Navigating the Pressures of Modern Marriage as a Working Woman
In this captivating Spotlight, we had the privilege of interviewing Amelie Tan, who is based in London and works at environmental non-profit, CDP. Her career journey is inspiring as she shares her experience of leaving a toxic work environment and making a career change. However, this interview focuses more on her personal life than a career talk. Amelie opens up about her personal life, including her experiences as a married woman who travels with her husband for his career. We discuss her strategies for maintaining a healthy work-life balance, the rewards and challenges of being in a partnership, and her decision to remain child-free. Moreover, she provides valuable insights into her beliefs and approaches to dealing with mental health. For us personally, this Spotlight is not only informative but also deeply personal and inspiring.
What are some reasons you might decide to change careers, and how can you know if it's the right choice for you?
I spent ten years in hospitality, working in front-line operations, HR, and marketing, before spending about three years in digital marketing, all while staying in the same industry. Eventually, I felt jaded about the subject matter I was dealing with, the overall work culture, and questioned whether I could see myself doing it for the rest of my working life. I was tired of promoting hedonic consumption by creating content about travel destinations, listicles for hotel blogs, and sifting through user-generated content to generate clicks. I also felt exhausted by dealing with petty work politics and increasingly viewed my work as frivolous and not so personally meaningful anymore.
What put things in perspective for me was an episode of stress-induced alopecia that happened in 2016, which thankfully recovered after months of painful scalp injections. I remember feeling patches of smooth skin on my scalp and seeing more hair fall than usual. It felt like someone punched me in the gut and pulled me deep into an abyss in a split second. This made me evaluate what I wanted for myself, especially after I learned that most female alopecia diagnosed in Singapore (and possibly other places, too) were induced by stress. I took this as a sign that being in a toxic work environment was not worth sacrificing my mental and physical health, so I decided to leave.
In today's era of never-ending pressure, choosing work that aligns with personal values is essential. Otherwise, it takes a lot of denial and learned sociopathy to keep doing a job that goes contrary to one's beliefs in the long term. Even if one manages to pull this off, the impact on mental well-being won't justify it. Therefore, prioritising mental and physical health over career goals and societal expectations is crucial.
As a wife, how can you navigate the expectations and pressures of marriage and maintain a healthy relationship with your partner?
As a married woman in 2023, my experience is shaped by a variety of factors, such as cultural background, family expectations, and learned narratives about womanhood. To me, marriage is about committing to a lifelong partnership with my spouse, and this commitment is solely between us. I feel accountable to my husband for taking a chance on me and allowing me to witness his daily life. We maintain a healthy marriage through open communication, compassion, and mutual respect while fulfilling family obligations as needed.
To navigate potential conflicts, we have developed a communication system where we have a word that signals a serious conversation that needs to take place. This helps my husband, who uses humor to avoid difficult conversations and allows us to engage in moments of honesty and vulnerability when things are not going well. This system has helped us understand each other better, and as we continue to grow and evolve as individuals, we are constantly learning and unlearning about ourselves and each other. Communication is essential in any relationship; ours has been crucial to maintaining a healthy marriage.
Why might you choose not to have children, and how can you communicate this decision to others without facing criticism or judgement?
I've said for many years that I don't subscribe to the idea of marriage, and then I got married. I've also said for many years I don't want to have children, so people expect me to change my mind on that. However, I'm close to 40 now and feel stronger about being child-free every year. The difference is that marriage is ultimately a practical and economic arrangement. We get tax benefits for being a legally* married couple, and my dependent visa has allowed me to work in Hong Kong and the UK without needing a company to sponsor me, which I thank my husband for.
On the other hand, having a child would dramatically change my priorities around a new family member who won't be fully independent until I'm close to retirement age. I greatly admire friends and family who decide to take up the responsibility of parenthood and personally sacrifice their time, energy, and resources to bring up children with no guarantee that things will always turn out ok. It's a huge gamble and emotional investment, and I don't feel that biological clock that people talk about, so it's a no-brainer.
My response to people who ask would be that I prefer not to bring more children into the world when so many orphans and kids need homes already. Consider also the environmental impacts of bringing another human into being to consume more resources when the planetary limit is already overstretched. It helps that I already have nephews and nieces, so I don't feel like I'm missing out on the experience of having kids in my extended family. I'll be the "cool" aunt who keeps cats. As for my husband, he says, "It's your (my) body, and you (I) decide what you (I) want to do with it." He also doesn't feel the need to produce an "heir for the family" or any pressures like that, which helps too.
Keeping a consistent and factual narrative when conversing with people who wonder whether we want kids helps normalize the idea (of not wanting them), especially my parents, who have accepted and respected our decision. They even have come to appreciate the joy of traveling with us without worrying about the safety and comfort of little kids tagging along. I also find it helpful to use the opportunity to have a wider conversation around fostering, adoption, and impacts beyond the nuclear family where children are concerned. However, sometimes people are not interested in exploring these ideas, which is fine. At least they stop asking. :)
*I wish it was the same for all couples, and I recognize my privilege as a cisgender straight woman in a world that chooses not to acknowledge the existence and rights of non-heterosexual teams. However, I hope the social norm of what constitutes a marriage/life partnership will change soon.
How can you maintain a balanced and fulfilling lifestyle while following your partner's career and potentially moving to different countries?
When a couple moves cities together (we’ve done it twice now), there is bound to be some compromise on someone’s career, and we’ve taken the practical decision to prioritize his career over mine because it’s better paying and easier to find opportunities where the employer is willing to sponsor both our visas together. As I shared earlier, I was looking for a career change, and the initial “getting married and moving out of Singapore” plan appealed to my own desire to take a break before looking for something more meaningful. My husband also didn’t plan on staying in Singapore permanently and wanted to try living in a different region to have another base to explore more places, so that definitely helped to justify the “why” of our plans to move.
In our private lives, we have separate interests that we partake in without the other person tagging along - he has his basketball and voracious reading (follow @lyoncheu on Instagram to read his thoughts on titles!). I have my animal charity volunteering, preference for light hearted chick lit and a more active social calendar. It is important to retain our individuality while enjoying the perks of coupledom without feeling like we need to embody this “wife” or “husband” persona 24/7. I decided to book a solo trip this spring precisely to explore who I am now, as opposed to who I was before COVID, before marriage, and before volunteering and working in the third sector.
However, we also agree on things we prioritise as a couple, like discovering new cities and restaurants together as much as we can, because we really like the companionship we have with each other and want to ensure an element of adventure in our relationship. Other than that, I think it also helps to have a solid level of trust and openness on what happens when we’re not with each other.
What effective mindfulness techniques can you use during times of stress or anxiety, and how can they help improve your overall mental health and wellbeing?
I came across a great TED talk by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal on how to make stress your friend. The main takeaway is to see stress as a signal from your body preparing you for battle instead of treating it as something negative and holding you captive. I’ve been using this thought process since then to manage my anxiety and stress levels, and listen to my body when it tells me to rest when it needs to. I also have been lucky to take a sabbatical when we moved to Hong Kong and eventually found a job in an environmental non-profit that I’ve been working for since 2018 that aligned with my new career goal of doing meaningful work. The career switch also made me rethink work life balance and checking in on my mental and physical well being. Health should always come first - there is no room for negotiation.
I definitely also recommend therapy not only as a way to unburden ourselves with emotions that we may not necessarily want to unload onto friends and family, but also to dive deeper into how our childhoods and formative years shape how we see ourselves and other people in our lives. My therapy sessions helped me be kinder to myself and be compassionate about what I saw as my failings. I also use the learnings to move forward while remembering how my past helped or hurt my emotional and mental wellbeing.
Last but not least, keeping a close group of friends who I can reach out to when I want to talk things out (not with my husband) and be each other’s cheerleaders is something I cherish very much. I also learned that social cohesion enhances longevity - a sense of belonging in a community avoids us feeling alienated and alone in our existence, and women are especially good at maintaining this! So make sure you make an effort to stay connected with friends - they literally help us live longer!