Managing “Mum Guilt”

That dreaded sense of guilt when you’re not home to tend to your sick child or miss a performance because of work… So how do these successful career women deal with it?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

That dreaded sense of guilt when you’re not home to tend to your sick child or miss a performance because of work… So how do these successful career women deal with it?

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Merlin Chelliah, 41 General Manager, Club Med Tomamu Hokkaido

"If you’re flexible and determined, nothing is impossible"

As the general manager of a bustling 145-hectare resort, this dynamic mother-of-one spearheads and handles everything from guest arrivals to entertainment and cuisine in the restaurants at Club Med. With such a hectic schedule, Merlin, Club Med’s first Asian female GM, is not a stranger to mum guilt. She shares, “My six-year-old son Noah is the most important person to me, so when I don’t get to spend time with him due to work and travel, it naturally affects me.

“My promise to him is to never take our time together for granted, so even if I’m away, our strong relationship will be able to survive the distance,” she adds. “I won’t deny there are days when I’d look enviably at an ‘Insta-perfect’ mum, wishing I had her lifestyle. But I know that every mother is different with her own challenges to face, so it wouldn’t be fair to draw such comparisons. I remind myself of the blessings I have and the challenges I overcome daily – managing not just my family, but a team of about 350 staff and 1,200 guests, and I feel thankful I’ve got so many good things going on in my life.”


“When Noah was born, he would not latch on, so breastfeeding was a huge challenge for me. I would try to pump milk while he slept, so that he could still breastfeed in a way, but that meant I had to sacrifice my sleep, so I was in a constant state of exhaustion.

“My advice to mums is to breastfeed if you can, and to do it if you enjoy it – but not when you’re already tired, because overstressing your body can negatively impact your health. If you cannot breastfeed for any reason, I hope you do not feel guilty because at the end of the day, the most important thing to your newborn is still your love, time and presence.”


“What’s so great about working with Club Med is that the entire team is like family – not just to me, but to Noah as well. When my husband and I need to take some time out for ourselves, we know we can count on the support of Noah’s babysitter, whom he’s very close to, as well as the rest of the team who are always willing to pitch in and care for him in our absence. My advice is to have a reliable and comprehensive support system of family and friends who care for your child as much as you do, and who are able to provide him with love and unfailing guidance.”


“Ensure that even if you’re away, you still make the effort to check in with them over a call or even a text, so they know you’re always present. Technology has narrowed the geographical gap so much, so take advantage of that! “I recall an occasion when Noah was sick but I had to travel for work. I felt incredibly guilty, so much so that I left the house in tears because I couldn’t nurse him back to health myself. But sometimes, duty calls and you just have to get the job done. On a daily basis, I compensate for my absence by checking in on Noah regularly so that he knows I haven’t forgotten him amidst my crazy schedule, and that I look forward to returning home and spending quality time with him.”

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Tan Su-Lyn, 45 CEO and Co-founder, The Ate Group

"You just need to keep chipping away at this work-life gig"

Su-Lyn co-founded The Ate Group, a branding and communications company with a list of renowned luxury lifestyle and F&B clients, with her husband, Aun Koh, over a decade ago. With an in-depth passion for food, she dedicates many of her nights after work to cooking ahead in bulk so that her children can enjoy home-cooked goodness even when she’s busy at work.

The mother-of-three shares, “Balance is something we constantly seek to achieve, but it is never permanent. To me, the key is to accept that there is no finish line where we get rewarded with work-life balance and then we ‘have it made’. We just need to keep chipping away at it. Sometimes I achieve that balance, and sometimes I don’t.”


“At work, we’ve developed a way of counting down our departure from the office at the end of the day so that what needs to be achieved each work day with colleagues is done as much as possible within the office. If there are situations involving extremely urgent and important matters which need attending to, we’ll indicate our ‘offline hours’. For instance, ‘I’m unavailable between 7 and 9 pm because that’s my kids’ bedtime, but I’ll look at your document after that’. It helps to be communicative at work about your parenting needs, while offering solutions to team members.”


“I’m rarely present for everything in my children’s lives. Parent-teacher conferences are often conducted over the phone. I also rely on the kindness of other mummies who are often happy to send me notes, photographs and videos of the outings I miss.

“But I allow myself the luxury of committing to being there for my kids at special moments of their school year, such as key performances. I schedule these into my calendar as far ahead as possible so that my colleagues know I’m not available for that two-hour window each school term. I also make it a point to catch my children’s eye whenever I’m at any of their performances. I’ll tell them what I enjoyed, and why I’m so proud of their efforts.”


“I try my best to keep weekends for family only. This gives me the weekends to be a mother. And while I’m fortunate to have help at home, when we spend time outside the home on weekends, we make it a point to keep it to just my husband and myself with the kids. We learn to deal with the meltdowns, bickering, and sibling taunts ourselves. It draws us closer as a family.”

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Nadia Chan, 29 General Manager, PR Communications; Co-founder, Maiko

"Plan ahead and don’t forget time for yourself"

Nadia’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in early – she was 21 when she tried her hand at business, running two small restaurants while working full time for an IT reseller. Today, the mother-of-one leads the new business division of a public relations agency, and drives the marketing efforts at Maiko, a company she co-founded with her sister, Sophia, to distribute Australian organic skincare line, Canvas, in Singapore.

With so much on her plate, Nadia credits proper planning as her key to productivity. “Planning ahead allows me to ensure I find time for everything,” she explains. “I live by the motto of ‘do something 100 per cent or don’t bother doing it at all’. When I’m with my fouryear- old son, Callum, he has my 100 per cent attention, and when I’m at work, I’m focused on giving clients the best, and working on future strategies for Canvas.”


“Whenever I feel mummy guilt, I ask myself why I’m doing what I chose to do in the first place. Callum is my biggest inspiration. He makes me want to get up in the morning and achieve big things, so I try and remember he is the reason I want to do more every day. On evenings that I know I won’t make it home in time, I try to have breakfast or lunch with him. Every minute that I spend with my son is a precious gift.”


“There have been times when the built-up stress has caused me to be less patient with Callum. When I’ve found myself giving him a bout of scolding – not just because he’s done something wrong, but also because I’m carrying built-up tension, I usually try and talk to him and explain what he has done wrong. I also tell him that I love him no matter what. I’ve learnt to apologise to him when I feel guilty about giving him grief for something small. We always try and teach our kids to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, but we often forget how to teach them to say ‘sorry’. He’s very sweet and forgiving, and will usually respond with ‘that’s okay, Mummy’.”


“Ever since Callum turned three, I’ve made it an annual ritual to go on at least a one-week holiday with my girlfriends. I always feel guilty before the trip, but I go on it anyway! This time away helps me to appreciate the time that I have with him. It also gives me the opportunity to recharge and be inspired to work even harder when I’m back.”