Motherhood in my 40s: Not compromising on my career

By Clara How, Dec 19, 2019

The thing about the turn of a decade is that it comes laden with milestones. For women in particular, turning 20, 30, and 40 still carries the weight of social expectations. When are we getting married? When are we having our first, second, or even third child? Are we homemakers? Are we career women? Are we balancing it all?

These are questions that two women, Pearline and Dawn, have heard ad nauseum over the years. Now in their 40s, both women consciously embarked on marriage and motherhood later in life. They want you to know that you shouldn’t settle or compromise on what makes you happy. 

This is the first story of a two-part series on experiencing motherhood in the 40s. Pearline, a businesswoman, spent her 20s and 30s getting her career where she wanted it to be. She is also brave enough to share that sometimes, in spite of what society may insist, family doesn’t always come first - and that’s okay, because everyone’s different.

* * * *

When I turned 30, people asked me when I was getting married.

I was happily single and found this line of questioning annoying. To many, a woman my age should be settling down. But I was perfectly fine with my life. I didn’t want to live the life that other people thought I should be living. So I married later in life at 39, and am now 44 with a 5-year-old son, Iden.

Now married with a young child, people asked me when the second one would be coming. To that, I ask, “Are you going to take care of the second child for me?” and they go quiet. 

Some may think that women in their 40s are slowing down in their careers and tend to be very family oriented. But that’s not necessarily true.

I believe that women in our 40s are capable. We are strong-minded. We are focused, because by this age, we know what we want, whether it’s at work or at home. 

For me, I want to be a mum, but I don’t want to be a homemaker. I want to go out and work, meet people, and bring back the knowledge of what’s happening in the world back home. I want to share all this knowledge with my son.

As a child and teenager, I dreamt of finding Prince Charming, settling down and having kids. But all this changed abruptly in my early 20s. At 21, I was naive. When an eager friend suggested we start a business together selling organic food, I innocently went along with the idea. My parents put up $30,000 to support me, and it was agreed that I would handle the back end operation of the business, while my friend would be client-facing and handle negotiations with the buyers. 

Within a year or two, we were in $80-90,000 in debt, and I asked my friend to leave the company. I didn’t want to ask my parents to bail me out, so I had two options: declare myself bankrupt, or find a way to pay it off. It took me four years to look for trusted retailers and turn the business around, but I managed to recover the debt.

My friends used to joke that I was a princess for I didn’t have to worry about finances in the past and lived a good life pursuing university education in the United Kingdom, but they could see how much I had changed. I wasn’t the entrepreneurial type to begin with, but I was made to be one because of circumstance.

There were so many obstacles, like the betrayal of my friend who set up a rival company after she was asked to leave. There were times when my car was towed away and my electricity was cut because of outstanding bills. I had to beg friends to lend me money to tide over. My parents offered financial help, but I wanted to do it on my own. Having to overcome all these challenges made me incredibly strong and resilient. 

Part of the reason why the original business strategy failed was because we were selling food with a short shelf life. When I realised that honey doesn’t have an expiration date and that people were willing to buy it as a health product, I pivoted the business. Today, my company Swift Health Food offers a range of HONEYWORLD bee and honey products to customers and retailers. I run a team of 80 staff, and we have 11 retail stores and a presence in department stores such as Robinsons, Metro, CK Tangs and OG, with frequent pop-up events with Takashimaya and Isetan. 

In my early 20s, I was so focused on work that I didn’t have time for anyone else. With the business more stable, I was able to reconnect with old schoolmates. We would meet for afternoon tea, and I would occasionally pamper myself with massages or beauty treatments. I was so happy with my life, and dating was the last thing on my mind. I had heard about bad relationships and breakups, and I didn’t want to go through any of that because it might affect my work. I was happy to be alone and in control, so I decided that I would stay single.

Until my mid-30s, I never had a serious boyfriend, or even dated casually. I met Edmund because I needed to conduct renovation work for one of my stores, and he ran a renovation company. He started to call me over the smallest of things, and once he caught wind that another male friend was showing interest, his attention increased. I was initially oblivious: in fact, I tried to set Edmund up with another friend of mine! But when he asked me out multiple times for Valentine’s Day, I realised that he had to be interested. 

One reason why I didn’t want to date was because I was suspicious about men who had ulterior motives. Based on experience, I knew there were some people who only wanted to get to know me because they saw me as an asset who could help with work. But Edmund had a stable business in his own right, and he seemed like a good guy. I figured that I would just give it a go. 

I like Edmund for his compassion and in the way that he treats people. When he moved his company into a new building, he bought brand new beds and 10-inch mattresses for all his workers, because he refused to send them into dormitories where conditions aren’t as good. He also installed enough bathrooms to reduce the rush in the mornings. He always thinks of other people. 

After four years of dating, I became pregnant. Edmund was thrilled, but I was worried about how I would break the news to my parents. Thankfully, they were very understanding. I do believe that Edmund and I would have gotten married eventually, regardless of whether I conceived. It was something that we had already spoken about previously.

I discovered I was pregnant in January, and by March, we threw a grand wedding and headed for our honeymoon. I delivered my baby boy in August, and we moved to a new home in October. All these milestone events happened in a year.

My gynaecologist reassured me that she has seen other mothers give birth well into their 40s and that I was very healthy and not at risk of any issues. I can’t say for sure, but maybe going to the gym regularly from my late 20s to 30s paid off.

It was a smooth pregnancy and I was able to walk even faster than Edmund, who towers above me at 1.9 metres! I even walked up and down the stairs everyday to my office, until a colleague chased me home. Aside from gestational diabetes, I felt fine. When the gynaecologist delivered my son, she commented on how calm the two of us were.

The first thing I asked was, “Does he have hair?” because I had a dream that he was bald. But he had so much hair that the nurses gave him a David Beckham quiff! He was the most beautiful baby boy.

The initial years after my son was born was not easy. I worked at home throughout my confinement, and was back in the office one month later. But I was able to adapt well thanks to the help from my parents who live with me, and my helper. Family support is so crucial for me, and I am grateful for what I have.

Edmund and I are both very career-minded, and we spent years building up our businesses. I have staff who are depending on me. At this point, we cannot fail, nor do we want to slow down just because we are now married with a child.

I know that family should be my number one priority, but my life is different. We are not like other families who have dinner together at 7pm, but we do the best we can to spend time together.

A usual work day for me would be from 8.30am to 7.30pm, although during our retail peak periods (such as the Great Singapore Sale or Christmas), I might have to work through the night. Edmund usually works until 11pm or midnight. 

Every night after work, I spend some time with Iden and go through his schoolwork. On weekends, I take him out for taekwondo or rock-climbing classes, and we have lunch together. When I have weekend deliveries to fulfil, sometimes he comes along with me. Saturday nights are our extended family dinners, where my brothers come to my place, and my son spends time with his cousins.

When it comes to mum guilt, I don’t feel guilty about missing things like his first words, or first steps. As long as he is happy and healthy, we don’t dwell on things that have already happened.

But I do feel guilty when I miss events at school. There have been times where I have forgotten parent-teacher meetings, and once, I misremembered the time of a school performance. I had thought it was in the afternoon, but it was in the morning. When I found out that my son was looking for me and I didn’t appear, I felt so, so guilty. 

I told myself not to make this mistake again, and tried my best to make amends. I picked him up from school and took him out to eat his favourite food. I told him that I was sorry. 

I have explained to my son that daddy and mummy have to work, and I feel lucky that he understands. When I say I have to leave, he says, “Yes, mummy is going to Honeyworld!” I tell him that I work hard for his future, and for the people that work for me. I take him with me to the shops and deliveries on weekends, and he says that when he grows up, he wants to help mummy, and be a builder like daddy. 

I have to come to terms with the fact that I don’t have as much energy as mums who are younger than me, and that I’m not as creative in my caregiving. I can’t travel with my child during the typical June or December holidays. I feel guilty that I cannot do what other mums do.

Sometimes Edmund says that when he looks into our son’s eyes, he feels guilty because he doesn’t spend enough time with him. He loves our son, and when he is at home, they spend time playing or swimming together. When I flew to Europe for work, Edmund and our son came along and they spent days together. At night, they filled me on what they did, and I was so happy that they had this father-son time together.

Holidays are when we spend our quality time as a family, so I will organise trips whenever we can. Edmund loves the cold, and our son takes well to travelling. We have already planned for an upcoming holiday in Malaysia, and we plan to go to Italy during Chinese New Year! 

As for Edmund and I, we do try to have alone time where we meet each other for lunch, or we go to a movie or a musical. In November, we went on a trip to Bangkok, just the two of us. Because he comes home late from work, we call or text each other frequently throughout the day. He often calls me between his appointments, just to check in and chat.

We don’t see each other often, but we are content with what we have. We don’t argue over the little things anymore.

At the beginning of my marriage, I envisaged that my husband would always be around. I would feel alone because he wasn’t always physically there. When I was pregnant and saw other husbands accompanying their wives to the clinic, I thought that that’s how things should be. Edmund does come with me when he can, but eventually I realised that I didn’t need to be so calculative. We have chosen a different lifestyle and have to accept the situation that we are in.

It took me two years to reach my current state of contentment. My work will always be there, and it’s about how I manage it. As for married life, I realised in hindsight that I was being childish for wanting him to do what I want on my terms. After I accepted who he is, I now feel more at peace.

There are times where I tell him, if I leave the world tomorrow and wasn’t able to say goodbye, he shouldn’t feel sad for me because I feel like I have done my best in everything.

I make sure I spend time with my family, including my mother-in-law, whom I visit several times a month. I make sure that no matter how busy I am (peak periods aside), I go home and spend time every night or morning with my child. 

Having to go through all the stress in my 20s has made me realise that there is always a solution. I’m aware that there may come a time where my parents cannot take care of my son, and we will need to make changes. But I believe that if we keep dwelling on things that have not happened yet, we cannot move forward. If my parents cannot be caregivers, I will slow down at work, or delegate more. We just face things when they come, and I’m not afraid. 

I just tell myself that what matters is that I have done the best that I can as a parent. We have started looking at primary schools to enrol Iden in, and we applied to be parent volunteers and went for an interview. We were unsuccessful, and I told Edmund, “Look, we are rejected; we are not good enough for them.” But we tell ourselves that we tried. 

If we cannot enrol Iden in a top school, let him go out and try his best in a neighbourhood school. If he does well, he can go anywhere he wants. As long as we teach him the right values, that is what is more important.

If I could map out the future, I would like to retire by 55. The thing about retail is that my phone never stops ringing, and the emails never stop coming. When I retire I want to put a stop to this, even if it means selling the business and letting it all go. My dream is for the whole family to move overseas, and my son can complete his education abroad. But it depends on what Iden wants. Perhaps he would want to stay in Singapore, and of course, I would not leave without him. It’s his life, and what he wants to do. 

If I could live my life again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything fell into place: my conceiving, us getting married and living together with my parents. Iden has brought so much joy to us: when we come home to him and he greets us, our stress disappears.

People used to say that I was wasting the golden days of my youth working instead of dating, but I was happy with my life then, and I am happy with my life now.

I believe that if I were to have become a mum when I was younger, I might not have been able to cope with the change in lifestyle that motherhood brings. I realise that as an “older mum”, I may never see Iden get married and achieve certain milestones in life, but I’ve never been the sort of person who thinks about things that she can’t achieve; I’d rather focus on what I can do for him now. Besides, my son always says that I’m pretty and I’ve never once heard him call me old!

Photos provided by Pearline. 

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