Live & Learn
Toss Up Between Motherhood and Career

Contributed by Helen Ng

Note: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not represent that of Young NTUC.

Powerful women leaders in C-suites are hard to come by and more so if they are mothers. Not long after giving birth to my second daughter, I re-entered the workforce in 2008 as a working mother. I had no prior experience of the self-storage industry and was initially treated as a “novelty item” by my peers in an essentially male-dominated industry. Thanks to my in-depth understanding of the local property market and my willingness to learn from scratch, I was able to turn around Lock+Store's business operations within two years and manage its successful sale to SingPost in December 2012. However, success at work came at a price. I was criticised for not achieving work-life balance and for not spending enough time with my two daughters in their formative years.

I believe that work-life balance is a myth and women just cannot have it all. It takes a village to raise a child. You need to have a supportive network whether it is at the home front or the work front. I outsource the areas that I am not an expert in and focus on the areas that I am good at. I rope in my parents to help with ferrying the girls to school so it frees me up to concentrate on my career, knowing that my girls are in safe hands.

In my opinion, taking time out from work and reducing your hours when you do return, has a detrimental effect on your career as a woman. If you choose to take time out, at least try to stay relevant to the job market and have realistic expectations when you rejoin the working world. It is unrealistic to expect a position to remain open or to obtain the same level of pay and title after being out of the corporate world. The economy will not wait for you.

Even as more companies look to foster work-life balance by offering working mothers the option of flexi-work, this may not be everyone’s cup of tea as it takes great effort and self-discipline to remain productive. Besides, employers have to be open to the concept of flexi-work and measuring performance remotely is a challenge.

It boils down to choices. Some women choose to go back to work. Some women choose to stay home. There are many ways to be a good parent. Being at home 24/7 does not make me a good parent. What matters is I spend quality time with my daughters, such as taking time off work to go on our bi-annual vacation during the school holidays, and being with my youngest daughter on her first day of school.

Effective role modeling
My mission is to be a good role model for my daughters by helping them appreciate that a woman can have a career and be a good parent at the same time. Being a working mother, I have taught my daughters to be independent and organised since kindergarten. For instance, they organise their own tuition schedule around their school’s Extra Curricular Activities (ECA) programme. They also conduct research into programmes they would like to enrol in and set personal goals for themselves.

The values of independence and organisation are important to me. As a child growing up in a poor family, my parents had to work long hours to make ends meet and often left me and my younger siblings to fend for ourselves. From a young age, I set goals for myself and aimed to top my class year after year so I could win book prizes. I had to supplement my family’s income by picking up beer bottles to sell or run random paid errands around the kampong for extra cash. Today, my daughters work for their own pocket money and manage their own finances. Sylvia, my eldest daughter, is now able to manage her own mother. She knows what her mother can or cannot do. Teaching her Mandarin is something I cannot do and she will find ways to improve her Mandarin standard on her own.

As a working mother, my greatest legacy to my daughters is to impart survival skills to them, such as helping them to find creative solutions to their own problems – skills that would come in handy should they become a CEO one day.