Finding Balance in the Crazy Life of a Supermum

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I love the term "Supermum" :) It references all those women with a hidden red cape that juggle high-level jobs with their lovely families, are able to keep themselves fit, volunteer and have the energy to fight for their Happy Mondays with a smile.

Over the years we've worked with multiple supermums and every time I came out of a meeting with one, I feel so empowered! But also often guilty as I wonder how is it possible that I don't "have the time" to go to yoga or catch up with friends when my biggest responsibility is myself and 2 cute doggies...

Those who know me know that I like to share the "not always shiny" parts of our lives as I think it helps us realise that we're all human. That even those who seem to have it all under control, often don't. That we all lose it sometimes, that we cry and laugh at the same time and have to bite our lips a few times a day. Because our imperfections are the ones that actually make us perfect :)

As I am not a mum, I asked my friend Sarah to share her experience of working, being a wife, mothering, and volunteering. Sarah found her Happy Mondays over a year ago as she launched her own marketing agency. Ever since she juggles this with her two adorable kids – Charlie, 4 ½ years old, and Mia, 2 ½ years old and, until recently, being a board member at PrimeTime Business and Professional Women’s Association.


Sandra: Sarah, thanks for being here today and sharing your experience. You know I like to go straight to the point. Since you have your own business, you have flexi working hours and you work from home. Is it that "shiny"? What are the compromises?

Sarah: Sandra, can I first say thank you for having me here and sharing my experience, and thank you also for helping men and women with families and careers, like me, find jobs that sync with their lives.

When I work from home, I am able to see my daughter when she comes back from school and before she goes for her nap. Many other working mothers, especially those in employment where the employer is not supportive, envy me this flexibility and talk about it to me with longing. And I am lucky, but the truth is, every choice has a cost. The cost of flexibility in the middle of the day is that I end up working after my kids are in bed, sometimes until quite late. When you feel that you have not shown up enough as you ought to in one area or another, you feel guilty, and it drives you to drive yourself hard so that it looks from the outside like you are showing up 100% in each area.

Sandra: How do you cope with everything that is on your plate?

Sarah: You have to know what is good enough, which is your bottom line, and what you want to strive for. You have to get your priorities straight so that you can make good choices at speed and under pressure. When a choice comes in, such as a last minute task at work, you start the mental maths – Will I miss dinner? Will I miss kids bedtime? Am I better stopping work now and doing it early in the morning? Is this one of the times when I pick work or is it one of the times when I put my foot down and pick family? What are the consequences of each choice? Honestly, I choose work probably more often than I should. It’s easy to think that this particular work opportunity will only come along once, but you will have another opportunity with your kids. But as my friend Henry puts it: your kids will show up for their relationship with you until they don’t. I think of it as a relationship bank that I have to put deposits in before I withdraw, which helps when it’s an intense week in one area or another and the other areas are getting neglected.

You never really know if you’ve made the right choice that time or any time, all you can do is have a clear vision of what balance looks like for you and what your bottom line is, and try to use that as your north star. The work you do, Sandra, with coaching people towards their happy job vision is really helpful here – it’s hard enough to find the balance even when you know what you are looking for.

Sandra: What does balance mean to you?

Sarah: To me, “balance” means showing up in all the areas of your life that are important to you, the amount you want to show up. Specifically for me, in no particular order, that’s my kids, my husband, my family, my friends, my clients, my team, my work, and myself.

Putting the concept into practice, that means you have to know what’s important to you, when and where it is meaningful to show up, what is not optional and what is. Knowing both your bottom line (e.g. a certain income or putting your kids to bed 5 nights a week) and your stretch goals, and being ready to deal with the emotions or physical sensations that signal you’re making decisions in this zone. For example, I often feel an emotional pull towards doing what others want me to do, and when I feel a prickle of resentment at that moment, I know I may be in this balance-defining zone. So I sit down and I try to go through the decision objectively with my balance boundaries front of mind. Sometimes this means saying no to that person, sometimes it means reshaping the request from that person so it becomes a win-win, and sometimes it means saying yes because I am actually just tired and I am experiencing that as misplaced resentment prickles (which is solved by getting sleep rather than saying no).

Sandra: I’ll give you a mini break now :) I'd love to know what triggered you to search for your Happy Mondays?

Sarah: I got a taste for trying to build something and the mindset required, when I built the digital marketing department in Asia for Baker McKenzie from scratch. So when the time was right, I decided to go all in and try to build a business (Marketing By Design Pte Ltd). For me it was about going out of my comfort zone and proving to myself I could build something valuable that worked. I wanted to lead my way and learn new skills such as finance and HR, and I wanted to learn by doing. I also wanted to stretch my marketing skills into product marketing and B2C marketing, which I don’t think I would have been able to do by staying in the corporate world. My business is just over a year old and I am happy with how it is going. I love my work because it brings me the possibility to partner with people who are building something important to them while allowing me the flexibility to work from home. It’s been very empowering because I know now that no matter what happens to me in the future, I can build a book of work and create an income. It has been challenging, but rewarding. I’ve discovered some gifts I have that I would never have come across if I hadn’t gone on my search for a Happy Monday.

Sandra: What made you choose to volunteer, work, and parent all at once?

I started volunteering when my daughter was a year old and my son was three years old, why did I take it all on? Primarily because gender equality is important to me. I think we each have a choice to show up, or not, to the fight we’re in with the gifts we have. My gift is marketing and the fight I’m in is professional working women. Sometimes if you sit and wait for a good time, you let the perfect be the enemy of the good and then you never get started. Many of us struggling imperfectly towards a common goal achieves far more than one person struggling perfectly or no one struggling at all. So I showed up. I wanted my children to grow up with me as a role model and I wanted to lead by example.

Sandra: How do you find time and energy to do it all?

Sarah: Oh well… I don’t always. I have often fallen asleep on the sofa with my laptop on my lap, and jerked awake hours later with a really hot lap, lol. I have often fallen asleep next to my kids while saying good night, to wake up to my husband tugging on my leg saying “get up, you’re asleep in the kids’ room again, let’s get your teeth brushed and put you in bed”.

Sometimes I don’t get to bed until the early hours all week. And my two little joys always clamber into our bed for our glorious morning cuddle at silly-o’clock in the morning, every morning, no public holidays, no weekend lie-ins, and no holidays. Motherhood has definitely given me an incredible capacity to run at half-energy and half-rest – but of course, that takes a toll in the long term.

For example, on difficult weeks, I find that I can be emotionally triggered more easily and that my impulse control drops. I try to manage it by running every other day – just half an hour or so – and meditating. I’m an introvert, so meditating has been a really important quiet time. Unfortunately, I have not been able to wean myself off coffee and wine.

Sandra: Eventually, you decided to stop volunteering, right?

Sarah: Yes. The business grew faster than I anticipated, which turned out to be a big challenge in terms of doing it all. Setting the foundation of the business, managing a new team then with spending evenings at PrimeTime events, volunteer team meetings, and board meetings, this situation was exacerbated. In the end, I was regularly breaking the deals I had made with myself, so I had to do something. I try to teach my kid that when they make a deal, they must keep their end of it or we become untrustworthy (in child-level lessons of course!), even when the deal is with yourself. I decided I probably needed to eat my own medicine (!) and made the decision to resign. It’s like that article you wrote recently about the importance of saying “no”.

Sandra: What has been your biggest aha moment?

Sarah: The importance of taking care of myself. It’s oh so hard to chose yourself in the moment, I get it, I really do. I fall down on this one regularly for extended periods. Everyone else’s problems and mental states usually win my attention – whether it’s a sad child, a tired spouse, or a client/boss with a problem. As a working mum, it is oh so easy to have that run or yoga session permanently sat at number 11 on the to-do list and never actually doing it. But I do my best to strive for it. I also take care to try and sleep enough, not to drink too much caffeine or alcohol and try to eat properly. Ultimately, everyone loses out if we crumble – we are definitely not doing our best work on 4 hours sleep and a junk-food diet, and we are probably not keeping our temper with our team or our spouse very well either. We often hold ourselves to higher standards when it’s for someone else than we do when it’s for ourselves - but the two are deeply connected in truth.

Sandra: Changing the topic slightly, could you share how was your journey as an employed working mum? 

Sarah: Well, I was fortunate to work at a company with a great flexible working policy. It honestly never really occurred to me to stop working when I got pregnant. I started getting cabin fever on maternity leave as my son hit four-months-old! I negotiated with them before having my son that I would work 4 days a week initially and then full-time with two days from home. My teammates were really supportive - none of them were mums though my boss was a father, but they all felt that a culture that supported flexible working was a good culture. It would have been difficult to do without their support and understanding.

This degree of flexible working was and still is quite rare in Singapore, where paid maternity leave lasts 12-16 weeks (just about long enough to heal from a straightforward caesarean section). I can’t emphasise enough how important flexible working is to attract women and to keep mothers in the workforce - and anyone with dependents or other significant responsibilities outside work for that matter – though as a small business owner, I know it’s not always easy to provide.

Sandra: How much did you have to compromise your salary and career?

Sarah: When I had each child, I took 16 weeks of paid leave as per Singapore regulations, then I negotiated some unpaid leave to top up my maternity leave to about 6 months. Then for 3 months, I worked for 4 out of 5 days a week, then I went up to 5 days a week with two days from home. For the period I worked 80% of the time, I took 80% of my previous salary, and I did have to take unpaid leave. My husband and I saved up to cover the shortfall. So I did take a pay cut, but I believe it was a fair one. I did move from a more operational role to a more project-based role, which was good because it was less reactive (operational marketing can be very reactive) and I could manage my own deadlines a bit more. This was the time I built the digital marketing department at Baker McKenzie in Asia from scratch, did some award-nominated marketing work, and managed to double the Asia-based social media audience. I was able to achieve significant results and try something new while also juggling new motherhood, so from this perspective, I did not compromise on my career trajectory, but I did compromise in terms of my time and salary.

Sandra: What is the biggest challenge you face juggling all the professional and personal aspects of your life?

Sarah: There are so many great things about being a mum, from the random cuddles to the endless questions, but there are hard parts too. For me, I struggle with the guilt of constant compromise between volunteering, work and family. When I choose family I feel guilty for not choosing work or volunteering, when I choose work I feel guilty for not choosing family or volunteering, and when I choose volunteering I feel guilty for not choosing work or family. When anything starts to go wrong in any arena, I am quick to look into my choices about how I spend my time for evidence to blame myself. I also usually short change myself rather than anyone else, but my husband is vigilant to that and prods me to go running, to sleep better, and to meditate when I am not showing up for myself very well.

Sandra: What is your biggest lesson as a working mum?

Sarah: To let go of perfectionism, which plagued me a lot during early motherhood because I wanted so badly to be a good mother and a great employee. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they were getting less than 100%, the short end of the stick, so I ended up giving myself the short end of the stick! I like the saying by Theodore Roosevelt that Bréné Brown uses a lot, an author I love for her work on showing up in life with courage and rumbling with it. I come back to this saying over and over again because it stops perfectionism creeping into my bones and ossifying my ability to act.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

If you are going to live this way, you have to be prepared to hear and see tough stuff that reveals where you are falling short. You need to learn how to handle those moments properly so that you can strive for excellence in the right things in the right way.

Sandra: Thanks for your time today Sarah, it sounds like the challenge of balancing work and life is ongoing, what’s your one key takeaway?

Sarah: You’re welcome! It was my pleasure. I actually have two :)

First of all, it’s important to build a clear vision of what you want for yourself and your life - don’t inherit one. Definitely set the time aside to work through the tools that coaches use you to help build a picture. I have tried gaining clarity by myself and with a professional. I have found that, while both are valuable exercises, having professional guidance to facilitate the process gets you further faster and creates something you can act on immediately.

And secondly, to remember that you are not alone. You have so much courage to even try to show up for it all. Remember to show up for yourself too.


What To Do If You Think You’re a Supermum

Contact me on LinkedIn Instant Message to meet for a coffee. I'll be happy to give you some questions you can work through to understand what the right balance is for you and the path to get there.

sandra quelle