What's it like for this mum to "have it all”?

By Hoe I Yune, Oct 17, 2019

Is it really possible to “have it all”? It certainly seems to be the case for Dr Elaine Kim. She’s a palliative care doctor at St Luke’s Hospital and the co-founder and CEO behind Trehaus, an integrated co-lifestyle space for families with a preschool business club and family club. She also co-founded CRIB, a social enterprise for female entrepreneurs that runs networking, fundraising and skill-training programmes. 

This is a woman who seems to have a thriving career, all while being a mum to three boys - Kyan (eight), Luke (six) and Nate (three). She went back to work two weeks after giving birth to her youngest son. 

We wondered how she balances self-fulfillment and motherhood, which was why we invited her as a #dayreMumTalk speaker.

At our first #dayreAFK event, we learned that she isn’t exempt from mum guilt and wanting her kids to know that they’re her first priority. She is a multi-hyphenate trying to achieve that elusive work-life integration, and that’s what drives her to take control and shape the life that she wants. 

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Hi, my name is Elaine and I’m 37 years old. 

Both my parents are doctors so growing up, that was always a presumed path that I was going to take. I was brought up with very strong values on wanting to give back and make a difference in other people’s lives, so being a doctor seemed like a natural fit. However, I also have this entrepreneurial spark in me. I had all these business ideas in my head and started my first business, a kids party planning business called Party Action People, with a friend at 17.

When it was time to head to university, I was torn between medicine and business. In the end, I decided it was easier to become a doctor first then become an entrepreneur. I’m really thankful with the path that I chose. 

I’ve always had a heart for the elderly. My mum frequently championed causes of the elderly in her line of work, and growing up, I was close to my maternal grandmother. Even in school, I was thinking of doing geriatrics. Palliative care was a new field in Singapore at the time when one of my mentors said, “I think you’d be quite suitable”. When I first joined the hospice, I was very skeptical because looking after terminally ill patients is not naturally the first thing people want to do, but I found myself in a position able to make a difference, and I think that has been what has driven me to stay on in palliative care.

Palliative care isn’t just about the physical treatment. With terminally patients, we’re not trying to cure them, we’re trying to help them become comfortable and fulfill any final wishes. So it’s not about adding days to life but adding life to days. 

Wanting to help fulfill last wishes inspired me to start fundraising for HCA Hospice Care. Sometimes it can be as simple as a meal or buying them a pack of cigarettes to smoke, even though that’s not exactly healthy. I organised a fundraising luncheon that raised over $100,000 for HCA Hospice Care and requested that a portion of the funds raised were used to distribute as hong baos (red packets) to our needy patients.

When you’re spending time with patients who have only a few months or weeks left to live, it really helps you see the right perspective about what’s meaningful in life.

 

All that I’m doing right now — juggling my roles as a doctor, entrepreneur, and mum — it wasn’t easy to be able to find that balance, but you make choices.

 

A choice that I made was to not pursue a very high flying career in medicine.

I was two years into a three-year training programme to become a specialist and had just given birth to my first son. I would be training from 7am and come home at 7.30pm or 8pm. By then, my son would be asleep and I didn’t get to see him. Within the year, I was also toying with the idea of starting my own business and juggling multiple hats was overwhelming. I thought, yea, something's gotta give. I chose to stay in medicine but not pursue the higher title because palliative care isn’t about the money or recognition for me. I felt that I could still serve as a doctor and make a difference, without having the title and increased salary. There were other things that I wanted to spend my time on, like being there for my kids as they grow up. 

I never considered myself to be a typical doctor in that I never saw my life as solely in medicine. My inclination to do other things made me want to explore business ideas. So when the opportunity came to be an angel investor for bridal business Trinity Bridal in Hong Kong and Trinity Gallery in Singapore, I went for it. 

Running your own business is incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work, but one thing that you do have is control over your time and what you’re doing. I took some time off from work to focus on being a mum but still volunteered part-time at HCA Hospice Care and dedicated half my week to setting up my first business. Once my husband and I started our family, I decided that if I’m going to be doing something that takes me away from them, it has to be something impactful and meaningful. 

A lot of people who are terminally ill don’t say that they wish they had worked more, they say, “I wish I had been there and done that for my kids.” Yet I’ve noticed that it’s not about giving up a career either. I wanted to help mums so that they don’t necessarily have to choose between one or the other. 

In 2016, that sparked the idea to launch Trehaus, a space where working mums could send their kids to daycare and tune into their work at the same time. It has evolved from a co-working space for working mums with a nursery, to now having a full-fledged childcare and preschool with a curriculum.

My two older sons have been to the top preschools in Singapore and there were pros and cons to different schools, but there just wasn’t one that I felt did everything that I wanted for a child. Being an entrepreneur myself and having a husband who works in Silicon Valley in tech, we really have a bird’s-eye view of how the world and career landscape is changing. 

My co-founder Elizabeth and I wanted to shape a curriculum that would cultivate curiosity, adaptability, good social skills, empathy, grit and resilience. We want Trehaus preschoolers to care about finding solutions to the problems that we face in this world, which is why we created The Little’s Programme at Trehaus, which is very much Silicon Valley-inspired and to cater towards the practical and educational aspects of a child’s early education. For instance, the Little CEO programme teaches about leadership, while the little Philanthropist is about sustainability and the environment. It’s about raising well-rounded children who have good character and can make a positive impact on the world. 

Trehaus is something that I’m hugely passionate about and it’s worth taking up my energy and time — I don’t think we should still focus on things like teaching our kids through memorising or top-down instruction. 

A side benefit is my son Nate goes to the school. I really wanted to create the best school for him, and now that he’s enrolled, it has to be the best school.

It’s a joy being able to go to work at Trehaus and seeing my youngest son there because he’s enrolled in the new preschool programme.

It’s a joy being able to go to work at Trehaus and seeing my youngest son there because he’s enrolled in the new preschool programme.

We just took in our first batch of 15 students and have an unparalleled 1:5 teacher to child ratio. It’s based on this concept of teachers as second parents, and we want kids to be able to build a strong relationship with their teachers. 

I think the biggest impact that I can have on this world, or the biggest legacy that I can leave behind, is building the next generation. 

Thinking about a business is like having a baby because it keeps me up at night. There’s no end to how much you need to learn, so I believe that there’s a need for some focus, not just in terms of time but also headspace. 

Trehaus isn’t my first business but it’s the one that I’ll be dedicating a good amount of time and effort into building to see what impact we can make regionally or internationally in the future. That required me to make some tough calls such as selling off other businesses.

“Doing it all” to me means focusing on one thing at a time and sometimes this means making decisions on what not to do. 

I always say no man — or woman — is an island. I am very blessed because I have a lot of support. It’s really important to surround yourself  with people who can carry you up and I don’t think I would be able to do any of the things that I’m doing now without the blessing and support of so many people around me. 

For instance, we have a helper who has been with us for seven to eight years and she makes a lot of things possible for me. I’m also blessed to have my business partners -— it makes a difference that I’m not running the business on my own and have co-founders supporting me. At Trehaus, I knew that in Elizabeth, I had a business partner who could hold the fort while I went into labour. We really hold each other up and support each other, through encouragement and prayer — basically keeping each other going. 

My husband John has a busy, highflying career as an investor but he also chooses to be actively involved in the children’s upbringing. He spends time with them every evening, and teaches the older ones everything from astronomy to coding. 

I think I’m very much influenced by how he grew up as a Korean American in the US. Together, our parenting style means not just focusing on one’s studies but spending quality time with the family and honing interests in other areas such as music and sports.

It’s easy to get caught up in raising children, which is why John and I make it a point to have lunch or dinner without the kids at least once a week. That is unless he’s out of town. And if we argue — you know the saying don’t let the sun set on your anger? I find that it helps to resolve disagreements before bed and to not let it fester into something bigger. 

To some degree, you take what’s good from your own childhood. My parents made me feel like I was a priority and that’s something that I want for my own kids. They also raised me up with the mindset that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. And that’s something that I want to teach my kids, too.

Three generations in a picture: my parents, sons and I during Chinese New Year.

Three generations in a picture: my parents, sons and I during Chinese New Year.

It’s ultimately about finding out what they’re good at and nurturing that talent. My kids are fortunate and I’m lucky to be able to offer them opportunities. My eldest son is very good at coding so we’re really encouraging him to learn Python, while my second son loves soccer so we support that.

I’d call myself a tiger mum but I don’t mean that in the traditional sense. To me, it’s not purely about excelling in academia but trying to push your kids to reach their full potential. 

I don’t stress over sitting with my kids and making them do worksheets and homework to get high test scores. I want to shape their character and help them develop a growth mindset.

I’d rather praise effort rather than intelligence, and reward the grit and the values instead of just the pure outcome. I think that being self-motivated can help them go a long way.

Mum guilt creeps in occasionally because it’s difficult to do everything, but I try to make it as far as possible for their school competitions and performances. My children are the most important to me so no matter how busy I am, I’ll make time and turn up, and make sure that they know that they’re unconditionally loved. But certain things like school mum get-togethers take a backseat. Something has to give and I’ve learned that I need to prioritise how I want to spend my time. 

I’m the mum who sometimes forgets to that it’s Racial Harmony Day and sends her kid to school in his regular uniform. If that happens, I feel a bit guilty but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t let it bother me.

I’m much more laidback now compared to when I first became a parent, and a lot of it comes from learning how to prioritise over time and not worrying about every little thing! If you’re stressed out, it’s not good for the kids either. 

Despite my busy work schedule (weekday mornings at St Luke’s Hospital and afternoons at Trehaus), I make it a point to come home for dinner and read to them before bedtime. Only after tucking them in do I do my own thing again — reply emails, wind down with Netflix, attend social events, or go on date nights with my husband.

Something that I hope to inspire my children to do is to make a social impact. At CRIB, we have a giveback initiative called Holiday for Hope. Money raised from sponsors and those going on the trips goes towards building school facilities such as toilets, playgrounds, libraries and water filtration systems in underprivileged communities. Our third trip will be to Nepal in November and I’ll be bringing my eldest son with me. We’ll help to build homes made of materials that are sustainable and easily accessible, such as rice bags. 

During the last trip to Siem Reap, my middle child came along and he asked a lot of thoughtful questions and offered to help often. Even when he didn’t say anything, I felt like I was instilling good habits in him. 

We recently went on a Disney cruise to Alaska

We recently went on a Disney cruise to Alaska

I try to spend one-on-one time with my sons. My eldest two are very close in age so it’s almost as if they’ve never experienced life without the other but I worry a bit about whether my middle child will get middle child syndrome: because he was the baby before and now he isn’t. So I try to give him a little more attention, love and reassurance. 

I love how Kyan is such a doting korkor to Nate

I love how Kyan is such a doting korkor to Nate

There’s no manual for parenting and you really learn as you go, and through spending time with them. I don’t think I’ve even gotten to the hard stage yet! Apparently when they’re teenagers, that’s when they’ll really be a handful. 

I think a big part of what pushes me to be better and to challenge myself comes from surrounding myself with good people. 

My husband for example is very driven. He reads ferociously to expand his mind and by surrounding myself with people like him — people who are constantly trying to learn, I too find myself pushing my limits and reaching beyond my comfort zone. I’m not perfect and I’m still learning. 

Photos provided by Dr Elaine Kim. 

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