One year into living the expat life in Singapore, Jessica Johnson, the gorgeous London-born, Melbourne-raised mother of Oscar, 7 and Matilda, 5, was driving around the island looking for birthday party ideas and realised there was a gap in the market for simple and beautiful children's birthday party solutions. She launched Petite Soirees a short while later, and has been setting up sleepover teepees in style all over Singapore ever since...
After a varied international career – flying with Emirates while being based in Dubai, working in magazine publishing and starting a boutique homewares consultancy in Melbourne, Jessica decided it was time for another adventure in her career that could be personally satisfying while also allowing her flexibility with family life. “I love the balance between being available for the kids and working. I could never go back to the corporate life – the kids are definitely my priority.” Johnson makes the juggle of running a start-up and raising children look easy – she is energetic and accomplished, but like many of us in this motherhood journey, things have not always gone to plan… “My first pregnancy was not at all what I had imagined or hoped for. Oscar was born at 25 weeks. Up until two days before he was born I was experiencing a textbook pregnancy and felt amazing however, that changed over a period of two days and we still don’t know why. I suddenly went into labour and there was nothing the doctors could do to make it stop. I was in a hospital that wasn’t capable of delivering a baby so prematurely, so I was rushed via ambulance to the Royal Women in Melbourne. He was born 43mins later. The first 3 months were touch and go. Oscar was very sick and we were told on more than a few occasions that the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it.” Oscar recovered and eventually his parents did too. Matilda arrived two years later, and incredibly the family encountered more stress during birth and with near-fatal allergic reactions in her first precious years. So what has motherhood taught Jessica? “That life doesn’t always go according to plan! This can sometimes make me anxious as I do suffer a little from OCD! It has taught me a great deal of patience and a different kind of love.” The traumatic early years of motherhood, have perhaps built a resilience that affords Jessica an infectious can-do attitude. “My early days with the kids have definitely shaped me as a Mum. I find I’m pretty calm in a crisis and don’t let the small things bother me.” Wise words from this courageous mother. In fact, her calm and positive nature is just the sort of energy you need around you when embarking on the slumber party of your children’s dreams, ensuring it doesn’t become your worst nightmare! We caught up with Jessica to talk about the challenging early years with her children’s health, career changes, the importance of self-care, and her top tips on successful and (almost) stress-free children’s’ birthday parties…. Visit petitessoirees.sg and @petitessoireessg Photography by Clare Barker Wells
What are your most vivid memories of your childhood?
Time in the kitchen with Mum and learning to cook, I loved getting involved and still cook recipes today from my childhood. We rarely had packaged cakes or biscuits, both Mum & my Nanna are great bakers, a skill I’m still perfecting. Celebrations were always huge, the effort that went into Christmas, Easter and Birthdays is something that I try to recreate for my family today, I have so many wonderful memories of these. We love entertaining in our house, something that I was surrounded with growing up. Also, the very memorable family camping holidays to Byron Bay. Mum and Dad would pack the car and we’d make the trip from Melbourne every September holidays, it was certainly a very different town 25 years ago.
Where did you grow up?
Actually, I was born in an ambulance in London on the way to the hospital! We were stuck in traffic on Twickenham Road because of a big rugby match being played at the stadium there. We moved to Australia when I was just 18 months old and I grew up in Melbourne.
How did you spend your time?
Week/weekends were filled with multiple sporting activities, with three kids Mum & Dad spent most of the time ferrying us around Melbourne. I did ballet until the age of 14 and spent my Saturdays playing and coaching netball. When there was time on weekends, we would often head off as a family on day trips for picnics and site seeing. We spent a lot of time playing outside or riding our bikes and time at the beach during summer.
Tell us about your career before you set up Petite Soirees...
My dream as a teenager was to be a flight attendant and travel the world, so at the age of 19 I interviewed for a brand-new airline, Virgin Blue, launching into Australia and was fortunate enough to be offered a role. By the age of 21 I had been promoted to the role of purser. A year later I decided that flying internationally was my ultimate dream -I really wanted to see the world and the idea of backpacking just wasn’t my thing. So, at 22 I applied with Emirates and was successful, I packed up and moved to Dubai. I spent three years based there and travelled the world at the same time. During my time with Emirates I was promoted each year up to the rank of Stewardess First Class, before deciding to return home to Melbourne at 25. Returning home I was certain that I didn’t want to continue my university degree, which I had started straight from school, but also wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I had always loved magazines, fashion etc and after chatting with a few of our friends in the industry I decided magazine advertising could be my next path. I was lucky enough to have an introduction to an executive at ACP magazines (now Bauer media) and one thing led to another and I spent the next five years working across a variety of roles and titles for them. I later moved over to News Ltd and spent the next three years working in their magazine division in both a full time and then part-time capacity after having our children. After Matilda was born it was more difficult to find suitable part-time media roles so I worked for a homewares company in a sales role for a brief period and then went on to start my own small brand agency focused on selling into home and lifestyle stores across Victoria. I really loved being able to work with upcoming small and medium businesses on growing their products and markets.
What was the inspiration behind launching Petite Soirees in Singapore?
I loved creating fun and exciting parties for the kids every year for their friends and our family, once I arrived in Singapore I quickly realised how frustrating it was driving island wide trying to piece everything together to create these. I wanted to make hosting children’s parties as easy as possible, affordable and most of all memorable. I identified a gap in the market here for sleepover parties and the ability to find boutique affordable small gifts for children. It was a big and slightly daunting prospect starting the business as the government changed the policy on expats owning companies here only recently. As a result, it has been a sizeable investment and that has sat in the back of my mind throughout the whole process. I am confident though that my husband and I have made the right decision. There is no way Petites Soirees would have launched without his love, support and confidence in me.
How has it been received so far?
Extremely well! I am blown away by the support I received so far. So many Mums have been so excited to find a company that not only creates a memorable celebration, but also has the party favours sorted as well – this is a growth area for Petites Soirees. I miss the gorgeous boutique gifts available at the many strip shops at home. It’s predominantly shopping malls here with high street brands, so you miss the boutique factor.
Can you share some tips for successful and low-stress birthday parties?
- Have a plan for the afternoon/evening before the guests arrive.
- Be sure to have a couple of activities organised – whether they be the guests making their own dinner ala Mini Masterchef (pizzas, mini burgers, tacos etc) or cupcake decorating. Crafting activities are also a great idea (headband decorating, designing their own pillowcase). Photo booths, karaoke and dancing are also loved and low-cost options to add to any party.
- Have a movie already chosen and decide where everyone is sleeping, these minimise the chance of arguments at bedtime.
I still haven’t found a solution though to make sure everyone goes to sleep at a reasonable time!
What are the pros and cons of expat life?
A definite pro is the amazing people you meet that become your instant family. We have met some amazing life-long friends in the short time we’ve been here. The ability to travel to so many wonderful places whilst opening the kids’ eyes to a variety of different cultures is a massive plus. I also love the fact that we live in a country that our family and friends enjoy visiting, so it gives them the opportunity to travel overseas more than they usually would. The cons are missing the family and friends back at home. The kids really miss growing up with their cousins which is hard, not to mention saying goodbye after a visit home – it doesn’t get easier the more we do it that’s for sure.
Who or what inspires and motivates you on a daily basis?
I love the balance between being available for the kids and working. I could never go back to corporate life – the kids are definitely my priority. I enjoy being there to drop them off and pick them up as well as watching them in the various activities they do. I must admit, I do thrive on the slight anxiety/stress that builds up inside when trying to work out how I’m going to accomplish it all. My husband travels every week so there is no way I could do what I’m doing without the wonderful help I’m so lucky to have up here in Singapore. So I guess my motivation comes from wanting a little piece of it all.
How did you find your pregnancies and early days with a newborn?
My first pregnancy was not at all what I had imagined or hoped for. Oscar was born at 25 weeks. Up until 2 days before he was born I was experiencing a textbook pregnancy and felt amazing however, that changed over a period of 2 days and we still don’t know why. I suddenly went into labour and there was nothing the doctors could do to make it stop. I was in a hospital that wasn’t capable of delivering a baby so prematurely, so I was rushed via ambulance to the Royal Womens in Melbourne. He was born 43mins later. The first 3 months were touch and go. Oscar was very sick and we were told on more than a few occasions that the doctors thought he wouldn’t make it. It really was a case of one step forward and 2 steps backwards. We visited the hospital every day whilst I was still up every 3 hours pumping milk to try and get him feeding. We had a huge amount of support from our family and friends over this time, which certainly made the situation a little more bearable. It was a level of exhaustion my husband Rhett and I had never experienced before and hope to never feel again. We were never going to have one baby, in fact I always wanted four! However we soon realised that every time you decide to have a baby you are rolling the dice. We were lucky enough to fall pregnant quickly with our second, we carefully chose a new obstetrician and went into the 40 weeks with a detailed plan. At 38.5 weeks I went for a standard checkup and was told I was 6cm dilated. I felt 100% fine and had no warning signs. So, we were sent straight upstairs to the delivery room. At one stage her heart rate began dropping pretty rapidly and they had to work quickly with the assistance of the vacuum to deliver our beautiful baby girl. Matilda was a great feeder and was sleeping through the night at 6.5 weeks. At 7 months old we gave Matilda some scrambled eggs from our breakfast plate and she instantly had an anaphylactic reaction and was rushed straight to hospital. We had another identical experience when she was 18 months old with peanuts, which she is still highly allergic/anaphylactic to. We have however, managed to desensitise her to the egg allergy. My early days with the kids have definitely shaped me as a Mum for a variety of different reasons. I find I’m pretty calm in a crisis and don’t let the small things bother me.
How do you self-care – what are the things you do to take care of yourself?
Exercise has always been a huge part of my life and I have done a variety of different forms over the years to mix it up and keep it interesting. I’m loving F45 since moving to Singapore. I miss KX pilates greatly though and hope it opens up here at some stage in the near future. Diet is also a big one, we love food and I enjoy designing the weekly family menu. We all eat a healthy nutritious diet, however we’re also big fans of ‘everything in moderation’. I also try to add in a facial where possible and living in constant warm weather pedicures are a regular and 45 minutes silence (unless I take Matilda with me…!).
What has motherhood taught you?
That life doesn’t always go according to plan! This can sometimes make me anxious as I do suffer a little from OCD! It has taught me a great deal of patience and a different kind of love.
What’s been your greatest challenge with motherhood? And what’s been your greatest moment/memory so far?
The early days were obviously pretty challenging, and nothing will ever come close to that. My greatest memory or moment was definitely the day we took Oscar home after 4 months in ICU and when Matilda came home from hospital safe and well. Ironically, Matilda came home on Mother’s Day … There were quite a few tears.
What did your own mother teach you about life/being a mother?
My Mum was the most amazing, dedicated and hands-on Mum I know, and this has continued over the last 12 years as a Grandmother. She has always worked, raised 3 children (as a team with my amazing Dad), kept a house, cooked gourmet meals and created a loving and safe environment for us to grow up. My parents have played a huge role in my kid’s life so far. Their house is a second home for Oscar and Matilda, we are very lucky.
Has your fashion style changed since you became a mother – what’s a typical look for you?
I would have to say yes, it has become far more casual, although now we have come out of the newborn/toddler years and moved to Singapore, we certainly go out a lot more than we did in the previous five years. I love getting dressed up, putting on some heels and spending time on my hair and makeup. My normal everyday look consists of activewear in the morning and usually a denim skirt/shorts and top or a dress for the remainder, lots of cotton and linen for this climate.
What are your favourite travel destinations?
We have recently come back from a family holiday to a beautiful Greek Island called Ithaca, followed by a few different cities in Italy, they were all places I could go to time and time again. I travelled to many memorable places in my years working for the airlines, I will never forget the safari I went on in Africa in the Masai Mara, the cherry blossom I saw in Japan and the many amazing experiences I had all over Europe in both summer and winter.
Favourite things to do with your children?
Since moving to Singapore and Matilda learning to ride a bike properly we love a family bike ride, usually followed by a dumpling feast. We also love a lazy Sunday just the four of us, this usually consists of a swim, playing a board game or watching a movie together, the kids choosing the music & dancing. We’re always around the table together on Sunday nights, one of my fave nights of the week.
What would you recommend as must-dos for families visiting Singapore?
Singapore Zoo is great & I highly recommend the breakfast with the Orangutans. Can’t beat a visit to Sentosa, I’ve managed to dodge Universal Studios for the past two years, however we’ve loved our visits to Adventure Cove water park and the Aquarium. My advice would be adding Tanjong Beach Club to the itinerary – a cheeky rosé for the Mums and the kids can run themselves ragged on the beach.
What are your day-to-day Singapore haunts?
Cluny Court (feels a lot like a local shopping strip at home where you can pretty much tick everything off your list from food shopping, bakery, nail apt, present buying and catching up for coffee/lunch with a girlfriend). Little Farms stocking up on all the Australian produce; Plain Vanilla for cupcakes and F45 Tanjong Katong and runs along the river are my exercise haunts. Kinokuniya is probably the biggest bookstore I have ever been to; the kids love it.
Tell us what you're loving right now.
- A weekly visit to Tiong Bahru market for beautiful flowers, fresh Asian ingredients for the new recipes I keep finding – we can’t get enough of Asian cooking. Plus a great coffee at either Tiong Bahru bakery or Forty Hands.
- Finding the time to ‘play tourist’ in the place we call home. We did the Henderson Wave bridge walk last weekend followed by lunch at Keppel Bay Marina, 2 places we hadn’t visited and loved.
- I just finished reading ‘The Perfect Couple’ by Elin Hilderbrand. I really enjoyed it and it was the perfect holiday read.
- Restaurants I’m loving is a tricky one as we are so spoilt for choice up here … But certainly White Rabbit in Dempsey Hill for a special occasion or date night. The little Gin garden bar out the back is great; Dolce Vita at Mandarin Oriental would be our favourite brunch spot; Bar piccolo for a Spritz followed by Don Ho for dinner with friends (both are on Keong Saik Rd).
- Breakfast has always been my least favourite meal of the day, but I’m loving smoothies or quinoa porridge at the moment, both quick & nutritious.
- Travelling/planning our next family adventure.
- My music of choice on a Thursday/Friday whilst packing & organising the parties for the weekend is always 80s!
- Definitely a Friday night drink by the pool with my husband and friends.