On growing into my name

I changed my first name when I got married eight years ago.

It happened like this: when I was born, my parents gave me a Chinese name, accompanied by an English middle name on the birth certificate. Back then it was common for migrant families to christen their kids with an English name and a Chinese name they rarely used, so my family followed suit and called me Sophia. Growing up, I assumed that was my official name so apart from my birth certificate, I put everything under my English name – my drivers’ licence, bank accounts, un enrolment, gym membership, even library cards.

Then I got married and decided I wanted to adopt my husband’s last name. I needed to do one of those 100 point ID checks at the bank but I couldn’t, because I had technically created two identities: Ming Huey Chua and Sophia Chua. Ever the pragmatist, I didn’t want the hassle of officially changing my name to Sophia, so I decided – by keeping my legal name – to ‘change my name’, so to speak. I became Ming Russell. Middle name Huey, because my parents also forgot to hyphenate my Chinese name on the birth certificate.

I didn’t think much about my name change until Tamie blogged about changing her last name (off the topic, but her post on the biblical subversion of taking a man’s name is worth a read).

It feels wrong admitting this, but Ming feels separate from me. I don’t automatically stand up when receptionists calls her (my?) name in the waiting room. Ming isn’t in my signature. Once, when work booked flights for an overseas business trip under ‘Sophia’, I argued for 10 minutes with airport staff that it was my real name, completely forgetting my passport said differently.

I wonder, is it her Otherness I feel? Her obvious Chinese-ness, marking what is easy to ignore after being raised in Australia?

I hope not. Even though she surprises me at the doctor’s surgery now and then, I am glad she is there, my official name, nestled in my identity like a warm stone.

Could you survive on the Newstart allowance?

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This month I wrote a small piece for Eternity magazine on Share the Benefit:  a five-week event created by Anglicare to give Christians a taste of poverty in Australia. Participants record how much food they spend in a week, live on a reduced amount equivalent to the Newstart allowance, then donate the difference between the two budgets to Anglicare.

The program was a great experience and I recommend everyone give it a go. From my piece:

Last year, Families Minister Jenny Macklin controversially claimed she could live on the Newstart allowance of $38 a day. There is some truth to her claim; you will not die of starvation living off the Newstart allowance. By the end of the week, we were still able to eat, albeit cobbled together meals in smaller portions than we are used to. But here’s the rub: although you can survive, there are few resources for much else. There is no money for going out with friends. You have less consumer power to choose nutritious food over cheaper options (a kilo of Homebrand chicken nuggets is cheaper than a kilo of fresh chicken). There is nothing left over to save, no financial buffer.  

You can read the rest here (page 5).

Do you say sorry to your children?

It was a scuffed pair of velcro shoes that was the morning’s undoing.

I was flapping around the house, answering emails, unearthing clean clothes, trying to make a sandwich from the last scrape of vegemite in the jar. My four-year-old son was eating his cereal one cornflake at a time; proving true the law that says the more you rush, the longer your preschooler will take to do things. Together we laboured over his clothes, debated his need for the toilet, negotiated his socks (“the ones with stars, mummy, not stripes”) and then finally got to his shoes

.Oh those shoes. Instead of putting them on his feet – a job he is well versed at – said preschooler threw them down the stairs. Hot bubbles of anger burst in every synapse. You may have experienced this moment before, when you switch with alarming speed from Zen mother to some sort of fire breathing dragon. In fury I shouted, “Would. You. Just. Put. On. Your. Shoes!”

My son’s face collapsed. “Don’t yell at me,” he said, his words an unflinching mirror. I had hurt him terribly. There was only one thing to say; a word easily offered and if sincere, precious to the recipient. I said sorry.

Sometimes I forget to apologise to my two children. It’s because I’m too proud to admit my faults, or oblivious to the ways I can hurt them. It’s because after years of mother’s groups, breastfeeding clinics and play dates, I’ve become so used to talking about my children that sometimes I neglect to talk honestly to them.

Confessing wrong – not the quick apology you toss when you’ve accidentally pumped your child’s knee, but the heartfelt kind that leaves you vulnerable to another – just isn’t part of the preschooler lexicon. We’re quick to point out our children’s wrongdoings and demand apologies, but much slower to offer them ourselves. Given the trusting nature of children, it’s easy to brush over hurt with an extra cuddle while neglecting what needs to be said.

When I sat down on the carpet next to my son and said, “I’m sorry”, it showed him how much I value his feelings; that everyone makes mistakes. It also gave him an opportunity to forgive me (which he did, with an earnestness that made my heart burst). This simple exchange, so few in words yet rich in depth, strengthened our bond. And it was just enough to get us through those days when tempers run amok and shoes go flying down the stairs.


Rise of the Mummy Bloggers

My article on Christian ‘mummy bloggers’ is out in Eternity. You can read the digital copy here (the piece starts on page 4).

I enjoyed researching this piece. It was fun chatting to such a diverse group on women about how they have carved their own little space – each one different – in the blogosphere.

You can read some of their blogs here:

No Reading At The Breakfast Table
168 Hours
Essentially Jess
Mummy’s Undeserved Blessings
Cecily Paterson

I’m just saying…dreams don’t always come true.

I was convinced I would get the job.

As a stay-at-home mum, I’d spent the last five months looking for work: scouring ads, emailing resumes, making inquiries. Then, late last year, I saw it. The proverbial Dream Job. The advertised journalist role was a rare breed: flexible hours, challenging, matched to my level of experience and well paid.

I sent off my resume and was delighted to land an interview, despite needing to borrow a skirt and do some creative layering to pass off my one dressy top as work attire. They loved my work. I was invited to have coffee with the publisher. We discussed which days would work around my kids. I started mentally spending my first pay check.

Did I mention I was convinced I’d get the job?

So it was a shock when I didn’t. The rejection arrived in my inbox at 8:30am; a two-liner saying someone more suitable had been offered the job. Cue the thud of my dream career smacking the pavement.

Mrs Lodwick, my grade six teacher who taught me all dreams were possible, did not prepare me for that moment, staring at the computer screen while my children ate rice bubbles. That moment when my hard work had yielded nothing but a well-formatted resume and a skirt that needed dry-cleaning.

Years of reading fairytale endings in magazines hadn’t prepared me either. I’d read articles of CEOs who emerged from humble beginnings to shape entire industries. Cover stories of celebrities who had miracle babies at 45. Profiles of models – and it’s always models – who achieved a perfect work-life balance while finding their life’s passion, be it organic cosmetics or designer baby shoes. According to reality television, the biggest perpetrators of the great dream narrative, dreams come to those who are determined, along with a $10,000 book deal.

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it. My Kitchen Rules is lying. The magazines are lying. The reality is that for most people, dreams often don’t come true.

I realise in saying this, I sound like the Grinch; a destroyer of rainbows, butterflies and all that is good. To clarify, I’m not against pursuing goals, nor do I resent those who have found their passion in life.

I’m just asking the question: are these dream lives an accurate reflection of reality? Where are the real stories?

Where’s the story of my artist friend Jess, who struggled to sell her work? Or Lisa, who climbed the ladder of her dream career, only to find the long work hours had destroyed her health? Or Denise, who dreamt of working with remote communities in Bangladesh, but had to return to Australia when her daughter needed specialised medical help?

The problem with elevating the pursuit of dreams above all else is no-one knows quite what to say if those dreams fall apart, apart from “don’t give up”, “keep believing” or some story about a street sweeper who grew up to be president.

People mean well, but these words aren’t always true. Dreams can be thwarted. Maybe it’s a health issue or a family circumstance. Maybe – and I’m putting back on my Grinch mask here – the talent just isn’t there. Not everyone can land a record deal or make it to the Olympics. Not everyone can be in the top 5% of their industry.

We’re taught to batter through every obstacle, but is this always the best advice? Although charging ahead makes us feel like Beyoncé, there are times in life when there’s no shame in backing down. It’s a fine line between persevering through difficulty and trying to make happen things that are beyond our control; between the need to persist and the need to gently prise apart that precious dream and make a few tweaks.

My friends know the difference. Jess used her artistic talent to move into advertising and is now being headhunted by other agencies. Lisa moved to the Gosford where she works for a smaller firm, enjoys good health and is a passionate Amnesty volunteer. Denise has found work in Australia supporting overseas health projects. Her daughter, meanwhile, is thriving. All have amazing lives, despite technically not having reached their dreams.

They are also all remarkable people – proof that achievements say nothing about your self worth. I cringe whenever magazines pour over celebrities who are ‘living the dream’, as if the zenith of what it means to be human is found in launching your own label, getting married or having a bikini ready body six weeks after giving birth.

On the other hand, it is tragic when someone believes they are worthless because their dreams have gone awry. Success is a multi dimensional concept, not something that can be measured by whether a network has deemed you one of Australia’s Top 20 Dancers. Living a particular dream doesn’t guarantee a successful life. It cannot answer the question of whether we are happy. Whether we have the courage to stick by our principles. Whether we love others and are loved in return. Whether our lives contribute to something beyond ourselves.

Giving ourselves permission to fail at our dreams also, ironically, frees us to pursue them with great abandon, if that’s our chosen path. Think about it. When your self-worth isn’t tied to achieving a particular dream, you aren’t afraid of what happens if you fail. You’re free to a) persevere, b) change that dream for a better fit, or c) a path I’ve perfected – fail in a blaze of glory and pick yourself up, tattered but whole. You have nothing to lose because you know you’re valuable, even if your dreams never come true.

At least that’s how I live. For now, I’m open to the possibility that my perfect career/dream life/whatever-you-call-it may wander into unchartered territory. Just do me a favour. Don’t tell me my dreams will come true if I try hard enough. They may not.

And if that happens, I’ll still be happy.

206 more times to play hide and seek


When my children ask me for the 17th time in one day to play hide and seek, I can always think of other things I’d rather be doing. Finishing the washing. Cooking dinner. Working on my latest freelance job. Answering emails. The relentless task of parenting and my need to Achieve Things during the day has turned me into a taskmaster. Playing is an aberration; a distraction I want to outsource or dispense with quickly.

But lately, I’m trying to remember that my days here, in this strange world inhabited by cheese sandwiches, scabby knees and imaginary dinosaurs, are brief.

There will always be more emails to send, more dinners to cook and definitely more washing to be done. There is only a finite amount of times my children will ask me to play hide and seek.

Maybe I’m already halfway through my assigned quota and I’ve only got 206 times more to go. That’s 206 more times I’ll pretend to hide behind a curtain while gabbling “yooo-hooo…come and find me!”. Or 206 more times I’ll hear them shrieking as they tear up the stairs. Only 206 more times they’ll whip that curtain back and offer up their faces to me – two peaches glowing with unbridled joy. 206 more times until their orbits broaden and I am no longer their world.

From that perspective, the washing can wait. Today, I’m down to 205 times, my children are counting to ten and there’s a table out there I need to barely conceal myself under.

When ‘no’ is the hardest word to say

If you’re anything like me and suffer from a chronic need to please people, you’ll relate to my inability to say the word “no”.

It always starts with a polite request, usually dropped into the middle of a conversation. I’ll readily agree, pay for my coffee and spend the rest of the car ride home remembering – with rising panic – all the reasons why I can’t meet that request.

Rather than back out, I’ll spend the next few days convincing myself that it is possible, in one morning, to wake up at 5am and drive my friend to the airport, take my son to his swimming lesson, edit my brother’s uni assignment and bake 30 pink cupcakes for a Peppa Pig-themed kid birthday party (“…and would you mind making 7 of them gluten free?”).

It’s the perfect recipe for an anxiety attack.

You end up trying to please everyone, sacrificing sleep in order to drive to a 24-hour Coles in your pyjamas where you’ll find yourself squinting at packet labels, trying to work out if rice flour is gluten free. It’s moments like these you think to yourself, “why couldn’t I have just said no?”

A psychologist I saw six years ago had a solution for this dilemma. She had a default answer for every request she received, no matter how big or small: “thanks for asking me; do you mind if I check my diary first and get back to you?”

Of course, you’ll most likely have a smart phone in your pocket with your schedule handy, but the other person doesn’t need to know that. By delaying your answer, you short-circuit that loop where a person asks a favour and you automatically respond with yes. It gives you time to work out how to graciously decline the request. Plus you avoid double booking – a classic problem for the chronic people pleaser.

It’s taken six years, but this default answer has now become my catchphrase. If someone asks me for a favour, I’ll say I need to check the family calendar. Later that night, I’ll think about the request. As the psychologist recommended, I’ll think through how much time the task will take, what I’ll need to sacrifice in order to do it, how it will impact my family and whether I have enough on my plate already.

I also added another factor to consider: whether I want to do it.

It sounds like a simple question, but it’s actually quite complex for people pleasers like me, leading to a self-indulgent string of additional questions: do I actually want to help this person, or am I doing it because I feel like I should? Am I doing it to win their good opinion, or because I actually care? There’s nothing worse than helping someone with a grumbling heart.

Especially if that favour involves trying to trace Peppa Pig’s likeness on a small cupcake at 1am in the morning.

The third wave of mummy blogging

838340467_ebf91c2a8e_bI’m currently working on a feature article about mummy bloggers who are Christians: why they blog, what kind of readers they attract, how their faith influences their writing, what impact they’re making in both secular and Christian online circles.

It’s been a great topic to sink my teeth into. I’ve had a number of chats with fascinating women who have tapped into the blogosphere in different ways.

I’ve also discovered the third wave of mummy blogging. To quote The New York Times:

The first wave of mommy blogs (pre-Facebook) were simple family updates, like year-round Christmas letters. The second wave were confessional soap boxes for mothers with dirty laundry to air (like dooce.com), attracting devoted readerships, advertising dollars and eventually public mimicry. The third, it seems, are jaw-droppingly art-directed, sort of like a glossy fashion magazine on the newsstand.

While most of the bloggers I’m interviewing firmly belong in the second category, I find the third wave of blogs an interesting development. Confessional blogs pointedly reveal the unglamorous side of parenting. Glossy blogs like The Glow do the opposite. Think idealised images of family life, effusive writing, organic food and high fashion – for the babies, not just the mums. From a post on The Glow:

“When I had Ruby, my former boss told me, ‘here’s the secret: buy kids’ clothes in Paris.’ She’s been my mom mentor. Now I always shop for her when I’m there for the shows. I find all of these great, affordable pieces in muted colors and classic styles at Monoprix.”

These kinds of blogs are the byproduct of a seismic shift in print media. While magazines grapple with the challenge online publishing poses for their revenue streams, aspirational blogs signal a sort of democratisation of Vogue-style content.

As for the confessional type bloggers? They’re still there, albeit on a variety of other platforms: twitter, facebook, instagram, pinterest.

And they are still telling their stories, searching for the valuable in the mundane.

Should we really ban the word ‘bossy’?

I remember the first time someone called me bossy.

I’m the oldest child in my family, so whenever I played games with my friends in the playground, I liked being in charge. I had no qualms about telling other kids what to do and assigning roles for everyone in pretend play.

So it was that one day in primary school I was going about my usual habit, giving people different Rainbow Brite characters to act out (child of the 80s here) when out of nowhere, a friend piped up in a quiet but indignant voice: “I don’t want to play. You’re being really bossy.”

I was mortified. Suddenly I saw myself from her perspective, disregarding everyone’s ideas, telling people what to do. She was absolutely right. I was being, for lack of a better term, Little Miss Bossy Boots.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her organisation Lean In is campaigning hard to ban the word ‘bossy’, especially in relation to little girls.

She argues that bossy is a term used to discourage girls from taking on leadership roles. “We need to recognise the many ways we systematically discourage leadership in girls from a young age — and instead, we need to encourage them,” she says. “So the next time you have the urge to call your little girl bossy? Take a deep breath and praise her leadership skills instead.”

You can watch the campaign below:

While I heartily agree leadership skills should be nurtured in young girls (I love Lean In’s collection of new stock images depicting working women), a celebrity studded campaign pillorying the word ‘bossy’ is a clumsy way to go about it.

Bossiness, Control, Dominance – any term that signifies overbearing leadership – is applied to both men and women. When the Labor party was in government, former PM Kevin Rudd was labelled a micro manager intent on gaining power. The late Steve Jobs was well-renowned as a demanding control freak. Closer to home, we complain about bossy male bosses as well as female ones.

Yes, it’s true that society tends to be more forgiving of men who are bossy than women (Steve Jobs, for all his interpersonal flaws, is still hailed as a genius). It’s clear Sandberg is projecting her own struggles of working in a male dominated industry into this campaign. But the answer isn’t to police what is essentially gender-neutral language, as if reframing negative traits in girls will somehow tip the scales and smash glass ceilings.

The answer is to rethink what makes a good leader.

I’d argue that a good boss isn’t bossy. Effective leaders don’t dominate over others, nor do they lead by simply telling people what to do. Great leadership is about leading by example. It involves inspiring people to follow, rather than simply barking demands. It’s about having empathy and understanding what motivates people. It’s about not being afraid to get down and dirty amongst those you lead. We all know this. No one wants to work for a tyrant, male or female, which is why I find this campaign so baffling.

Beyonce’s assertion “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss” is only helpful if the word ‘bossy’, on examination of her character, is invalid. If she (or any female) is overbearing and dictatorial, then such a statement is not empowering for women, but defensive and foolish.

Sandberg may want to paint bossy girls as feminist but the truth still stands. No one wants to follow a bossy girl; in the same way no one wants to follow a bossy boy. Encouraging negative behaviour in young girls is not empowering, but ultimately damaging. Raising a generation of women who do not know the value of empathetic leadership, who cannot filter criticism with a healthy dose of self awareness, can only be detrimental to any feminist cause.

As a child, I didn’t need anyone to tell me that my constant haranguing of my friends to do what I want was ‘progressive’ or ‘a great display of leadership potential’. I needed someone to give me a clip over the ear and tell me to be thoughtful of others.

I would do the same for my daughter.
I would do the same for my son.

And I would hope that they would grow up to be better leaders as a result.

“I have a gun and I’m going to kill you”

Those weren’t the words I expected to hear at 8am in the playground, bleary eyed with a takeaway coffee and two kids in tow. I was feeding my daughter crackers and surreptitiously checking Facebook when my son approached a group of older boys wrestling in the sandpit. I was the only parent in the area. Noticing him hovering on the edges of their game, one of the boys, who looked about four or five, turned to him.

“You can’t play!” he shouted. “You’re just a baby.”

“I’m not a baby; I’m a boy,” my son beamed, missing the tone.

“No,” the boy responded, “I’m a boy because I have a gun.”

The boy then walked up to my three-year-old, raised a plastic revolver and aimed it at his chest. He then uttered these words: “I have a gun and I’m going to kill you.”


An excerpt from a piece I recently wrote for Mamamia. Read the rest here.


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