Y21 WOMAN #7 / SERENE MAI
Y21: Why did you decide to start @heartstringsincolours?
Serene: To be honest, it was never in my plan to start a business. In fact back in 2020, at the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, I was going through a number of challenges and starting a business was the last thing on my mind. I was diagnosed with kidney failure, we were up to our necks selling our home, moving and renovating our new home, preparing our daughter for primary 1, getting used to working from home and home-based learning, while managing a job in healthcare. I quit my job and turned to painting as a hobby to de-stress, and through a series of serendipitous events, the hobby turned into a small business. I saw this career break as an opportunity to do things I’ve been wanting to but never had a chance to. On the contrary, running a business on my own is more intense than a corporate job, but because it is enjoyable and brought me much satisfaction, I relished the learning experience and being able to meet kind people along the way.
Y21: What does your typical day look like?
Serene: Currently, I am back to holding a full-time job. Weekdays start early at 6.30am, when I would send my daughter to school, drop my husband off at the train station, and start my work at 7.30am. When the work day is up, I will rush home to pick my daughter from student care, spend the evening with my family, go through any homework with my child, catch a quick television break before retiring to bed. Weekends are more exciting – I would try to find activities for the family to enjoy, preferably something educational and fun for the kiddo!
Y21: What challenges do you face in your day-to-day life?
Serene: My challenges are no different from any other adult – we all have our unique set of challenges – be it stay-home mums and dads, working mums, those who choose to take a career break. I would like to say that my regular medical appointments, lack of external help, having to manage multiple work and home schedules and arrangements, are mere inconveniences that can be handled with good time management, an understanding boss, good teamwork between me and my husband, and a responsible, grateful and positive attitude.
Y21: Where do you look for creative inspiration?
Serene: I draw inspiration from nature, stories and philosophy – which is what my art is based a lot on. For instance, I was inspired by the lifespan and beauty of a butterfly when I was once asked to paint for someone who suffered from a miscarriage. What I drew from the vision (pun intended), was that although the pregnancy was fleeting, it was beautiful while it lasted. Another instance is the art of Kintsugi – which was ordered by a friend of mine who sadly passed on shortly after – which shows that brokenness can be even more beautiful when restored. In my daily work and interactions with others, stories touch me deeply. As my key strength is Empathy, stories have the ability to spur me to do more and do things more creatively. Of course, observing and learning from people who are better than me in different areas motivates me to think further beyond the boundaries of my box.
Y21: What's your personal style?
Serene: Like my art, my style is mostly soft, simple, practical. I like gentle, flowy textures and colours – like watercolour. In terms of fashion, I usually go for designs that accentuates my figure – V neck to make my torso look longer and hence taller; puffy sleeves to widen my narrow shoulders; dresses cinched at the waist to look slim; long skirts or dresses for the elegance and pointed heels for the illusion of tallness. I like clothes and accessories that are practical – my friends know that I go crazy when I discover dresses with pockets, and that is also the reason why I avoid branded leather bags as they are heavy.
Y21: What makes you happy?
Serene: What makes me really happy is when I spend a fun, quality and meaningful day with my loved ones. It also makes me extremely happy when my daughter says things that touches my heart – just today, as we were talking about how we couldn’t have homecooked dinner at home because both Daddy and I are working, she offered to cook for us in future when she is older, because she knows that we will be tired after a whole day at work. When I responded that wouldn’t she be tired too after school, she said, “My love for you and Daddy is more than being tired.” That really melted my heart.
Y21: What does freedom mean to you?
Serene: Freedom to me is being totally free of others’ and your own negative opinions and expectations, and being able to truly go with the flow. Many people experience mental issues because of skewed thoughts and others’ perception of them. Freedom is being able to break free of these chains that tie us down from what we want to achieve, or to pursue our life’s purpose, our ikigai. We can be happy without a lot of money, and just take things one step at a time, moving with the flow and rhythm of life as it comes without worrying about the future. That's not to say we don't work hard to achieve our goals and to fulfil our responsibilities - it's about learning how to be restful in our minds while labouring. In my personal faith journey, I have learnt that we can do what we can in our own efforts, but to also learn to trust in God and follow His leading in everything I do.
Y21: Any tips on maintaining a healthy work life balance?
Serene: A healthy work life balance needs to be achieved both mentally and practically. Be focused and productive during your work hours, reduce any distractions, and leave your laptop in the office at the end of the workday. Give your attention to your family at home for the few hours before hitting the bed. Cast the thought of work away on weekends and vacations. Clayton Christensen’s sharing left a deep impression for many years. He shared that modern work culture often champions and celebrates burn out, obsession about work, and that people should derive their self-esteem and self-worth from their job. He disputes that ultimately our greatest sources of joy in life will be our family and close friends, and in order for those relationships to enrich our lives, we need to devote time to them.
Y21: You are a working mum. How do you balance your time between your work and family?
Serene: I don’t really “balance” it – time with family is always just too short! Weekends are family days spent on fun bonding activities, or to rest and recharge. My husband and I try to make it a point to plan family bonding activities – be it cycling, fun and educational workshops that my daughter enjoys, or just simple movie nights. My daughter looks forward to Friday nights, as it is a protected family time when we would take turns to select a movie to watch together, and she gets to sleep with us. We try to connect on a deeper level whenever we have time to chat – be it at bedtime, or one-on-one parent-child dates. My husband and I occasionally steal time off to have couple dates.
Y21: What advice would you give to family members and patients living with CKD (chronic kidney disease)?
Serene: Living with chronic kidney disease, especially on dialysis, is a very tough journey. Seek out support groups to stay mentally and emotionally healthy, and keep to a renal diet as much as possible. Family members need to be understanding. There are many community organisations like The National Kidney Foundation, Kidney Dialysis Foundation, Fresenius Medical Care, etc which have plenty of useful resources to help you in your kidney journey. I personally wish I read up more during my tough season! I would also like to caution the general public to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid the causes of kidney disease, like diabetes and high blood pressure.
A self-starter and a driven individual, Serene set up a home-based art business during her career break, while managing kidney failure, dialysis and kidney transplant. Now a full-time working mum in the healthcare sector, Serene continues to be a patient advocate for lupus, kidney disease and organ transplant. She actively shares her journey on broadcast and social media to provide support to other patients.