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That Mama: Food Stylist Yuli Maria

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This month’s That Mama is food stylist and mother of three Yuli Maria

One of our favourite parts of the That Mama series is meeting women with super unique and interesting careers in Singapore. Yuli Maria, who originally hails from Indonesia, came to Singapore as a trailing spouse and initially struggled to find work as a food stylist — crafting miniature, amazingly life-like food models for magazine shoots. After freelancing for a while and setting up her own website, she was able to make enough contacts to generate steady work for herself. Read on to see Yuli’s tips for achieving work-life balance, as well as her loving approach to raising three kids (8-year-old Jordan, 6-year-old Gianna, and 5-year-old Victoria).

Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?

I’m an Indonesian-born mama who just hit my big 4-0 with three young kids. I married and moved to Singapore in 2005. I was a chef but never liked the idea of long working hours in the hotel with no free weekends. Then I found this unique job as a food stylist. Let’s call it a beautiful accident!

I love Italian and Japanese food, and also enjoy entertaining people with my cooking. My husband is my best friend even though both of us are total opposites, but we definitely complement each other. Two things we have in common, however, are food and traveling. Both of us are very close to our kids and make such a great team in parenting.

Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?

Before babies and marriage, I was a full-time food stylist back in Jakarta, Indonesia, working at the biggest publisher there before moving to Singapore.

I struggled to get a job for a year after moving to Singapore, and almost went back to work as a chef before – finally! – some local magazines used my freelance service, then some agencies and photographers found me. My best friend, Lydia, insisted I had to have a website and since she’s a pro, she made me one as well. I will always owe her for that.

Afterwards a local TV programme shared my story as it’s a unique job in the food industry, and they played it every week for a couple of years. Eventually everything took off from there. I slowly built my career and since it’s a niche job, people in my industry started to know my name. I don’t work with magazines much now, but instead more with big brands and commercials, as they value my skills more.

After having kids, this is such a perfect job for me. I don’t have to work every day, but I have a once in a while job to ‘escape’ from my routine and achieve things for myself. My family always comes first. Since my hubby and I built our nest here in Singapore, we consider Singapore home and Indonesia as our second home now. But I won’t do this forever; once my kids get bigger and need less of my presence, I’ll do something else, probably related to either food or kids, as are my two passions.

How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?

This is an interesting question, as I’ve found through experience that I need to still be Yuli Maria despite the many hats I wear every day. Mom, Wife, Chef, Chauffeur, Teacher, Food Stylist, etc.

But I’m a spiritual person and my beliefs have taught me, without all of those hats, what would I be? Yuli Maria. And that’s my identity. Yuli, who is passionate, impatient, loud, a people person, bubbly yet also loves to be alone sometimes to get recharged, loves to sleep – especially after having kids! – or simply loves doing nothing for the sake of resting. My hubby, my kids and my best friends accept me the way I am and that’s enough for me. 

In short, after getting married and having kids, still go out with your close friends and make an effort for it, as kids are not the center of your life, they are part of your life. Your kids have to know this, too, by the way. I still do things that I love and haven’t stopped, just because I have kids. It’s more difficult, of course, because things slow down a lot when you have kids, but hey, as long as you still reach the destination you wanted to, why not? And with kids in the mix, the more the merrier!

Read more: How Self-Care Makes Us Better Mamas

How has having a children changed the way you define work?

Before kids I worked for myself, now I work for my kids and family and, I must admit, to pay the bills. So if a payment isn’t in line with my expectations, I’ll turn a job down. I can say this as I still have a husband who supports us, of course. It doesn’t apply to everyone. Both hubby and I are clear about this — family comes first, and I have more responsibility to take care of the kids.

How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?

I save time by training my helper to do things that I can let go of so I can focus my time on my priorities. I’m not really an organized person, I only get organized and am very particular about things I’m passionate about. But after having three kids, I have to be more organized, otherwise everything will fall apart. I make a schedule board for each kid, and write down what they have to do daily. They have to remember their own schedule themselves, but I still help them a bit. However I want them to get used to knowing their own schedule and not depending on me or our helper.

When my kids reached Grade 1 (at about age 7), I gave them a planner book and asked them to write out their schedule. I want them to be responsible adults who know their appointments, who don’t arrive late for meetings and can manage their own schedule.

I myself bought a big calendar and wrote everything there. I still love doing this manually. I need to see everything as one big picture so I won’t double book things or get overwhelmed because of so many things. Of course I still feel overwhelmed, anyway…

I wish I had more time for…
Sleeping and reading more books, or meeting up with people whose companionship I cherish. But I hope there will be more time for that after the kids grow up a bit. Or am I dreaming here? 

I always feel saner after….
Taking a nap and praying my heart out to God.

What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?

For the last eight years, we’ve been living in the Lavender area. All important places (kids’ school, hubby’s office, supermarket, etc) are only about 5-15 minutes away. I really love the location, even though we need a bigger house. Hahahha.. But it’s so difficult to move anywhere else as the location is so convenient. MRT, bus stop, ICA, cafes (some are famous for their coffee) are just within walking distance. So every time we think about moving, we return to location, location and location. Hahaha…

Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Gardens by The Bay Children’s Garden water play and Adventure Cove. At Sentosa My kids and water are best friends, sometimes I think they’re half mermaids. 

Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?

Aburiya at Boat Quay. My kids love to grill the meat and serve each other. The grilling activity made us making a lot of conversation while eating.

Tatsuya for its excellent food and service, even to the kids. I’m always impressed how the waitresses serve the kids and speak nicely to them, and even give them extra seaweed for them to ‘play’ with their rice to make their own ‘sushi’. Five stars for them for treating not only us adults, but also my kids, a with different level of service.

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?

Bali for sure – it’s an all in one kind of holiday with family. You can get a budget, medium or high-end holiday in Bali, it’s up to you. Beautiful beaches, relaxing atmosphere, delicious food with a variety of restaurants, friendly people, gorgeous shopping, etc. It’s like a ritual for us going there every year at mid-term break.

Japan as well; I will never get bored of it with its uniqueness and quirkiness. I’ve found the cities to be not that friendly with kids, but the suburbs are, and they are so beautiful and my kids love all the food!

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?

Don’t stop to be a lover, don’t stop to make love, make an effort to have a date, always communicate and have time to getaway just the two of you together without the kids for at least 3 days. The kids will survive and you can always find someone you trust to take care of them for a while. Always make an intentional effort and plan to do those. 

Favourite date night restaurants?
CUT by Wolfgang Puck for their steak. Valentino for everything Italiano; it’s hard to find anywhere as good, even in Italy itself.

Do you have any tips for working mamas in Singapore?

I think everyone’s goal is different. But my kids are way more important than my job or any volunteer work I do. If I know there’s something not right or out of balance at home, I will drop everything for them.

It’s easy to say since I’m not working full time, but if you are, just do your best as a mom. Your kids just need affirmation that you love them so much, and want you to make an effort to show it. Find their love language (Read: The Five Love Languages of Children by Dr. Gary Chapman) and speak to them with it.

I’ve also found that calling them when I’m at work, despite a hectic schedule, make them realize that you put an effort to know how they are doing that day. Try to make a deeper conversation by not only asking about their day, but also how they’re feeling about things. You need to actively ask them; it’s tiring I know, but it’s the way to make them open up to you and once you get into the habit, they will automatically tell you everything. I make sure I call them just to say “I love you” and let them know I care about them, especially if I’m working on a big project and don’t get a chance to see them at night.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?

Love your kids the way they are, because they’re different. And never ever compare. Comparing is a poison that will just make your kids die in the inside. You’re supposed to be the one that accepts them they way they are and make them feel comfortable every time you’re with them. Don’t be the one they always avoid.

Life is not a competition but a gift, that should be enjoyed to the fullest. Start to make a relationship with your kids when they are young so you’ll reap what you sowed when they grow up. Children are not distractions from more important work, they are the most important work.

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.

Before having kids: Talk to your husband, make one agreement, that even after having kids, always make your husband/wife a priority, more than the kids. Because both of you made a commitment to each other – not to the kids – and after the kids move out from your place, the only one who will still be there is your spouse. Don’t let having kids tear your relationship apart. In order to make this happen, remind each other about this and put intentional effort into keeping the romance alive. You’ll see that your grass is greener than your neighbour, because you take care of it.

After having kids: Gather a gang of mamas, one or two are enough, support each other, be honest with one another. Don’t judge or compete with one another, as motherhood is a lonely journey if you don’t have fellow mothers to support you. Sometimes your best friend can’t understand your situation because they are not a mom yet, so the Supportive Mommies Gang is important. They are your new best friends in this season. Motherhood season. Tell them when you’re tired or simply need a prayer or encouragement or support. This gang, my fellow mama, will make your life worth living. Trust me.

As a mama I wish I were better at…
Being more patient with the kids.

What’s your favourite family ritual?

Before bedtime, we’ll read story together then read the Bible before saying a prayer. Then they will take turns to tell me about their days that I didn’t get a chance to hear in the afternoon, or their deepest feelings about something. Kids are usually very honest about their feelings and stories just before their asleep when it’s all relaxing.

Read more: The Importance of bedtime talks with kids

Since the girls sleep together in their room on a bunk bed, they have become best friends and tell each other everything, and it’s so beautiful. I hope and encourage them to maintain this habit until they grow up. It’s so beautiful to see sisters who are best friends. Hubby and I assure them as well by saying we love them because of who they are, not because of what they can do/achieve.

For example: “Jordan, Mommy loves you because you’re Jordan, not because you can dance well or swim or smart. “ I think it will liberate the kids to know that no matter how much they fail, their Mom and Dad still love them because they are themselves.

My favourite moment of the day is…

When the kids are sleeping by 8pm. They must go into their room by 7pm, we’re very strict about this, as otherwise you won’t have a life and kids need a routine. We’ve trained them in this routine since they were babies. We’ll read stories and they will demand that I/hubby tell them about our childhoods. I feel it’s like a way for them to know me better. Then I’ll leave the room to let them sleep by themselves, and I’ll talk with my husband on the couch about our days, or talk nonsense. Some days we talk about our dreams and hopes from the heart until both of us cry. Mostly me.

Thank you so much to Yuli and her girls for such thoughtful answers (and gorgeous photos)! And many thanks to Irina Nilsson Photography for the always-fabulous snaps!

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