Our sixth installment of The Expat Mama meets… brings us slightly closer to home, and to the tropical island of Borneo. Lucy Bartlett is the epitome of the modern mama- she’s not only raising super cute baby Arthur (if you like baby spam then you need to follow her on Instagram @bundlemum) and enjoying expat life with husband Ben (@bundledad, I like what they did there), but she’s also managing to find time to start up her own business, Bundle Beds. As Lucy puts it herself, life is all about the B’s at the moment with a baby, Ben, Bundle Beds, business and Brunei. So I want to know how she’s finding life in the tropics, and most importantly the other B- balance…
Hi Lucy, tell us where are you from and where are you now?
From the UK. Now in Brunei on the island of Borneo in South East Asia. People often seem to think Brunei is in the Middle East; I’ve had quite a few friends ask where all the sand dunes are…
How long have you lived there and how long are you planning on staying?
We moved to Brunei in July 2014, so have lived here for nearly 3 years. Ben teaches at an international school, and so far we’ve managed to make things work between his normal working hours and my less-than-normal, two-time-zone working day. Ben’s contract is up for renewal in November, so we’ve actually got some big decisions ahead of us.
What made you move?
Ben was getting itchy feet whilst teaching in London and was keen to move abroad. I was in the midst of starting Bundle Beds, so said that a European location would be fine, but no further… then looked what happened! But we’ve always shared a love of travel (we started our relationship when I was travelling after university – I only saw him twice that year!) so when something as exotic as Borneo was on the table, it was hard to turn it down – for both of us.
What has your experience been like so far?
Brunei is unlike anywhere else I’ve been before. When I first arrived, I didn’t have a job, my workload for Bundle Beds was pretty minimal, and it was strange being without my network of friends and family. To be honest, I turned into a bit of a nutter as I tried to keep myself occupied. I started baking A LOT. I made my own mincemeat and mince pies at Christmas, two Christmas jumpers for children that weren’t even my own, and often tried to bribe people to hang out with homemade cake. It was a fairly bizarre time! After a while I took on some teaching work at school and developed some proper friendships not based around incentives. Then the workload for Bundle Beds increased, I had a baby, and here I am! Now that I am busier, I feel more independent and life is much better.
What has surprised you most about your move?
I didn’t really know where Brunei was when we decided to move out here, and I definitely didn’t have any idea about what to expect. I think that has helped to minimise surprises, as it’s all been new. You still have to go to the supermarket, pay your bills, find time to exercise… It’s just different food, much longer queues for bills (you get a numbered ticket for absolutely every admin task in Brunei!), and sweating profusely rather than trying to find thermals to wear on a run. Despite the exotic location, life goes on as usual.
What has been the biggest challenge?
This would have been the same wherever I was, but it’s definitely been working out how on earth to run a business and be a mum! I think the big difference out here is that I don’t have family to call up and ask for help… I wish I could call up ‘Grandma’ and ask her to have Arthur for a few hours whilst I stop and reset.
We are lucky enough to have an amah called Marilyn who works for us. This has been a huge adjustment. I am so incredibly lucky being able to have someone to help me around the house, and I know that people would give their right arm for it, however I have really struggled. I’m a bit of a control freak, and have found it really tough to hand over jobs. Ben has been great for making me realise that actually, this is temporary, so we need to make the most of it, but it’s been tough! As daycare centres don’t exist here, Marilyn also helps to look after Arthur so that I can crack on with Bundle Beds work. This has been the hardest thing to get my head around. I have guilt for not being with Arthur when I’m working, guilt that I’m not working when I’m with Arthur, and then guilt when I’m typing away at my laptop rather than chatting to my husband in the evening. And then there are the times when I am convinced that Arthur is going to forget who I am and prefer Marilyn to me! I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as the perfect balance – you just have to muddle through.
I’ve actually just had a fab piece of advice from an awesome lady who runs a business as a mum (you should definitely check out Don’t Buy Her Flowers for easy-to-send gifts for friends in the UK !) which is to celebrate the things that you HAVE achieved before moving onto the next thing. I’m always looking ahead to the next task on the To Do list, but pausing to reflect on what’s been crossed off – whether that is as a Mum, wife or a business partner – is really motivating.
Would you recommend this country to someone else?
Yes. Definitely. It’s an amazing place to live as a young couple or family – especially if you love the outdoors. I’ve replaced shopping and bars with going down to the beach, running through the jungle, and getting out to see the incredible wildlife that’s on our doorstep.
Brunei is a small place, so you need to remind yourself of the world outside of it! But it’s surrounded by the most amazing places to travel to when it’s possible to squeeze in a trip away; it’s a massive perk.
The downside is definitely the absence of family and the friends who know you inside-out. You also have to get used to the fact that people move on; I guess that’s just the nature of living abroad. Our two best friends out here are leaving next month and a good friend left last year, so that’s pretty rubbish.
If you plan on moving again, what would you do differently?
I’d relax and make friends slowly rather than trying to invite everyone for dinner all at once! I’d also decorate the house as soon as we get there. Making it into your home makes you feel so much more settled and makes staying in a pleasure instead of isolating.
How does your new home compare to your home country in terms of quality of life, family benefits, career prospects, healthcare and opportunities for women?
The quality of life that we have here is so much better as we can afford to go out for food and to travel to amazing places. We also have an absolutely brilliant lady who helps with childcare and cooking; we’d never be able to afford that in London. Most importantly though, we get more time together as a family as there is no commute, and Ben’s holidays are longer than in the UK. Quite simply, financially, it would have been impossible to progress my business if we had been in the UK – especially with a newborn!
Having my own business is also an advantage out here as career prospects for an expat partner in Brunei are pretty limited – most businesses are looking to employ local staff.
In terms of opportunities for women, I was at an event for International Women’s Day a few months ago, where there were some inspiring Bruneian women talking about setting up their own businesses. It was great to see this.
Follow Lucy and Ben’s adventures in Borneo with little Arthur by following their insta-life, and of course go and support Bundle Beds (they can deliver worldwide!)
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