As a new mama in Singapore with my family on the other side of the globe, I’m always on the lookout for mama role models with parenting expertise to share. This week’s That Mama, Holly West, is not only a mother of seven awesome kids (so you can be sure she knows her stuff!), but she approaches parenting with a sense of humour and calm that I find truly inspiring. You will definitely want to read on for her inimitable wit and wisdom, mamas!
Ages/Genders of Children:
We have seven children. Our oldest three are two daughters and a son ages 22, 20 and 18 and they are in the US. The younger four are with us in Singapore and are boys aged 15, 12, 9 and 6.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I am an American and received my bachelor’s degree at an all women’s college in Virginia. My husband, David, was at an all men’s military college when we met. We married as he entered the Marine Corps and I began my career as a “trailing spouse” early on. So, despite my multiple careers (director of a preschool, research assistant in Neonatology, clerical work in hospitals, clinical work in multiple hospitals, and teaching music) in our many moves and life changes with the births of each of our children I consider myself a professional trailing spouse.
Our seven children – yes, I said seven – make my world go ‘round (sometimes it spins pretty darn fast). The kids are a blast and each one is so different that it is amazing that they come from the same gene pool. I think the fact that they are each unique helps them get along very well and support each other and each other’s interests, which REALLY vary. We are a very close family, although there are days when if you walked into our home you would be on the lookout for the trained acrobats, caged animals and clowns to accompany our troupe of crazy kids. We really are a big happy family!
Can you talk us through your career choices pre- and post-baby?
My career choices prior to having children were completely different to those that I made after our children entered the scene. Prior to the children work hours didn’t really matter to me. I was that assistant that you wanted in research because I was available round the clock (medical research doesn’t sleep), and motivated and enthusiastic about the product whatever the project was. After children both they and I needed routine. So, I worked around the children until I began working for myself as a private music teacher after the birth of our fourth in 1999. I really enjoyed the benefits of being my own boss and having my work work around me instead of the other way around.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having your kids?
We never had the luxury of help after a baby was born. So, I never really got out of the swing completely. I removed myself from the mundane tasks for a few weeks and hired a cleaner, accepted meals, let the kids take over pet care and was thrilled to have David working from home for a week or two, but at some point the bleary eyed newborn weeks disappeared and I was “off and running” again.
How do you maintain an identity separate from your children?
I have my cape dry-cleaned weekly.
How did you handle moving from the US to Singapore with a big family? Any tips for mamas to help them (or their kids) in the adjustment process?
I was enthusiastic about coming to Singapore and it has been fabulous. The physical move part? Well, planning, planning and more planning and having the kids – even the 4-year old – “involved”. We all took cultural training. I let them each have one moving box with whatever they wanted in it no questions asked, and having come from Colorado we have some odd stuff for the tropics…a ski helmet! One of the boys wanted it. So, it came.
As for the adjustment process: just be available. Kids talk when there is food. You would be amazed at how much sharing goes on when you pop some cookies in the oven just before bedtime. Even the most sullen teen opens up and chats with treats and Mom hanging around. We also have a “what happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen” policy. So, it is a safe place to share anything. Being in a foreign country has its difficulties. EVERYTHING is different. But if I approach the different as a positive or interesting thing, the kids do too. So, lead by example!
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Labels, do ahead and streamlining are key to survival with seven children. Anything that I can do ahead, I do ahead. This goes from packing lunches the night before to planning excursions on our vacations. Doing things with larger numbers of people is tricky, especially in Asia. So, my do-it-ahead mentality is a must when you are doing things with 9 people at the Christmas holidays or “just” the six of us at any time. I also “streamline” things. If one child has an activity at a certain place at a certain time I generally try to arrange activities for the other kids at the same time. I usually place our younger two boys in the same locations just to make things easier.
I wish I had more time for…our children to finish growing up. It is really going by way too fast.
I always feel saner after….I talk to our kids in the U.S. I just need to hear that they are safe and happy from their voices, not just social media posts and photos.
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
We live in the Orchard area and I absolutely love it. It is so convenient to everything, especially public transportation, and it has an active vibe. Where else could I walk through a beautiful park in the morning, eat local fare at a hawker for lunch with a friend, and stroll through crowds in a street party for some fabulous cultural event with my family in the evening without leaving my neighbourhood?
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
This is really hard as there is SO much we love to do. We love to go to the Wave House at Sentosa but the Night Safari and the ropes course at Bedok are also so much fun.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Singapore?
We frequent Swee Choon regularly and it is a hit with all our boys. Dim Sum is loved by all of our children. The service is FAST. My teenagers do not have to dress up. Our little boys LOVE to watch them make noodles by hand (no pasta machine…fingers!). They all get to practice their Mandarin and all the Aunties and Uncles are always curious to talk to us. If I say we are headed to Swee Choon it takes about 3 minutes for them all to appear ready to go. No one ever tries to negotiate anything else.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Wherever we are going next. Each trip quickly becomes our favourite location.
Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
We have seven children. So, obviously romance is not lacking! I think the key to keeping romance alive in a relationship is keeping humour in it. If you can laugh together, you can cry together. For us it isn’t the candlelit dinners (nice but those fancy shoes are killer) or the holding hands and strolling down the picturesque streets (once again, the shoes!). It is more about the connection we have and the little, ”I am thinking of you” text when he is traveling or the book I may find while shopping that I think he will enjoy on a long flight. The chaplain that married us told us to hug for three minutes a day no matter what and to never go to bed angry. We have adhered to that.
Favourite date night restaurants?
We love the energy and ambience on Arab Sreet and the mosque area! Derwish is our favorite lunch date haunt; as for dinner dates … anywhere with good food and better people watching.
As a mama I wish I were better at… grilled cheese sandwiches. Mine are just awful.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Oh, Christmas and everything about it. EVERYTHING from making cookies, decorating the tree, our Christmas Eve dinner, seeing Santa, having David read The Night before Christmas to all the kids … It is now the only time all our children are together. So, Christmas.
On a smaller scale I love dinnertime: everyone around the table talking and sharing.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about… which child’s limb this is in my rib cage.
My favourite moment of the day is… tucking them into bed. A hug here, someone sharing something there. Reading stories to those who still listen…
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Take photos even when they don’t want the photos taken, because the moments fly by.
Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
Everything is a phase with kids. Nursing all night … phase. Teething…phase. Tantrums…phase. Only eating orange foods….phase. Wanting to sit on your lap…phase. Remember that because it is just a phase that they will grow out of. If it is a bad thing (tantrums can be entertaining with the right snack…), don’t let it get you spun up because it will go away. If it is a good thing, cherish it.