It's Monday afternoon, and Shahirah Mohd Hassan is in the middle of quashing a titanic tantrum. Her daughter Nabeeha, four, is cradled on her lap, filling the house with the force of her wails. Her sister Salsabilah, eight, tries not to roll her eyes, gingerly adjusting the toy tiara on her head.
“This happens every day,” Shahirah says, sighing. Nabeeha’s sobs are subsiding, but she sniffles as she accuses her brother Saiful, one, of starting the fight. The little boy has disappeared into another corner of the hall, escaping his sister’s wrath.
“The struggle is real,” Shahirah says, rocking her daughter back and forth. “It’s not easy to take care of the children while trying to work.”
Her ‘office’ is sprawled around the hall: a mountain of breast pumps and nursing products, encased in boxes, are stacked high on the coffee table, while her laptop and handphone are on the dining table.
The 30-year-old mother runs her online business from home, selling breastfeeding and baby products. Once a doctor, she retired from practice before she had her second child.
“I wanted more time with my children,” she says. “After I graduated, I was on-call for 36 hours at a stretch. I didn’t have any time to spend with my oldest daughter. After two years, I decided to quit.”
Like many Malaysian women, Shahirah faced the eternal dilemma of the working mother: choosing between work and staying home with the kids. A study by the Penang Institute in 2015 revealed that mothers exit the workforce from as young as 30 to raise their children. The World Bank reported in 2012 that, second to India, Malaysia has the lowest female employment rate in Asia.
In the prevailing economic climate, mothers leaving the workforce can spell financial trouble for families, although with the rising cost of childcare, it’s hardly the easiest decision to make.
But a new breed of mothers – mumpreneurs, a neologism coined to describe these savvy entrepreneurs – have successfully combined their business acumen with the demands of motherhood. Self-employed and digitally literate, they start small businesses and enter the online marketplace. From organic soaps to breast pumps, they sell a broad range of products, all while working from home and financially contributing to the family.
“It’s mostly about timing,” Shahirah says, “because you have to take time to watch the kids, but also find time to get the work done. When I was working in the hospital, I had that ‘set’ time to focus on work. Now, I have to make the time to do both.”
“It’s important to have a routine,” she says. Since Eve Love debuted in 2012, the mother has worked hard at her business, elated when sales began to soar. Still, she sticks to a rigorous routine, placing maternal duty first.
In the mornings, she drops the kids off at school. When she arrives home, she clocks in for the day, either promoting products online or updating the website. Once the children are down for their naps, she grabs her laptop and works beside them. At night, when the boisterous trio are tucked in bed, she processes orders and keeps track of stock.
“While you get to spend more time with your children,” Shahirah says, “the real challenge is dividing your attention between work and family.”
Tough balancing act
Ratna Tini Adnan, 39, understands the juggling act, the need to delicately balance the tightrope of work and family. For 14 years, she held managerial positions at Pizza Hut and Aeon Credit Service. On the side, the enterprising mother-of-three sold hijabs and shawls to colleagues.
For years, she nurtured her entrepreneurial spirit, harbouring the dream of being her own boss. In 2014, she quit her day job and launched Hijab for Good (then known as Madeenda), an online business selling shawls.
“I saw a gap in the market with Muslimah fashion,” she reveals. “I like longer and wider shawls myself, and I noticed there weren’t many options in the market.”
Seizing the opportunity, she based her designs on what she wanted to wear, outsourcing the tailoring to manufacturers.
“We got good responses,” she says proudly. “We went out for events, and the feedback was good. People were buying from the website.”
But in 2015, when the economy took a turn for the worse, business slowed down. The unflappable businesswoman soldiered on, receiving aid for marketing and branding from Ibu Nakhoda Hidup, a programme that helps mothers grow their businesses. Jointly organised by Procter and Gamble (P&G), Mydin, and Women:girls, the programme’s advisors encouraged her to dream bigger and bolder.
“They made me see that I could expand further, that I could look beyond my own business,” she says. In a stroke of serendipity, she met a woman who is now her business partner, someone as passionate about giving back to the community as she is.
“So in September 2015, we relaunched as Hijab for Good, a social enterprise,” Ratna explains. “We still sell hijabs and shawls, now from other brands as well, but we have a social mission to help marginalised youth by giving them marketable skills.”
Throughout the two-year journey, there have been financial bumps along the way, and she’s well aware that consumers can be fickle and that profits fluctuate. But she wants her children to be inspired by her example, to doggedly pursue their dreams in the face of great odds.
“I want to motivate my children,” she says, “to be an inspiration for them. If they see how hard I work at my own business, it can be a model for them in the future.”
Her youngest son Rayyan, four, darts into the room. He clambers up to his mother’s lap, clutching a fistful of hand-drawn robots. He shuffles through them excitedly, happy to show off his handiwork.
“When you work at home,” she says, “you have to treat it as though you’re working professionally, not waste time doing household chores! You need to draw borders, think and plan ahead.”
“You know,” she adds, “being my own boss has been a rollercoaster ride. I am my own motivator. I have to lift myself up. My kids are my greater purpose – I couldn’t bear to quit or give up, because then what would happen to them?”
Best of both worlds
At Shahirah’s house, a peaceful calm has descended. Little Saiful, the alleged instigator, has pulled off a sock and flung it to the floor. The impish charmer wants his mother’s attention, but wriggles away during the photo session.
“It’s their naptime now,” Shahirah says, still soothing Nabeeha. The little girl’s body shakes with the last of her sobs. “Go up first, please,” she tells eldest daughter Salsabilah, who dutifully follows her baby brother up the stairs.
“For me, my solution to keep working and to be with my children is to work at my business,” she muses. She doesn’t plan to return to medical practice, since she enjoys what she does now. Moreover, as a certified lactation counsellor, she offers breastfeeding advice to her clients.
She relishes the freedom she has, the new adventure life has thrown her way. She hasn’t buried her dream of being a doctor, still tending to the nursing needs of customers. For her, it’s as fulfilling as long shifts at the hospital.
“I think I get the best of both worlds,” she explains. “I get to assist patients and clients in getting healthy through breastfeeding, which includes their children. And I also get to spend time with my family.”
As a woman and mother, owning and running her business is doubly empowering. She is her own boss, and shoulders all the responsibilities of the position.
“I find it empowering to be my own boss,” she says. “I find that I can work fewer hours and be more productive.”
“And when my kids are sick,” she continues, rubbing her daughter’s back, “I don’t have to apply for leave! That’s pretty empowering.”