Mothers are feeling increasingly lonely these days. In a 2018 study in UK, 90% of more than 2,000 mothers surveyed shared that they felt lonely after having children, and 54% felt "friendless" after giving birth. This was even before the need for social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we resolve this epidemic of loneliness? Where can mothers find support and encouragement when we need it?
In this episode of the ParentEd podcast, join Joanna Koh-Hoe, CEO of Focus on the Family Singapore as she chats with Michelle Choy about why mothers need a support group or community.
Michelle is a mother of 6 children. Her eldest child is aged 23 and her youngest is 8 years old. She is the co-founder and director of The Little Executive, a skills studio developing children to be ready for the 21st century. She is also an occupational therapist who chronicles about her parenting journey at MummyWeeBlog.com.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
It's May and we just celebrated Mother's Day in Singapore. So belated Mother's Day to all mums. We are focusing on topics that support mums and our unique world as mums.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce Michelle Choy, a very accomplished mum of six. It is a big accomplishment, and I'm speaking as a mum of only one.
Michelle is an occupational therapist by day, and mum of six by night. But I have an issue with this, 'cause I think she's a mum of six by day and night.
Michelle has a blog called Mummy Wee Blog. She is going to share a little bit about this community, because we're going to be delving into the topic of mum communities and mum friends; we all need friends!
Welcome, Michelle! Tell us a little bit about your six children.
Hi Joanna, thank you for having me here! Five of my kids are girls and one is a boy; the eldest will be 23 this year and the youngest is eight.
Wow, that’s a huge gap.
Yeah, I had five teenagers at the same time! That was challenging.
Which is worse — having so many teenagers in the household or having this whole age range of kids to deal with?
I think the five teenagers at the same time, because especially they were girls! Five hormonal, moody girls with fluctuating behaviours.
Now that they look back, they laugh and say, "Was it really like that, Mum?" "Yes, you were really like that." So that was tough.
Can you tell us about Mummy Wee Blog?
It was interesting how it started. About eight years ago, when my youngest child, Kate, was born, I had a lot of friends or friends of friends who would text me with all sorts of questions.
"Hey, my daughter is having a fever. What do I do? Should I do this?"
I said, "have you seen the doctor?"
"I have, but now I'm home and I don't know what I should do."
I was dispensing all this advice while trying to manage my kids, answering questions or helping friends with all sorts of issues.
"Do you know what school I should send my kid to? Do you think the school is OK?"
Or, you know, discipline issues, all sorts of issues.
That's because your other five kids were already grown up right?
Yeah, the older ones were already teenagers.
I had five in succession, they're all two years apart. Then there was a big gap of six years before I had Kate, so we made all the mistakes with the first five and we really learned from that journey. So I had six years to consolidate all of that information and wisdom and experience.
That put you in a great position because that six-year gap meant you'll have a kid who would be entering primary school the next year.
So you had kids in primary school, preschool, secondary school...
Yes, it was secondary school, JC, Poly, and a newborn. So I was like a one-stop shop of answering everybody's questions.
I was really busy and one day, we were out with friends and I told them I've been busy with giving advice. They said, "Why don't you start a blog?"
You know I have no time for the Internet? So I'm like, "What's a blog?"
They told me all these things and they said put all your knowledge and information there. So anyone who is looking for information can just find it.
A friend actually helped me get started, and my daughter helped me with the design and everything else.
I only did the content, the writing from then.
I just kept putting in snippets of advice that friends were asking me. I think, that community grew over time because people said that what was different with my blog, compared to what they read in books or on the Internet, was that this was very Asian-focused.
It was literally for the local context.
I was very big on just telling the truth as it is, that's why my Instagram is not going well because I don't take nice pictures, and put nice things there.
I can't do that right for me. It's just reality. So, I say it as it is. I would just write experiences of the negative parts and how we grew from that, so I think it was very relatable and parents turned to that.
And I receive many emails saying, "Oh thank you very much for sharing what you did because it helped me."
It has helped and inspired a lot of other mums and that community just kept growing.
So how long has that community has been around for?
It's been 8 years since I started the blog, and then with this community, I've moved into face-to-face coaching because of Zoom.
It's really about coaching parents. Sometimes, after reading everything, they still have issues with their children. You can read lots of things, but every child is different. With every phase of life, they also have different issues with their kids.
What I provide now is what I call hot seat coaching.
Parents come on board together, about six of them, and they come with their concerns. They tell me what their issues are.
I'm so stuck. I have this pressing concern.
My son does this. My daughter does this.
What can I do?
The coaching is great — not only can I help them address that issue immediately, but they're also helping one another. Others have seen or experienced, it may not be the same situation, and they get different perspectives as well.
And there's also community and supporters.
So, over the past eight years? What have you seen like sort of like the, the greatest needs or concerns of mums?
Wow, mums have so many needs. The greatest are definitely the need for time, self-care, and for their husbands to step in and do their fair share, and make this journey together with others.
It's more fulfilling experiencing motherhood with somebody else; doing it with a group of people really helps you not only to have a listening ear, or somebody who can give you advice, but we do need fellow mums to go on this journey together.
I think that's interesting because most of them sort of get onto your blog or find out about it as total strangers, right? But as you say that now, they find common concerns.
And it depends on how you build this blog and how you build this community. For me it's very personal, so they relate to you as a person.
As a fellow mum.
Yeah, not just giving theories or just putting the nice bits there.
Even though you're an occupational therapist and you've the expertise...
Yeah, it was funny actually, because it was really, really strange. When people start blogs or they want to be influencers, they want to be known or they want to share something.
I mean for me, I just wanted to give people advice. I didn't want to be known, so for the first six years, I think nobody knew what I looked like because I didn't put any pictures of myself or my kids. I was just giving advice, right?
That was my only aim — just share my story so that it might help somebody else.
Well, you probably didn't think that people knew who you were, but they probably had the impression of who you were just by reading your blog and your stories, right?
Yes, they did!
They had this image of how I should look like. It was in the recent years that it changed, because I started “The Little Executive” as an extension of my work as an OT.
I realised the issues this generation of children are facing! Problems with resilience, depression, increased rates of suicide — these are real problems, right?
So we started "The Little Executive” and parents started coming in, and they're like, "Oh, so that's what you look like?" I also started being invited to events!
People will be like, "Where's Mummy Wee?" I am standing right there, but I'm so tiny and every time people see me, they're like, "Wait, you are Mummy Wee?"
There was one lady who said that, and I said, "So what were you expecting?"
She was really candid and said, "I expected this teddy bear lady who would be big and tall. And you’re so petite!"
Tell me more about how parents started talking to one another in this online community?
They would comment if it was in the Facebook group, but they would also email me separately, sharing their struggles and ask me for advice. Almost all mums really need an avenue. Sometimes you're just so stuck, you really don't know what to do?
Sometimes you just need a third party, like someone who's been through it. Or somebody who had similar experiences to share about their situation and then you can move on.
Sharing life really helps and just gives mums the support that they need, I realise you're also talking about self-care!
There's support from others, but I suppose most of the mums don't go to you so much for personal issues. It's mainly for parenting issues; yet in so doing, they find out that actually, at the bottom of it all, is the need to take care of themselves.
Yeah, it's funny because parents always react to the behaviour of their children, right? They see a particular behaviour that they want to change and that is their biggest pain point, and that's where they are trying to find advice for.
But as I coach parents, I help them realise that this is the tip of the iceberg. What you're seeing are the problems, but as a mum, there are so many other needs that you have—one of which is your own needs!
And too often, it's also the relationship with the spouse that nobody really talks about. That has a huge impact on the woman as a mum and then the marriage, parenting, and the effect it has on the child.
When mums hear this word "self-care", there are all sorts of funny connotations.
Some feel guilty about it. While it seems like a selfish thing, I think that viewpoint may have come from our grandma's generation where Mum was a very self-sacrificial person, we may forget that a basic need for humans is to care for yourself, to have time to rest, decompress and relax.
You can't just keep running without recharging. I just came from a retreat actually and it's these pit stops that help you to realign as well and to step back and you actually gain a lot when you make time for yourself.
The funny thing is mums usually think "I have no time".
That is the biggest objection I hear from mums when I say, "Hey, you need to take care of yourself." They say, "No, I have no time!"
For me as well, I think for the 1st 10 years of motherhood, there was no self-care. You couldn't even have a proper shower. You're running in, just quickly shower and quickly run out.
Because some kid will be knocking on the door? "Oh Mum, what are you doing inside?"
Yeah, or some kid is punching another child? Or someone just vomited?
Our notion of self-care in those days was like dreams of a vacation or going to the spa.
And I realised that, that is not necessarily the right self-care for all of us or for any of us. That could speak to some mums, but I realise—and I've been sharing with mums—that self-care can be something that is very short.
It can be something done daily; for me, I'm very intentional with self-care now. I take time out to do something that will give me joy or help me to relax every single day, and it could be 5 minutes or 10 minutes.
It could be something as simple as a big hug from a child, like a real bear hug. Oh, you know how you need that connection sometimes when you're so stressed! Could be your stress at work, your stress with so many obligations, and just having that connection?
Sometimes it could be just taking a pack of chips and sitting in the garden. Right now I have a garden, but in the past, it was sitting at the stairwell to get away from them. But you just need that break.
It's not waiting a whole month to go for a massage or to the spa, but like every evening, just taking 5 or 10 minutes, or even after dinner, to go for a walk with my husband.
I used to function with a "not enough" mentality. I have "not enough" time and "not enough" this, I have "not enough" that.
Then I realised if I switched it around, putting priority on the things that's going to help me get further and do things better, those things are investments of your time.
So now, it could be reading a chapter of a book that inspires me or even watching something like Ted talks. It could just be 5 minutes, but find something that is inspirational.
Find something that suits you! Self-care for your friend may not be what is enriching for you. My friend might like to take a roller coaster, but for me, there's no way that's self-care for me!
For me, self-care could be walking in the garden. I think mums need to realise that they have to make time for themselves and find self-care that is doable, to put into their daily lives and not feel guilty or bad about taking that time for yourself.
Let's talk a little bit about self-care and this whole idea of mum guilt?
I don't know how it came to be, but we always associate mum as being the self-sacrificing one. But it's like the life jacket principle; our kids will only get as much out of us as there is of us.
And if we don't take care of ourselves, our kids aren't going to get very much good out of us.
So how do we address this mum guilt? As a concept, self-care is one thing. How does community help mums get out and get away from mum guilt?
I would say the first thing to do is to try it for yourselves and then see the results. So for example, if you're walking around, always fuming.
I was at that place. You imagine five kids under the age of 10, right? Every day, someone is shouting, someone screaming. Someone is snatching someone else's toys. I've had it to the top.
But there was no concept of self-care and it just took one tiny thing and I could just yell at them. I would just snap.
But now I'm in a really Zen Yoda kind of space. I think I haven't got angry with Kate in the last eight years. I probably scolded her, like raised my voice.
Of course, I will always teach her, right?
But that kind of craziness that I had with my older kids, that kind where you scream until the neighbour comes and looks in your window and waves at you to see if everything is OK, you know?
And that’s really when mum guilt sets in, right? Because you're thinking what a crazy woman raising kids.
Ad after that you go to bed, you feel so guilty for shouting at him, for losing it, and you know that kind of emotional impact it had on them?
And that was bad, you know. So it was like a rubber band that is so stretched at any moment it could just snap.
But so I would say to those moms who feel that you know, cut yourself some slack.
Why don't you just take a really small step?
You know, tomorrow go figure out what is it that brings you joy,
It sounds like Marie Kondo…
Yeah, did you know that one thing I did for self-care during the Circuit Breaker was to clear out this cluttered shelf and was right in my face every day?
I didn't know how much it got to me, but I told myself, "OK I am going to spend 30 minutes clearing out the shelf today." That brought me so much joy! It cleared my mind, because it was this shelf that I walked past every day. Everyone just stuffed things in there and it became really messy.
So I would say, try self-care, commit to it. Why don't you try it tomorrow? Just factor in 10 minutes. It could be a walk, it could be a long shower with like your favourite scent.
It could be anything. It could be a call to your best friend that you haven't called up in 20 years. And maybe you could start at least once a week? Now I do it every day.
Maybe you start with once a week, then move on to two or three times a week, and see if that brings down your stress levels. If it actually does, then there is a rollover effect on your kids! You may not scream at them so easily, or even at your husband when he comes back.
It sounds almost like we should start small and start now, rather than feel guilty about those 10 minutes; and that will actually save you from a lot more guilt, right?
Yeah, we have to look at the big picture! We have 24 hours in a day. Can you not sacrifice 10 minutes for yourself? You know, I lived like that for 10 years and now when I look back, it was just crazy.
Why did I do that to myself? Why did I even think that I was right?
I think for mums out there who feel overly responsible, it might help to know that the 10 minutes is a really good investment that will save us from what may be years of guilt, if we were to do something to our kids because we've lost it.
Yeah, there is peace in our household now. I would say in those 10 years, everyone probably felt tense every day. The tension in our house was probably because they were thinking, "Mummy could blow up anytime," and the kids would bear the brunt of that.
Well, it is the Mother's Day period and as we celebrate mums, I hope mums will really find the time to treat themselves better.
Recently I was challenged to come up with a list of 100 things that I can do to make myself happy, and I realised it's so difficult! I never got to 100, but at least I reached double digits.
You're right that some of these things that make us happy are just little thing. Instead of waiting till we have enough time, which is hard to come by, we just tell ourselves, "Let's just find something that I can do in 10 minutes that actually could make a world of difference."
Michelle, since you know you started this blog and kind of raised a community of mums, what has parenting in a village looked like? Has it changed over the years, especially now with social media?
I mean, we often think that social media affords us an online community that we need for support, but I think we're also hearing from some mums that in fact, it leads them to unhealthy comparison, or even feel more guilty about themselves.
Yeah, I think let's start from whether it is different and what was it like before?
My eldest is already 23 so I've been doing this over 23 years and I do see that there is a change.
So, I remember when I had my older kids we were living in this condominium and I was so fortunate to find three other mums and we were all stay-home mums, so we had that support from one another.
We met Mondays to Fridays. Our husbands were at work and we would meet at the playground at 5:00 o'clock with our kids. We had kids, the same age and that was a lifesaver for me, because not only did the kids have time to expend their energy and go crazy with their friends, that was the time for us mums to sit and talk to one another. You know, there are so many issues in a day.
It could be like, "Today, my daughter told me "Mum, I hate you." One mum would cry, "Why would my daughter say that to me?" Somebody else would say, "Oh, I had that once, and let me tell you what they really meant. They don't really mean they hate you."
It ranged from anything, like “Oh my goodness they are like red marks all over my son's body today” and we start to panic because we were worried. Then one mum will say, "OK, I've been seeing this TCM physician and he says da da da da."
That support was really crucial for me, and even now that our kids are in Poly, or taking A levels, we are still in contact. As our children move through the years, we start to share the issues of teenagers and...
Honestly, I would recommend every mum to have a very close group of other like-minded mums, whether they're your own friends or whether you find them over time, to journey with you.
Because if you have little kids and you think that the toddler years are difficult, if you think that the primary school years are stressful, wait till you come to the teenage years.
And it's real—the issues that our teenagers face today. They are chilling issues. There are issues of depression, there are issues where kids are cutting themselves. Or kids are contemplating suicide, or starting to experiment with drugs. These are real issues and very complex.
And mums, I think you know you need to build up this village of mums who you can absolutely trust and confide in because it becomes a very lonely journey if you don't have that.
Because when the kids are young, we're just talking about diapers and who's not drinking milk. Or which is the best enrichment centre?
Everyone is willing to share, but by the time your teenagers have these kind of real issues, you need people whom you can confide in and ensure that they will keep whatever you say confidential. Sometimes you may not be able to confide in your family because you don't want to alarm the grandparents, or sometimes they have a very traditional view of things, and they may say, "Send them overseas, or lock them at home," it's just a different generation. So, it's extremely important to have that that village with you.
What I've noticed is that the kind of support has changed, and it has gone virtual so for the older people, there's Facebook, then there's Instagram and then TikTok, but I don't know if that is a community or not.
But now there are all these online platforms and I would say there are definitely pros and cons.
The pros I have seen on Facebook is that you can very easily gather a group of babies born in 2020. Not only that, I know of the younger people say, "Oh I'm in this group, February 2020 babies."
So you know that's where you can share, "Oh, we are doing immunisation this week," "How did your child react? Did he have a fever?" You know, or when the teeth start dropping.
So there, there definitely are benefits where because of social media you can gather this like-minded parents, with children in similar age groups.
And I have also seen that through Facebook, through Instagram, Singapore is a very small community and mothers will start to gravitate and get to know each other. There are media events where you get to know other mum communities and they do form real friendships after that.
I would say the flip side of social media is that because you can easily access information from anybody—actually not only in Singapore—I've seen some parents become very confused because there are so many parenting methods.
Yeah, and some of it could be conflicting.
Yeah, some could be conflicting. I've also seen that when you take a bit of this kind of parenting, a bit of that kind of parenting and you try to put it together, it doesn't really work well because you're dealing with a child, right?
In social media, people are putting the nice bits out there and that's the only thing you see. So I'm very mindful of that—it's good now even among the local mums who are online, they do share even the not so nice bits to try to normalise things for everybody else.
That "Hey, nobody's families or marriages look like completely that, there is always a flip side."
I think a responsible person online should — I mean, if you have a lot of followers — you should also paint that side of the picture, if not, everybody else looking at it will feel like, "Oh my, am I the only one whose marriage is failing, who has kids throwing things at each other? Why do everybody else's kids look perfect?"
So it is tough — there's that side of social media that parents have to be discerning about, and the younger parents coming on board and even our children who are going on social media because that is going to be the kind of information that's at their fingertips.
True. Well, I mean we talked about how important it is for mums to have that self-care to ensure that it gets into their almost daily lifestyle habits. At the same time, mums need ongoing support, particularly from other mummy friends.
Social media can have its pros and cons, and I think what most mums would be looking for would be that safe place, right? Where we can we feel that we can share in confidence with a trusted friend,
who won't judge us or tell us what a bad mum we are when we already feel bad about ourselves?
Who can give us perspectives and insights, and encourage us at a time when we are down. Likewise, we can be the encouragement to them when they are feeling down.
And I just want to talk about the last “S” after Self-care and Support. The Spouse, the dads.
Since we're talking about self-care and mum support, Focus on the Family Singapore recently did a survey of mums and we do know that mums say that the number one support they hope to have, and sometimes get, actually comes from their spouse, i.e. their husband.
If you could tell husbands, one thing that would really, really help mums after having spoken to so many through your blog Mummy Wee Blog, what would be that one thing husbands can do, particularly in this month that we're celebrating mums?
I would say that men and women are so different, and it's funny how it took my husband probably 20 years to figure that out?
So I hope dads are listening in. Men and women actually look at situations, problems, family life and our kids very differently.
For me, for mums, what we often need is emotional support. We need you to come back and tell us you know that we're tired, we're overwhelmed. That it's difficult managing so many kids, running the household, going out to work, doing this and that.
That's all we need from them, to hear it from them and that they understand, and I think likewise for husbands to hear that affirmation from the wives.
Unfortunately, a lot of men and OK, speaking for myself, my husband is very solution-oriented. When I tell him something, I actually just need to air it out and I'm done with it, but I didn't know for the longest time that he was listening to try and figure out my problem.
That's why he always says, "Can you get to the point?" Because he didn't want to hear all the other things that you're going on about that.
You need to get it out of your system, while he's drowning, trying to figure out where the problem is. And then he will go straight into the solution and say, "Alright, I'm going to do this — either I'm going to fix this, I'm going to buy this, I'm going to do this, so that your problem is solved." And I look at him, "No, that's not what I'm asking you to do," and it was really funny.
So I think it'll be great if Dad could understand that, before problem solving the first step, if you could emotionally engage your wife and hear from her.
All they need is to get it out, for you to listen and listen attentively? Not like one hand on your phone, and then doing that "mm, yeah ok" while nodding. Kind of condescending.
Seems somewhat insincere.
You want to do it, do it properly, or just don't do it.
Women can get other women. They get it.
But yeah, that's also why women do need a community of mums because to be very fair, we all know that women have this quote of about 40,000 words a day, but men only have this really limited quota?
To be fair to the men, they come back from a whole day at work. They are tired, and to hear the nitty gritty details of the entire day of the kids in their diapers and their milk problems and whatever not? You know they are trying to shut down and they just want to rest, so I think that's why we need this village.
We need this community. Everybody has that part to play and to work towards an ideal situation where everybody has their needs met.
I think you said it so well and we can't expect our husbands to be everything to us. So husbands, if you're listening in today, listen to your wife. Let her get it out of her system. Make sure she has enough opportunities for self-care, and encourage her to find that support from a community of like-minded mums.
Well, if you'd like to check out the community that Michelle's been talking about, you can google Mummy Wee blog. You can also find it on Facebook.
Focus on the Family Singapore is also running the ParentEd Dialogues where we discuss parenting strategies and also foster a community of parents to journey with you in parenthood.
So if you'd like to find out more, you can find us on our social media pages or just google Focus on the Family Singapore. Or you can write in to us at [email protected].
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
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