Journey to Motherhood and beyond: Karen McLean
One of the most renowned food bloggers in the UAE, Karen McLean, sheds light on her journey, what it’s like being a mum to fraternal twins and nifty tips for new mums.
I’ve known of Karen McLean ever since she began her blog, Secret Squirrel Food. Her gorgeous chia bowl creations and flower-shaped avocado toast lured me in, turning me into a loyal fan for years, while inspiring me to create the same for my work-desk breakfast.
The creative mind, photographer and chef behind the blog, relocated to Dubai over six years ago, for her husband’s work – he runs a Project and Cost Management Consulting firm called Compass Project Consulting – and has since focused on fulfilling her passion of making healthy food anything but boring. “Secret Squirrel Food is a collection of my recipes that celebrates the pleasures of eating simple, natural and wholesome food. I love to experiment in the kitchen and creating quick, easy and delicious recipes,” says the mum of fraternal twins.
But before Karen switched roles, she was a fully qualified chartered accountant. “I worked in a Commercial and Business Operations team for a major Japanese Pharmaceuticals company looking after Middle East, Turkey and Africa. Prior to that, I was in Supply Chain & Logistics and also spent many years as an external auditor. I decided to leave the Corporate world four years ago to pursue my love for cooking and healthy eating,” she says. Karen admits although it can be challenging and terrifying at times, it is also exciting, surreal and, in many ways, indescribable. “It takes a lot of courage to take the leap out of what you’ve always known and into a life of passion as a freelancer.” Her love for food developed at a very young age. Karen’s grandfather inspired her passion for food – he owned four restaurants in Vietnam and she spent her childhood, cooking in the kitchen with him. “My parents are amazing cooks, and my sister and I also share the same passion for food. What I love about food is that it brings people together. I started Secret Squirrel when I moved to Dubai and one day, I started putting my photos and recipes on Instagram and Secret Squirrel Food was born.”
As my photographer Charls jumps around to make the babies giggle for our photoshoot, Karen mentions her first baby is her three-year old miniature dachshund, Teddy, who I felt I already knew due to his guest appearances on her social media platforms. Her fraternal twin girls, Emily and Sophie – who are now five months old – have completed the family. But it’s been a long journey for Karen, and she admits, this has been the longest and shortest five months of her life.
“Pregnancy doesn’t come easily for a lot of people. I had such a difficult pregnancy journey and it took me over four long years to finally meet my two little rainbow twins. I’ve had two miscarriages in the past and it was absolutely heartbreaking,” says Karen. Miscarriage is so common, but it’s a subject which is still taboo and not often talked about. “I felt so alone and helpless at the time and wasn’t aware that one in four pregnancies end in a loss. I hope no-one ever goes through the struggles I went through, but if you do, just know that you are not alone.”
As our conversation moves along, we touch upon how much changes in a mum’s day-to-day life. Karen admits, it’ very hard managing work, babies and life in general. “I have to be super organised to be able to get everything done and often plan my days, a week in advance so that I have some sort of idea of what’s ahead of me.” Karen also believes in taking each day as it comes and having no expectations at all. Try not to think about things too much. When she had the twins, she would wake up each day and say to herself that she just needed to get through the day, and then when evening came around, she told herself she needed to just get through the night. The morning arrives and it was the same routine all over again. “I survived the last five months – phew!”
She’s usually up first thing in the morning around 6am, as soon as the girls are up and often wonders if she will ever sleep in again. After feeding the girls and putting them on their playmat or bouncy chair, she makes porridge, avocado toast or a smoothie and a nice cup of tea to start the day. “I try to juggle work, content creation, emails and calls throughout the day. Work is different everyday depending on the projects and campaigns I’m working on. I have a nanny, Liyana who looks after the girls, whilst I work. She’s amazing and very much part of our family!” To connect with the girls and Teddy, Karen often goes for a walk to the park at 5pm. Bath time is always at 5.45pm, followed by dinner feed and then an early bedtime at 6.30pm, so that she can cook dinner and catch up on emails in the evenings. “I try to spend as much time with the both of them as I can. I know saying that time flies by is clichéd, but time is really flying, and they are growing up so quickly. I don’t like to separate them; they are always together when I’m spending time with them.”
One thing she has learnt over the past few months is to not listen to others and follow her instincts. “Mama knows best!! If you receive advice from 20 different mums, you will get 20 different responses. It can get very overwhelming, so just go with your gut as only you will know what’s best for your baby.” As for smart tips, this new mum admits she has plenty.
First of all, she suggests heaps of tummy time. “Try to sleep when the baby sleeps (although this is easier said than done!); always ask for help – I’ve learnt that I can’t do everything myself – and lastly, don’t spend a lot on expensive toys. Just re-use any plastic water bottles you have and fill with rice, pasta, beans etc. and you have an instant musical toy. Genius!”
Going forward, Karen’s says she will continue living her life by one of her favourite mottos, “Live simply. Dream big. Be grateful. Give love. Laugh lots.”
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