This week’s That Mama is award-winning British designer, Owner and Managing Director of luxury handbag and accessories brand Cheet London and mum of two, Emily Cheetham. We chat to her about finding balance in working motherhood, staying sane as a parent, and remaining connected with your partner (when you’re in the midst of raising babies!).
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
I like to blame it on being a creative but my mind is prone to flitting from one thing to the next – any friend will tell you that I cannot tell a story without going off on several (often irrelevant) tangents, so with work I try to discipline myself to start one thing, finish it and then go onto the next. It is not always adhered to but it is definitely a way I find that makes me more productive.
I’m not one for apps and gadgets to keep me organized – I don’t really even use a desk diary let alone an iPad calendar app – my diary is mostly in my head, which is not particularly brilliant, especially as we have a young baby! I am definitely suffering from baby brain, though I do make lists. I love a list or spreadsheet, especially if it is prioritized with numbers. The satisfaction is then ticking off each item.
I wish I had more time for…
Doing something with the gazillion photos we amass from everything we do, from our honeymoon, to holidays, births of children etc. Digital photos are amazing but we never seem to print off photos and make them into albums anymore. My sister is brilliant at making photo books after holidays and I wish I had more time to turn our photos into a library of photo albums.
I always feel saner after….
Other than a really delicious flat white, I generally feel saner when I exercise and feel in shape. Right not I am feeling a little insane as I haven’t been regularly working out since becoming pregnant. Being fit definitely makes you more energised, able to see things clearly and with a sense of perspective, not to mention feeling better about yourself. Moving to the steamy Far East, where we generally wear fewer clothes was a good move for me as it was an incentive to get into shape and lose the bingo wings after having our first child. So, I will be going back to the Botanics boot camp soon!
Favourite activity with the kids in Singapore?
It’s a tough call between West Coast Park and Labrador Villa Coastal Park, both are firm favourites. Most Sunday mornings we can be found in West Coast Park as my nearly three year old son and husband will cycle around, before Rufus attacks the extensive climbing frames and balance walk-ways, not to mention his most treasured – the fire engine climbing frame! I will stroll along with baby Elyse in the buggy, coffee firmly in hand.
Labrador Park is becoming a regular mid-week outing as my son can scoot or cycle safely with Elyse and I bringing up the rear. Rufus is madly into pirates so his imagination runs wild when I tell him about how the Dragons Teeth Gate (Long Ya Men) was the look-out for pirates. We then count the pirate ships (any boat we can see) which are all laden with chocolate gold coins. I like it as there’s usually a breeze to be had on the headland – something I anxiously seek out wherever possible!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Singapore?
Café Melba without a doubt is our favourite brunch hangout with children. It’s situated within the Goodman Arts Centre and is an enclosed green space that is super friendly for Rufus and his buddies to play safely and within eye sight. They even have a bouncy castle!
For lunch or an early supper it would have to be Din Tai Fung, another regular haunt. Our son would sup up their noodles, 101 dalmation style and nibble on prawn toast everyday if he was allowed. It’s child friendly, quick and delicious and eases him into Asian flavours too.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
We are still exploring the region but a particularly memorable holiday was to Rawa. We went with four other families and their children and it was just so much fun. It’s so easy to get to from Singapore, the weather was glorious, sea turquoise, sand golden and it’s totally geared to kids – nothing more needed. We stayed at Rawa Safaris in a beach villa. It was heavenly!
Activity that I do not love to do but do it anyway because my kids love it…
Going to indoor play gyms. Rufus loves them but I go reluctantly never really relishing galloping about in my socks! We recently discovered the very cute Tickle Tickle at the Delta Sports Hall – its quite small and so manageable and not too crowded (they also have another one at Hougang Sports Hall). The one at Delta has a Candy Land theme with different areas for kids to play pretend and is also filled with softplay structures and obstacles, a flying fox, slides, tunnels and MUCH more! There are loads of mint condition Melissa & Doug toys and its just $12 during weekdays and $15 on weekends for unlimited play. Otherwise, Kiddy Fun at The Grandstand in Turf City is good too.
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Having children can challenge a relationship, what with sleep deprivation and a new focus on their upbringing. In London I think we went out only twice in the first year of our son’s birth. We are fortunate to have help here so that means we can escape for a nice meal out and some time spent just the two of us. We share a passion for food (we are keen cooks!) so enjoy going out for dinner and trying new places to eat.
Generally though I think you have to make time to do things as a couple whether that’s dinner, the movies, go to a gallery – remember you were a couple before the kids came along!
Favourite date-night restaurants?
For high days and holidays, special occasions and upscale date-nights we always choose Pollen at the Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay. I love this restaurant, the food is as pretty as the flowers surrounding it and is orchestrated by one of my favourite British chefs, Jason Atherton.
For spontaneous lets-go-eat-date-night we head to eSarn, Ridgewood Estate. It’s a little more romantic if you sit outside (inside is bright lights and air con) but the joy is that we can stroll there from our house, know we will have the best Thai on the island and then cab mooch next door for a delicious ice-cream from Haato. It’s the perfect evening.
Can you talk us through your career pre and post babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?
I started designing handbags in London around 2005. In the years that followed I went from home-seamstress, making bags from old interior fabrics and trimmings in my bedroom to going on to create my label, Cheet, outsourcing production and seeing my handbags stocked in prestigious stores around the world.
Before having our first child, I was blissfully unaware (read: in total denial) about how having a baby would affect my life and business. I worked right up until the due date and never really stopped even after he was born. Everyone told me, ‘babies just sleep’ so I figured I would carry on working when he napped. Alas, Rufus wasn’t much of a sleeper. Looking back I’m not sure how I did it but I did, Rufus was just 12 weeks old when he came along with me to Paris Fashion Week (actually, he was brilliant at getting the buyers to stop, especially the Japanese who found him particularly ‘kawaii’ – cute.). Then I just grabbed every single moment I could to work – worked from home while he had day naps, went into the office when he was asleep after my husband got back from work, or even taking him to the office, setting up a play area for him to amuse himself with, while I would get on with packing up an order or the like. My mum was brilliant and would come into London to help babysit so I could go to the office to take a meeting but when he was about 7 months old we got a child minder so that I could have set times to work.
So after Rufus was born it was a huge adjustment to go from working full time in an office to snatching time here and there and working from home. I felt like I was constantly chasing my tail and so when we moved to Singapore nearly 2 years ago it was a relief as simply having help meant I could dedicate much more time to working again.
I haven’t really got back into the swing of things yet as Elyse is only a couple of months old but the difference with this baby is that I have decided to adjust my priorities for the business over the next year in order to make this work with having two children. It is an approach that is definitely enabling me to be less angsty about work in these early weeks and also to enjoy these fleeting weeks while she is still a tiny baby. The trouble with having your own business is that it is really like having another baby. It requires constant attention but ultimately you only get out what you put in.
How has having kids changed the way you define work?
Ever since having kids, I have suffered from the common affliction termed ‘mother’s guilt’ – both in respect of dedicating time to my kids and also the dedication to my third child, the business. The reality is that I have to find ways to adapt and find a balance between business and parenthood and enough quality time for both. I had just about got that nailed with one and now we have two so there’s a new level of adjustment to be done!
Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Singapore?
It goes without saying that in order to start a business you must be totally passionate about it and committed. It’s as consummate a job as motherhood and there’s little point in getting into it if you aren’t really into it.
In London and now in Singapore, if you can seek out a network of like-minded people, women who are working on their own businesses or in the same field as you, then having this community to chat with, share contacts, even collaborate with can be really helpful, especially if you are working on your own without colleagues to download to. I am lucky here to have found such girls like Marina from Ribbon & Roses or Cat from Catherine Preston Jewellery.
From my own experience, I am happiest if I can successfully separate ‘work time’ from ‘mum time’. It’s harder than you think, as whenever you have a spare window while the children play or nap it’s easy to fire off a few emails or make that one phone call. But I do find that setting aside proper amounts of time for each allows me to fully focus on the job at hand, whether it’s talking to suppliers or making models out of play dough.
- Treat your home office like a corporate office (even getting dressed for work can boot your brain into action), be single-minded when you are meant to be working and don’t allow yourself to be distracted!
- Be flexible, remembering that children are full of surprises, so be prepared for them to be ill on the least convenient day of the year (and work around it)
- Stay healthy and set aside some time for yourself so you don’t run yourself ragged
- Remember that you can only do so much – you are only human!
- I think you have to find the right balance between working and the reward and self-worth that comes with that and spending enough time with your children.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
We have a 10-week-old baby so I am crazily reading baby books and baby blogs and trying madly to remember…when did Rufus sleep through the night? Did I bath him at night or in the morning? How long did Rufus have colic for? etc etc when someone said to me the other day, “there is no point in comparing one child to the other”. And she is totally right! Both children are different and we find our way with each and it is just a fruitless waste of energy to continually compare one to the other!
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Keep old toilet rolls! No seriously, I hoard old cereal boxes and toilet rolls. Then on rainy days (or hazy days) when you don’t want to go outdoors you can have a ‘Blue Peter’ afternoon, make robots, rockets or toilet roll snakes…Rufus loves painting and it’s so important that he gets enjoyment from basic things like making his own kitchen roll rocket, rather than spending his play time playing with cars and trucks or dare I admit it…watching TV.
I regularly send home his paintings to his Grandparents – not just for birthdays or occasions but just because. In this era of instant media (email, wassup, skype etc) it’s easy to forget that there’s nothing nicer than getting a hand-made card by post.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Not caving into our nearly three-year-old’s demands! I know it’s probably to do with having a young baby and wanting to keep the peace, but I worry that I’m indulging our son too much or resorting to bribery to get him to do something rather than just being consistent and a bit more tough-love as a parent!
My most humbling mama moment was…
Our daughter was exceptionally sleepy in her first few weeks (a total contrast to her brother!) of life. One morning, Rufus saw that she was awake and was so surprised he exclaimed ,“goodness me Mummy! My baby sister Elyse is awake!” I found it such a hilarious turn of phrase for a two year old and it instantly melted my heart with how much warmth he has shown his sister since she arrived.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Breakfast in bed as a family. We recently upgraded to the most fabulously enormous (borderline too big for the room size) bed and now there is plenty of room for us all to enjoy coffee, toast, the FT and family time in bed on a weekend morning. Crumbs in the bed are the only downside.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
All the things I haven’t done!
Bedtime is always smoother when…
Children are not overtired! I used to HATE it when my Mum said “You are overtired.” “No I am not!” I would defiantly screech back. However, now I know that overtired children are just hellish to deal with. Sleep begets sleep!
Even when my child has a family of his/her own, I’ll still…
Try and remember the challenges that come with having a family and offer them the right level of support, making sure they know we are always here for them. Even though Mum and Dad are on the other side of the world and definitely have a sketchy memory about when babies do what and at what age (my mother has said to me on more than one occasion that my sister and I were both ‘dry’ at night by the time we were 18 months old, which I question!). I know that I can call my Mum for advice and even though she might not have the right answer, her calm approach will lead me to the right decision.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
Time for myself – we are very lucky here to have extra help which means it’s easier to schedule in a few treats here and there, whether it’s a hair cut, a pedicure or lunch with girlfriends every once in a while.
My favourite moment of the day is…
Mornings with both children in bed with us. Even though in recent weeks it might be a little earlier than we like (and our eyes feel like the are being prised open with tooth picks) it is very special to have both of our children snuggled up in our bed at the start of the day.
Ages/Genders of Children:
Rufus – boy, 3 in July
Elyse – girl, 10 weeks old
These gorgeous photos of Emily, Rufus and Elyse are courtesy of Gunilla Lindgren of Sugarlight Photography.