I hope you’re as inspired as I was by my conversation with humanitarian aid & community development consultant (and wife and mom) Jennifer Choi, who shares lessons she’s learned about (and from) making a multi-faceted, multicultural life that matters.
Living a multi-faceted and multicultural life
Jennifer (Eunchim) Choi is a humanitarian aid and development sector consultant of Korean descent, wife to Saula, and mom to three kids under 10. Raising 3rd-culture kids (meaning they don’t belong to or identify with one particular culture) is a lot of fun and challenging at the same time. Jennifer met her Tongan husband while they were both working in East Timor.
Jennifer’s family is also a church family. She is a pastor’s wife as well as a ministry leader herself, and she likes to say she’s in the people business, as a lot of the work she does involves mentoring, counseling, encouraging, hosting, and entertaining people.
In terms of her professional life, Jennifer is the founder, owner, and co-director of The Mangrove Collective, an international humanitarian and development consulting firm she started in 2018 with a few of her ex-colleagues who all have experience working for not-for-profit organizations or organizations in the international development or aid sector. Many of them are working moms who worked full-time. Though they loved their jobs helping people and countries that lacked resources and levels of support, they realized it was hard to feel fulfilled in their family lives after committing full-time hours, passion, energy, and commitment into this intense field of work. So they decided to band together and launch this consultancy together about a year ago.
There are currently 9 consultants within the Collective who take on shorter-term work contracts and assignments from the same types of organizations they used to work for. Many are working moms with children’s ages ranging from newborn to teenage. Jennifer enjoys working with other working moms because it brings a new dynamic and perspective into the work that they do.
A typical day
Jennifer’s family just made an international move from New Zealand to Singapore, so they are still in the process of settling down and re-establishing a routine.
Typically, Jennifer gets up around 6:30-7am and gets the children ready for school. By the time everyone has had breakfast and been sent to school, it’s about 8 am, at which point she starts work. Her youngest is in Kindergarten and his classes are over at 11 am, so she gets about a three-hour window to spend on work.
It takes about an hour to pick him up, settle him in back at home, and feed him lunch. Then she spends another two and a half to three hours on work, then picks up her two older girls from primary school around 3:30 pm.
Once everyone is home, she spends time helping them with homework, playing with them, cooking and eating dinner and generally relaxing until the kids’ bedtime at 8 pm.
Once the kids are in bed, or at least in their bedrooms, she spends time catching up with her husband, surfing social media, checking email, and organizing for the next day. Her day usually comes to an end around 10 pm, but from time to time the nature of her work requires her to stay up until 2 am putting in more hours or even to pull all-nighters to meet deadlines.
When they lived in New Zealand, her son stayed in school all day, so she had an uninterrupted stretch of time to focus on work, but since moving to Singapore, she’s had to adjust her work schedule into two separate blocks of time.
Being a minister’s family, their weekends are packed with activity, so Monday is their day of rest (but the kids still have to go to school).
Biggest productivity challenges
The first and foremost challenge Jennifer faces is the number of roles she has to juggle and the sheer amount of responsibilities that entails: wife, mom, career woman, and ministry leader. She’s spent a number of years struggling with the question of if there’s an aspect of her life she could stop doing, and she’s come to the conclusion that she wants and needs to do all these roles. Then, the question turned into, “How can I manage all four roles?” She’s still in the process of figuring that out.
The second challenge Jennifer has is that she doesn’t have conventional work hours and that she works from home. On the positive side, this arrangement allows her a lot of flexibility and works perfectly for fulfilling her responsibilities as a parent, but it does require a lot of discipline and focus just to make the separate time blocks really work towards producing a good quality outcome.
The third challenge comes from the nature of her work and the fact that her client base is international. The Mangrove Collective does work mainly for developing countries to help them make progress on social and community objectives overseas, which means she has to work around time zone differences. As a case in point, she recently had a three-way call between a colleague in Kenya, a colleague in New Zealand, and herself in Singapore. So she always has to adjust her own work time based on what time she can speak to colleagues or clients on the other side of the globe. As much as she tries to make it work within her daily schedule, sometimes she simply has to go the extra mile and make herself available for her clients and be responsive at non-traditional hours.
Jennifer says that burnout is also common in her line of work. The aid sector is full of people who are passionate about justice, reducing poverty, and improving other people’s lives, so much of the work is very driven by passion, values, and principles. This line of work also requires you to be responsive to emergencies or crises that may happen around the world, so you embrace the pressure and urgency that the crises entail, and that takes a lot out of you.
The other aspect to this line of work is that you witness a lot of horrible things that happen, so one day you may feel like you’re saving the world, and on another, you may feel that nothing you do actually matters or makes a difference.
When I asked her how she sustains herself to cope with the physical, emotional, and psychological demands put on her professionally as well as by responsibilities of running the church, and continues to show up and does her best work, she answered that its been essential for her to make a clear distinction between what her responsibility is (that is, what she can actually do for the various people she serves), what the actual outcome might need to be, and who’s responsible for that outcome. Jennifer has accepted that she cannot always create positive change in other people’s lives. She can pour in her heart, time, attention, love, and care, but once she does her part, the ball is in the others’ court, and it is their responsibility to decide what they want to do with the resources they’ve received.
The quotes below have been encouraging to her because they sum up the wisdom she’s trying to implement in her life.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s griefs.
Do Justly Now, Love Mercy Now, Walk Humbly Now
You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
Tools Jennifer recommends
For work, the Google Suite, which includes Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Calendar, has worked very well for Jennifer to perform her job in The Mangrove Collective.
For operational purposes, she uses Xero, a cloud-based accounting system used by many small businesses in New Zealand that allows your accountant to pull information directly for your accounting needs.
Because her work is project-based and she bills clients hourly, she uses a free time tracking application called Clockify. This works well for her situation because not only can you log your own hours but those of multiple people who are working on the same project collectively as well.
To help schedule meetings across several time zones, she uses World Time Buddy.
As she gets paid in multiple currencies, she uses XE.com and their XE Currency Converter app for calculating exchange rates to invoice clients and to prepare project budgets.
As organized as she is with her business, she’s less diligent about being organized when it comes to her home and family life. She’s realized, though, that “going with the flow” doesn’t work to keep her family in order and she needs to be more “project-management-minded” for home as well, especially with three kids.
To that end, her family recently has started to use a shared calendar app called Hub that syncs to Google Cal or iCal. This contains schedules for every family member. Each evening she’ll spend a few minutes previewing what’s coming up the next day.
She also uses grocery delivery services, which have been a gamer changer for her because dragging three kids to the store would sap all her energy and she wouldn’t even feel like cooking anymore when she got home.
What happens on a day when everything gets away from you?
Jennifer admits this happens more often than she’d like. She used to ‘crash’ a lot more often when her kids were younger. It’s improved as the children got older, but it still does happen. It took her a while to realize that sometimes crashing is inevitable, and it’s not because she’s doing anything wrong, or because she’s not managing well. She tries to remember that there are many uncontrollable factors that can affect her perfectly laid-out plans, so she’s learned to feel okay about days like these.
She also takes the time to analyze why certain days go awry. She tries to stay away from ruminating over what went wrong or viewing days like this from a perfectionist standpoint. Instead, she focuses on identifying the objective cause of things not going her way and on being intentional about addressing it the next time something similar happens.
Jennifer also finds that crying (in a private space so the kids can’t find you) helps to pump the bottled-up emotions out and can be very settling.
Sleep is another big solution. When she feels really deprived of energy, she’ll ask her husband to watch the kids and sort out dinner themselves as she takes a nap for a few hours.
Self-care is another solution she’s trying to work on including more of in her life, but she recognizes that many moms go through a phase where life is all about caring for other people and it feels like a luxury to do something nice for yourself. Still, she’s come to the hard realization that if you don’t care for yourself, no one else will do it for you and that she needs to be responsible for taking care of herself, which could be anything from buying herself a decent pair of shoes to taking time to exercise to taking “introvert time.”
When she first realized that if she didn’t care for herself no one else would, she took it with a lot of sadness. But she’s learned that believing her well-being depended so much on others would make her forever dependent on others and her circumstances and that this realization is actually empowering because she can take the initiative to look after herself and not feel guilty. She now knows that she’s not doing anyone any good if she’s broken, frustrated, unrested, and burnt-out. There’s so much truth in the metaphor of putting your own air-mask on before helping others.
What’s on the horizon for Jennifer?
In the past, Jennifer’s clientele was based in New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific Island region, but now that she’s based in Singapore, she’s looking forward to making contacts with organizations based in Asia. She has a few interesting opportunities lined up that might even take her back to East Timor. She’s reaching out to organizations particularly in Thailand, Indonesia, and Nepal, so she’s excited that this whole new region is opening up to her.
In terms of her family life, her 10th wedding anniversary is coming up this fall, so they’re in the process of planning a special way to celebrate over four to five nights.
Last thoughts from Jennifer on making a life that matters
I would highly recommend that women find other people to talk to about their struggles, like whether you’re on top of things or whether you’re actually living a meaningful life. It’s important to be intentional about seeking out someone with more experience and wisdom who can speak into your life as a mentor or coach. This is something you have to act upon rather than expecting someone to pop up in your life by fate.
Secondly, I would say that it’s ok to crash. It’s liberating to acknowledge that. But the important thing is to bounce back up. Have your moment of crashing, crying, self-pitying, and despair, but think about how to recover well. Train yourself to bounce back up each time more quickly than before and without hurting the people you love.
What do you think?
Connect with Jennifer
More about Jennifer
Jennifer Eunchim Choi is an international development professional who has worked with the United Nations and global non-government organizations like Oxfam and World Vision for the past 13 years. She is of South Korean descent and has lived and worked in various nations around the world in pursuit of her calling; she is currently based in Singapore. She is the Co-Founder and Director of The Mangrove Collective (Limited), a New Zealand and Singapore-based international humanitarian and community development consulting group focusing on the Asia-Pacific region. Jennifer is a pastor’s wife who also serves in various leadership functions in church ministries, and a mother to three beautiful children under the age of 10.
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