This month’s That Mama is American lawyer and Ambassador’s wife Crystal Wagar
Track star. Lawyer. Ambassador’s wife. Mama to a 10 ½ year-old stepson and a 2½ year-old daughter (with another baby on the way!). FOTO (that’s friend of the Obamas). Vivacious American mama Crystal Wagar has worn many hats in her lifetime, especially since arriving in Singapore in 2013 for the first time with her husband, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar.
Spend about five seconds in Crystal’s presence and we guarantee you’ll want to be friends with her; she’s got a big laugh, a mega-watt smile, and a bubbly personality that’s so disarming you might for a moment forget she’s a high-flying diplomat (she also gets mega bonus points for being one of the first people in Singapore to instantly recognise where my dog’s name comes from. You know someone’s cool when they like The Wire –Ed.). Earlier this month she graciously welcomed Sassy Mama into her beautiful home, where she was equally at ease playing with her adorable 2½ year-old daughter, Rhys as opening up about her personal experience with miscarriage and surrogate pregnancy.
While her situation as an Ambassador’s wife is obviously quite unique, we were delighted to discover that in many ways her own motherhood journey in Singapore has not been so different from our own; we chatted about choosing a preschool, baby swim classes, the amazing opportunity for children to learn Mandarin while living here. She gushed about exploring Little India and visiting hawker stalls (and trying durian – bringing new meaning to the term ‘diplomatic’!). Like so many women, she came to Singapore unsure of what to expect and has discovered a welcoming and vibrant community — exactly what we try to share with our readers every day at Sassy Mama.
Read on for Crystal’s thoughts on living in Singapore and balancing a demanding legal career with family and diplomatic obligations…
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I am originally from Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up with my parents and my brother. I have very fond memories of growing up in the Midwest and I think my core values stem from my childhood experiences.
I received a track scholarship to Temple University in Philadelphia and following undergrad attended William Mitchell Law School in St. Paul Minnesota. I left Minnesota after law school and moved to Miami, Florida to practice law. My law practice took several twists and turns which included working for a non-profit, working as chief policy aide and eventually chief of staff for a local politician, to being hired by two large law firms to work in their policy and legislation and land use practice groups. I started my own law firm in 2009 where I focused on local and state Government Relations on behalf of corporations seeking to have a presence in the South Florida community.
I have been married for 6 years.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Pre-baby I was able to focus almost completely on building my practice, which grew over time. My days started at 8am and typically ended at 9pm or later. I was able to work out in the morning and generally work on my well-being on a consistent basis, plus help care for my stepson when he was with us and go on dates with my husband regularly.
Post-baby….Whew! Post-baby I was living in another country as an Ambassador’s wife, far, far away from my friends and most importantly my mother, which meant I did not have immediate access to those I had planned to lean on for parenting advice. I was also managing my practice from Singapore and taking 1am and 2am conference calls, writing memos and returning numerous emails, while at the same time taking care of the needs of a newborn day and night. Needless to say it was hectic and exhausting. Very exhausting. I went from one extreme to another very quickly.
How do you balance having a career (especially with high-pressure work based in the US) alongside your official duties as an Ambassador’s wife?
I tried to balance my work schedule with my new baby and my obligations as the Ambassador’s wife for quite some time. The fact is, I could not do it. In the summer of 2014 I had to make a choice for my own health and well-being. It was one of the toughest choices I have ever had to make. I chose to let go of my firm, which I worked so hard to build over the years. I had to have a tough conversation with myself about my priorities during this time in my life. The hours I was forcing myself to keep in order to accommodate my family and my career became overwhelming and not practical on a 7 day and night basis.
Candidly, being the wife of an Ambassador is a full-time job in and of itself. My energy was completely depleted. In my opinion we – as women – often find ourselves trying to do everything and accomplish every task which is put before us — thats just what we do. We are nurturing, we are strong, often taking care of ourselves last. Once I determined it was “okay” to not want to be overwhelmed, I did not regret my decision to let go of my firm. I believe it has presented me with the opportunity to recreate my career in the future. This has become a source of excitement for me and keeps me motivated.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having your daughter?
After having my daughter I had to find my new normal. The “swing of things” as I knew it had completely shifted. I had to come up with a new routine and daily way of life. I found myself in a new country with a new baby and new responsibilities. Everything was brand new. I will admit I was somewhat frantic and frazzled, not to mention friendless. It took me about 6 months to come up with a routine that worked for my family and me. Having said that, my daily routine can change at a minute’s notice based on my obligations on behalf of the Embassy and according to my husband’s responsibilities.
Did you give birth to Rhys in Singapore? If so, how was that experience being so far from home?
I did not give birth to my daughter in Singapore. She was born in Miami via a gestational surrogate. After being here for about 3 months we flew home for her birth. My husband could only stay with us for about 2 weeks because of his job. I stayed home with her for 3 more weeks and flew back to Singapore alone with a newborn. Since newborns don’t require much it was not too bad of a journey. You just put your head down and do it. Additionally, I know many women who have gone it alone with more than one child so I had zero complaints. I will do the same when our next baby arrives in the fall.
What I have found in this job, is women will pull me aside and ask all sorts of questions about how to freeze their eggs. How much does it cost, what is the process, and so on. It’s just not something people talk about to each other, it’s still taboo.
Women don’t do this out of vanity. It’s a last resort. I had SEVERAL miscarriages. I had to make a decision. After my fifth miscarriage my doctor discussed with me the option of freezing eggs, and it was a good thing! The challenge of that decision is that you might not feel complete as a woman because you don’t carry your baby, it plays with your mind. And then explaining it to people. As a woman, how it makes you feel, your options, your choices, the importance of having a support group around you. It’s one thing if you don’t want kids. That’s cool! But if you really want to have a baby, you’ve gotta make choices.
How has having a child changed the way you define work?
Having a child changes the way I define work because the baby itself is WORK. Being a mother is WORK. What I knew to be “work” meant being in an employment situation and receiving compensation for it. I knew no other experience. Your job when you have a child is to find a routine, plan mealtimes and food options, plan sleep schedules, activities, and hopefully find some “me” time etc… All the while knowing that every four months or so that routine may all of a sudden change based on the changing needs of the child. Just like that you have to come up with a new plan of action. Just as in the work place you have to be on your toes and ready for disruptions and challenges at any given moment.
I might add it takes just as much work – if not more – because presumably you can leave a job, but you cannot leave a child, the child is always going to be there 24/7.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Given our schedule my husband and I agree that it extremely important to stick to a daily routine for our daughter so she knows what to expect out of her day. It seems to give her a sense of stability and grounding. For example, we have continued the exact same bedtime routine with her since she was born. Now she knows what to expect after dinner leading up to her bedtime and there is little to no fussing even now that she’s in her terrible twos.
Two tips I would share are the following:
- Always keep your bag packed. Even after we are out and about and I clear out her baby bag. I always take the time to re-fill it with extra clothing, wipes, non-perishable snacks and toys. I am vigilant about this so I am not running around looking for stuff the next time we leave the house. Efficiency is key.
- My mother taught be a wonderful tip: Instead of giving her fruit juice we give her water with fruit slices in it. For our family it is a healthy alternative and she loves all of the different flavours she gets throughout the week.
Do you have a helper (or other household staff who come along with your residence)? How was it adjusting to that after moving from the United States?
Yes, we have household staff that live with us at the residence. They are lovely women who help us with events, etc. It is quite an adjustment to have so many people in your home when you wake up every morning. However, I am not complaining. We could not be successful at this job without them, they are essential.
We also have a nanny who has been a wonderful addition to our family and a big help to us. Though we have all of this help, I am extremely involved in the care of our daughter. In fact, I insist on doing as much as I can myself. I get up with Rhys every morning to have breakfast with her and get her ready for school. I take her and pick her up as much as I can, as well as take her to all of her activities and play dates and prepare her for bed. I really enjoy doing it, but when I cannot, I know that she is in great hands with our nanny and the ladies at the house. This gives me great peace of mind.
You happen to be friends with one of our true mama idols, Michelle Obama. What lessons have you taken from how she’s raised her daughters?
I think Michelle is an exceptional mother to her girls, especially given their high profile life. The results are evident to all of us as they have grown up into lovely young ladies.
What’s the best parenting advice you’ve received?
When my mother found out Rhys was coming she asked me, “What are you going to do with your law firm?”
And I said, I don’t know, but I think I’m going to keep it, because I’m every woman, you know? And she just said, “Crystal, it’s a lot of work. I’m telling you it’s a lot of work. You’re going to have a new baby, and it’s a new experience for you, and you will want to spend that time with her. Don’t feel like you have to have this firm to legitimise yourself as a professional.”
She emphasized to me that we, as women, want to do everything, we want to do everything for everyone in the household, and said, “Don’t forget to take time for yourself, you need to take care of yourself, too.”
I wish I had more time for…
Dates with my husband. With his schedule and mine, dates are a luxury.
I always feel saner after…
A good workout. I enjoy running the hills in our neighbourhood, yoga and spinning class with a good friend of mine. The extra boost of energy after a workout is essential to keep my momentum going throughout the day.
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
We live in the Leedon Park/Holland Village area. I really enjoy walking over to Holland Village to have a cup of coffee or to get a mani-pedi. I have become friendly with a lot of the business owners there so it feels very homey to me. I also enjoy that I am able to ride my bike to the Botanic Gardens and enjoy the beautiful space which as been so well preserved, especially the orchid garden. I grow orchids at home in Miami so the orchid garden in Singapore is a special place for me.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
Singapore provides such a family-friendly environment. I have tried to take advantage of all of its offerings from swim classes, various play groups, music classes, to Mandarin lessons, to events in its numerous parks and museums. I am all over it.
Participating in various classes with my daughter has been such a joy for me. I have gained close friends and my daughter is without question stimulated and enriched. The time I get to spend with her is so very precious during this time in her life so I excitedly carve out time to seek out as many activities as my schedule will allow.
I am not sure I can choose just one activity as a favourite. The Singapore Zoo is outstanding; we go often. We also enjoy all of the theatre events through SISTIC. My daughter has enjoyed attending these shows since she was about 10 months. If you’re a mom in Singapore there is no shortage of activities to do with you family. It is nothing short of amazing.
Thank you so much to Crystal and Rhys for welcoming us into their home! And many thanks to the oh-so talented Sabrina Sikora of First Wife Studios for the phenomenal photos.