Imagine you’re in the middle of completing your PhD when you give birth to not one but triplets.
Meet Haemala Thanasegaran, a trained lawyer by profession and a doting mother by experience. The 49-year-old recently released What Our Mothers Could Have Told Us – A Journey of Self-discovery through Motherhood published by MPH Publishing, chronicling her experience of raising triplets while undertaking a PhD.
Ever since its November 2019 release, the book tugged the hearts of many mothers due to Haemala’s relatable experience. Peppered within the pages are illustrations done by Haemala herself, which many of her readers found endearing. Haemala’s book has since been trending on the Malaysian publishing house’s bestseller list and even had a second reprint on December 2019. Two Australian bookstores, Dymocks and Readings Bookstore, have also stocked up the title on their shelf.
We recently sat down to speak to Haemala on her inspiration for the book and the challenges she faced, especially for a woman transitioning into motherhood. We also asked the author about her parenting style.
Hey there Haemala, perhaps you can start off by sharing a little bit about yourself.
I am 49 years of age, was born in Ipoh, Perak and lived in Kuala Lumpur from the time I attended university, till I migrated to Melbourne in 2015 with my husband and three children. I am a lawyer by profession and have been an academic for the past 20 years, with an LL.B (Hons) from the University of London; LL.M from University of Malaya; and PhD from Monash University.
I was born and raised in Ipoh and am the youngest of 3 children. My brother and sister are 8 and 5 years older than me respectively. I had a happy childhood in which I remember a lot of play. I was a tomboy, initially influenced by my brother’s antics and then pretty much grew up with my neighbours (3 brothers), as my siblings were much older than me. I was active in sports probably due to my brother’s initial influence, playing hockey, rounders and badminton (mainly due to my neighbours). My sister and I have been close from my teens. My parents were loving but never too indulgent which I believe instilled good values and resilience in me.
I was a relatively good student through school, then university (Law school) and beyond but also always enjoyed sport and hanging out with close friends. I don’t have or need too many friends but cherish the ones I have.
I never really planned out my career, going with the flow for the most part. Started out as a practising lawyer for 5 years (always dabbling in some part-time Law tuition), then did my Masters in Law and went into academia full time, which turned out to be a blessing, as the flexibility in academia compared to legal practice enabled me to keep my career, albeit low-key, while raising my children, which was my primary role. I had commenced my PhD in Law a year before I got pregnant with triplets, so, plugging away at it slowly whilst working and raising my children, essentially defined the whole of my thirties.
Then, when we migrated to Australia, things were up in the air again, career-wise, and I had to start afresh by running a Kumon franchise, then dabbling in some part-time teaching at university, and later continuing with writing my book. All my experiences and having to start afresh in my 40s, along with putting pen to paper or in this case, fingers to keyboard, has forced me to introspect and take stock of what’s important to me and my strengths and abilities… basically, what made me tick.
I guess, although I’m trained in the Law and am an academic by profession, what I find myself doing now, is also drawing on my old abilities and interests, namely, writing (which I was fairly good at when in school and sharpened through my academic publications over the years) and sketching which I dabbled in somewhat in my youth and probably the last time, when I sketched 4 drawings for my kids while I was incarcerated in hospital for 2 months before their birth, all of which still hang in their bedrooms. Who knew that this would come in handy, for when I wasn’t able to find a sketch/illustration that I could use for my book cover, I actually had to go back in time almost and try my hand again at my old hobby, which I’m so glad I did, for otherwise, I wouldn’t have come up with the illustration of my kids and me walking (as a depiction of our journey as mothers) on the front cover of the book. I guess, necessity is really the mother of invention.
My aspirations which are rather fluid for now, is to keep doing what I enjoy, which is writing and teaching at university while I continue with my husband to focus on raising our kids to hopefully grow into healthy, happy, responsible, well-adjusted adults; and then taking a more active role in contributing to society in any way I can.
Can you share with me that moment when the doctor announced that you were going to deliver not one but three babies. How did your husband feel and did you two feel like you guys were ill prepared?
On our first trip to the gynae at 4.5 weeks (after testing positive using the home pregnancy kit), we were told that I was expecting twins! We were over the moon, as we had been trying to conceive for 2 years and had even gone for IUI (Intra Uterine Insemination) which is a much less invasive procedure than IVF. But I was told that there was a ‘disintegrating cyst’ in the womb as well at the time.
I went alone for my second scan at 7 weeks due to my husband’s work commitments and was caught completely off guard with the news that I was expecting triplets! It was apparently not a cyst but a foetus instead! I distinctly remember the shock I felt, this from a person who just 3 weeks earlier wanted nothing more than to have a child! I called my husband from the hospital and his reaction was OMG… which pretty much summed up how we felt for the next few weeks.
We read up on the risks of expecting triplets, considered the financial and logistical challenges ahead, considered and dismissed foetal reduction as we couldn’t bring ourselves to decide which foetus to terminate since they were all viable, and finally decided that we had no other choice but to ensure that I carried them safely and as close as possible to full term and worry about the rest later. Once we made that decision within a couple of weeks of the news, we never looked back. They were our blessing, albeit with some challenging circumstances. The fact that my husband and I are for the most part, practical individuals with similar values (albeit very different personalities), I think, has helped.
Do you remember that moment when it hit you, “Hey! I can turn my experiences into a book!”? What was the moment like and what triggered this inspiration?
It didn’t quite happen that way.
It originally started with me feeling strongly about wanting to leave something behind for my children, so that when their time came to parent (if they chose to) they’d do so with eyes wide open. This was about 13 years ago, when they were about 3. I never intended it to be published… it was meant to be my legacy to my children. The first part of the title in fact came to me (like an epiphany) right from the start What Our Mothers Could Have Told Us. But over time, as the writing took shape and my journey evolved, it became something more and I began to realize that it forced me to introspect and examine how I evolved along with my children, which is when I coined the second part of the title: “A Journey of Self-discovery through Motherhood”.
I guess this book was born out of the realisation that although I struggled in my journey (being blessed with one too many at one go), I was also immensely fortunate in many ways, being comfortable socio-economically, having help, the support of family and friends and the dogged resilience instilled in me by my parents. This made me reflect on the women who may not have been as fortunate and how they would cope, in light of the increasing statistics on maternal mental health issues and even self-harming among teenage girls (who’ll be looking at motherhood in a decade or so down the road). That was when I decided that the book could be of use beyond being a legacy to my children, and I tried to get it published.
I understand that you were also working on a thesis and taking care of the triplets. How did you organize your time in writing this book? How long did it take you to write it?
Ever since my late teens and early twenties, I’ve been a fairly organised person, although as a child, I was extremely playful and only did the bare minimum to get by. I guess, like most, as life progressed and my responsibilities increased over time, it provided me with the foundation for what was to come. For example, during my undergraduate years, it seemed as if I just had enough time to get through my exams; then, during my masters, I had to juggle doing it with full time legal practice; then, later, I had to plug away at my PhD for years while working as an academic and raising triplets. This has forced me to manage my time efficiently, which in turn, has enabled me to incorporate time for writing whenever I could, after tending to my responsibilities at work and the home front.
The writing process itself was long, not because it was challenging. On the contrary, when I really started writing a few years ago, it flowed so easily, as I was writing about life and a topic close to my heart. It took a long time because I had a lot on my plate for some time, coping with three babies, then toddlers, then young children, whilst in full time employment and completing my PhD. Researching and writing my thesis took up all of my ‘free’ time. I only really had time to keep notes of events and thoughts which I had over the years, for future reference, so that I could weave it all together when time permitted. That was the challenging part, not being able to write what I really wanted to at that time, but then again, the forced wait allowed my journey to evolve before any serious writing could take shape. I guess, the discipline needed to complete my PhD thesis, taught me this skill of filing away thoughts, events and experiences under possible headings, to be articulated later. It took me about 12 years to complete the book.
Growing up, my mother would often say, “Wait until you become a parent, then you’ll know.” What is one surprising thing you discovered that you could finally relate with your mum and dad after you became a mother?
This is a tough one, as my mum never really said much about parenting to me. She just did it and was and is a wonderful mum and grandmother. It was always my dad who vocalised things in our family, as language and expression have always been his thing. My parents travelled on trips abroad every few years when we were growing up, as my dad wanted to see the world while he was still hail and hearty and he always brought home plaques and memorabilia which he put up around the house.
For example, ‘Home is the Place where we Grumble the Most but are Treated the Best’; “Taste makes Waist” which was a fridge magnet; and my personal favourite… “Avenge Yourself: Live Long Enough to be a Problem to your Children!”
As kids, we thought our dad was a tad bit dramatic in his expressions; as young adults, we saw the humour in it; and as a parent of teenagers now, I can relate to the witty wisdom in it… although he’s never really been a problem to us (even at 87), contrary to his ambitions!
As a parent myself, I do find myself wondering if I’m a good parent or not. There are days when you feel really down in the pits and there are days that are simply amazing. What do you do on days when you find yourself questioning your own parenting skills?
Like most parents, I often question my parenting skills. I think this is inevitable for self-improvement. Doubt is the catalyst for growth. When I feel that I’ve done something right, I notice that my enjoyment of it is for a far shorter period than when I’m critical of myself when I’ve goofed up. This keeps me on my toes, I guess. I just question my parenting skills when they are questionable, try to deal with it and then, make peace with it and move on. It’s a never-ending process as far as I’m concerned and I’ve tried to be honest about this and some of my decisions, in the book, which my readers seem to appreciate and find themselves able to relate to, based on the feedback I’ve received.
Can you describe your parenting style?
We were sure that we wanted kids and were financially and emotionally prepared for it. I read up a lot on parenting and we wanted to be loving, thoughtful and deliberate parents, while conscious of averting tiger parenting. The reality of having to put this into practice when raising triplets, was certainly a challenge, but I believe we stuck to the course for the most part (some mistakes along the way of course, which I’ve highlighted in the book).
I have definitely become more relaxed as the kids grew older. You’re normally most cautious with your first born, as you’re all excited, full of energy and inexperienced. Then you tend to be more relaxed with your subsequent children, as there are more demands on your time and you’re also more comfortable with what needs to be done, having done it before; not to mention, are older and possibly a little exhausted. In my case, they were all my first born and every stage of raising them has been the first for my husband and I. Also, because it was always very difficult to monitor and care for three kids of the same age (but of different temperaments) at the same time, I was very cautious about their safety when they were younger. So, I guess, my parenting style is one of cautiousness (sometimes overly) when it came to their safety and particular about instilling good values in them from young, with a lot of fun, games/sports/reading and expression of love and acceptance infused.
What do you think was the hardest part when it came to writing the book?
As I mentioned above, it was not hard at all to write the book, as it evolved through a labour of love. The hard part was in fact, not being able to work on it after the idea first came to me years ago, due to having too much on my plate for many years. This forced wait in turn, served a valuable purpose which I didn’t realise at the time, namely, my evolution as an individual through the process of motherhood, well into my kids’ teens. I’ve tried my best to remain honest in writing my memoir of self-discovery through motherhood (with humour infused of course), and I guess, for an introvert like me, that was tough. Oxymoronic in fact, to have it out there for all to read. It certainly shocked those who know me well. And since my kids are in their teens (it was published in November 2019), I also had to run it by them, to see if they were alright with it, as there’s personal stuff about them too in the book. They did find it a bit confronting but felt that their issues were not very different from the norm and also, they felt that they could live with the way in which I wrote it, i.e. honest yet hopeful.
Is this book self-published? If so, why did you choose to go down this route. If it isn’t self-published, perhaps can share a little in the process it took you to convince the publishers.
No, it was published by MPH Publishing and is available in MPH bookstores across Malaysia and Singapore and other major bookstores there. Some bookstores in Melbourne are also carrying it, i.e. Dymocks (Melbourne CBD, Chadstone, Richmond & Point Cook) and Readings (St Kilda); and it’s available online on MPH Publishing’s website and Readings.
This was my fist non-academic publication. I have published a number of legal journal articles and a book on insurance and takaful with Springer in 2016 but that process is very different. Hence, I just wrote to a number of international publishers, primarily in Australia (as that’s where I currently reside), and a few in the UK and US, and to MPH in Malaysia, as the book in its current form is for an English-speaking audience. It was then that I realised that trying to get one’s work published is a very lonely process and much harder than writing itself, as most publishers don’t accept submissions of ‘unsolicited’ manuscripts. I just kept sending out my pitch (why my book was a good read and could make a difference in the lives of mothers of all ages, mothers-to-be, young women, etc, basically, all women) with my (edited) manuscript, and waited, while carrying on with work and family life in as normal a manner as possible. Lo and behold, three months later, MPH responded and said they loved it and would like to publish it! I guess, unless one knows someone in the publishing business, it is essentially down to luck, timing, good writing, a timely topic, perseverance and managing expectations… and did I say luck?
What is your suggestion to parents who wish to turn their experiences into a book?
I’m not quite sure if I’m the right person to offer advice on this, as my own road to publication was kind of accidental. As I said, I never really intended to have the book published at first. I guess, if one writes on a topic dear to one’s heart which has the potential to appeal to and help others, then, that in itself should be cathartic and anything else (like publication) that comes out of it, would be a welcome bonus! That might be a positive way to view the whole process whilst managing expectations.
Cover image by Haemala Thanasegaran.