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On creative parenting: Debby Yu - Esse

On creative parenting: Debby Yu

The first time we met Debby was at a whisky tasting event, and it was her first ‘night-out’ as a new mum. It was a chance encounter and we immediately clicked when we spent the evening chatting away about her life as a new mum and creative pursuits. 

Fast forward to 2 years later, and Debby is a mum of two beautiful girls, Ray and Mika. Debby runs Studio Dam full time with her husband, Matthijs, and recently launched another homeware brand, EverCasa. Working from home and their studio since the inception of Studio Dam, she juggles creative work, client management and raising their daughters, working throughout the day, constantly burning the candle at both ends. 

Still, she is a livewire filled with boundless energy, as she navigates through her ‘infinite day’ with fluidity - multi-tasking and jumping from design work to client meetings, household chores to motherhood duties.

Image on left: Debby, Ray and Mika wear the Balloon Dress.
Image on right: Debby wears the Modern Gypsy Blouse. Ray and Mika wears the for Pēpi Modern Gypsy Top.

We chat with Debby who shares her creative perspective on motherhood, raising children, and how her work ethic has passed on to her daughters, Ray and Mika.

Tell us more about yourself and how you embarked on your creative journey.

I started my creative journey at 15 or 16 years old. I knew I wanted to design, do something creative. So I started with advertising and graphic design but felt like something was missing. I wanted to do something more hands-on, so that was when I furthered my studies overseas and picked up product design. After which I came back to Singapore and worked at my aunt’s bakery, Baker’s Well. Following that stint, Matthijs and I started Studio Dam. That was in 2017.

That’s been a journey. Kudos to pursuing your passion from such a young age.

I think it’s really important to do what you love, and I think I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love and still have time with our kids. And because I’m doing what I love, I don’t feel like I’m working at all. I don’t feel like it is a chore at all. I don’t think you wouldn’t put your A-game forward every day if it’s not something you love. 

Also, because I love what I do, I feel like I have an infinite amount of time. Like, people say they want to retire by 50, and now we’re 30, so that essentially gives us another 20 working years. I don’t feel like there’s a clock ticking. I don’t feel like I need to achieve something in the next 20 years. I feel like, ‘Ok, I can do this for a long time, let’s just enjoy this.’.

That’s a very refreshing perspective. And doing what you love and giving your all - translates to your journey through motherhood too.

A lot of parents ask me, ‘So how do you do it?’ You’re a mum, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a business owner. I think perspective is everything, and being ready to be a parent is a big part of that. It’s not monetary. It’s about the time you need to put in. Everybody says it’s a sacrifice, but I felt like, when I was pregnant, it was such a nice thing to receive a baby, to be able to have a baby. 

So both Matthijs and I were mentally prepared. When we are doing things for our kids, we both don’t feel like it’s a compromise at all. ‘[It isn’t like] Oh, I can’t go out with my friends.’ I don’t feel like motherhood has compromised my other experiences. There’s a time for something in every part of our lives. So now, I feel like it’s my time to be a mum, run my business. And they need us because they are just babies, and they are only young once. 

We just celebrated Ray’s birthday and I was just thinking how they will have lesser and lesser birthday time with us as they grow older. It’s actually right now that they want everything from us, so I better treasure it before they grow older and miss this part of their lives.

How has motherhood changed you?

I’ve really enjoyed the journey with the girls, and it has made me a better creative. I make decisions much faster and it trained me to go with my gut feeling. Things that I would usually need 8 hours to do would now only take me 2 hours. I’m constantly working in my head so when I sit down and work, I know exactly what I want to execute and do.

That’s actually a good segue into the next question, I wanted to ask how you run your own business and how you juggled this with your mum duties in Ray and Mika’s early years. Tell us what that experience was like and what that looked like on a day-to-day basis. 

I was pulling really crazy hours! Now we have 2 interns, so they help a lot. I’m still pulling quite crazy hours but sometimes my body just shuts down. Ray was actually a very easy baby. I read up a lot about sleep training before she was born and somehow Ray was really easy to train. She could sleep all the way through from 8 weeks. I would wake her up to feed, and she would go back to sleep immediately, so there’s not much need to coo her, and I could get back to my work.

I do all the admin in the day -  sending emails, housework and stuff like that. Because when it comes to taking care of a child, you only have snippets of time, and you don’t have the luxury of 2-3 hours of continuous time.

At night, I work from 9pm to 3am because I have undivided attention for my creative work and because that needs a lot of uninterrupted time. That’s how I split my day - although I know it’s not really a lasting solution cause I can’t go on like that forever. Right now things are slowly picking up, so we can expand our team and get some help. That’s nice.

When she was younger, we brought Ray to all our meetings, and she was a very obedient girl - she would just sit there, listen to us and do her own thing. I totally appreciate that not every kid is like that and we just struck the lottery.

When Ray went to school, Mika was born, and they’re just 18 months apart. Mika is a different character. She needs more attention, therefore I actually enrolled her into school at a younger age.

It’s tiring, but it’s a joy to watch them while I work. I would see them doing something and then I see their minds moving in a certain way. I feel like I’m very lucky to witness those things. 

Was there a particular time when they were growing up when you felt like time was going by really quickly, and you really needed to hang on to each and every one of those moments and make the most out of them?

Because Matthijs and I are doing it together 24/7, we have good synergy. In the kids’ eyes, it’s always papa and mama together and the kids are very aware. So if we need to take time for ourselves, we do just that. I think it’s very important to find a partner who can vibe with you, so we weigh in a lot together. If he’s experiencing something with the girls and I’m not, he will keep me updated, so it’s nice.

It’s a shared experience.

I feel like we’re blessed in that way.

What are some of the activities that you enjoy sharing with Ray and Mika?

Oh my god, they always see us working! I feel so bad. Because we take care of them, we do everything together. I shower them, I feed them, I dry their hair. As of now, it’s really day-to-day stuff because they spend the full day in school. In the mornings, we try to have breakfast together. In Singapore, a lot of families have helpers and helpers look after the kids.

We make the day-to-day routines an activity. For example, if they have to take a shower, we do it together as an activity and I try to crack jokes. Even on weekends, we’ll stay at home and play music, and we’ll dance in front of them, and they’ll dance. The three of us will be fooling around and annoying Matthjis. It’s really the day-to-day stuff but I don’t take it for granted.

That’s really nice.

Kids are a blank canvas and they suck up energy very well, both the good energy and bad energy. So Matthijs and I try to keep a good energy around them no matter how stressful our lives are. We try our best to focus on them. Obviously I’m not always a good role model, but as long as we try to create a good synergy, they are basking in our happiness.

Ray wears the for Pēpi Modern Gypsy Top and Relaxed Drawstring Capri. Mika wears the for Pēpi Balloon Dress.

What are some of Ray and Mika’s favourite playtime activities?

As of now - because it changes quite a fair bit from time to time - Ray likes to mimic her teachers, she likes to play pretend. But she’s also very aware and always looking out for Mika. Mika is all over the place. Ray is more reserved and more shy, more introverted. Mika sleeps in a crib, and really likes to go to her sister’s bed to roll around and chill out when her sister’s not looking.

And I wanted to ask, because you and Matthijs are really creative, do you think that translates into the way Ray and Mika are brought up? Are there any special things you do together to share moments of creativity?

I think for Ray, especially for Ray, because we had more time when she was younger, we would give her paper and crayons to draw on. She has amassed a lot of drawings. Recently for her 3rd birthday, we actually printed her drawings on transfer paper and ironed them on t-shirts and personalised it as gifts for all her friends in class. The gifts had Ray’s name on it and a message like, ‘Thank you for being my friend.’. We made about 27 of those. She was really proud because it’s her drawings. We want to instill a sense of ownership into our girls at a young age. I can’t really say if it’s going to make a difference – only time can tell, but even her teacher was saying that it was a really meaningful gift.

What are some significant milestones that you’ve shared together with Ray and Mika over the years?

There are many, but one was when we travelled with Ray overseas for the first time -  she was just shy of 12 weeks old and we flew to Amsterdam to see Matthijs’ family. I learnt to go with the flow, not stress out too much about it, and enjoy the trip. Another milestone was when the 4 of us travelled to Greece when Mika was just 18 weeks old.

What’s one advice that you’d give about motherhood?

Keep your sanity - that’s very important. I always tell new mums, a happy mum equals a happy baby. Okay, so I’m still lacking self-care wise; the only thing I do for self-care is my hair cut and recently I started doing pedicures. Other than that, it’s always the kids or running my business. But I’m generally happy – I feel that’s important.

Encapsulating this moment in time – what is a message you’d like to leave for Ray and Mika?

Oh my god this is nice, especially when I read this in 20 years. I think what I would like to tell them is to always stay curious, and to find a passion to pursue and never back down till you get what you want (in a rightful way of course). Have no qualms. Another thing that I want to teach them is that time is also a currency, not just money. And also, kinship is a currency.

Special thanks to
Monica Lie for capturing these portraits and heartiest thanks to Debby, Ray and Mika for being a part of this photoshoot. Click to learn more about her work for Studio Dam and EverCasa.

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