09 May 2016 03:02:42 PM

My mom works full-time and it’s a good thing

Many women choose to put their careers on hold when they start a family. This is due to various reasons, including lack of childcare or the desire to be fully involved in their children’s upbringing. Meet Lydia Cheah whose mother is Dr Elizabeth Lee, Senior Executive Director of Sunway Education Group and a full-time working mother of three daughters aged 17, 19 and 21. We spoke to Lydia about growing up with a working mother whose career sometimes merges with her family, and how this has inspired her to be as successful as her mother. (You can read about how Dr Lee coped with being a full-time working mother here.)

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Lydia Cheah and I just turned 19 a few days ago. After completing my Pre-U studies in 2014, I took a gap year in Germany as a foreign exchange student to experience an entirely different culture. I managed to pick up the language in a year, travel around Europe, meet people from all around the world, and learn how to clean the washroom. I came back at the start of the year, and still unsure of my next step, I decided to apply to intern at the Center for Asia Leadership that is supported in part by the Harvard University Asia Center.

As one can guess, it is extremely intensive and the workload is heavy — I’ve been given the task to lay down the groundwork for marketing projects through research and assemble different databases while tracking updates, write articles for different media platforms, conduct daunting cold-calls (which I find quite enjoyable now), and even give website development a try — but I love every single bit of it. For this, I have to give credit to my supervisors. They are quick to recognise my mistakes and also to forgive; creating this safe space for me to fail fast, but learn even faster. There are undoubtedly times when the work seems overwhelming, however, with each overcome obstacle is a precious learning experience.

What was it like as a child with a full-time working mom?

One of my absolute favorite stories to tell others is of my first haunted house experience, with my mother of course. I was about ten years old when she brought me along on a business trip to Genting Highlands. With less than a day to visit the theme park and as a self-proclaimed fearless girl (that I later find out to be completely inaccurate), I begged my mother to let me go into the haunted house with her.

So what happens when you put a full-time working mom, who is also an accomplished academic, and a tremendously frightened ten-year-old together in a haunted house?

You get a mother pleasantly narrating each step taken despite the eeriness, correctly predicting all possible scares before they happen, and viciously scolding every ghoul that jumps up for scaring her daughter (“She’s only a child!!!!”).

Other than that, I remember rainy evenings spent doing kiddy things like begging my dad to swing me in circles, or jumping from sofa to sofa pretending that the floor was lava; I would be completely engrossed in whatever I was doing at the time. However, the moment the door opened and my mom’s signature call was heard (imagine a fast paced dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo call), my sisters and I would rush to the door to greet her like manic puppies. We anticipated her arrival every day, praying for the rain to stop or that God would get rid of all traffic jams, just so that we could see our mother.

Do you feel that you missed out on opportunities to do things with your mom because she works?
Not at all! If anything, I’ve been given all sorts of opportunities because she works.
I am blessed beyond measure to be able to learn from such an admirable woman. I have subconsciously picked up so many of her traits just by watching her host parties, give talks, or simply chat about her day at work.

She also actively tries to spend time with my sisters and me; asking us out for tea on a Sunday afternoon, watching a movie at home in the evening, or just lazing around at home.
What is the one thing that your mom tells you all the time about success and hard work?
You can’t please everybody. There will be people who will not like you, but remember that you are the one getting stuff done.
How has your mom inspired you as a young adult and a woman?

My mom is a highly respected and loved woman leader in the field of education as well as out of it. She has garnered tremendous support from friends, colleagues, and family simply by being a considerate, passionate, and understanding person. She does the unthinkable to many—embracing failure and fallbacks unlike anybody else I know, admitting to her mistakes, and encouraging others to aim for what initially seems unattainable.

Sitting in the front row at many events, she often doesn’t realise that she is one of the few, if not the only woman there until I point it out.
And that’s what I find so great about her, she doesn’t have to verbally exhibit her successes—it unmistakably shows from the inside out.

In your opinion, do you think women today have things easier or harder when it comes to juggling a career and family compared to 20-30 years ago?

There are a lot of factors that must be taken into consideration when answering such a question; a woman’s financial background, type of career, family size, personal goals, and geographical location even, are only a few of said factors.

Societal expectations have undoubtedly changed over the decades, and opinions on what a woman should do range from one end of the spectrum to the other. Duly respecting everybody’s opinions, I do, however, believe that things have always been difficult for women when it comes to their careers. Despite new policies that have been put into place to address these issues, there are still various expectations to meet from peers. We must understand and teach our children that women are not obliged to meet what one might believe to be right, whether it is her appearance, interests, or choices in career and having a family.

It is a change of mindset that we need.
Many working mothers struggle with their dual roles at home and work; often feeling guilty for not being there for their children while they are growing up or missing important milestones like the first baby step. Returning to work after having children can also be a daunting experience for most women. Many fear that they won’t be able to spend enough time with their children once they are back at work. 

Stories like Lydia’s paint a different picture, however. Despite growing up with a working mother, Lydia’s upbringing was stimulating and enriching. Now reaching her adult years, her mother’s passion for her career is spurring Lydia to pursue her own career which is just as fulfilling as her mother’s.
* Photo Credit: Lydia Cheah