Wake up and lounge in bed. Silently mull over the Witcher: Blood Origin series binged on Netflix late into the night before, trying to decide whether I like it or not.
Cannot make up my mind.
Twenty minutes later, sit up slowly. Stroll to the kitchen. Make myself coffee and breakfast – a slice of rye bread slathered with tablespoons of butter, peanut butter and jam. Minimal nutritional value, maximum taste value.
With each bite, savour the billowy softness of bread blended with heavenly sour-sweetness from jam, tinged with saltiness from the gloriously oily peanut butter. Wash it down with a sip of warm bittersweet coffee. Eyes on phone, fingers lazily swiping through an assortment of news and articles from legitimate and not-so-legitimate sites alike, both equally amusing.
A shriek penetrates the stillness in the air.
Then, a scream.
Eyes and fingers still on phone, proceed on to a game of Wordscape.
A minute later, the shrieking subsides, replaced by chatters.
Immerse myself in a few more games of Wordscape.
This morning routine is not too different from the one the day before. And the one over the past week. It is the time of the year that is the wedge between Christmas and New Year. Where nothing happens. Where the world outside just sort of, stops. Where no one expects anything from me (apart from kids who demand you to be the enforcer of justice).
And this year, I allow myself to just, be.
Do not feel like making lunch or dinner? No worries, we will do take-outs or pop over to mom’s, who always welcomes us with a feast and big embraces.
Not sure what to do tomorrow? No worries, we will decide in the morning after breakfast, depending on what feels right.
Feeling a little bored at 11am? No worries, slide out that delicious cold white from the fridge and put on the Summer Chill edition on Spotify.
Oh, what a wonderful time of the year.
It was not too long ago when during this same period I would line our days up with social engagements, find an endless list of things to do around our somewhat-new-house, get swept up in the madness of end-of-year sales, plan for things to do with the kids, make plans to host New Year celebrations, plan for trips away, fervently write up lists of achievements for the year past and resolutions for the incoming year in the name of self-improvement. We had so many things going on in our lives. Good, wonderful things. There were activities to do, people and places to see, things to buy. But it was never enough. One New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago, I broke down. Crouched over, tears flowing, nose sniffling, wine in one hand, tissue in the other. Profoundly discontented, but confused and unsure about the source of my unhappiness.
So, when Christmas/New Year rolls around again this year, I decide to do something different – that is, to fill my days with nothing, and savour a day at a time.
Traditionally the thought of not doing anything productive or looking for ways to improve things was deeply unsettling for me. I grew up a planner, a concept that was drilled into me as a child. But perhaps it is the age and experience of having gone through many years of unresolved resolutions, or fatigue from going through a semi-apocalyptic era of COVID, climate change and global economic and socio-political uncertainty, or it might just be a post-major-depression thing, it turns out to be just the thing that I need and crave.
To free myself of expectations – those that spring from everywhere and everyone (the 1,001 so-called self-improvement books and articles, news, advertisements, social media posts and images, Greta Thunberg’s steely gaze).
But most importantly, expectations of myself, from myself.
After forty Christmases and New Year days, I am learning to live again. And I realise that I can do it from within the walls of our own home and the confines of my own mind.
Plating up a feast of scrambled egg with mushrooms on toast for the family? Yes, because cooking and watching my kids eat makes my heart sing, not because I have to.
One of the earliest food experimentations I embark on since deciding to drop meat from our dinner plates is to try plant-based meat. And to be honest, we have tried lots of it within a relatively short period of time. Over the last two months we would have consumed it at least twice (sometimes more) on a weekly basis, whether it is in restaurant or takeaway meals, or just incorporated into the cooking from my own kitchen. It is an item that appears on my weekly shopping list, taking the place of the beef or the chicken or the pork that used to be there.
I just figure that if this works out, it would be the single factor that would make our transition to plant-based diet much easier. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were still big meat eaters, to the extent that our favourite date night location was a steakhouse and Will invested in a Weber just so he could make us the perfect steaks.
Over the last two months I have also been talking to people and following and reading countless articles, Youtube videos, podcasts and forums on veganism and plant-based eating to learn more about this style of living, and I notice that the topic of plant-based meat comes up a lot. I am amused by how many people have passionate opinions on this topic and this includes, especially, people who eat meat. I also personally find this quite an interesting space, coming from a commercial background, as I learnt about an industry that has dramatically transformed only over the past five to ten years as it rides the wave of more people who are becoming more conscious of how their diets impact the earth and the welfare of animals.
So, to anyone who is curious but have not ventured far enough down the supermarket aisle to explore plant-based meat products (which was me not that long ago), here are a few things I have learned.
What is it actually?
Plant-based meat is a food product that is made to imitate the look, taste and texture of meat. Unlike messaging that tells us to just celebrate the beauty and joy of eating vegetables, plant-based meant is intended to do the exact opposite – it is to make people think that they are eating meat when they are not.
Plant-based meat can be made from a variety of ingredients including vegetable protein, soy, peas, wheat, rice, mushrooms and other plants that would give it a meat-like consistency. They are quite commonly available now – I have seen them in all the Coles, Woolworths and some oriental shops I shop in. You can usually find them in the frozen and cold food section of the supermarket (close to where real meat is), and separately labelled. They come in many forms that real meat to come in e.g. mince, patties, sausages, nuggets, bacon, salami and in the oriental shops, you can find a different range that includes Asian spam and BBQ “pork”. Various flavours are created to mimic the different types of meat e.g. lamb, chicken, beef, pork, duck.
As a kid I remember eating fake meat on rare occasions, usually during the Chinese New Year, and I have to say, the industry has come a long way from when fake meat tasted like tofu mixed and flour and was always drenched in sauce to make the soy taste less obvious. There are many brands out there now competing for the market’s attention, and visionary entrepreneurs from different countries have been leading the way to partner with chefs and scientists to make plant-based meat that tastes and behaves just like real meat. (Rightly or wrongly, I ate one just two weeks ago where the patty was still a pink in the inside after being cooked.) In fact, some of these brands took years of trialling and experimentation before being launched to the market at large.
For some of these companies their vision is not only to dominate the vegan or vegetarian portion of the market; their vision is to expand into the meat-eating population to give them a real viable alternative to meat and revolutionalise the way people eat .
Who thinks what?
There has been much debate and controversy over plant-based meat over the last few years as its popularity rises in the mainstream stores. Some of the arguments include the real health value of plant-based meat, the processed nature of this product, and whether it is actually a sustainable product for the environment. Others (mainly industries that benefit from the animal farming) have heavily contested the marketing of these products, saying that they cannot be labelled by terms that are commonly used to describe real meat, because it confuses the consumers. In some countries these arguments have even landed in courts and policy making.
In addition, I have heard people questioning the intent of these products, and that if vegetarians and vegans are “appalled” by the slaughter of animals for food consumption, then why should there be a need to eat products that look and taste like meat?
Well, here are my own views of the world.
Starting with the labelling argument. From a consumer’s perspective, I don’t think it really matters what we call a product. If I am a vegetarian craving for food that resembles meat, I would be searching for these products regardless of what they are called (which is what I have been doing). And if I am a person who like my meat and if by chance I stumble upon plant-based meat and buy it by mistake, I would surely have learnt my mistake the next time I walk down that aisle. And lastly, if I am someone who is in neither category and am just a curious consumer who occasionally would like to reduce my meat consumption, I should be happy to find that my options are laid out before me. So, as a consumer, I win in all aspects.
I do not agree nor understand the basis of the argument that vegans or vegetarians should stop looking for meat alternatives because it muddles the purity of our intent. Whilst there are some people who dislike or are disgusted by the taste of meat, there are also others (like myself) who choose to give up meat not because they dislike the taste of meat, but rather, they have an issue with the meat comes about to be on their plates. I do not personally make an association between eating something with a chewy texture to seeing a slaughtered animal. If someone tells me tomorrow that an animal does not have to live a short life and then die to be on my plate, then yes, I will eat that piece of roast pork thank you.
I do agree that the nutritional value of plant-based meat is questionable, as it is a highly processed food, but I take this to mean that we eat it in moderation, which is not unlike most other foods that we consume. As for the sustainability issue, I have seen statistics that suggest that the production of plant-based meat uses much less water and resources than traditional farming.
What is my verdict on plant-based meat?
Like I mentioned we have gone out of our way to try many types of plant-based meat over the last two months so I have made some of my own conclusions about the products. There are a handful of brands that we have tried and would never buy again, and there are others that we have already happily put onto our lunch and dinner menus on more than a few occasions.
Our favourites are by far the Beyond Meat products – both the burger patties and the mince. Beyond Meat is an American brand (and interestingly its founder is the son of a dairy farmer), and are therefore more expensive than the local ones, but we think it’s worth it. Will cannot stop raving about it. Even burger joints like Grill’d and Hungry Jacks use Beyond Meat patties in their burgers. I have made burgers myself at home with their patties and spaghetti bolognaise and Chinese stir-fry with their mince. As I have sensitive tastebuds I can still tell that the mince is not pork or beef, but it is still flavoursome, chewy and less greasy than when I use real meat. A formidable substitute. We cannot wait to try any future Beyond Meat products that may be on their way.
The other product that we tried and liked is the Plant Asia duck. It is uncanny how much this tastes like the real thing, down to the smokiness flavour and how the skin “crisps” up when pan fried. On the two occasions that I cooked this, I also made “Peking duck sauce” as a dip and sliced up some cucumbers and carrots to go with rice and wraps (like how Peking duck is usually served up). Another one that we recently tried is the Next plant-based bacon, which are thin, salty, pink strips of soy protein that crisps up when I pan-fried them. Even Maxy (who is the ultimate detector and spitter of any fake meats in our household) likes this one and he calls them crispy snacks.
At the end of the day, these products are meat replacement and not actual meat, and as such, there is always going to be difference in how they taste. However, having said that, it is not to say that these products do not taste good in their own right. Some of them do, so much so that if I am still eating meat, I would see them ending up on our dinner menus from time to time. The market is relatively new and still has a way to go, in terms of pricing, nutritional value and sustainability, but this is also an economy of scale issue. To me, the question is not whether we stop this market from operating or expanding, but rather, how we help shape what we want to see this industry delivers. With more and more products coming online, and a growing consumer base, it should hopefully not be too long until the plant-based meat industry addresses those issues. If we are to land our goal in using our land and resources sustainably, and to protect animals from being further exposed to unnecessary cruelty, this transition is necessary.
Is it possible to change the way you live and rethink fundamental elements of how you view the world after almost 40 years of life?
The answer to that question, of course, is yes.
Is it easy?
The answer to that question, of course, is no.
It was more than a month ago when I idealistically declared that I would stop eating meat and then proceeded to sit my better half down to discuss a plan on how we were going to make the transition (which thankfully was a simple enough conversation). It was unchartered territory. I was nervous. I was not sure if, or when, I was going to break. Now, six weeks along, I am taking stock on how we are going. And, what have I learnt about this process (and about myself), in this short period of time?
Well, here are a few things.
On food and routines, I am proud to say that I have not eaten meat in over six weeks, with the exception of the occasional seafood. Although it has not been easy, it has also not been as difficult as I initially thought. There were the moments of weakness when I would imagine (longingly) the taste and feel of a meat’s fatty and chewy texture at the tip of my tongue, savouring it in my mind, more so when I was watching a cooking show or reading a menu in a restaurant, but those moments were brief and I was able to move on quite quickly. Mostly with the help of videos of a cute lamb or piglet cuddling up to their mothers.
I plan my weeks. To ensure I do not lapse midweek due to not knowing (or caring) what to cook, I rely heavily during weekdays on delivery meals – those that come pre-cooked (ie. Soulara), and also the ones that come with pre-packed fresh ingredients and handy recipes (ie. HelloFresh). This, combined with my curiosity to try out new recipes over the weekends, seems to work.
The kids, however… that is a different matter. As much as they love baby animals, they also love their meat and are exhibiting some sort of withdrawal, almost rebellious, behaviours from being given less of it. I have decided that they will continue to eat mostly as they always have, but I will also gradually introduce more plant-based dishes into their diet to allow them to adopt to and appreciate the flavours.
Lastly, I realise I love mushrooms – all kinds of them (white-capped ones, portabello, enoki, king oyster mushrooms) and would happily eat them any time of the day, grilled on toast with avocado or on top with rice or blended into soup.
On eating out and deliveries, Perth has surprised me . Most restaurants actually have a good list of vegetarian options, and it has been a really fun process exploring them. It is like being exposed to a whole new culinary world, something that I did not know exist, even though it has always been right underneath our noses!
The following is quickly becoming our go-to options for delivery and / or eating out meals: curries (especially palak paneer and malai kofta), meat-free pizzas and pastas (think simple and delicious aglio e olio), a variety of piping hot and delicious Korean soups, bibimbap, vegetable soups with bread, curry laksa with tofu, roti canai with dhal, fried rice or noodles without meat, spinach and feta pide, and falafel kebab (one of my all-time favourites). Despite being traditionally associated with meat, most burger shops also have hearty vegetarian options, either replacing the meat patty with mushrooms, or those meat-like patties, all of which are finger-lickin’ good.
On the other hand, I am disappointed that I have not been able to find a meat-free pie that can satisfy the craving for hot gravy-filled stuffing enclosed in buttery crusts, even after having tried several bakeries and pie shops. In fact, the best one I have had is actually from the frozen section of the supermarket aisle. For now I will persevere on this challenge, but perhaps until one day I may realise that I will never be able to join a savoury pie again the same way again and decide to give it up forever.
It has also been most difficult with Chinese restaurants as this has been the palate that I grew up with and I have many memories associated with eating Chinese meat dishes, especially with big grand and happy occasions. I am nervously anticipating the day when we will celebrate the next big festival in a Chinese restaurant. That will yet be the test.
On coffee and beverages, I am a habitual coffee drinker. Twice a day, for many years (not stopping even during pregnancy). Although I have not decided to go full vegan, I have been swapping the dairy from my barista-made coffee to other alternatives, and have not been missing it. I frequent a café near my work place that makes the most chocolatey mocha. They make it so well that I cannot even tell the difference when they use soy milk. I also find that I actually like the rich taste of soy milk and the creaminess of oat milk, although not so much almond milk. I have rekindled my love with sweet bottled soy milk (the type that you get in Asian shops), a drink that my childhood memory was made of.
On general health and well-being, I was worried about my iron and energy level when I decided to stop eating meat. To my surprise my energy level has pretty stayed the same. Sadly, so has my skin, despite what the websites told me. My skin has not miraculously become glowing and radiant (shame). For my own mental wellbeing, I have stopped hunting for articles and documentaries that show the pain and suffering we humans impose on animals, but rather focus on more uplifting and inspiring stories where we help animals. I would like to develop another dimension of viewing the world and humanity, and also to shift my thoughts to what I can do to advance the cause, as opposed to what has been done and conditions that are outside of my control.
So, then, back to the original question – is it easy to change? The answer is still no, it’s not, it hasn’t been, and this is only the beginning. But it is necessary. It is necessary because change helps me grow. It opens my mind and challenges me to continually explore, question and adjust myself and my own beliefs that have been built up over time through a different set of circumstances, to be the person that I believe I should be.
After all, as the wise man Socrates said (and I was often reminded by my better half): –
Save for those new-year-resolution type promises that I have made so many times to myself in the past, in secret and then shamefully abandoned, I can remember only two other pledges that I have openly announced in my life – first was at my wedding, and then another one when I decided to get involved in a program to live below the poverty line for a week to gather donations. As you can see, I do not have a habit of making and announcing pledges (probably in fear of the public disgrace of not being able to keep them), but for the ones that I announced, I have a pretty good record of keeping them to-date.
My pledge this time, is to stop eating meat (for those who care about labels, I am electing to be a pescatarian).
This has been years in making. I can remember at least three prior attempts which were unsuccessful. As a person who has grown up eating meat her entire life, believing that meat is a key food source, cooking meat dishes, and now having a family and working most days, there are a million and one reasons why it is too difficult to give it up. Time and convenience, taste and enjoyment, a lack of non-meat recipes under my repertoire, perceived lack of ingredients in major supermarkets, lack of choices at restaurants, higher costs, fear of nutritional deficiency, etc. Most days I am too tired by the end of the day that the thought of having to cook is already a major hurdle – to have to think up delicious, filling, nutritional meat-free meals that everyone in the family would eat seems like an impossible task. It is so far-fetched that a part of my brain would shut off and give up before I can even reach for my phone and google “vegetarian recipes”.
There were always reasons to not do it, but that’s not to say I was not thinking about it. The thought has stayed with me for years, the guilt occasionally returning each time I paused long enough to think about it, all the while slowly gnawing through the conscience at the back of my mind.
I can still remember the exact moment long time ago when the idea first spawned on me.
It was in a Chinese restaurant with a few colleagues from work. The topic of conversation shifted to one of the colleagues telling a story about a camp that he had gone to and how they had to prepare their meal from scratch. Like, literally from live animal scratch. As he described some of the unsavoury details, we took turns looking away and cringing (me probably most of all).
At the end of it, he said simply, “We did it. It’s unpleasant, but it is also important especially for this generation that we know where our food comes from.”
Up until that point of my twenty-something-year-old life, I had never taken a moment to really think about that. I had never paused to wonder about where and how those delicious and beautiful plates of char siew or dim sum ended up on the tables of restaurants. I had never paused to think when I strolled down the cold section of a supermarket and picked up tray of conveniently packed meat. In fact, when I moved from Malaysia to Australia, one of the things I marvelled the most at was how clean and sanitised everything was over here. Neat and tidy supermarket aisles. No wet markets. No live or dead animals on display, the sight and smell of which used to nauseate me. I loved that about the Australian stores. The society here had made it all so easy, so sanitised, so well-presented. So far detached from the initial reality of the food source that makes buying them so easy and tempting.
After that lunch inklings of thoughts and images began to pop into my head. Of that colleague and his friends who were at camp. How did one go about slaughtering an animal? How many attempts would it require? How did one confront watching life disappearing before his or her own eyes? Did the animal suffer? If so, how much? At that time the thought lingered and left not long after, because it was too difficult to think about.
Through the years, long after I no longer work with those colleagues, I would occasionally stumble across a video on Youtube or on Facebook, and then Netflix documentaries and movies when it came around, that showed scenes where animals were badly treated by humans, whether on farms or in the wild. At this point I was not hunting for these videos but they popped up every now and then. I was getting small doses of them and would often look away or press skip when the scenes got too graphic. I would rather not see them because they upset me. On occasions there would be one so bad that would make me stop eating meat for a few days, before I would fall back into the habit again when it became too difficult. Also, there was a part of my brain that tried to rationalise the situation and thought that a lot of what I had seen was probably exaggerated propaganda pulled together by extreme activists (because this is how my brain works and reacts when being presented with over-stimulated messages with sad and scary music and too many words displayed in red and caps).
But last month, when I once again came across a passage in a book that described animal violence, I did not look away. Why is it different this time, you ask? I wonder too. I think it may be a combination of a few things. For one, it was a well-written and engaging book, and with that so were the descriptions. For another, perhaps it was just the time for it – that day at the restaurant all those years ago, all these scenes I had seen, all this guilt I had felt, all accumulating up to that one point. As I read the passage, my dog happened to be lying peacefully at my feet, and I could not help but think of him and picture him being the subject of the abuse in the book. The agony he would have felt. The confusion. The pain. The helplessness. The mercy the human in the book could have shown but chosen not to.
And I started to cry, and then cry, and then cry. And that was the start of it.
For days after I could not get the image out of my mind. I figured the only way I could stop myself from spiralling was to learn more about what was spoken of in the book (again, this is how my brain works). I trawled the internet for information. The more I read, the more curious I became. There was so much information out there that I was not privy to, because I was not looking. I was coming upon websites after websites of articles and information about the treatment of animals that were bred, raised and often killed for human consumption and other purposes, most of which caused me to again end up in tears. I think I cried more over the last month than I have over the last ten years.
After days of this, I came to one conclusion. Even if only ten percent of what is described on those websites is true and the rest is propaganda, that would still equate to millions of animals that suffer and die each year purely for our pleasure, our convenience, our so obstinately held-onto way of life through generations of habits and mindsets. That is the conservative number. The reality is that human footprint on the animal kingdom, just through our sheer numbers, is on a scale so unbelievably large that is hard to fathom (think about it in billions). At one point this left me in a state of psychological mess at the realisation that nothing I could do at a personal level would make a difference. The overwhelming sense of helplessness was more than crushing, it was debilitating. Again, I wanted to give up before I even started trying. What is the point? It would take an overhaul lifestyle change on my part, extreme inconvenience, a hit to my meat-loving tastebuds, probably snide remarks from those who did not care, and to what end? The practical part of my mind was challenging the emotional part (in the past, it had always won).
But I also realise that if I do nothing, it would be at the heavy expense of my own conscience. I want the ability to be able to hug and cuddle my dog again without feeling shameful and hypocritical. I want the ability to see and savour the happiness on my children’s faces without being tainted by the thought that millions of animals were are away from their mothers at birth. I want the ability to look away from another video describing animal abuse and know that I am doing my part, as opposed to thinking that there is nothing I can do about it.
Because at the end of the day, there is something I can do. It has got to do with the choices that I make for myself and my family on a daily basis. It has got to do with what I tell children and educate them when they ask me about the choices I am making. It has got to do with me asking for more compassionate options when I go to a restaurant or a shop. So, this is where it will start. This is where the pledge comes in. I am not going to make grand statements that I will turn myself and whole family vegan by the end of the month. I understand my own limitations, and there are many, and I will not set myself a goal that will fail and put myself backwards when that happens. I will start small, based on what I already know, and build on it. I will make an effort to read more, learn more, understand where my food comes from and pick compassionate choices where I can. I will educate my children about what I know without forcing my ethical stance on them. Day by day, I will make changes gradually. It will be slow but it will be progress. It will matter, because that is how progress starts. I will not judge those around me who think differently, but I will share what I learn should they wish to listen.
Today, I share the beginning of my journey.
Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. – Albert Schweitzer
For the last week I have been waking up either on a plane or in a hotel room all by myself, in a foreign city far away from home. The mornings were strangely calm and quiet, and the chaotic madness that I am used to in our daily household seemed distant. This foreign city was Florence and work brought me there. Whilst I was there, the daytime was filled with intense work schedules, but we had the evenings to explore. Florence is a city that is beautiful and rich in history. This was the place where the Renaissance started, and this was the place where great Italian historical figures like Galileo and Michelangelo were buried. Standing on the cobbled-stone streets, surrounded by concrete and marble buildings that were hundreds and even century years of age, you could not help but feel the presence of its grandeur past. The craftiness and architectural genius of the Italians could be observed through the intricate details that were attentively painted, carved and sculptured into every inch of their buildings – the doors and windows, the arches and columns, and even the roof and ceilings. The atmosphere of the city was light and relaxed at most times; majority of the people milling about in the streets were tourists who had trickled in from all parts of the world to enjoy the Tuscan summer. The Italians who I came across in the shops and restaurants were lovely and hospitable people – not so much in the polite Asian kind of way, but more like in a louder, passionate and homelier kind of way. When the sun went down, the city transformed itself again. The streets, the buildings, the Ponte Vacchio bridge and the surrounding hills all lit up in a modest, subdued manner, unlike the bright modern city lights that I was used to. The big majestic church, the Duomo, stood still and somewhat eerily in the backdrop, softly illuminated in a white light that reminded you of its presence without being intrusive. Together with the evening breeze and street musicians around every square and corner, you could not help but feel like you wanted to fall in love in this city. It was truly an indulgent experience. However, while I was in the midst of basking in all of this, I was also aware of another reality that was unfolding halfway around the world. Despite weeks of advance planning, my three-year-old son caught an unexpected throat infection that resulted in high fevers and night waking for days. My husband, who was also sick and whose birthday I had to miss, was working full-time and having to take time off to look after him. My daughter, who still needed caring for while her brother was sick, ended up staying at my mother’s place for days while her father cared for her brother. I realized that for me to be able to make this trip and focus on doing what I needed to do, there were a lot of sacrifices made by my loved ones on my behalf. A mother’s guilt is real, and it stems from the realization that the decisions made by myself can have multi-faceted impact on those around me. When I was in Florence I thought of my family every night before I went to sleep and every morning when I opened my eyes. Every time I was starting to savour Florence I felt guilt for being the only one in my family who had the opportunity to do so. Every time I received a text saying that Maxy was unwell, I felt guilt for not being there. As the days go by, I get better at managing the guilt (or perhaps I just become numbed by it), but it does not ever really go away. Even before this trip, it has thrown (and will continue to throw) questions at me that make me think and consider about my real intent of doing things. Questions like: Do I really have to work? Would the house finances fall apart if I stop working? Or am I working because I want to? Because it makes me feel accomplished and better about myself? Because it challenges me and keeps me in touch with the real world and I get to socialize in different networks? But even if I work, does it really have to be with a company and in a role that would require me to be away from my young family for days at a time, and sometimes steal hours in the evenings too? But haven’t I always wanted this opportunity to travel, and is it a bad thing to still want this knowing the impact it will have on everyone at home? Is it ok to be selfish and want only for myself sometimes? It is tiring sometimes to think about it, especially when knowing that there is never going to be one solution that would satisfy all these questions. But by pondering them from time to time I am hoping it woukd help me re-evaluate the validity of the decisions I made to date, particularly around work and life. And by doing so I am hoping to keep myself honest and challenge myself to try and find that right balance that would work for all of us – for those I love and also for myself.
We have established a bit of a family tradition this time every year where the extended family would all pack up and get out of Perth for a weekend away to celebrate my mother’s birthday. It is always somewhere in Western Australia, and more often than not, in the South-West region.
But birthday or not, the South-West has grown on me and whenever I am seeking for a quick easy get away I would always head south. It is close enough to be convenient and far enough to get my mind off things. On the drive down, you get vast open areas of beautiful, rugged country side, dotted with livestock and the occasional farmhouse and cute cottage. Once you are there, depending on your destination, you either get long stretches of pristine white beaches and an ocean that spreads out like a shimmering golden and blue blanket; or you get nestled between rolling hills and tall, majestic trees and the odd clearing where kangaroos lay down to rest. There is also an abundance of local fresh produce around the region like fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood, and everything else ranging from bread, olive oil, pate to jams and preserves – which you can choose to bring home and cook for yourself or sit down in one of the fancy winery- restaurants and get a well-qualified chef to cook for you. What is not to like about this region?
In more recent times, with the boom of the resources industries, the increased prominence of WA as a tourism destination and the attraction of more people (and money) into the state, the region has seen a bit of a shift from being just a holiday location into a more sophisticated, upper-class getaway location. This can be observed from the upscale of some of the long-term establishments (note the iconic Miami Bakehouse which now forms part of a bigger food-court establishment) and the increasing number high-end wining and dining locations and luxury accommodation for travellers (not to mention the number of imported cars and well-dressed people who frequent these establishments). From the balcony of the rental house where we were staying we could see a dock full of recreational boats. Although at times it can feel a little over-commercialised, I believe this has overall served to improve the quality of experiences available around the area.
However, on top of all of that, there is another reason why I have become even more enamoured with the South-West (which is the same reason why we have been frequenting the region for at least twice a year for the last few years), and that is because I find out just how easy it is to travel there with kids. If you have not discovered that for yourself, here are my top reasons why:
It is ten times more convenient than flying – we can pack and chuck everything into the boot of our SUV and drive, unrestricted by check-in time and luggage space (for example, if I forget a pair of boots right before we leave our garage, I would grab them and throw them on top of everything else as opposed to having to repack). We also do not have to worry about the logistics of towing around two kids and big pieces of luggage for miles in an airport or waiting around for long periods in an airport lounge or being buckled up with young kids in an airplane for hours (i.e. think many opportunities for toddler melt-downs). And even if they do have melt-downs, they would be buckled up in the backseats of our car away from the wary eyes of other airline passengers.
It is also much more affordable than taking a flight to like say, anywhere. The amount of money we save on flights will allow us to splurge on very nice accommodation down south.
There are many things for both adults and kids to do down south. Wineries, pubs, Margaret River chocolate factory, gourmet food shops, animal farms, ice-cream factories, Busselton jetty with train ride and underwater observatory, tree top walks, forest hikes, walks by the beaches, and the list goes on.
Most places are designed with families in mind – majority of accommodation will provide portacots, high chairs and children’s plates, cups and cutleries. Some of the hotels will have swimming pools and playrooms for children (we have even rented a house once that provided a game machine). Family-friendly accommodation can easily be found on websites like Airbnb and Stayz.com.au. Even when you dine out you will also notice that a lot of places will provide kids meals and have colouring pencils and play areas to keep your children happy.
We are still within Western Australia, so we are familiar with the surroundings, the shops, the facilities and where we can go to pick up baby food or more nappies or Panadol / Neurofen if by tough luck one of your little ones come down with a bug (which has happened to us on more than one occasion).
I always knew I wanted a daughter. When I became pregnant with our first child and even before we found out the gender, I was already having mental images of a mother and daughter hanging out, of me dressing her up, tying her hair in different styles of ponytails and French braids, of us going shopping together for shoes and pretty dresses and sharing many slices of indulgent cakes and desserts.
I wanted a daughter whom I could mould into a better version of myself and to pass on my life-long lessons of growing up as a girl and then a woman in an evolving world where traditional meets modern, where the value of women are starting to be recognised in the workforce and society and where ample opportunities are being made available.
And then when Maya came along, she turned out to be the daughter and the little girl that I have always wanted – sweet, beautiful, intelligent, funny, cheeky, slightly quirky and a little too defiant. I watch quietly in pride as she grows up and I quite often thank the powers that can’t be seen for gifting me with this precious girl.
However, as much as happiness and pride as this little girl has brought me, at the time she was born was also the time when I started experiencing fear and anxiety like I have never experienced before in my life. For the first time, I was experiencing the feeling of overwhelming love that a person can have for another being – and I started to realise that the more love you have, the more fear that results from the potential inability to protect that person whom you love.
From when she was a baby I was constantly worrying like a new parent would and I saw safety threats in all aspects of everyday life – is her cot safe, is there a piece of cloth covering her face, will the heater in her bedroom overheat, is she playing with toys that she might choke on, is there a cup of hot water that is too close within her reach, is every cabinet in the house secure in its place – and this list could go on for another two pages.
As she grows up and I see my baby turning into a little girl, I started to worry about all the horrible and unthinkable things that can happen to girls and young women, imposed on them against their will, as we have seen in all parts of the world from as long as history has been recorded and continue to witness. Are we making progress? I’m not sure; but it has certainly gained more visibility.
The recent incident of the rape and murder of a young woman in Melbourne as she was walking home from work at night has brought about various emotions in me. I felt sadness; at a death that was so senseless and unnecessary. The girl had only just entered adulthood and she would have had so much ambition, so much dream, so much to look forward to in her life. I felt disappointment; that a crime like this could still take place in a country which I thought was relatively safe and civilised. I felt anger; at how someone felt like they had the right to violate another human being and then proceeded to take away her right to live.
But most of all, I felt fear; fear knowing that the incident could have easily happened to any other women, and by how little else that young woman could have done to save herself. Women had always been made victims but not been equipped with the strength to be able to fight back – even before we start, we are already behind (yes, I guess I was a little disappointed in God too). I felt fear because I have a daughter and I will not always be around forever to protect her in a world where women are continuously being made victims of crime just for being women.
As a woman I have felt anxious in many instances in the past were I had to walk in quiet places by myself, and now it clearly strikes me that my daughter also has to go through the same experiences growing up. The world has not changed much. In advance of women’s independence and freedom, I wish I am able to say to her that she should live her life without worrying about what others might say or think or do, and that her life is hers to live, but unfortunately I know that is not the case. What we say, how we dress, how we act, will affect our lives and I cannot see this changing in my lifetime or hers.
How can I best protect her? If I could I would hold her hand at all times and walk with her by my side, I would keep her under the roof of our house for as long as we can in order to protect her, but I know that at some stage she would have to (and would certainly want to) learn her independence and the ability to look after herself. As a mother, I feel that the only thing I can do for her is to provide her with the advice and the skills and the tools to be vigilant, and to reiterate to her again and again, the need to be so.
And until the day that we can trust all men would do the right thing by all women, I will continue to worry and to pray that she will always remember the advice and that she will not cross the path of people who seek to harm her.
Hey lady, you, lady, cursin’ at your life You’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you’ll never do But I wish someone had a talked to me like I wanna talk to you
Over the last weekend for what was supposedly a quick family trip away, I found myself stuck for an hour in a cramped and dirty McDonald’s toilet cubicle somewhere between Busselton and Dunsborough, with a screaming constipated child and this song in my head. (If you have not heard of the song before it was a 1980’s ballad titled “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene.)
At that point I closed my eyes and imagined what that moment would have been like for me in another lifetime long long ago – when a vacation would have been like a real vacation, and time away would actually be relaxing. Instead of a toilet door that seemed to be closing in on me by the minute, I would have been staring at the ocean which had no end. Instead of the flushing sounds of the next door toilet, I would be listening to the gentle lapping of waves and gawking seagulls. And instead of alternating between standing in a small room and squatting and comforting my child who was on the toilet until my legs and back hurt, I would be lying down with a book in one hand and a cocktail in the other.
So Charlene, you were right.
On some days I dream of a life that would never be. When the demands and responsibilities of everyday life take its toll I wonder what it would have been like to just be free. To not have to be stuck in a routine of waking up early, going to work, picking up kids then making dinner, to not have to clean up toys, poo and vomit, to not have to be confined to office space for eight hours a day so that the mortgage and private school fees can be paid off, and to not have to be always concerned about whether your actions and decisions might start a fight with your spouse or someone else in your household of ten.
To travel whenever and wherever I want to and see the world, to meet new people and talk to interesting strangers, to pursue a career and a life that is plagued with uncertainty but full of excitement. To be responsible only for me.
What would my life have been like then? Where would that take me? What kind of person would I have been?
I do not let those thoughts linger for long or otherwise consume me, because I know they are not real and the trade-offs have would been unimaginable. When the mind fog clears and I look into the face of a smiling child (my smiling child), I know that these moments, these so-called hardships, are short-lived and in return for something better. Like good investments. You give up a life free of responsibilities and put in the effort in return for things that you now realise you cannot live without once you have experienced them; for those moments when you pick your children up after work and your heart melts when you see their grubby, smiley faces; for the nights when you lie in your husband’s arms, watch Gogglebox and talk about your day; for the family dinners when you sit around, enjoy good food and exchange life stories; for love; for the genuine laughters.
You do it, usually without question, for the certainty in your own mind and your heart that you have given all you can to the people you love most and that you would have them by your side when you need them and when you get old and lonely and you can no longer run freely.
After all what else could life be about?
So listen to the rest of the song. Charlene would tell you the same.
One source of stress I find working part-time as a mother is this:
Before kids I was used to working longer hours than average in order to achieve my goals and a bit more. So when I return to a corporate environment where most people are working full-time and very full days, it is difficult not to be self-conscious when as a result of personal reasons, I am leaving before 4:30pm each day and not coming in on the alternate day.
I am very conscious of the potential impact of my work arrangement may have on project schedules and demands of other colleagues. If I miss an important activity today, it may be another two days before I can get around to it. Therefore to make up for it I try to be the most effective I can be when I am at work (minimising chit-chats, working through lunch etc) and when I am not there, I am checking and responding to emails to ensure I don’t hold things up. I am used to thinking about and carrying out preparatory work that I can do while at home to make my hours in the office even more productive. I try to plan in advance to ensure that my hours do not place additional burden on my colleagues and I am painfully conscious of the times when I have to decline meetings on the days I am not in or leave early because I have to go pick up my children.
At times I feel exhausted and burned-out, mentally juggling and managing all these aspects. I care about workload equity and I care about meeting my work goals and people’s expectations. I also care about how other people may perceive as the attitude of working mothers and part-time arrangements in general.
But the reality is this, in trying to meet all these expectations, how many of these are actually real and valid? Unless expressed in concrete terms, how would I know or measure how others may think of me and my personal circumstances? Like many situations in life, are these expectations, really, just set on myself, by myself?
Of late I have come across some materials, incidents and self-revelations that are making me rethink the way I have been approaching things.
1) I do not have to feel guilty about my work-life preferences.
It took me a while to realise this but just because others have different work-life priorities and preferences, does not mean I have to guilty about my preference to spend more time with my family. I do not have to make excuses or justify why I wish to spend more time at home than at work because it is my prerogative to choose how I use my time and set my work-life boundaries.
This is not applicable just to parents – if you love surfing and want to leave early every Friday to catch the waves, that is up to you to decide.
It does mean that I have to manage it proactively, but this is no different to when I was working full-time. I still have to deliver what I say I will deliver but it is about understanding my own constraints and setting realistic expectations. Good organisations would generally respect individual preferences as long as you are communicating them and still achieving your goals. And if they are not, well, that is another different issue altogether.
2) I do not always have to be 100%.
This came up in a conversation with a woman whom I have a lot of respect for. She asked me, “Women sometimes feel like that they have to achieve 100% in all aspects in their lives. Why not try for 80%? That is still pretty good and you may find that it is more acceptable than you realise.”
What a simple statement, but what an impact that can potentially have.
As someone who has always liked having control, I am finding myself in more and more uncomfortable situations as I venture more into new and unfamiliar territories, made worse by time constraints – this is what puts my mind into overdrive trying to contemplate all the varying situations and balls that I can potentially drop. At some point I have make myself comfortable with the fact that my resources i.e. time is limited and the notion that I cannot control everything. If I am doing all I can within the means I have (and maybe a little bit more), I have done enough.
And to my point earlier, how do I know that 80% is not good enough? If I don’t answer that email today, will there be a crisis when I get in tomorrow? Most likely not.
3) Work-life integration and focussing on priorities at the time.
I recently read an article on Thrive Global about an interview with Denise Morrison, President and CEO of Campbell Soup Company (if you have not heard of the website Thrive Global, I would highly recommend it. It was founded by Arianna Huffington – also the co-founder of Huffington Post – and is a wellness site created with a mission to end the stress and burnout epidemic plaguing the workforce by proposing sustainable, science-based and purposeful solutions to achieve success).
In describing a book that changed her life, Denise talked about the “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” which debunked the concept of work-life balance and discussed the concept of work-life integration instead. She also talked about being able to set clear priorities in the moment as life happens.
I liked how clearly she articulated that – whilst still coming to terms with the concept of work-life integration I am starting to apply her point about setting priorities. Through the last year I learned very early on how a meticulously planned daily or weekly schedule can be quickly derailed by a sick child, an injured dog or someone at work approaching with an urgent situation. Whether it’s life or work, or a muddled juncture of the two, if something unexpected jumps out it is about clearly understanding and setting priorities to focus on at the time. It is not about trying to do all and doing a lesser job at each.
I realise that this a marathon and I am only in my very beginning stages. To ensure my own well-being is in check, I will have to rethink and revalidate my goal posts from time to time to check that they are still in sight. And at times when I feel like I am losing sight of them, I will refocus and revert to asking myself this question – if I am on my death bed today, what is it that I am likely to regret or wish I had done more of? I do not think that answering emails would be one of them.
Every once in a while a new hobby or interest comes along that I would allow myself to get immersed into.
Two years ago it was baking; triggered by my desire to bake a birthday cake for the kids (which was no doubt triggered by the many instagram photos of crazily creative but somewhat unrealistic birthday cakes posted by other very talented mothers). I am now reminded of that each time I open the kitchen cabinet to find rows of baking trays and tools in different shapes and sizes, many of which have only been used once. There was also that time when I went a little overboard after receiving an email from daycare informing me of book week dress-up day – which resulted in me fretting for weeks trying to think up an appropriate costume that would resonate with my then two-year daughter without costing me a fortune in terms of money and also time. She ultimately ended up going as Grug, which no one recognised, and I still have leftover confetti paper of various colours in my store room.
Each time this happens I would spend hours every week trawling through Pinterest and magazines researching and gathering ideas, and then spend more hours trialling the ideas before ending up with the final output. Nevertheless I do like these little bursts of projects; they inspire the creative part of the brain which I believe is not used often enough and create distraction from an otherwise hectic lifestyle and at times stressful work environment. Life can’t always be about words, numbers, schedules, negotiations and managing people’s expectations right? What fun would that be?
So, what currently hogs up my time? There are two – firstly, planning the interiors of the house that we are building and secondly, planning what to put into Maya’s school lunch boxes. Both very challenging and equally fun (although driven by vastly different budgets). However this post will only be about the lunch box, the house can come at another time.
For those who have not done this before, do not underestimate how much thought and planning actually goes into that cute little compartmentalised bento box. I started thinking about it a couple of months even before she started school. Those dreadful news on how parents get chastised for packing chocolates into a lunch box. That school information evening where teachers specifically tell parents NOT to put junk food into your children’s lunch boxes. Those television programs that tell you that basically almost EVERYTHING you buy pre-packed from supermarkets these days are laden with sugar, salt and preservatives. And to top it off you have a fussy and slow little eater, you are limited to what you can pack in that lunch box without it getting rotten by midday or it getting all over your kid’s front shirt, and you must be conscious of all the other kids who might be potentially be allergic to nuts, eggs and etc etc. What else is there that you can pack?!
Well, a lot actually, as I eventually start to find. And it is extremely fun! I now love looking up new healthy recipes, making them and then forming them into shapes that she would willingly eat. Nothing feels better than checking her school bag at the end of the day and finding an empty lunch box.
Six weeks into the routine, and here are some things I learned about the process that makes it easier and more enjoyable:
The box matters. Yes, having a good and cleverly-designed lunchbox helps. Think lids that can be easily opened by a four-year-old, think compartments that will separate your savoury from your sweet (and wet-tish from dry), think lids that are attached so that the kids will not lose them, think size that would fit nicely into a lunch bag or their school bag. There are so many cool options out there right now that makes shopping for them quite fun.
It’s good to have varieties. Put different types of food into that lunch box – main meals (e.g. sandwich, pies, sushi etc), snacks, vegetables, fruits – whatever makes sense. This not only increase their nutritional intake, but it also makes it interesting for kids who may be fussy eaters. And in case there is something in there that they do not like, there is always something else that they can eat.
For a working mom I try to stock up the pantry with essentials to avoid the mid-week night supermarket run. Rice, bread, wraps, puff pastry, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, ham and eggs are good staples to have throughout the week – you can make so many combinations out of these ingredients. Sliced cheese, rice crackers, seeds, dried apricots and any other type of dried fruit are also handy to have on hand to be added as snacks.
Think up fun lunches that are easy to prepare and can be done the night before so that you don’t have to wake up an hour earlier in the mornings: Sushi, cucumber and cheese sandwiches, banana and peanut butter wraps, rice balls with fillings, mashed potatoes with peas, quiches, hot dog/sandwich. I usually make them mini sizes (e.g. half a seaweed slice for the sushi or sandwiches cut into 4 mini triangles or quiches made in muffin pans) because Maya finds them easier to eat and loves the idea that they are made just for her.
Have fun lunch-making, and please share your ideas!