‘It is not what I do; it is who I am.’
Some self-motivational chap somewhere on the Internet whose quote – despite my skeptical dispositions – I cannot seem to shake off.
As most of you know, I have changed careers more than Kanye West said he loved himself. I think I can claim that I was always good enough at what I was doing and probably nobody would disagree with it. But I never felt I was at my best. As the founder of Another Garde and mom to 3 kids, I try every day to be that best of me. And boy, it’s a bitch.
I have said it time and time again – without becoming a mom I would have never been strong, centered and humble enough to hustle it out every day to sell a bag or a ring, let alone get out there to build the exposure I need for my business.
But I figured that once you’ve had 3 babies pulled out of your limbs in a bloodbath (thank you, emergency C-sections 1 and 2) and once you have spent years on your knees patting your kids’ bums half naked until the wee hours of the morning, well, you are probably ready for anything and surely ready to do anything.
So yeah, pride and fear have long gone since my stitched up tummy days. I have learnt patience and I am now learning – with a lot of difficulty – to appreciate little victories like having finally my three kids out of diapers or having my first client in Denmark.
However I got annoyed enough this week to ‘take the pen’ again. Not so long ago, I got frustrated by how I had been socially JEDI tricked into thinking that I would be able to walk smiling and having my shit together, 2 months post baby delivery while the reality was that I was suffocating inside spiritually and physically . That sense of betrayal created Redlipstickmama – that infuriating moment when I felt like a hot mess while I was supposed to only feel bliss.
Since then, I am more at peace with myself. But today, I felt the urge again to open my big mouth for another massive rant – just in time for Mother’s Day. Lucky DH.
It is a lame rant because ‘Duh, it is obvious girl…’ but I’ll say it anyway. The other day, I felt sickened by magazine spreads of (fashion) mom entrepreneurs living in oversized downtown apartments harboring Irving Penn’s prints on the walls, wearing designer frocks and looking with adoration at their long wavy haired only child sketching in corduroy covered notebooks (Note: details are totally BS but you get the idea).
I know that perfection is always staged because no one can have such a life or else KILL me now. But it still annoyed the hell out of me. What bothered me the most is that this type of shit used to inspire me, make me dream, live a fantasy for a few minutes but right now I just feel fucking pissed off and feel stolen of my hardship. Things are made so easy that you actually feel shit struggling. It is the post-C section ‘I am so happy’ pictures all over again. I wish there were reports of struggle and not just some ludicrous fantasy advertising ‘Get your ticket, you can be next.’ I wish there were pictures of red faced women trying to breathe in and out the stress of running a company while emptying the dishwasher.
I am very tortured about what I am writing now because I am the founder of a boutique selling quality and elegant design to inspire so shouldn’t I look and sound the part? But what is ‘that part’? Really.
Well, my truth is this one: mom entrepreneurship is ugly. For example:
– My kids wake me up because once they go to bed, I continue to work late and thus oversleep. I look like a rag and my daughter pushes me: ‘Mom, C’mon. I really don’t want to be late for school. Again. And how can you sleep with a W-E-D-G-I-E? Don’t you find it very uncomfortable?’
– I am refraining from going to Starbucks because 2 double tall skimmed cappuccinos can pay for an hour of my assistant’s time.
– My kids have started to talk to strangers on the subway – on their own initiative – to promote my company. They tell everyone their mom is ‘BOSS’. I thought of stopping them out of embarrassment but let them do it thinking ‘you never know, they may find me new clients’. Shameless.
– I don’t get free clothes. Ever. I pay for them. I only have endless temptations. Like a recovering alcoholic in Pegu bar. Meanwhile, the kids wear polo shirts with way too short sleeves because I lack the time and money for shopping.
– I have so many IOUs with my friends and family that I hope I am a true Buddhist who will go through various reincarnations to pay up my dues.
Finally and most importantly I wonder every day if my husband will end up divorcing me. Contrary to the popular belief, asking my husband to fully support my folly is not getting him to take nice shots of me wearing skinny leather pants for my Instagram feed (you should check out this video of Instagram husbands, hysterical). And it is more than being the sole income earner. The man behind the mom entrepreneur is a guy who believes so much in her that he is probably now the gayest straight man at work talking about fashion designers crafting beautiful prototypes on their kitchen tables with his female colleagues instead of commenting on the latest Yankees game. It is a guy who is accepting a tougher life to pay for the childcare and cleaning help she needs to be a full-time entrepreneur. A guy who puts his own dreams aside for hers, leaves work earlier to mind for their sick kids or has to take days off to help her set up pop ups in swanky hotels – taping japanese screens and putting IKEA furniture together when he barely knows how to use a screw driver.
It is a guy who does not think he is making her favors but rather knows that she HAS to do this.
And indeed, I have to do this now.
My ticket number to be the next best thing may never be called up. I am not going to lie about it. Who knows?
But what I know is this. With Mother’s day coming up, I do encourage everyone to celebrate their moms because they have shit days – sometimes very often. But this one mama does not need anything from her family. She has been short-changing them for a while now and is just grateful that they accept the Mom and Wife she can be and allow her to be the Woman she wants to be.
Below my journey as an entrepreneur in selfies but with clothes 🙂
Or the day when redlipstickmama became Soumountha
When I started this blog, I can say this now: I was not well. I was a little lonely not because I had no friends but it was a weird loneliness. I was lonely because I was freaking lost. Too many thoughts, very few outlets, no clairvoyance. The blog started like an extended Facebook like rant, turned into a full self-administered therapy and somewhat transformed into the release of something strange and beautiful: the courage to explore things I had no idea were buried deep inside of me.
Things like writing because I just have to do it, entrepreneurial cravings, the boldness to say things the way I just want to say them and the hope that I can somehow touch other women out there.
This would have not been possible without being inspired, supported and sometimes challenged (I dare you to do it) by some amazing women I met through blogging. It was just easier to come out with strangers first like it was always easier for me to be naked in front of strangers than my own sisters – note:I still don’t really do it very often #anotherreasonIDONOTgotothegym
Anyway, more than two years later, these women are still galvanizing me. I am beyond flattered to be interviewed by uber stylish and atta mom-creative-blogger Kate from Maison Bentley about the launch of Another Garde. Her questions were so insightful that it actually made me think hard about what I do and why I do it. You can read the full interview Another Garde by Maison Bentley. I also for the first time say it here: my name is Soumountha 🙂
I hope you will like it and do check out Kate’s blog on a regular basis. She has an amazing eye for elegant and relatable and yet ‘you have never seen it quite like this before’ pieces.
Love you Kate xoxo
#feelinghumbledthismorning #love #determination #womenbehindwomen
Photography by Kate Bentley
Most IQ tests would probably conclude that I am an idiot. And I am not even going to fight this.
When people ask me what I do, many expect one of these two straightforward answers: I am a stay at home mom or I am a working mom. I never really managed to choose which box was the most relevant to me, let alone describe it. I am often tempted to respond: ‘Life is not in black or white but in a various shades of grey…’ Which probably would make look like
A- a wanker or
B- a failed motivational speaker or
C- a mythomaniac or very possibly,
D- all the above
Instead, I either answer ‘I am in transition/in between things’ (which can be translated into ‘don’t ask more questions or I will cry right now, right there? Do you want you me to blow my nose with your top? I don’t think so…) OR I list, in no coherent order, everything I think I do:
– I take care of my 3 kids from 6-9am
– I am coordinating a grassroots group of families in the neighborhood who want to give a free French English bilingual education to their children
– I order diapers online
– I do the laundry on a weekly basis
– I try to cook every day
– I am freelancing as a business coach for social entrepreneurs like these awesome change makers, MarioWay, who designed an upright wheelchair which I think can really change the way we perceive disability.
– I rant about me, myself and I and procrastinate aka I have a mommy’s blog (to read absolutely by the way in order to decide whether or not you should create a new contact entry after I gave you my phone number)
– I add 10 items in my Gap online store basket every day, only to empty it because I am too broke
– I am venturing into Fashion entrepreneurship ranging from the unlikely (Accessories design) to the most likely (Fashion e-retail)
– I organize parties where adults get drunk and kids bump each other’s head in a bouncy castle.
– I take care of L (for real) in the afternoons.
I also go through this list very quickly so that people get confused and focus instead on how cute they think my kids are.
It’s like when you have your first job interview after graduation and you transform your experience of helping your parents catering nems for Lao weddings into a full fledge ‘entrepreneurial experience’ or when you are using the same internship to cover 100 distinct sets of skills. Verbal diarrhea to fill gaps: it never fools anyone but you do it anyway.
The not earning money is getting really tough for me. I sometimes feel that in the world of today, a woman who pays someone to care for her children while not earning any revenue is seen as a freak. Someone told me few months ago: ‘Normal -as in not filthy rich- women these days either work or take care of their children. Paying child care is an oddity (real words said were ‘du Jamais vu’ , literal translation ‘you have never seen this’) if you don’t work’.
The economic logic of their statement seemed indeed flawless. I should probably have been angry; instead I was embarrassed and admitted: ‘Well I guess some of us can’t just do it. Maybe, I am not physically or emotionally equipped to care for my 3 kids. Maybe I am just limited’.
French women in particular are all expected to go back to work; many things help to ease back into the 9-6pm routine: free public school from age 3 (sometimes even earlier), decent maternity leave that gives you enough time with your Cherubs but not long enough to start have an postpartum existential crisis a la ‘Maybe I should make and sell hats. It seems pretty straightforward, NOT’. I am not at all saying that French women have it easy (far from it), I am just trying to put things into perspective; in the US or at least in the state of New York childcare is privately funded until kids are 5 (or 4 if you are lucky enough to get a public school pre-K spot). I calculated that the median full-time childcare for G,P and L in Manhattan would round up to about $70,000 a year. I should probably have given this person this figure but then again, it would be like trying to justify my choices and why should I do this?
In fact, the person I am truly angry at is myself. For not walking the talk. You see, in my previous life, I have advocated for making visible the contributions of women at home by translating them in economic outputs to inform public policies. I barked that society and governments should stop thinking that women (and men who take care of their home) are sources of unlimited free and altruistic labor who just pick up the shit when public spending is cut or when the cost of private child care or elder care spirals out of control. Yes, I used to say all this type of stuff before concluding that doing this would among other things at the very least improve women’s self-worth.
I realize now that it was all very easy to say when I was an educated childless income earner living the life in London. I do still hold this type of discourse during dinner conversations with friends (who after 5 minutes of my monologue must be wondering whether or not I have my periods) or when boosting another mama’s confidence when she feels fucking awful about not ‘contributing financially’.
But the truth is, the longer I am staying out of a paid job, the flakier my position is becoming. I laud stay-at-home moms but how cannot I be more proud of being one? I should. I really should. I don’t know. I feel like a two-faced b***h. Sometimes.
I don’t think ‘I am a stay-at-home mom’ are words that ever came out of my mouth while that is exactly what I was for a good 2 years and half. Maybe I should join a stay-at-home mom Anonymous group.
I am slowly getting OK about all this though. That’s why I can talk about it now. Guilt free. I made my peace, it’s OK for me to refuse to answer to ‘either or’ questions: ‘stay at home mom’, ‘working mom’, ‘part time mom’, ‘full-time bitch’. Whatever, we all have work to do, don’t we? I always sucked big time at Multiple Choice Testing anyway.
‘Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you’d love to know what it’s like
What it feels like for a girl’
Since I started redlipstickmama, there is something I managed to do rather well: not censuring myself. And this for many reasons:
– freedom of thought helps my writing. I spent the last 10 years of my career getting my words edited with a red pencil, or with CAPS or worst with shrewd cutting out of entire paragraphs. And although it was very often deserved (tendency to ramble is second nature to me), it always crippled me a little.
– commitment to authenticity is key to my own sanity and to the enjoyment (I hope) of my 300 or so readers (note: I look like I am bragging but considering 2/3 are friends and family…)
Anyway, there is one subject that I have started to write about and kept deleting over and over again: my own daughter. It all started innocently enough. I was looking at my Facebook page insights and noticed how my blog posts about my boy G. are usually quite popular. I then realized with sheer horror that I to date have written at least 2 blog posts about him and 0 about my daughter, P.
DH and I are obsessed about fairness when it comes to raising our kids. DH, because it is one of the things his folks did very well -always giving equivalent time, money, gifts etc. to him and his sisters – and Me, because it is one of the things my folks fucked up big time. It is popular knowledge in my family that one out of us 5 got more financial support, or more praise, or more demands, more criticisms from my mom and my dad. Thank god, it was not always the same kid who got it all. It’s a miracle the 5 of us actually love each other 🙂
Indeed, when I started my blog, one of my goals was to document our family life. I hoped that my kids one day will read all my entries when the time for them comes to forgive me for the obnoxious way I proclaim that ‘I know them better than they know themselves’ or when they start criticizing my style and maybe understand that back then I had no time nor the inclination to comb my hair or wear anything but sweat pants. And we all know that old habits die hard, right? I especially hope that they will read the blog when it is time to decide which retirement home they will put us in when we loose our brain and can no longer make any decisions and read this: RESORT, GOLF, DANCE CLUB, FLO-RI-DA.
I felt horribly bad about not having written about P so I was adamant to amend this immediately. But then, I started to do the unthinkable: censoring myself. I kept deleting words wondering: ‘what is she going to feel when she reads this? Will she think I prefer her brothers?’
The truth is that I have very complex emotions when it comes to P. It started way before she was even born. It started way before I was told I was pregnant with twin boy and girl. As far as I can remember I have always been nervous about raising a daughter perhaps because:
- I have my own up and down and ‘come to a full circle’ relationship with my mom.
- I often had intense passive aggressive friendships with girls; so much that for a very long time half my family thought I had lesbian affairs
- I was raised to be competitive with my almost twin sister. I mean, our very own grandparents used to bet on whom would win a Mano a Mano wrestling fight. I was 4. Who does this? I swear Lao people are mental.
- I felt I already had a daughter in the shape of my 14 year younger sister to whom I already taught what I think every girl should know: not to cry over boys, love other girls, how to pluck their eyebrows and how one should always avoid, unless your name is Rihanna, combining micro skirts and high heels.
Thus since P was born, I cannot for the life of myself understand why I am tougher on her than on her brothers. I cringe when she flirts her way through things, when she bawls her eyes out when G & L barely push her, when she is obsessing about lip balms or constantly demands to wear dresses. She is so precocious that she thinks my girlfriends are her girlfriends. She protests about anything and everything. Maybe I cannot handle how ‘girly’ she is. Or maybe I cannot handle how she basically trashed a whole life conviction that gender neutral upbringing would help girls not to fall into the ‘traps’ societies build for them such as the expectations to be cute, sweet and pretty or to love nursing their baby doll. But here I am with my twin boy and girl doing exactly the same thing to no avail; she is all about sparkles and making adults fall in love with her.
I grew up thinking that I had to be one of the boys to make it. And for now, she makes it clear that the last thing she wants to do is ‘act like a boy’. The world she is growing into is different, I guess, and hopefully offers more narratives about what a strong woman truly is. I don’t know. While Beyoncé sings ‘girls rule the world’ and Sheryl Sandberg has been officially decreed a billionaire, institutional, social and political deficiencies continue to stymie the potential of girls and women. I am talking about glass ceiling, oversexualization of girls and women bodies, governments’ inability to articulate the value of childcare into sound long-term economic policies, reproductive rights that continuously need to be defended (Spain, I am talking to you and Shame on you!), or how parental leave actually still means ‘maternal leave’.
So yeah, maybe I am tougher because I worry more (that, plus the fact that she will eventually steal all my designer shoes collection). But does me being harder on her is actually telling her that I expect her to fail by being herself? Am I tough because I am sometimes disappointed by the woman I am? It is not fair and P, I make you this promise: I will try harder to be the woman I wish you would grow into. Also you are already very awesome because you just cracked me up two days ago when you strutted towards me in my UGG boots applying some balm on your lips and firmly demanded: ‘Mom, I want a wrench and a fast car. Can you buy me that?’
You made me remember this kick ass quote from Sarah Silverman: ‘Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would never have occurred to them that they couldn’t.’
This is a tribute to two men who could not be more different: my dad also known as papilao and my hubby/best friend/therapist/adult child. Today, on Father’s Day I am going to celebrate one thing they do have in common: their strong belief in women.
My dad is a schizophrenic man who in front of his community would blurt out the most horrifying sexist things but had married an eccentric feminist and raised 3 independent daughters. He would say things like these in front of his neighbors and buddies:
– ‘their relationship is never gonna work out because she is more educated than he is’.
– ‘if you live with him without getting married, you are a lost woman. You are a lost daughter to me.’
-‘Wife, daughter fetch us some glasses’.
And I would go all Germaine Greer on him and bark at him in front of everyone . It was infuriating because behind closed doors, he would mop the floor, do the laundry, and cook every family meal. He self taught all these skills because for a Lao man of his age he is somewhat of an alien. I remember him honing his Larb gai or spaghetti polog -naiis (bolognese) recipes on us as kids. We would be served the same overcooked or over salty dish every single meal for a whole week until he got a new obsession. Unfortunately for us his Algerian couscous/beef goulash period lasted forever …yuck. Thirty years later, at any community gathering, my dad still checks into the kitchen – male free zone for the Lao- and bickers with dozens of women about whether or not to add more Nam pha (fish sauce) in the Kheng Het (a fairly complex Lao mushroom and bamboo stew). And you can hear all women laugh and tease him. I once heard some tell my mom: ‘You are lucky. He is different, he taunts us but he respects our work. He walks the talk, right?’
Yes it was infuriating because I wanted my dad to shut his buddies up whenever they were acting like pashas instead of playing their game. I wanted more of my dad. And one day DH told me: ‘you are not being fair, he is expected to play this role in society but you know better‘. He was right.
In a sense DH sometimes feel the same…at work. He works on a trading floor in a high testosterone filled environment. In his way, he is going against the mainstream culture by not drooling over the hot women fighting their corner, by pushing for the hire of not so pretty interns, by just respecting women. DH is a women’s man- the only type of real men. I guess I am lucky to have these two men in my life who always root for me.
Quote from my dad: ‘I did not raise my daughters to bow in front of any men, Lao or French, king or valet.’
My now answer: ‘I do not. DH makes sure I and our daughter P will never have to.’
Agrado: ‘Well, as I was saying, it costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am. And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being. ‘ from All about my mother by Pedro Almodovar (1999).
My mom and I were not close. We hugged, we did not argue, we just never talked. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because I was not emotionally needy enough or loyal to her enough for her drama prone and spotlight stealing persona. Or perhaps I never fully forgave her for being too Lao or for not being ‘motherly’ enough. Or perhaps it was much simpler than that, the fact is that I never understood her. Fully.
And then I had twins and was unable to move because of my C-section recover. So I called her, the one person I did not want in the delivery room with me. Something strange then happened. She cared about my babies like I never remembered her caring about us, her own children. I remember wondering, watching her expertly feeding and soothing my children, whether I had erased from my memory her caring side. Maybe I unfairly remembered only what drove me crazy about her. Things I used to hate include:
– the way she would walk around the house topless even when I had school friends over. I was mortified and each time I would complain about it, she would chuckle:’do you really think I have any ounce of modesty left after giving birth to 5 children?’ And modesty, she did not show indeed when at a family summer barbecue with one hundred guests I saw through huge flames and heavy smoke my mom in a black bra turning chicken skewers because she was hot…
– the fact she NEVER baked any cake for us. It sounds completely silly especially since I did not like sweet stuff back then. I hated those school pot lucks where my classmates would bring their moms and home baked pies and I would turn up alone with a pack of cookies or even more embarrassing some spring rolls. I kept telling her ‘It is cake day mom, not asian food day’. She would not listen.
– the fact that for many years my older sister and I seemed to be the parents in our relationship with her. My mom would work, go out, gamble, eat and drink whenever she felt like it and we would stay home taking care of our younger siblings, watch TV, clean the house, iron all the household laundry etc. She would make emotional blackmails after an argument with my dad. She would say: ‘Take care of your brothers. I might leave one day and never come back.’ And we would try to put some sense into her, again. Yes, she used to be a hot mess.
Since that one month she stayed with us in 2011, things changed. In my twenties, I used to tell everyone that I had forgiven my mom. In reality, my mom never needed me to forgive her; she needed me to understand her. I do now. She got pregnant age 21 and had 5 kids. I am half naked on most days and I only had 3 kids. She told me she wanted to leave; I thought about it sometimes but didn’t tell anyone. So who was I to judge, really?
And as I look at her standing in front of a steaming pot of Pho Bo at 7am (she had been cooking since 6am for DH, our kids and I) while blowing kisses at L, I am thinking: fuck the apple tart, asian food rules. We are going to miss Mamilao.
But one day, out of nowhere I started to:
– smell everything
– feel that my post weaning crevasses previously known as my breasts were getting plump again
– and fall asleep in the middle of a sentence (this is not an exaggeration by the way. I remember talking to DH and then finding my head plunging into my dinner plate. And it hurts.)
Signs were popping up everywhere but I refused to see, I refused to surrender . I had just started to enjoy wine for god’s sake. My twin pregnancy messed up my hormones big time and tricked my body to think I no longer loved red wine or hot chillies. Unbelievable. No wonder I was losing sense of whom I was. However, after 4 positive home pregnancy tests, a two weeks denial period during which DH was breathing down my neck looking constipated from stress, I finally had a blood test at my obstetrician’s. I was mortified. Everyone (administrative staff, obstetricians, nurses etc.) recognized me immediately and welcomed me with a silent grin or with a lecture on birth control – at 37 years old, it is particularly excruciating. When you are pregnant with twins and are kind of old, you get to see your doctor so often that you start thinking of building a campfire and howling some Earth mother chants to kill time. And thus there is no ‘incognito’ status for you ever. Everyone in the practice knows your face and the functioning of your uterus. Yuck.
But I could not care less. To be honest, I was numb beyond repair from the shocking possibility that I might be pregnant again just when I thought my brain was starting to (re)activate itself, just when I thought I was finally having post baby aspirations. I did not know what to do. Hell, DH did not know what to do either. We did not want to pronounce the word ‘abortion’ but I knew it was on both our minds. How else to explain all these unfinished conversations when talking about what this pregnancy meant?
Who knew that 10 seconds of silence was all it took to complete these conversations? 10 seconds during which my obstetrician could not hear any fetal heart rate at our first scan, 10 seconds during which DH and I panicked on our own and together. 10 seconds after which we knew for sure we wanted him to exist, ruin our nights, scratch our faces, roll over when being changed, bite our noses, giggle when being bathed or drool in our mouths. Funny how silence can often tell you more than any words could.
Happy Birthday my bumble bee.