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Mother’s Day Reflections: Lawyer Mom of 3 Engelin Teh on the Work-Life Juggle

Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life

In honor of Mother’s Day, mamas in Singapore reflect on unique aspects of their motherhood journeys. Today we hear from attorney and single mother of 3, Engelin Teh

Last month at an event I had the pleasure of meeting esteemed attorney Engelin Teh, who’s worked as a family lawyer in Singapore for 40 years. We got to chatting, and she mentioned that she has three children (Michele, Nicole, and Iain, who are now 35, 33 and 31, respectively). Knowing the brutally long hours that lawyers work, I asked her what it was like balancing a demanding career with raising three kids, particularly in the 1980s and 90s when family-friendly work policies were hardly the norm. Did she think the situation for working mamas in Singapore had improved over the last few decades? 

“Why don’t we meet for coffee and I can tell you more,” she said. What follows is a heartwarming, incredibly articulate (she is a lawyer, after all!) reflection on the challenges of work-life balance. Of figuring out what has to give when you’re working til 10, but you promised to bake cookies for an event the next day, and you’re a single mom whose kids miss you. Read on for Engelin’s story, and whether she would do it all over again…

I started work as a lawyer in 1979. My first child, my daughter Michele, was born in 1984. There were very few female litigators in those days. Most women don’t want those hours because of their family, whereas in other areas they might be able leave earlier around 6 or 7 o’clock.

I enjoyed being able to strategize. I had a good memory. It’s all about knowing your work, reading a lot, and strategizing. You need to know your clients’ case’s strengths and weaknesses, and to move the judge toward the strengths.

My husband also worked long hours. We had a helper, and my mother looked after the kids. My mother gave me tremendous comfort. She would stay with us on weekdays and go home on the weekends.

I’m not sure how much things have changed, and how other mothers do it, but for me, it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was having a limited amount of time. My work is extremely demanding, the hours are long. And at the same time, I loved to spend time with the kids.

So the question became, How could I do it all? I multi-tasked. Every situation where I found myself conflicted, I’d ask myself, Can I do both?

For example, one time when my son was in Primary 1, I had forgotten his request to bake cookies for his class. He was so downcast when I returned at 10:30 pm, because his classmates were all bringing cookies, and he told them that he’d be bringing them too! I couldn’t disappoint him. So we made them together, and we finished at 1:30 in the morning.

So my second daughter was awake and wanted to spend time with me, too. So she helped out, too! After that she said, You must be tired Mom, let me massage you! We ended up going to sleep at almost 3 in the morning.

This was just one event, but frequently the kids and I wouldn’t sleep until midnight or 1am – I’d get complaints from the teachers about them falling asleep in class. I’d apologize and say I’d look into it, but honestly I wasn’t going to look into it, because I valued the time. It’s not their fault that they wanted to spend time with their mother, and I wanted to spend time with them.

On another occasion, my second daughter had to be hospitalized for an allergic reaction – she had to stay there for three nights. I had urgent work in the office, but the same time she was young – she was 9 years old – so I couldn’t leave her there by herself. So I basically moved my work. My clients who needed to see me had to come see me at the hospital. My lawyers who had to prepare drafts for me, had to bring them to the hospital.

It was fine, because this was another situation where I could do both: I could be with my daughter and hold her hand, and I could do my work.

Was it tough? If you asked me to go back in time, I’d say yes, it was tough. But when I look back now, I think, It was the only way to do it. It made my daughter happy because I was with her, and it made my clients happy because their work got done.

I think that for mothers, when we are faced with a situation that is out of the box – it doesn’t mean that everything has to be done within the box. I’m a solutions-oriented person.

A lot of my time had to be managed in this matter. When my kids had to do spelling, I’d take the spelling list to the office in the morning, then I’d tell them to call me on the phone at the office and I’d test them over the phone.

When they fought – I’d tell them to take a taxi to my office and bring their books along to study and do homework. After listening to their arguments, I would say, Ok, you are both wrong. You are siblings, you need to be nicer to each other. They’d have to stay in my office to do extra work. After that, they seemed to fight less!

It’s all about managing. But I did make sure that when we went on school holidays, I would be with them every waking minute. We’d go to places like Disneyland, Disney World, Universal Studios [in the U.S.]. When I put them to bed, then it would be daytime in Singapore – the office would fax me all the work, I’d do all my work while they were sleeping. After every holiday I’d come back home knowing I could finally rest!

It was enough for them that I was around. I told myself that nothing is perfect – if you want to achieve being a career person and being a mother, something has got to give. And giving is really not a big deal.

My makeup is, “Whatever I do, it’s got to be the best. Or at least, the best that I can do….” So when it comes to client work, I can’t compromise. It wasn’t easy, but when I look back I’m actually happy I did it.

Now my kids are all grown and in their 30s. My eldest and youngest are lawyers, but their attitudes are possibly shaped by what I went through with them. My eldest daughter, after seven years, said “I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m not going to practice anymore. I want time for myself. I’m not like you where I’m happy multi-tasking.” She said to me, What’s the point of earning a lot of money if you don’t have the time to spend it? So I said, “So long as you are happy, I’m fine with it.”

Because I’m also a divorce lawyer, I’ve always told my kids to take their time when it comes to marriage – it’s better to be single and happy, than married and unhappy.

My second daughter is doing a Pilates accreditation, she does it on her own time. If she has other things to do, she makes time for them. It’s very strange to me, because it’s not my makeup, but over time I have learned, if this is what makes her happy, I should be happy for her. I should not impose what makes me happy on somebody else! She’s pretty much the most relaxed of the three.

My youngest, my son, is a divorce lawyer in my firm. He feels very much for the children caught between the parents. He feels very much for the underdog – often the wife who is financially deprived of maintenance or even abused. He’ll often spend far more time on a case than is viable to bill, but he tells me, “I can’t just help halfway.”

I have to accept that my son’s priority is not about a successful career in terms of financial benefits, but being able to help the underdog.

So every one of my three children are different. My son works til midnight, and I’ll ask,“Doesn’t it deter you that I didn’t have time for you when I worked such long hours?” And he’s said, “First of all, I’m not married. Secondly, I love what I’m doing so much, I just want to keep clearing work.”

Did my lifestyle have a positive effect on my children? 

I look at my second daughter, and her priority is me-time. I’m happy for her, because she’s happy!

My eldest daughter works as an in-house counsel, so she’s still using her legal knowledge, but she gets to leave the office at 7 o’clock. I’m happy for her, she’s got the right balance.

I wish my son had the right balance, but with this passion, he’s able to develop his ability and competence such that when his family comes along, he’ll hopefully be able to find the balance.

So on the whole, I’m happy about all my children! I wasn’t happy about myself back then. I lost out on time with my children that I can never get back. But when I’ve told my children that I would have done some things differently, they’ve said, “But Mom! Look at us, we turned out ok. We are happy. We would have liked more time with you, but with whatever time you had with us, we were close with you, so it’s ok!”

I was divorced from my first husband in 1998; the kids were about 13, 11, 9 at the time. It was not an acrimonious divorce; my children were not torn between their parents as can so often happen, they grew up to be happy people.

At the time I asked them, “Now that Daddy is not with us, if you want me to stop work, I will do that, but we’ll have to compromise our standard of living.”

My eldest daughter said “Mom, I can see how good you are at your job, how happy it makes you. I just want you to be happy. Please work!”

My other daughter said, “It’s cool to have a working mother who’s a lawyer, we get to spend time with you in the evening. And I like to sleep late!”

And then when it came to my son, he said, “I guess I’m outvoted.” He was the closest to me. When I would come home in the evening, I’d find him asleep sitting up in bed; he was waiting for me so he’d know when I was back.”

The saddest thing for me was a letter I received from my son shortly after the divorce. He said, “You know Mom, I miss you so much. Even when you come back, I still miss you. Today I tried to call you, but jie jie was on the phone the whole day, and she wouldn’t let me have the phone. As soon as I called you, your secretary told me you were in a meeting. I waited three hours! Mum, I can’t take it anymore. So I called Dad to ask what I should do, so he said I should write to let you know.”

I still have the letter today, but I can’t bring myself to read it, because every time I do, I tear up. Because he was the youngest, so he missed me the most.

It wasn’t always down, but were there a lot of ups? No. There was a lot of balancing so we could have time with each other.

All these expression of love from my children made working as a single mum with a demanding career possible. It was possible to do both because my children expressed so much love for me.

In the early 2000s after I was made a senior counsel, a reporter from the Straits Times interviewed my children. Afterwards he sent me an email and said, “Normally I wouldn’t share my notes, but I think you would like to know what your children said of you.” It was so sweet.

My second daughter talked about how hard I worked; and said if anyone ever criticized me, she would punch them!

My eldest daughter said, “Mum always appears to be tough, but that’s because she has to. She’s a real softie.” And my son gushed some more.

It’s difficult to describe, but my heart felt so full. I thought I did not do enough for my children. But actually, they thought otherwise.

It was the little things that made whatever effort I put into managing both work and family so worthwhile. Even now, my eldest daughter is more reserved, but my two younger ones will tell me, “No one else will do for me what I know you would do for me.” I don’t hear many children saying that to their parents; for my children to say that to me, makes me feel that everything is so worthwhile.

I remarried seven years ago, but today my children still live in the house where they grew up. Every Sunday we will have dinner together.

But they’re in their 30s, and they’re busy. But I tell myself, I must be happy for them. Why should I expect them to be around, just because I have time for them now? So I’ll just text them, Whoever is free, just text me. So I spend alone time with whoever is free.

If you had interviewed me 20 years ago, I would have perhaps come across as sad and defensive, perhaps even angry. Now, with the benefit of 30 years gone by – and with a wonderful husband by my side as well – I’m such a happy person.

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