Mama Maker: Viola, Drawing Us Towards Happiness No Matter What Happens

Viola Sutanto found joy within the four walls of a hospital room where her 9-year-old daughter awaited a bone marrow transplant for aplastic anemia, ultimately defying the odds of a match with her 3-year-old brother.

“They had told us of course we’ll test your son, but just know that sibling matches are a 25% chance, so don’t hold your breath,” Viola recalls her doctors saying at the time. “So when we heard that he was a perfect match, we couldn’t believe it. It was such a miracle.”

Now Viola wants to pay her gratitude forward by publishing Eat Cake for Breakfast and 99 Other Small Acts of Happiness in partnership with The Collective Book Studio and will give a portion of proceeds back to the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. She’s been amazed at the response to her iFundWomen crowdfunding campaign, which has reached all the way to her hometown in Singapore.

“I was really very touched and overwhelmed,” she says. “In the first 24 hours of the campaign, we had raised thousands of dollars. Longtime friends of mine, people in our community and even friends I hadn’t heard from in years—suddenly I’m getting texts and messages from them saying, ‘I cannot believe you went through this’ and ‘here you go, I want 10 copies of your book.’”

Sharing Her Story

“I’ve been pretty isolated for more than a year since Maika was diagnosed, and I’m a very introverted person so I tend to hold it all in,” Viola says. “I realized, gosh, I’ve never even told most of these people what had happened.”

The inspiration for Eat Cake for Breakfast and 99 Other Small Acts of Happiness began when Viola and her daughter came up with sketchbooks as a way to keep themselves occupied during the hospital stay. The “100 days” creative movement had also recently gained popularity.

“So that’s when the drawings started happening,” she said. “We’d pick one thing to draw and it could be just the most mundane thing in the world. I think my first drawing was actually a dinner at the hospital or something silly like that— but over time it just became something fun for us to do.”

Viola started posting the drawings on Instagram and as a former book designer, she naturally began to imagine them taking shape in page form.

“What happened last year made me realize, as a family, how much resilience we have,” she says. “I’m a more optimistic person now than I ever was before, and also very mindful of being grateful for everything that we have.”

Because Maika was immunocompromised following her treatment, Viola’s family entered another year of social distancing and mask-wearing with plenty of practice and perspective.

“I think it really helps to find the silver lining in everything and every day,” she says. “Being able to see that on the upside, while stuck at home I get to spend a lot of time with my kids, which I love. I have the privilege of working from home—some people don’t. There’s just so many things to be grateful for despite everything else that’s happening.”

Viola’s perseverance has helped her carry her sustainable bag and home goods business through the abrupt changes that came earlier this year.

“Our wholesale business plummeted between March and now,” she says. “It’s still very much in recovery mode and that was a real bummer because we had started off the year strong. Every day we’d pick up the phone and get order cancellations and postponements. It was really devastating because most of our accounts are mom and pop stores, or they’re small businesses like mine. We have real relationships with these people and worked with them for years.”

She stays grounded by centering herself with meditation and journaling, before jumping into full days of distance learning and running her now booming e-commerce business. It’s a practice that helped Viola get through her darkest days.

“The only other person who was really in the thick of it with me is my husband and that’s all we talked about,” she says. “Sometimes I just don’t want to talk. I felt like my journal and my meditation practice was my own thing that I could do solo, without having to worry about how everyone else is feeling. And that felt sacred to me.”

No matter what life throws your way, Viola recommends giving yourself a break, taking it one step at a time and focusing on the small things you can start with.

“Try to find the silver lining somewhere,” she says. “There’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s a super long tunnel and these days of not seeing where it’s going to end. But I do believe it will be there.”

“If you just take the time to notice, there’s always something, some small joy to be found.”

Mama Shaker: Shannon, Choosing to Be Present Instead of Perfect

Former competitive gymnast Shannon Stearn is learning how to calm her inner critic and be mindful as she and her two sons grow—while coaching others to do the same.

“For the past 40 years I’ve always talked to myself pretty negatively,” she says. “I’ve been a really hard critic. I’m very much a perfectionist, which made me really successful as an athlete; but, as a person, especially as a mom, there’s a lot to criticize.”

As a gymnast, Shannon was under extreme pressure to maintain a certain weight and constantly felt like she wasn’t good enough. The self-criticism followed her through school and even into a lighthearted form of athleticism as an acrobat in the circus.

“I didn’t want to just perform and have fun,” she recalls. “I wanted to be the best.”

“I’ve always been a really introspective person and I have had a lot of things I’ve had to work through with my own issues from parenting and the way I grew up,” she says.

When Shannon started her family, and all these memories came flooding back in the reflection of her boys, her perspective began to shift.

“I never will be the best mother or wife,” she realized. “So how do I be okay with where I am? Not just okay, but how do I thrive?”

“It just made me think there has to be a different way, especially for moms—we have so much else to take care of, how do we also take care of ourselves in a way that isn’t completely punitive?” she thought.

As founder of Savage Wellness, Shannon empowers her clients to grow stronger, both physically and mentally—no matter what their inner critics say—by helping “make it something where we get to feel proud every step of the way, and focus on every small choice that we’re making because it’s so hard to even make the small choices.”

With her two boys, Shannon now finds it liberating to release the urge to control every outcome.

“Initially it was kind of hard for me to let go of that control,” she says. “What’s kind of fun is watching how they teach me about myself now and give me these little challenges that help me grow as a person.”

Shannon is witnessing her 7-year-old “becoming his own person; he has his own thoughts and ideas, and wants and needs.” So she’s “transitioning into parent now that listens to my child and what he wants, and helps him make a decision versus just telling him what I think is the right thing to do.”

Plus, there’s an emerging dynamic when the two brothers (4 and 7 years old) are together that Shannon says requires a new parenting style for “this third child centered our lives.”

Since her older son’s disposition is so similar to hers, Shannon is working through some of the challenges she faced in childhood, while encouraging his growing independence.

“As he’s becoming more autonomous, and I have to let go, it’s really kind of freeing for me to to learn to trust him,” she says, acknowledging that it’s not easy. “I’m really focused on creating that trusting relationship and letting him feel confident as a person and not just somebody who’s being bossed around.”

Mindfulness is something that Shannon practices with her son when he’s feeling upset or being hard on himself. Together they take deep breaths and do meditation.

“My hope is that he can grow up feeling a lot more peace within himself.”

“I see this little mirror of myself,” she says. “I’m parenting myself through all these challenges that I struggled with and didn’t really come to an understanding of that I needed until I was 35.”

“Here’s my chance to really be able to nurture those things and those frustrations I’ve had with myself,” she says.

Mama Maker: Christy, Embracing Parenthood in the C-Suite

When Christy MacGregor traded her position as a law firm associate for a commute across the street to join her husband’s startup as Chief Parent Officer and General Counsel, the barriers between parenting and career came tumbling down.

“I have a lot more flexibility now and it’s really nice to be able to move back and forth more fluidly between the world of parenting and the world of my job,” she says. “I feel like it’s very integrated. So I wouldn’t necessarily say I have balance, but nothing feels in conflict, like when I was at the law firm.”

The mother of four-year-old twins and a one-year-old now clocks her hours meeting with parents at Colugo, which her husband launched as a direct-to-consumer model made popular by fellow Wharton brainchild Warby Parker, after a disappointing experience stroller-shopping at big box stores.

“It releases a lot of the anxiety of being a working parent because you don’t have to pretend you’re not a parent,” she says, now realizing the noticeable absence of stress as a result of the “lifting of that burden.”

Previously, if one of her kids was sick or she had to go to a doctor’s appointment and “something had to be rescheduled, that would never be the reason,” at the risk of being perceived as “unprofessional.”

Christy’s experience at Colugo has been a stark contrast from day one. She made the transition from advising on the sidelines to a full-time leadership role when her third child was about 6 months old.

“One of the first calls I was on with the team, I had my baby with me and he was making noise,” she says. “Our head of marketing was like, ‘oh, that’s very on brand for us.’”

At the time, she remembers thinking “wow, a whole new world I’m in, it’s such a gift.”

While Christy is the first to point out that she’s lucky to be in a position where kids are core to the company’s mission—and she has childcare and family nearby to help—feeling the urge to apologize for the sound of kids in the background is a scenario any parent who works remotely, or joins calls from home or the car, can relate to.

“Now I’m on calls with parents all the time and you hear a baby crying in the background, or someone needs to get picked up early from school, and we all get that,” she says, adding that it can be “a great way to connect with people” and it “brings you closer together faster.”

Whether or not companies are ready for the rapidly increasing blend of work and parenthood, Christy believes it’s an opportunity to bring out the best in employees, especially when they don’t have to waste energy trying to separate their dual roles.

“More workplaces should recognize that if they let parents be fully themselves at work that’s only going to make them better employees—better team members—because they’re able to be open about where they’re at,” she says, and feel motivated by being “seen at work instead of feeling like they’re having to hide this huge aspect of their identity.”

“I’m now at a company that is so parent-focused that I’m seeing what can be done when you are all in on that,” she says. “And the strength of that, and the way that parenthood can amplify the work you’re doing because you’re much more efficient and focused.”

“You want the work you’re doing to be meaningful in a different way because there are so many other things you’re juggling and you want to feel like this is worth it,” she says. “Your time just means so much more.”

It Takes a Village

Christy believes that a family-friendly, community-oriented culture is not only “hugely beneficial to Colugo,” but it’s good for customers too.

“Our entire customer service team is moms who work part time,” she says. “So they’re able to do flexible, meaningful part-time work, which is what I feel like a lot of parents want instead of having to choose one or the other—to be completely out of the workforce, or to have to work full-time.”

In return, customers get the benefit of hearing from someone who “understands what they’re really asking” when a question comes in about product features, and ultimately “feel like the brand has your back.”

Building a family and a brand has taught Christy the importance of not being too “attached to outcomes,” and instead, “confident that I’m doing my best.”

“I can focus on that instead of trying to focus and feel anxiety about the ultimate result and that has served me well,” she says. “I think that is something I have learned through parenting, that I’ve been able to then apply to my career; and it’s a strength that I don’t know that I would have had certainly thinking back to myself in school, or early on in my career, when I was very attached to the gold star.”

She now finds “peace and fulfillment through the process” of spending her time listening to parents, thinking about how to continually improve their products, and build a strong community over time.

“It’s not something you can just snap your fingers and create,” she says. “So being part of that process, and comfortable with that process, has been something I have been able to take from parenting and apply to my career.”

Christy’s evolution as a mother and Colugo’s innovation as a company go hand-in-hand, thanks in part to the seamless integration between the two.

“We’re creating the products people want, we’re improving the products people have, and we’re building an even stronger community because our mission is to give parents the confidence they need to take on the adventure of parenthood,” she says.

Mama Shaker: Sue, Reminding Us the Kids Will Be Alright

Susan Groner became an empty nester sooner than she expected when her teenage son begged to go to boarding school an hour away. After spending 17 years as a stay-at-home mom of two, volunteer and occasional marketing consultant, she found herself pondering her next chapter.

With her emerging 20/20 hindsight, Sue began coaching parents on how to find more joy in those early years as The Parenting Mentor and went on to write Parenting: 101 Ways to Rock Your World.

“I have the benefit of the retroactive crystal ball, because now I see my kids as pretty together, functioning human beings,” she says. “All the things I worried about were worthless, and such a waste of my time and energy.”

Sue’s kids are in their twenties and thriving in college and grad school. Meanwhile, she’s relocated from Bedford to New York City, where she enjoys going to events and co-working at The Wing.

“I wish I had me 10-15 years ago,” she says. “But I didn’t and not having that was part of the impetus to start The Parenting Mentor.”

“If you could see what your four-year-old was going to be like as a young adult, and see them as a really healthy, active, functioning, kind human being, all the little things that you worry about you wouldn’t have to worry about,” she says.

It was at this point in our conversation that I got a little emotional thinking about how much pressure we put on ourselves to keep our young kids safe and healthy. To get them to eat, put their shoes on and wash their hands. And then we worry about what those battles are doing to them and what the stress is doing to us.

“Maybe just say, ‘you know what, either I accept my kid getting up and running around in between bites or they eat separately,’” she says. “Maybe dinner time just isn’t this wonderful, beautiful thing right now.”

Sue points to the example of tantrums, when our immediate impulse may be to try and stop a meltdown in its tracks. Instead, she encourages us to see our children’s outburst in a more empathetic light.

“Look what they’re going through right now,” she says. “They are so upset about something that this is what they need to do to show me how upset they are.”

It’s easy to forget that our kids need to develop coping skills and learn how to regulate their emotions, and it’s “unrealistic for us to have expectations on little kids that are unfair” she says.

Sue remembers vividly what it was like to worry that her children’s social behavior in kindergarten was indicative of their ability to make friends later in life.

“I was one of those stressed out, anxious moms thinking that how my kids were, at that particular moment in time, was a reflection of what they were going to be like as adults, which is crazy, you know.”

When you look at it objectively, or after the fact, it’s clear as day. But in the moment, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of mom guilt and feel anxiety about our role in shaping their future.

“We need to step back and look at our kids and say this is a human being,” she says. “This is a person with their own thoughts and ideas, and likes and dislikes, and feelings.”

In Sue’s case, she watched her daughter blossom from a young girl who preferred to call the shots to a young woman who now takes trips to Paris on her own.

“I wish someone had said to me, ‘it doesn’t matter—stop projecting your concerns about your child as an adult on your little child,’” she says.

“It’s not our job to make our kids happy all the time. That is a huge, huge burden that we put on ourselves.”

Sue believes that “all of that comes from a really wonderful place of love,” but “it’s the bad evolution of the maternal instinct” acting up and signaling “to protect my child from imminent, life-threatening danger.”

Trying to juggle our own emotional rollercoaster while helping our kids through theirs is a tall order. Fortunately, she says, we can work through our feelings together.

“The more that we as moms express how we’re feeling to our kids—whether it’s the frustration because you can’t find your phone in the moment, or something happened with work and it’s really bringing you down, or you were supposed to go out and the babysitter canceled—you need to be saying to your kids, ‘I’m really disappointed. I was really looking forward to going out with my girlfriends tonight.’”

She says that when they see that 15 minutes later you’ve calmed down, they learn “she felt disappointed, and then she was fine. She felt frustrated, and then she was fine. She was sad and then she was fine.”

“Then they start to see, oh yeah, these are normal feelings,” she says. “Adults have them. Kids have them.”

The other trap Sue sees parents fall into is what she describes as an “engineering project” where aspirations focus on achievement vs. skill development.

“Ultimately, what do you want for your child?” is a question she asks her clients. In response, she often hears, “I want my child to excel. I want my child to be as smart as they can. I want them to use their full potential. I want them to do well in school. I want them to value education. I want them to be physically fit and eat well,” and “the list goes on and on and on.”

“My theory is wait a minute, what if we work on raising kids who are resilient and self reliant with good problem solving skills and good coping mechanisms,” she says, “as opposed to being proficient on the piano. Those are the kids who are going to go into the world and be happy because they’re going to be able to deal with whatever comes their way. They’re going to know that no matter what happens, they have the tools to deal with it.”

Perhaps the most compelling reminder of all is that these intense years with our children are fleeting.

“I do think it’s a healthy way to look at life in terms of chapters,” she says. “As you know, 18-20 years is not that much of your life.”

“A lot of people feel their reason for being becomes their children,” she says. “And then when they’re not needed anymore—and that not needed part happens when your kids are at home, too—you feel useless. I did not want to feel that way,” she says. “And I never did.”

Sue was fortunate to take the cue to shift gears in her own life, as her children became more independent.

“Whether your kid is three, or 13, or even 23, everyone continues to grow and develop and evolve. I mean, I still am,” she says.

When emotions are running high and our worries are spinning out of control, we can pause and appreciate the opportunity we have to watch what emerges for our children—and ourselves.

“It exciting to look at our kids who are little, and say, ‘well, I’ve got the privilege to watch these little human beings develop,’” she says.

“I’m going to sit back as much as I can and just be there for love, and I’m going to see how they start thinking about things, and developing what they like, what they don’t like, and how that changes. What they’re interested in, what they’re not interested in.”

“And that it’s all okay,” says Sue. “It’s all really good.”

Mama Shaker: Jane, Helping Women Bloom as Mothers

It took having a third baby for Dr. Jane Shomof to finally ease into motherhood without the postpartum OCD that clouded the early days with her first, or the inevitable pull when her second came along.

“I feel like we’re all taken by surprise when we bring home that baby,” she says. “Like as much as we can prepare and plan for the birth, I think it’s really what comes after that’s so shocking to our system.”

Any mother can relate to those feelings that come in the middle of the night, when you’re at your most vulnerable, and desperately trying every trick in the book to get your baby back to sleep.

“I think we also have this unrealistic expectation of immediately feeling the same way about our second as we do with our first,” Jane recalls.

“They both turned out to be incredible little humans,” she says, having gained the confidence in her third pregnancy that “whether this person is going to be a boy or a girl, whether they’re going to be challenging or easier, it’s all a phase and it’s all going to be fine, and it’s all going to work out.”

Third time was a charm, and everything clicked—even breastfeeding. After recurring mastitis the first two times around, Jane invested in “the most amazing like Nespresso machine for formula” for her daughter and then “lo and behold, she ended up having breast milk for almost a full year.”

“I really was able to finally enjoy and relish in the moments of having a newborn and taking time away from my older two, if I had to, and spending the time all together.”

“It was a really lovely experience.”

Women Helping Women Succeed

No matter whether it’s a mom’s first baby or fourth, Jane created Bloome to make each transition easier.

“It was birthed from too many women that had to struggle too much, more than they needed to,” she says.

While Jane still sees clients in her private practice, moms who feel overwhelmed by the thought of the leaving the house can benefit from the virtual, on-demand programs she’s developed.

“In our society we have a tendency to wait until we’re really sick or really struggling to ask for support and I think it’s really backwards,” she says, which is why she’s taking a proactive approach with women to talk about what to expect even before the baby comes.

“A lot of women don’t know that these feelings are normal and everybody thinks they’re alone in their misery,” she says.

Mothers have the added challenge of putting our own needs after everyone else’s, and not making ourselves a priority until we reach a boiling point.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re going to help you see that,” she says. “The struggle is temporary.”

“Bloome is here to just help make this incredible life-changing, life-consuming transition enjoyable.”

Mama Maker: Joanne, Keeping Mothers Active in Pregnancy, Postpartum and Beyond

When Joanne Shepherd emerged from a “mum and bubs” mental health unit for postpartum anxiety and depression, returning to an exercise routine was critical to her recovery. As she started running again and struggled to nurse her newborn in a sports bra, she figured there had to be a better option.

“Mums deserve so much more,” she remembers feeling at the time. “We give so much to our kids, and here I am in the backseat of the car trying to change, just so I can feed my baby.”

After looking around for nursing-friendly fitness attire, Joanne was disappointed by what she found. So she set out to create something more “glamorous” for women like herself who really needed postpartum exercise to thrive.

“If I can provide that little bit of something, so that mums can access exercise postnatally to be able to help them cope and survive things, that’s what I want to do,” she recalls.

The mom of three started MummActiv without any design or business experience, but that certainly didn’t limit her creativity and innovation. In fact, she’s been the recipient of fashion industry awards in Australia.

“Everything that you can wear during your pregnancy, you can wear postpartum,” she says. “I still wear the leggings now, every single day, even though I’m like 20 months postpartum, because I designed it so that you can fold down your belly band. So they’ve got some nice extra coverage as well as support through that abdominal region.”

Joanne designs all MummActiv clothing and swimwear to be worn for years to come. Many of her customers have already owned her pieces through multiple pregnancies.

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How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

While building her business, Joanne takes care of her two toddlers and an older son, while continuing to teach primary school two days a week. She juggles it all while her husband works overseas for four weeks at a time.

“Once I put the kids down, I’m so shattered and exhausted but that’s my only opportunity to get real, chunky stuff done,” she says.

Joanne has also made time to get her personal training certificate so she can post online workouts for moms to do with their babies. When fires ravaged homes and wildlife in Australia a few weeks ago, she quickly set up a fundraising effort so proceeds of all sales could go towards providing relief.

“I like to be able to share my story so that mums can realize you can get there,” she says. “You can teach yourself how to do everything that I’ve done in my business.”

As a self-made entrepreneur, she’s learned by reading blogs, listening to podcasts and other online resources “to get myself to where I am right now.”

“I think that’s really important as well because a lot of mums find themselves, postnatally all of a sudden in this void,” she says, faced with the challenge of wanting to care for their children while making a living.

“But there are things that you can do,” she says. “You need a truckload of determination. You need a bucket full of resilience.”

It also helps to have the activewear to keep up with you.

“Anything is possible,” Joanne says.

Mama Maker: Dawn, Bringing Our Struggles Out in the Open

In a room full of multitalented women, Dawn Fable was struck when her accomplished friend shared when “things are speeding wildly out of control,” she wished for a tattooed reminder on her wrist to “pause,” during their word-of-the-month club gathering.

“As we went around and we started sharing our words, all of us were really, really, really struggling–whether it was with our marriages, or finances, or issues with our kids, or climbing the corporate ladder, or starting new businesses,” she says.

“But in looking at each of these women, you would have no idea,” she says about her “career-driven, family-oriented” girlfriends who she describes as “beautiful, not only on the exterior, but such cool people on the interior.”

In that moment, Dawn realized she was not alone, after living with generalized anxiety disorder for as long as she could remember, and especially postpartum after the birth of her third child.

“There’s such a stigma around that where, as women, I think we naturally try to do it all,” she says.

“We’re ashamed of feeling anxious, and so often we’re drowning ourselves in bottles of Kim Crawford or sleeping pills,” she says, while “trying to present ourselves as these perfectly put together women.”

Once Dawn swapped her prescription for a CBD regimen, she says “I started shouting from the rooftops to a lot of my girlfriends who were struggling with similar things, and frankly, complete strangers that I would run into.”

As co-founder of the Press Pause Project, Dawn is on a mission to “share and be super transparent about my very personal struggles with anxiety and postpartum,” she says.

“That’s what’s been the most rewarding part of it, is just sharing my personal experiences,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many women have been like, ‘thank you so much, because I’ve felt so alone, and I felt ashamed.'”

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While the Press Pause Project line can be found in yoga and pilates studios, clothing stores and boutique hotels, Dawn says that most of their business comes directly through online orders.

“I can always tell when people are gathered together over the holidays, or in a big group for something, because all of a sudden, we see this influx of orders,” she says.

The word-of-mouth momentum could also be attributed to quality, given that Dawn and her co-founder Torrey Benson are rigorous about “third party testing and manufacturing practices.” She adds that there are “companies out there that just aren’t doing the right thing for the industry,” as voiced by the FDA recently.

Ultimately, their goal is to give women “permission to press pause.” One of the first steps along the way is to “stop the whispering or shame around anxiety,” she says.

As a result of sharing her own experience and encouraging others to do the same, Dawn is beginning to see a shift in how open women are about what we’re struggling with.

“It’s just become this very cool time where women are feeling more vulnerable and they’re allowing themselves to not be perfect all the time.”