Can Women Really Have it All?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Malaysian entrepreneurs Shen-Tel Lee, Sereni Linggi and Olivia Ling share thoughts on managing careers, motherhood, and the art of multitasking

Text: Leila Louise Fitton

"You can't have it all, but you can enjoy it all," says Shen-Tel Lee, the co-owner of Malaysian accessory labels Bowerhaus and Sereni&Shentel (whose headbands featured on Gossip Girl). Shen-Tel is an entrepreneurial career woman and working mum, travelling between Australia and Kuching, and juggling the pressure of owning a business with being a wife and parent to two young children. "My approach in life is to enjoy the small wins. Life is hard ninety per cent of the time, so ten per cent of joy a day is doing well. For me, living well means talking about my stresses in life out loud and having a laugh and cry about it,” she says.

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We are all surrounded by females who are excellent career women, working mothers, but the question 'Can women really have it all?' tends to rise when contemplating starting a family. According to The National Bureau of Economic Research, "Upon becoming parents, women adopt more negative views toward female employment. Women on average report that parenthood is harder than they expected."

And that’s not all. The Singapore Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force Survey states that "Among women who are not part of the labour force, the vast majority in their thirties (81%) and in their forties (82%) neither worked nor looked for work because of family responsibilities." On the #SheMakesItWork Campaign, 55% of Malaysian, 56% of Singaporean and 43% of Pilipino women say they have missed out on career opportunities due to having a family.

Along with Shen-Tel, 38, other local women who have admirably gone against the grain in a bid to enjoy both a career and motherhood are Sereni Linggi, 45, and Olivia Ling, 43, both from Kuching. Their unstoppable minds and unfaltering energy are manifested in their business empires, where they are constantly producing magic — in the midst of raising young families.

Sereni juggles motherhood with managing Green Heights Shopping Mall, teaching yoga five times a week, training for the Spartan Race, and leading an active social life. Olivia is a mother to four children and a career woman within F&B, retail and fitness. She believes in multitasking and does so by exercising. Working out is her stress relief and also a way to spend more time with her kids.

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Wonder Woman, The Myth

"The biggest issue for working mothers is the idea that they must be available around the clock both at home and the office," writes Mary Beth Ferrante, Founder and CEO of WRK/360.

Sereni agrees. "The pressure to be Wonder Woman is a myth to me. There’s no magic formula here, just exercise and eat well because the mother of the family affects everything and everyone.”

As a burn out recovery plan she now spends more time with family and friends, and she loves reading. "Have a time limit set on work, be decisive so issues won't creep into your 'me time' and learn to say 'no' when it doesn’t fulfil you, “Sereni advises. “Be an independent thinker and doer."

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An Honest Life, The Reality

Ninety per cent of the staff at The Playground Borneo, the artistic hub Shen- Tel, Sereni, and Olivia share as their workspace, are women with families. "(Women) will only be successful if employers support them in all aspects of their life, at home and at work," writes Ferrante. Being working mothers themselves, Sereni&Shentel maintain a healthy environment by being more understanding to the demands of their female workers.

"To be honest, you can't have it all. What you can have are short burst of moments of joy. It’s up to you to notice those moments and seize them," says Shen-Tel, who states that when she hits a road-block, she doesn't hesitate to ask for help from her children, husband and family. "When it all gets too much, there’s nothing a bag of chips and a good walk around the park can’t fix. Most of the time we feel trapped in the routine. I find moving helps me to calm those dark moments.”

For Shen-Tel, having an honest life is more important than a balanced life. "Knowing what you love and blocking off the unnecessary is a life skill we all need to focus on," she says. Meanwhile, Olivia believes that understanding the priority of being a mother is key. "I bond with my children by exercising with them. I inculcate a positive yet competitive spirit in all that they do which also creates opportunities to find common ground and support each other," she says.

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Having it all is different for everyone. With a successful career while bringing up a family, these three successful women juggle work and motherhood through prioritising, creating a support system, having 'me time' and having fun while at it. "It takes a village to raise children, but as a working mum, you need a small army," Olivia concludes.

To her, a balanced life and finding happiness is completely intertwined. Each person’s notion of balance is unique to them and their situation, so just give it your all and be kind to yourself.

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