Redefining Motherhood

Three power women who stopped pursuing the unrealistic ideal of the Supermum to find creative and entrepreneurial inspiration in their families

Helmi Yusof
Published Thu, May 10, 2018 · 09:50 PM
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1. Ann Kositchotitana Founder of Sofie & Nate

Ann Kositchotitana is best-known among fashionistas as the owner of cutting-edge fashion store Front Row, which stocked cult and luxury labels such as APC, Christophe Lemaire and Greyhound. In 2015, she closed the 10-year-old company to move to the US with her family, partly because the US has better educational and support systems for her special needs daughter, Natalie.

Ms Kositchotitana, who is a Singaporean PR married to Singaporean analytics expert Ronald Chen, spent the first year settling into their new home in Los Angeles. But by 2016, the entrepreneurial mother had dreamt up a new company, Sofie & Nate Inc, named after her two daughters Sofia, 9, and Natalie, 6.

She says: "They're my inspiration. Everything I do, I do for them. So I named my business after them, to give me a kind of push to do the work that I do every day."

Sofie & Nate began as a fashion company selling custom-blended cashmere that's machine-washable and dryer-safe.

But then something unexpected happened: after visiting a good friend Paul Bacio who'd created a Lego instruction kit for his little girl, Ms Kositchotitana and Sofia found Natalie following his step-by-step instructions with ease. Natalie has Down Syndrome and experiences learning difficulties, but Mr Bacio's instructions were as clear as day to her.

Out of love for her sister, elder sister Sofia decided to team up with Mr Bacio to start a children's book series on making various objects out of Lego bricks. The first book titled Amazing Animals: Creative Brick-Building With Step-By-Step Ideas attracted the attention of Post Hill Press, and Sofia soon became the youngest Singaporean author to nab a publishing deal in the US. The book has just been released in bookstores.

With this success, Ms Kositchotitana has shifted Sofia & Nate to focus on children's products and services, instead of fashion goods.

Meanwhile, she is teaming up with three other friends to start a new business called the Play-To-Learn Studio, a play centre for children aged three to nine that focuses on three key areas - fine motor skills, speech and language development, and social and behavioural engagement. Their first space is opening this May in Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, California.

She says: "Since becoming a mother, I've developed a keen interest in child development areas, especially in the field of intelligence and how play and play therapies can be used to stimulate the cognitive development in young children.

"The other mums and I notice that children today spend too much time with their gadgets and, as a result, many suffer from delayed development. They have problems communicating with other people. We wanted to counter this by creating a space to get children to respond to play-based activities to foster bonds with other children while learning new concepts. We're partnering with experts to create a clinical programme for us."

But that's not all - the serial mumpreneur has another new film production business she's starting with her brother Tom Kositchotitana who's based in Hollywood. The yet-to-be-named venture will focus on film financing and connecting Hollywood to Asia. They plan to produce documentaries first, and then expand to other genres.

Ms Kositchotitana says: "While a lot of my businesses are inspired by my role as a mother, this one is for myself and my passion for movies... The truth is, I think that mothers are always pressured to be the perfect mums and raise perfect kids. But I would caution mothers to retain their identities and know that they're not just mothers, that they can pursue passions outside of their parental role, that they can still be themselves and love themselves."

2. Dolores Au Co-founder of Mummyfique

Where to find kid-friendly restaurants? What books are best for young ones? How to turn your home into an office? The Mummyfique website and its newly-launched Mummyfique World mobile app aims to take out much of the guesswork of being a mother. It tells you where to find a confinement nanny, how to better plan for your child's birthday bash and where to go for a post-pregnancy yoga session.

Few can dispense such tips better in person than the site's co-founder and "Chief Executive Mummy" Dolores Au. She's a mother of not one, not three, but five girls aged from two to 19 - and still harbours hopes of having a baby boy some day. Her experience of motherhood informs how the site is shaped. She says: "Many mothers need advice and information, but don't necessarily trust what they read online. They end up double-checking the info by reading online forums or asking other mothers what they think of this or that."

Ms Au started Mummyfique with two other mumpreneurs Gidania Wong and Melissa Lwee for the exact reason of wanting to share their knowledge of raising children in Singapore. She says: "Mummyfique gives you information that you can trust, because it's run and written by mothers who've actually tried the products and services here."

The e-commerce site organises vendors across various categories such as Medical, Confinements and Pregnancy; Education; Wellness and Beauty; and F&B and Retail. The site draws an average of over 52,000 monthly page views, with over 55,000 followers on Facebook and 71,000 followers on Instagram. Meanwhile the mobile app has - without any marketing push - attracted over 2,000 downloads since its launch in March.

Ms Au, who is married to Singapore-based Hong Kong businessman Chris Au, is working with her partners to expand Mummyfique services to Malaysia. Subsequently, they hope to bring it to Hong Kong, China and other parts of the world.

A niggling question, of course, is how a mother of five manages to do all this. Ms Au says: "I do have a strong support system in place. I've got nannies and helpers, as well as schools and teachers I trust."

She is embarrassed when asked to consider if she's a "supermum". She says: "I'm not a supermum and I don't want to be put on a pedestal. I'm well aware that time is finite and something always has to give when you're a mumpreneur.

"Mumpreneurs like me feel immense pressure to spend more time with the kids. And the guilt has a way of outweighing all her career achievements. It used to be bad when I had my first child. Back then, I was a single mum trying to grow my PR company Ubersprint... But over the years I've learnt to deal with the guilt and I'm at a place where I can manage my responsibilities well.

"The trick is to focus and give your all when you're doing something - whether you're at work or with your kids. You can justify one and the other, but never one over the other."

3. Stephanie Suga Chen Author of 'Travails Of A Trailing Spouse'

Asian-American Stephanie Suga Chen is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and was a partner of a New York City-based private investment firm managing a US$1.5 billion fund.

But when her neuroscientist husband Albert Chen was offered a position as an assistant professor at the College of Science in Nanyang Technological University in 2012, the high-flying mum of two agreed to resign from her job and move with the family to Singapore to be a full-time housewife.

The first year, Ms Chen says, was "fine" as there was much to do in the process of settling in, along with a sense of freedom of not being tied to a job. "But from the second to fourth year, I became frustrated about various things," she confesses.

"When you stop working and become a trailing spouse, you lose a huge part of your identity. For an alpha female who once enjoyed career success and satisfaction, staying home and ensuring that the kids are healthy, happy and well-dressed didn't feel like enough. I'd lost that sense of value, of contributing to a larger purpose."

Like not a few alpha individuals, however, Ms Chen found a way of transforming her frustrations into something productive and profitable. She first started writing down her thoughts and feelings in a personal memoir meant to be read by her family some day to remind them of their time in Singapore.

But as she and her husband befriended more expatriate families, she realised there were many wives and mothers just like her - high-powered career women compelled to leave their jobs when their husbands were offered positions in Singapore.

She shifted gear and turned her straight-from-the-heart non-fiction memoir into a lighthearted work of fiction instead. She thought it could be a novel that resonated with many readers - not just with her family members - and was encouraged by the success of Asian novels such as Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians and Janice YK Lee's The Expatriates.

Her own novel titled Travails Of A Trailing Spouse tells the story of an accomplished US-based female lawyer who, like Ms Chen, moves to Singapore on account of her husband. Despite an enviable lifestyle of barbecues, drinks and Trivia nights with the neighbours, she starts to feel listless and lonely. Meanwhile, the other expat wives struggle with issues of their own, such as infertility and sexual infidelity.

When the book was released in December 2017, it shot to No. 2 on The Straits Times' bestseller list and stayed there for several weeks, with reviews from critics and readers being largely positive. The book's success gave Ms Chen the impetus to start work on her second novel. This time the lead character is an investment banker - as Ms Chen once was - who is trying to close a deal during a prolonged bout of haze in Singapore.

Ms Chen says: "I'm proud that my first book resonated with other people facing similar circumstances. I'm proud that I can show my kids that their mummy is doing something she enjoys... I actually feel it's important not to shower too much attention on your kids, to have them know that their mummy isn't going to watch over them all the time, that their mummy needs to pursue her own passions."

Ms Chen says that the book's success has also helped her regain her sense of identity: "When you're a trailing spouse in Singapore, you have a dependent's pass. And what that means is that you can't open a bank account or sign up for a phone service without your husband being there? Can you imagine how that feels for an independent person like me?... I felt like a non-person for the first time."

But despite the ups and downs, Ms Chen admits she's happy to have her two kids, Natalie, 10, and Aaron, 7, grow up in Singapore: "Infrastructurally, there are great parks and museums here. It's very child-friendly almost everywhere and we're never short of activities. I'm also grateful for the fact that it's such a safe country to raise children."

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