What we gain by spending less

It was an overpriced ballerina tutu that finally tipped us over the edge. Bought on a whim for my two-year-old daughter, that innocent confection of lollipop pink tulle and satin was the last straw; an ill-timed purchase that sent our bloated credit card bill spiraling out of control. Looking at our finances, my husband and I realised if we wanted to continue saving for a house deposit and treat ourselves to luxuries like, ahem, food and electricity, we needed to take action. Fast.

As a work-at-home mum of two preschoolers, that meant cutting down how much I spent on our kids each week. Raising children is an expensive business. Australian middle-income parents spend up to $458 a week per child – fifty percent more than the amount spent in 2009, according to a 2013 report by AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modeling. Although I was determined to spend less on my kids, I was also nervous about the prospect. I expected to feel constrained – guilty even – about denying my children their usual treats.

IMG_4075What I didn’t expect was to feel liberated and closer to my two children. Most parenting articles will tell you budgeting makes good financial sense. What they don’t mention is how much you actually gain from spending less. I used to spend a fair amount of money on kid paraphernalia that ended up as landfill: bargain bin toys that would go missing within a day, plastic ride-on toys now speckled with dirt and cobwebs, a $5.99 organic fig and pistachio muffin that went uneaten. When I cut these items out of my budget, I was forced to rely on the basics to entertain my children. At first, I stuck to our usual outings: playing at the local park, homemade picnics, the good, old-fashioned play date. Then I decided to get adventurous. I caught a train with my daughter to a nearby Chinese food precinct, where we ate pears and watched wizened men practicing Tai chi. During the school holidays, the four of us went for a bushwalk with the aim of making a photo journal of our trip. My iPhone currently has forty-eight blurry photos of bark, but it was worth it.

Not all outings were a hit. Storytime at the library proved disastrous when my son thought shelves were far more useful for climbing once you removed all the books. Then there was the time I spent an entire evening cutting up wrapping paper into little shapes for craft. The activity lasted five minutes and I spent the next week sweeping grimy little stars and hearts off the floor. Mostly, though, we roamed. We turned errands like posting a parcel into an important mission. The kids built a cubby house out of dining chairs and old blankets. I found an unknown plant growing in my backyard (Facebook came to my rescue; it was a Mexican Marigold.)

The main benefit of these outings was not the money we were saving, but how relational they were. Child development experts claim being outdoors is beneficial for children, not just in terms of their physical health, but also for developing imagination and mental wellbeing. My best conversations with my kids have been out in nature. Sometimes we would simply point out all the different things we could hear. Other times, we’d have intense discussions about what it means to have a best friend, or whether chickens on a farm were the same as the chickens we eat for dinner (I sweated over that one).

Without money at my disposal, I was also forced to abandon what I call my ‘bandaid purchases’. I wasn’t able to buy them a sugary treat when they were cranky at the shops, or purchase two of the same book to avoid fights. Now, I completely understand that a finger bun is a small price to pay for one’s sanity, but often I bought things we didn’t need because I just wanted my children to stop inconveniencing me. I didn’t want to have to deal with their public tantrums. I couldn’t be bothered saying, “no, you can’t have a sushi roll; there’s a perfectly good lunch waiting for you at home”, mostly because I hate making sandwiches with a passion.

Saying ‘no’ is the more troublesome route to take, but now and then, it reaps rewards beyond a healthier bank balance. Telling my kids we couldn’t afford the latest blockbuster movie figurine teaches them to be content with what they have. Asking them to wait until we get home for lunch – even when said in a death whisper the checkout – gives them the chance to practice patience. When I glimpse these character traits in my kids, I feel incredibly rich as a parent.

Of course, I don’t get it right all the time. There are times when I lose my cool – days when I’m dissatisfied and frustrated with the constraints of a tight budget. I hope, though, our financial journey means I’ll raise kids who are just that little bit more patient and thankful for what they have. Even if it may not include a pink ballerina tutu.

Article on SPD

childmagsA couple of months ago I wrote a pretty personal piece on the experience of raising my son, who has Sensory Processing Disorder. The article has been recently published in this month’s Child magazine (unfortunately it’s not available online, although you can pick up a copy for free at preschools, libraries, shopping centres, etc.).

If you want to find out more about Sensory Processing Disorder, there’s lots of helpful information here. It’s certainly been a long journey with our son, but I’m so grateful for what I’ve learnt through it all.

Raising children of mixed race

IMG_3874When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I tried to picture what he would look like. Would he inherit my Chinese eyes? My hair? My height, or lack thereof?

After his birth – in that moment I first held him and in all the moments we’ve had since – I discovered my child looks nothing like me or his Caucasian father. He is his own creature, with long limbs, wild hair and teardrop eyes set against the cream of his skin. His younger sister, an amber-eyed pixie, is similarly unique. Neither looks Chinese, and they don’t particularly act Chinese either.

People often assume a child of mixed race is a bilingual cocktail of two cultures. This isn’t always true. While my children are Caucasian, Malaysian Chinese and Indonesian Chinese, they are overwhelmingly Western in their behaviour. They don’t speak Mandarin. They’ve never left Australia. They eat sausages, not pak choy.

As a second-generation migrant brought up in an English-speaking household, I sometimes worry. Will children grow up knowing nothing about their heritage? Panicked, I find myself scrambling for family gems to pass down, like my mother’s rendang recipe or my father’s take on 20th century Chinese history. I feel guilty that I can’t even pronounce my children’s Chinese names.

But I’m also comforted by how kids deal with cultural vagaries. Last week at the park, a boy asked my four-year-old son, “where do you come from?” My son replied without pausing, “I’m me!” Okay, he didn’t understand the question, but there was something beautiful about his response, as if who he is matters more than his genetic heritage.

It made me realise culture is personal. Mixed children express their heritages differently because their cultural experiences vary. Some grow up with a cacophony of extended family. Some take yearly trips ‘back home’. Then there are children like mine, who would sooner propel chopsticks across the kitchen than eat with them. I’m learning that this is okay. There is no right way to express your culture. My children are who they are; they will spend the rest of their lives muddling through two cultures to create their own.

Besides, if I look closely, there are signs all is not lost. Take my son’s habit of removing his shoes before entering a house, or my daughter’s delighted cries of “Ma! Gung Gung!” (cue broad Aussie accent) when she sees my parents. Maybe they’ve inherited more from me than I initially thought.

On cleaning messes

I don’t normally go for the “mums have it tough” type videos, but this one, by blogger Esther Anderson, was too good to resist. To quote the Huffington Post article it appeared in:

Parents know that taking care of little ones and keeping the house clean is a truly Sisyphean endeavor. No matter how long you clean, feed, wash and dry, new messes always appear, and you have to start all over again.

There was a time when this bothered me. I like things neat. Mess is a very visceral thing for me. Piles of clothes, scattered lego and unwashed dishes make my throat constrict and my mind panic.

Now I try to breathe through the mess. Slow down, appreciate the moment with my kids and move on with my day.

Scribbled notes in my book

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time.

My copy is inherited from my mother, last read when she was a boarding school student in Sydney. Being a migrant who spoke little English, she wrote little notes for herself along the margins in cursive writing, translating difficult sentences into easier ones.


This pleases me. Whenever Heathcliff and Cathy got a bit much with all the brooding and sighing and galavanting through the moors, I’d calm myself by reading my mother’s notes.

What are you reading at the moment?

You aren’t what you eat


“I have a confession to make: I’ve become a food legalist. In my mind there are two lists of food: one labelled ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. Every day, for most meals, I place different foods in either column. This may not sound unusual in an age of fad diets, but what is odd about my lists is how arbitrary they are. Rather than simply saying, “broccoli good, donuts bad”, I have managed to distil eighteen months worth of celebrity nutritional advice into a fastidious Code of Eating.”

My latest article is about my tumultuous relationship with quinoa. Read the rest here on the fabulous Kiki and Tea.

Baby showers for dads

I recently organised a baby shower for a friend so practical, her ideal present was a month’s supply of wet ones. “Don’t feel you need to make a fuss,” she emailed. “Simple food, a few games, no frills.”

Diligently, I threw myself into research mode, i.e. Pinterest over a glass of wine. I emerged three hours later, drunk on images of women gathered around cake, rubber duck centrepieces and pastel coloured mason jars. Even though I have children of my own and been to many a shower, I was intrigued by how many sites assumed baby showers are only for women. Why aren’t men included in the pre-baby hoopla? Who is giving the dad-to-be a crash course in how to change a sodden nappy half blind at 3am in the morning? Amidst the fun, does the gendered nature of the traditional baby shower reflect what parenting looks like today?

With more mums in various forms of paid employment, the reality is that parenting in 2014 is a team effort. According to recent ABS figures, the number of Australian stay-at-home dads has almost doubled in the past decade to 106,000. Even men with full time jobs can change nappies and rock a baby carrier. After I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I – collectively possessing the parenting experience of a whelk – shared most roles (minus the ones that involved lactating nipples).

So it makes sense that an increasing number of women are choosing to include men in their baby celebrations. When Meg was expecting her first child, she and her husband threw a baby shower for both sexes. “It always seemed bizarre to deliberately set out to create an event that sought to exclude a male partner from all things baby before the child was even born,” says the mother-of-two. “While there is a very long way to go, we are increasingly a society that seeks to embrace shared parenting and shared primary care. A single sex celebration simply reinforces a division between male and female domains.”

For other couples, throwing a mixed sex baby shower is a conscious effort to include men in the lead up to birth. Although Mila Kunis bemoans men who speak of ‘our’ pregnancy, dads-to-be can experience the same mix of emotions as their partners, yet have little in the way of support. Thora, a Sydney based mother of two, chose to include her husband in a “joint celebration” so that he would feel more involved in the pregnancy. “My husband felt one step removed from the pregnancy, almost like it wasn’t real,” she says. “A joint shower was another thing he could be a part of to make it more real.”

But before you chuck out the bunting, throwing a mixed shower doesn’t mean boycotting games or decorations. While some couples opt for a casual barbeque (that’s ‘babyque’ on the invitations if you’re feeling cute), others like to get creative. Meg and her husband threw a literary themed afternoon tea. “The food was inspired by our much loved children’s books: turkish delight from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, carrot cake from There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, pavlova from Possum Magic. We encouraged those guests, who felt that they wanted to give, to bring a book to start our baby’s library,” she says. “One week later, our baby was born and it was such a happy memory, that we’d spent that day with all of the people special to us before we were plunged into the wonderful whirlwind of parenthood.”

As for my practical friend, her party was an eclectic mix of potluck dishes, mocktails, chilled music and yes, both men and women. And true to her personality, there was not a rubber duck or painted mason jar to be seen.

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.


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