The Grey Area of Parenthood with Debby Yu

Debby with her kids, Ray (left) and Mika (right)

Entrepreneur Debby Yu always knew she wanted to be a designer. She also knew she didn’t want to be a parent — that is, until she met Matthijs Rikken, whom she eventually married. “I don’t know why,” she says, “I didn’t want kids but I had a list of names if I were to have kids. On our third date, I told Matt my list of 100 names and he didn’t go away. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a keeper.’”

Today, Debby and Matt run STUDIO DAM, a branding consultancy and design studio, and EVERCASA, a home decor brand (and a Sunday Bedding collaborator!) that specialises in removeable decals for everyone at home. They are also the parents of two kids: Ray, who just turned 5 and was born a year after the founding of STUDIO DAM, and Mika, 3.5. 

Unconventionally, Debby and Matt choose to manage their household without a helper. They ask for help from Debby's parents only when strictly necessary and pay for childcare instead, taking turns to be boss and parent on any given day. “If there’s a deadline I’m running, Matt picks up the kids, and if he’s running the deadline then I do it,” Debby says from her kitchen, as we watch Matt iron Ray’s ballet costume.

Surely something has to give? “Yes,” Debby replies without missing a beat. “Sleep, lor.”

The family at home. Debby and Matt share equal responsibilities at home and at work.

Debby, what were you like as a child?

Starkly different from who I am today! I was a quiet child who didn’t like talking to people, constantly in my own bubble.

From a young age, I would just go for something if I wanted it. I have a vivid memory of when I was 4. My mum had made a beautiful Hawaiian skirt for my older sister for her school performance. I loved it! I wanted it! I told my mum to make one for me, but she didn’t because she was busy. So I created my own version and used a permanent marker to draw directly on my legs. My grandmother had to scrub my legs like mad to remove the ink!

You didn’t want to have kids until you met Matthijs. What changed your mind?

I knew I didn’t want to have a family just to do everything by myself. But the way Matt took care of me when we were together made me realise I’m safe. It made me see possibilities.

Matt and I work very well together. Our team always tells us we’re like a well-oiled machine — our roles and responsibilities at work and at home are very mixed. There are days one will take on more as the other is more tired and vice versa, but we always do things together.

Ray and Mika's room first served as STUDIO DAM'S home office back when Debby and Matt first began. They handpainted the logo on the wall; when the children arrived, they updated the wall to reflect the evolution of their space.

You had Ray in your first year of running your own business. Tell us what that was like.

I feel a lot of people aren’t used to parenthood because you have to wake up every 3 hours, feed, burp, etc. — you can never have good sleep once you have kids. But sleep deprivation wasn’t an issue for us because tight deadlines at work and in school had trained us for this. I started my journey as a designer at 16. I was at NAFA from 16 to 19, and when I was 20 I went to Design Academy in Holland. You don’t sleep a lot when you’re creating.

If anything, I feel like parenthood has given me regularity. If not, I would work all the time. The creative hours are much shorter when you become a parent so you learn to trust your gut and be more efficient with creating.   

What does a typical day look like now?

All I can say is thank god for childcare! That’s how we can run our businesses.

7am – 9am: Prepping kids for school
10am – 4.30pm: Work
5pm – 8.30pm: Prepping dinner, showering kids, bonding time
9pm – 12am: Catching up on work
1am/2am: Sleep

We used to take turns to work on the weekends, but this year we are saying a hard no to that so we can spend quality time with the kiddos. Honestly though, 24 hours isn’t enough. I tend to work long hours and work through the night when the kids are sleeping. I am not advocating this at all. It’s super unhealthy! But as a business owner, some things just need to be done.

EVERCASA decals fill a wall in the children's bedroom. 

Says Debby, "EVERCASA started because we simply wanted to get an alphabet poster, but we couldn't find one that was nice and within budget. So we created our own!"

How do you think your parenting style has evolved as the children get older?

I used to be more chill. Now that Ray is going to primary school soon, the tiger mum comes out once in a while. I didn’t expect myself to be so influenced this easily, but when I see my friends’ kids, who are the same age as my kids, doing what they do, I think, oh my god, my kids are not there. Should I be worried?

I think the tiger mum comes out when I feel insecure about not doing enough as a mum because I’m so focused on the business. There is this mum guilt: am I providing the best environment for my kids? I was so worried at one point about Mika not being able to write her name, and I feel guilty that I didn’t expose Mika to flash cards earlier because the business was picking up when she arrived. I just didn’t have time.

But I’m also trying to tell myself it will be fine — these are skills she will eventually have. I’m trying to make sure she has other skills instead: a good attitude, compassion, kindness. I think the most important thing I can do with them is to be present. I only get a few hours a day with them as well, so when I’m with them, I’m with them. It’s non-negotiable.

The kids dressing up Debby using Bamboo Checkered Pillowcases so they all have coordinating capes.

Is there a key memory you have of yourself as a child that has shaped the way you parent today?

Yes, definitely. When I was 5, a teacher at school said, “Debby, why can’t you be as fast as your friend?” It changed me — till today I continue to think I’m never enough. In fact, as an entrepreneur, it’s even more magnified. I always think I’m not doing enough.

I also catch myself saying sometimes, “Ray, why are you doing this?” but I remind myself to dial it back. People can say things like that to them, but never their mum, because this is where warmth is.

I am fierce or strict with them when they do or say something mean, but not when it comes to their capabilities. Kids are like sponges. I don’t want to bring them down or make them think they are never enough. Our job as parents is to provide a safe space for our kids to explore and express themselves without judgment, and give them support when we see they have a special interest in something. But there’s no black or white or wrong or right way to do this because each kid is different. Parenthood is just one big grey area.

"When I was 5, a teacher at school said, “Debby, why can’t you be as fast as your friend?” It changed me — till today I continue to think I’m never enough. In fact, as an entrepreneur, it’s even more magnified. I always think I’m not doing enough."

What do you hope your children grow up knowing?

1. Be passionate about something at an early age.
Love what you do and do it with your whole heart.

2. If you want something, go for it.
I instill this in my kids so they know if they want something they will have to get it themselves.

3. Hard work is a process.
Matt and I hope our kids will see us working hard for what we believe in and model that behaviour.

4. It’s important to be kind.
My kids are mixed so whenever we go out, people will tell them how pretty they are. I always tell them it’s more important to have inner beauty — to be kind to the people around them.

Do you enjoy being a mum?

Yes, I do. But I don’t think I can be a stay home mum. I have so many dreams and things I want to do. I would feel so resentful, and I don’t want that to be placed on my kids. I hope when they are older, they will understand that when mum wants something, she goes for it while still managing a family. I want them to grow up knowing, yes, all of this takes hard work, but it makes me happy.

You may also find these resources useful: