got very limited free time to divide between the children and myself, I’ve made some small changes in my leisure time. For instance, I used to watch movies the moment they come out. Now, I watch them on DVD or in the plane on long-haul flights. Another example is the salon: I used to spend hours and hours every time I go to the salon. Nowadays, I still take care of myself but I eliminate the nice-to-have-but-can-do-without stuff. Or I do my treatments when the children are in a school program, when I know that I’m not missing out on spending quality time with them. And ever since I started running this year to improve my general fitness level, I either schedule my runs very early in the morning before the children are up or late at night when they’ve all gone to bed.

I may be a working mother but I am a mother first. I never forget that.

2) I am blessed with an excellent support system that I can rely on. This is a very important aspect in holding together my motherhood-and-career juggling act. For example, in the middle of a make-or-break meeting with a very important client, I might get a call from my son’s school, asking me to fetch him because he’s burning with fever. I can’t leave the meeting, but, at the same time, I’ve got to find a way to get my son home and get someone to attend to him once he’s home. This is when I need help and this is where my support system comes in — my husband, my mother, and my extended family.

First of all, my husband has always been very supportive of me. While he pushes me to be the best that I can be in my career, he also understands that I am, first and foremost, a mother. He always insists that I get the children settled first before I attend to him. Not all men are like that and I am thankful for that!

Then there’s my mother, who conveniently lives just five minutes away. I rely on her a lot. She checks on the children whenever I go home late because of a traffic jam or some dinner meeting. She also stays with them whenever I go overseas for yet another business trip.

Then there’s my extended family: my brothers, my sister, my husband’s relatives, my close friends, who help me out perhaps by something as simple as fetching my children from school whenever I can’t make it.

Finally, I’m thankful to have found a reliable live-in maid, who looks after my children as though they’re her own.

3) I am lucky to live in Malaysia. I strongly believe that being in Malaysia makes it easier for someone to start and raise a family because of several reasons:-

  • Malaysia’s Pro-Family Government Policies. The Malaysian government puts every effort to put the family’s interests first. For instance, Malaysian women are entitled to 60 days paid maternity leave. (Hence, most Malaysian babies are breastfed exclusively for the first 2 months of their lives.) Fathers are entitled to a 7-day paid paternity leave. And, if you’re a woman working for the Malaysian government, you can even opt to take a 5-year non-paid leave to raise your child. (It used to be 90 days only, but has been extended to 5 years starting September 2007.)
  • Affordable Healthcare. The cost of giving birth in Malaysia is relatively very cheap. If you give birth in a public (i.e. government-funded) hospital, you only pay a mere €1 to €2 for a normal delivery without any complications. Delivery by caesarian operation costs less than €100. Even if you choose to go to a private clinic or hospital, packages for a 2-night stay in a 4- or 6-bedded ward cost around €250 for normal delivery or €500 for caesarean operation. And for female employees in managerial positions, many companies include maternity fees in the medical benefits package.
  • Affordable Childcare.After delivery, it’s possible to hire ladies who will bathe the baby, cook special meals for the new mother, massage the new mother, wash the baby’s clothes during the 60-day period after birth (referred to as ‘confinement’ period, because during that time, both mother and baby are expected to stay at home only). These days, there are even special ‘confinement’ centres,  something like a cross between a hotel and a hospital/nursing home where a new mother can check in with her new baby and have their needs all taken care of for 60 days. Different options are available to suit all sorts of budgets. And by the time the new mother has to go back to work, she has many options, as well. Some companies offer in-house daycare facilities, such as the International Islamic University Malaysia, where lecturers can leave their babies and toddlers for a very minimal fee during the day. This gives them the opportunity to check on their children anytime and/or breastfeed their babies in-between classes.
    It’s also quite easy to find elderly ladies or stay-at-home mothers (usually in your own neighbourhood) whom you can hire as baby sitters. You just drop off their child on your way to work, leaving behind some clothes, disposable diapers, feeding bottles and milk, then pick them up on your way home.
    It’s also very affordable to hire live-in maids, usually from Indonesia, Philippines or Vietnam, whose salaries start from as low as €80 per month.
    Sometimes, a mother need not look too far – her own mother or mother-in-law who has already retired is usually more than happy to take care of her own grandchild.
  • FamilyFriendly Society. Shopping malls and restaurants in Malaysia welcome families. Restaurants offer family meal packages, kids’ meals and promotions for kids (e.g. kids eat free if accompanied by two adults) and usually have baby high chairs ready. Major hypermarkets provide trolleys equipped with infant seats. A Swedish furniture store offers an enclosed indoor playground for children to play in while their parents shop – for free (never mind if it’s only for an hour).

The result? Malaysia has one of the highest birth rates in South East Asia, second only to the Philippines. Large families in Malaysia are common. It’s considered ‘normal’ to have 3 or 4 children. A family with 5 children is considered big but won’t really raise eyebrows, as there are even families with 6, 7, or even 10 children. Little wonder then that MPVs and vans enjoy brisk sales in Malaysia!

In conclusion, I believe that it is possible for a woman to successfully pursue a career and, at the same time, achieve the pinnacle of motherhood: i.e. raising children into secure and successful individuals. I am living proof of that — my mother has always worked all her life and I never felt neglected as a child. Now, my daughter tells me that she’d like to be a teacher when she grows up and that, once she has her own children, I can take care of her children in the same way that her grandmother takes care of them now!

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Interesting fact: According to statistics from the Department of Development of Women, Family and Society (Kementerian Pembangunan Wanita, Keluarga dan Masyarakat), some 10% or 24,300 out of 243,000 civil servants aged between 18 and 39 years old give birth every year. And this does not include the private sector yet!

Have you ever felt so tired and so exhausted…but you just couldn’t fall asleep? Even though every fibre of your being is  screaming for rest?

This happens to me a lot whenever I’m travelling. Which is really a shame because that’s about the only time I get to sleep without any of the twins waking up for a diaper change or to ask me for some milk in the wee hours of the morning. (*Sigh* Yup, they’re members of the International-Federation-of-Toddlers-Who-Still-Hang-On-To-Their- Feeding Bottles-And-Are-Not-Quite-Ready-To-Be-Toilet-Trained-Yet.)

I used to blame caffeine for this most irritating inability to fall asleep after a long day in a foreign country. You know they always serve an endless flow of coffee and tea during meetings? (Who started this practice anyway?!) Yup, I told myself. That must be it. So I put my theory to the test and limited myself to just one cup of coffee per day. I’d even take it early in the morning. But it didn’t help. Not really.

Then remembering how Lola would always fall asleep in front of the TV, I’d try turning on the TV and looking for some show to literally bore me to sleep. But I’d only end up watching a rerun of a movie that I’ve always wanted to watch… and going to bed at 1 or 2 am. (Quick note: When I say ‘Lola’, I’m referring to my mom. Everyone calls her Lola — my children, my husband, my mother-in-law, even our neighbours and her colleagues!)

So I’d try just lying down, keeping perfectly still, with my eyes tightly closed. Kinda like the little trick I always use on my kids — “You don’t have to sleep. Just close your eyes and rest.” And the child who initially resisted taking a nap would always, always, always end up falling asleep. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t work on me either. Even with my eyes shut, my mind would refuse to shut down. Those clouds I saw from the plane window would have made a fantastic shot. I wish I brought my camera with me. Hmm…maybe cameras would be cheaper in Jakarta now that the Rupiah has dropped a lot. Muja should have gotten himself a Nikon. Even NASA uses Nikon what?? They even sell Nikon rifle scopes now. What’s next? Nikon contact lenses? Haha!

In the end, I’d give up, get up, take my laptop, answer emails, send memos, go through documents. You know — do some work. And I’d pound away at my keyboard until  my eyelids start getting heavier and heavier at their own accord… and sleep would mercifully come at long last.

What puzzles me the most is this: whenever I’m at home and it’s time to get the twins to go to sleep, I’d lie down with my human pillows on both sides of me, and I’d almost always find myself falling asleep before they do! Maybe I just miss my babies whenever I’m away from home. Yup, that’s it. I just miss my babies. The working mom’s usual travails…

Weekends are supposed to be the time for working mums to catch up on the lost list of errands that accumulate during the week. But I never get anything done on weekends. Well…almost never.

Saturdays for me typically start with a trip to Tesco Hypermarket. Why Tesco? Coz they open at 8 am, that’s why (and their prices are much lower than the supermarket that’s a mere 5 minutes from our house). At such an early hour, I don’t have to jostle through a huge crowd to push my trolley or fight my way through a gaggle of makcik-makcik (aunties) to pick out the biggest shrimps or wait forever in a queue to have my fruits and veggies weighed and tagged at the weighing station.

Such trips to the hypermarket normally take an hour, but if the kids decide to tag along, it can drag up to 3 hours, depending on how many kids I have with me. They help me push the trolley (sometimes, it becomes a tug of war of sorts, as I try to maneuver the trolley one way, while RoundBoy pulls it another way!), run to the weighing station with a precious bag of broccoli (they LOVE broccoli!), tick items off my shopping list (sometimes they even prepare the shopping list, complete with little check boxes on the side), grab stuff off the shelves and arrange them in the trolley (non-food items, tins and boxes, frozen stuff, cold stuff, fresh items, fragile items). The highlight of the shopping trip for them is when they get to pick out some snacks for themselves. Their current favourite? Sushi! And since Tesco strategically positions by the checkout counter several ice cream freezers and small glass-door refrigerators filled to the brim with drinks, they often indulge on ice cream cones and some drinks while waiting for the cashier to finish doing his thing.

So why does grocery-shopping take top priority in my to-do list? Because if I fail to go, the kids won’t have anything to munch on throughout the weekend and for the rest of the week. Sometimes, as early as Thursday, my eldest son would start reminding me “Mama, we’re out of fruits” or “Mama, we need some fresh milk“. (I don’t allow junk food and just keep the fridge filled with fruits and yogurt and the kids love it.)

I spend the rest of the day just hanging out with the kids — watching TV, playing board games or computer games, doing some origami, preparing them snacks, chasing after the twins. Oh, but I make sure I get to put a few loads of laundry into the washing machine in between. Despite having a maid, I’m quite anal about doing the laundry myself because I like to keep my whites white and my coloureds in their original colour! 😉

Watching TV with the kids is important for me because I get to monitor what they watch. For instance, after seeing how violent or adult-oriented the cartoons in Cartoon Network can be, I’ve locked that channel ever since. Sometimes, when watching a movie or sitcom with them, I squeeze in a comment or two in between, just so they know what’s okay and what’s not, what’s real and what’s fantasy. And more importantly, watching TV with them helps me understand their world so much better. For instance, I know what RoundBoy means when he asks for a green plate because he’s “grass-type”, thanks to those hours I spend watching Pokemon with them.

Sometimes, we cook small things like pancakes or ‘Eggs in a Nest’ or chocolate chip muffins. Just imagine the chaos in the kitchen with 3 pairs of hands helping out”! The kids just love to cook and even attend cooking classes during school holidays. And DH is the lucky one who gets to taste-test everything. I remember the time I made some melt-in-the-mouth Orange Mini Muffins With Brown Sugar Glaze (thanks to the Pioneer Woman! I still can’t decide which one I love more — her recipes or her photographs or her sassy writing…), DH groaned and asked me how can he possibly not gain weight when I keep on cooking such irresistible stuff? 😉

When the twins are having their nap (and I’m not napping with them), I sometimes rush to the bank (RHB Bank is open 10am-4pm on weekends, thank goodness!) or to the dry cleaners’.

When the weather is not so hot by late afternoon, I do some weeding in the tiny patch of land in the driveway so that the flowers don’t get choked by weeds, while the twins frolic in the small inflatable pool and the bigger kids play with their bikes. Sometimes, we ignore the mosquitoes and stay for half an hour or so at the nearby playground, to allow the kids to let off some of their boundless energy… especially my eldest!


My eldest in action…

On some weekends, DH grills lamb chops and chicken wings with the kids. What kid can resist playing with fire with their father? 😉

Once in a while, we go to the river behind the zoo. The river’s not that great, but it’s quite clean and kids just looove the water (I’d pick a river anytime over a chlorinated swimming pool). And DH does the grilling (burgers taste best grilled!) while I splash around with the kids.

Sure, I nag them about taking a bath and picking up their toys and doing their homework, but it’s evident that the kids revel in my presence. Even if I’m just sitting in a corner reading a book or trying (key word is trying) to get some work done on my laptop (or in tonight’s case, get this post finished), they’re more than content, as long as they can run to me for a quick hug and kiss, as long as I’m there to listen to them when they regale me with stories about the butterfly that they managed to ‘save’ in the garden after its wings got torn, as I long as I’m there to admire the paper planes that DH made for them, AS LONG AS I’M THERE, even if just to peel and cut up some fruits for them to munch on.

My bag is still unpacked since my Jakarta trip and I’ve to start packing soon for my Bangkok trip this Monday. Tons of photos are waiting for me to be sorted out and placed inside photo albums that are still wrapped in plastic. There’s a working paper that I still need to finish and a quotation to a potential customer in Vietnam that I need to email ASAP. And lots of things still need to be ticked off my to-do list.

But I just can’t help it. I absolutely ‘never get anything done’ on weekends!

Am I complaining? Not at all. I don’t care one bit. The kids are happy, DH and I are happy, and I can die in my sleep tonight without any regrets because I got to spend quality time with my family.

As someone once said, no one ever said in their death bed, “I wish I spent more time at the office.” To that, I whole-heartedly agree!

The worst thing that working mothers all over the world probably ever have to deal with is guilt.

Guilt for being in the middle of a make-or-break meeting, when your son’s kindergarten teacher calls up to say he fell off the monkey bars. ..

Guilt when you come home after a long meeting at the lawyer’s office to finalize and sign affidavits, only to find your children asleep on the couch, the TV still on…

Guilt to find your daughter’s teacher’s note reminding you to buy the English textbook that she’s been bugging you about the night before, when you were too busy finishing your monthly report to your Head Office…

Guilt as you hurriedly drop off at the daycare centre your crying, kicking, screaming toddler, with no time to spare to soothe and comfort him, as you are running late for a very important presentation…

Guilt when you call home from a hotel room 10,000 kilometers away from home, to tell your sick son that you’ll be home “very soon”…

I’m wracked with guilt at this very moment, as I pack my bag for a business trip to Jakarta with my husband tomorrow.

It’s just for two nights…Lola will be sleeping with them…They’ll be all right…It’s just for two nights…

Guilt. No matter how many times you’ve been through it before, it never gets any easier.