A working mum-of-two on redefining “having it all”

“Having it all” is a notion popularised in the 1980s, which started the endless debate about whether women can find a solid balance between having a career and taking on the demands of motherhood, while fulfilling other needs in her life. 

In today’s interview, I have the honour of chatting with Celine Tan, a seasoned writer, about her views on “having it all” and her ideas about parenting.

Wearing multiple hats in life, Celine is mother-of-two and many other things at the same time, including being a multi-tasking writer, editor and communicator working in the media field. After 20 years of full-time working and a year of freelancing, Celine is about to go back into full-time work, and relishes the new challenge.

Parenting and a good support system

Recalling what parenthood was like in the early days for her with her children, who are now 11 and 6 years old, Celine said that it was tougher with Amber, her first child, with both her husband and her working full-time jobs at the time. They were still learning the ropes of parenting and struggled with the new addition and big changes to their lives. With the second child, they got a helper, and accepted that help is okay and necessary for their sanity. Her husband also knows when she needs a break and will take the kids off her hands so she can have time to work or to chill.

I don’t think there’s an ideal parenting model - everyone has different needs and things that work or don't work for them.

Celine has read a lot of books over the years on how to be a better parent but eventually, she went with her instincts a lot when it comes to raising her two kids, Amber and Brennan.

Celine with her children 

Celine’s parenting ideology

“Listen to your instincts, and shut out all the other noise, as there will be too many ‘well-meaning’ people trying to give you advice. Take care of yourself first so that you can be a better mum, and don’t be afraid to accept help. Be friends with your kids and be a fun parent - they’re only young once, let them - and you - enjoy their childhood.”

Mum Guilt

“I always felt guilty about having less time for the younger one, but I try to make up for it in many different ways.” After 20 years of full-time working, Celine took a year away from full-time work, and chose to freelance. During that time, her family got to spend a lot of quality time and enjoy great bonding together, as she had more control over her time, which she is very grateful for.

Celine and her family having a camping trip

She added that even though “parenting while holding down a full-time job is hard”, she would not choose to be a full-time stay-home mum at this point, as she loves working and thinks it adds to her life experience. She salutes the mums who choose to be full-time mums as it is a 24/7 job. She feels mums should make the decision that’s best for them, after weighing the pros and cons, to be the best mother and person they can be for their kids and their family. For mothers who choose to continue with their career, she mentions, “‘Try your best to spend quality time with the kids, and hopefully they understand that since mummy has chosen to work, she is doing her best and will try her utmost to be present when you spend time together.”

Of the role of a dad versus that of a mum, Celine says, “The average dad definitely feels less guilt than the mum, and more is expected of the mum when it comes to the kids’ well-being, school work and everything else. But many dads are stepping up to the plate these days.”

Filling up your own tank

Celine shared with us that since her time working as a freelancer was more relaxed and flexible, she had time to catch up on her favourite K-dramas or have a workout break on non-busy days. She also became a more patient and loving mum because she’s less stressed. To her, me-time is important. “Only when you take care of yourself can you take care of others,” she tells us. To strike a balance between career, family and self-care, her advice is to not spread yourself too thin, and know when you need help. She adds, “Mums deserve to be happy and fulfilled too, so make decisions that are good for you and don’t sacrifice yourself completely for the good of the family.”

Celine values self-care and self-maintenance, so she works hard to pay for and do things that help her look and feel good. She says, “I think how you feel about yourself and your self-image impacts your emotions, actions, happiness and well-being, and looking after yourself should not be something that is put aside after becoming a mum.”

So does she think women really can have it all?

“I think the idea that’s been fed to us about having it all is a little unrealistic,” Celine tells us. "A lot of women who seem to have it all also have a lot of help and resources, and perhaps these resources are not available to every woman. Telling mums they can have it all, and these images of women who do it all, adds to guilt and a feeling of inadequacy, like how come she can have a job and look good and have great kids, and I can’t? Instead, more realistic expectations would help mums feel fulfilled and more balanced. You don’t need to have what all the social media mums have - you just need to figure out what makes you happy, without comparing too much.”

On career vs family

It is definitely tough for mothers out there who are sitting on the fence about whether to put career or family first. “There are trade-offs to every decision, and sometimes it takes time, and trial and error to figure out what works,” Celine tells us. “ I worked and traveled/played for a number of years before I had kids, and I’m thankful for that. But the problem with leaving the workforce for too long after becoming a mum is that it can be hard to get back in.”

Advice on overcoming gender bias in society

“Work hard, embrace help and know who your allies are, regardless of whether they are male or female. Cut out the negativity in your life. Speak up to be heard and don’t suffer in silence. Don’t be ashamed of the choices that you make, and don’t be afraid to make hard decisions that may move your life in a better direction in the long term.”