Jojo Southwell is one of my hero mums who I was lucky to meet when I first moved to Dubai. Perhaps hero isn’t enough to describe her. If you are lucky enough to have Jojo as a friend, you will see a mum who is outgoing, positive, hysterically funny, stunning, with an incredible physique who happily adopts anybody and everybody as her friend. She is overly generous with her time and resources, even though she has four children of her own, and a husband with an incredibly busy schedule. Jojo has literally experienced most of motherhood and has come out the other side still so vibrant and youthful. She tells Seashells On The Palm in this interview about miscarriages, why she adopted, boarding schools and how she dedicates her time to her son’s special needs school and much more. Philip and Jojo’s children are truly blessed to have such dedicated parents who love them unconditionally. They really are an inspiration to all who meet them.
You have to be one of the most admired hero mums in Dubai that doesn’t take enough credit for the time and effort that you dedicate to your four children. Can you tell us a bit about your family and the children?
All Mothers, no matter how many children they have, are admirable! I’m sure that I do no more than Mothers around the World who love their children. We are so blessed to have them and it is this fact that we need to remind ourselves of constantly, especially when the going gets tough!
I have three wonderful teenage boys (all be it very hormonal ones!) and a little six-year-old daughter. I am also blessed with an incredible husband who finds fatherhood to be his big escape from work and the World! Although we have our ups and downs, we’ve remained together for over 18 years.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood? You had influences from both the East and the West in your upbringing. Do you sway towards any particular value system when it comes to your own children?
I was born in Malaysia to an Eurasian Mother (half Chinese half Scottish) and a Chinese/Malay/Indonesian Father. I studied in Hong Kong until I was ten and then I went to boarding school in England, where I continued on to university, law school, and finally work. Most holidays were spent between Hong Kong and Borneo, so I still consider Hong Kong to be my ‘original’ home.
I consider myself to be more Chinese than Western, and I try my hardest to upkeep the traditions that I grew up with, including a big feast at Chinese New Year! It was a strange upbringing for although my Mother considers herself to be staunchly Chinese (she was a refugee into Hong Kong from Shanghai) she is also a devoted Catholic. Some Chinese traditions are based around the Buddhist beliefs so we tended to celebrate both religions!
What makes you feel most guilty when it comes to your children?
All parents feel guilty when it comes to their children, be it time apart or having to tell them off. My biggest regret are those times when I forgot they were children, was in a bad mood, and then over reacted to something they did wrong. There have been times in the past where I have lost all patience and made one of them feel bad about themselves. This is not good parenting! But now that they are teenagers they understand more about why I got frustrated or angry and I too have learnt to forgive myself a little. I always promised myself not to repeat the mistakes that I think my parents made, yet this is more easily said than done.
What made Philip and you decided to adopt? How was it for the extended family to accept them?
When Philip and I got married I was pregnant quite early on. Sadly I suffered a late miscarriage, and my second pregnancy was ectopic. I was scared to try again so we decided to embark on a new life in Hong Kong! However, within two weeks of being there I went to visit my dying Grandmother in Borneo and the opportunity arose to help a very young Mother raise her child as she already had three of her own and no husband to help. Philip was very apprehensive, but deep inside my soul I felt it was meant to be. Ethan is our first miracle. After adopting again a year later, I found myself expecting my third son. God works in mysterious ways. Then Tia came along six years ago!
I love all my children equally and they have never felt that anything is unusual with our set up, especially because from day one we always read them all stories about adoption and have kept in touch with their families where possible.
What advice would you give parents who are considering adoption?
The adoption process takes up to a year and it is emotionally draining. I recommend that even if adoption is only one of your options being considered, still start the process alongside anything else you are considering (like IVF). I also want stress emphatically that pregnancy and the act of giving birth are extremely over rated so you must never feel like you’ve ‘missed out’ in anyway! I can also assure you that your feelings will be exactly the sale as those of biological parents. Love is love no matter how it’s come to be.
It has been an incredibly emotional journey since Ethan was three. Ethan is truly blessed to have such dedicated and loving parents like Philip and you. Can you tell us about your eldest son Ethan?
When Ethan was almost four he was running a high temperature and was giggling and talking non-stop for a day and also said his legs felt funny. The next day Ethan fell into a six-week coma. We were living in Hong Kong at the time so in the third week I air ambulanced Ethan to Great Ormond Street. He was diagnosed with Encephalitis that he probably got fro a mosquito. We were told our son would never walk or talk again. Prayers, amazing doctors and most of all, unfailing support from friends and family, has helped us through this. Ethan is a miracle – from having a 30% chance of survival he is now your (almost) average moody hormonal teenager! He is disabled, and I have told him that it just means he’s going to have to work a lot harder in life, but he’s amazing. Sometimes he gets upset about being so ‘different’ but I constantly remind him how special he is.
I know that you tirelessly work with Ethan’s school to do more to help widen the children’s extra-curriculum in your own time. I know that you bring some of the children home and teach them skills such as basic domestic chores so that they are able to live independently. What compelled you to help them? What else do you try to instill in each of these children?
The main reason that I began to teach children with special needs life skills is because those who have special needs in this part of the World are not taught independence. I go to sleep and wake up worrying about what will happen to Ethan once I have left this World. Everyone should be given the chance to learn to be as independent as possible.
In Singapore, all the fast food restaurants have very elderly people and special needs people cleaning the tables, waiting on tables and working for a living. Singapore is such a perfect model for how the World should treat their elderly and their special needs citizens. We all have something to give, no matter how small. All the things we take for granted, like posting things, shopping in supermarkets, using washing machines, checking car engine – all these skills can be taught and I hope these children will benefit from them someday.
Your two younger sons were in Dubai schools but you recently sent them to boarding prep school in the UK. Can you tell us what made Philip and you decide on boarding schools for Tristan and Toby?
In Dubai, the choice of secondary schools is still quite limited, although in the next few years this will rapidly change. Furthermore, because there are few secondary schools, sports can’t be very competitive and children have to be very good to get to play many matches. My husband and I both went to boarding schools from a very early age, so when Tristan turned 11 we gave him a choice and he chose to go back to the Prep school from where he came. His younger brother chose to go with him.
What did you choose this school?
They started at Papplewick in England when they were six, so despite a five-year gap while they studied at Kings Dubai, their friends in England have remained the same. We adore Papplewick, an all boys’ school with only 200 pupils in Ascot where the teachers all live on the school grounds as does the Headmaster and his Family. The school does get incredible results, but more importantly, they are one big Family.
What were your initial biggest fears about sending them?
We all cried daily for about a term! I still long for the boys to be home, especially as their siblings miss them so much too. I recall that the times I was loneliest when I was at boarding school was whenever I was ill, as being in sickbay was lonely!
How have each of your boys benefited from boarding school?
In spite of all the travelling I now have to undertake, as do my boys, I do not regret sending them to Papplewick. It has been really tough for them to learn Latin, French, History, Biology Physics and Chemistry in preparation for their 8 papers two-hour Common Entrance Exams that they have to sit at 13, but they’ve learnt how to study by themselves. The greatest thing is their confidence – they have grown up so much and are extremely polite! The most important outcome is that Tristan and Tobias absolutely love boarding, so much so that when I begged them to move home last week their reply was: “Are you joking?”
Your husband, Philip, went to Eton, was it a given that his children would go? What were his views about boarding school? Does he feel that Eton, as an institution, benefited him hugely?
Philip enjoyed his time at Eton a lot, but he had doubts about sending the boys as Eton has now become an academic hotpot and one of our two sons is not in the top tier but more sports orientated. For sure being an old Etonian helps on the CV, but I don’t think it clinches it job.
When looking at a secondary we needed a boarding school where most of the boarders stay in on the weekends and there is only a handful. Otherwise our boys would be quite lonely on the weekends. So we put them down for Radley at birth, and Tristan has just tried out for the all-rounder scholarship there.
You have a little girl, Tia. Would you consider sending her to boarding school too?
Tia has asked if we can move back to England and when she will start boarding like her brothers, because they come home with some wonderful stories! However, I cannot imagine letting her go!
What are your biggest fears as a mother for your daughter?
I worry that she will trust too easily, fall in love for the wrong reasons and be hurt by the things that she can’t change. But this goes for all my children. I do not feel any different anxieties just because Tia is a girl, as we are fortunate to live in a Society where both sexes are almost equal. It’s a shame that this isn’t the same for the whole World.
What advice would you give to mothers who are considering four children? How do you make sure that each and everyone of them receive the right amount of attention? Or is it inevitable that one always feels neglected?
My belief is that all things happen for a reason. God will only give to us as much as we can handle. It is just as hard raising one child, as it is to raise four. If you would like a large family though, it is very advantageous to have them close in age as they have instant playmates! The down side is that you cannot expect many invitations for the whole family anymore!
My Mother raised myself and my three siblings on her own while she worked and I am very close to her. It is not about the quantity of time, but most definitely the quality of time that counts.
How do you then make sure that your husband and you have time for yourselves?
Philip and I have always maintained a strict bedtime rule for the children and all children have to be in their bedrooms by 8pm! Even now that they are teenagers we still send them upstairs to do what teenagers do but in their rooms! So the evenings are kept for just Phil and I, although he travels most weeks! Whatever we’re doing seems to be working as we’ve been together nineteen years and counting. My favourite nights with Philip are nights away from home and Dubai is the perfect place for that!
If Philip and you could get away for 3 nights without the kids, where would your ideal holiday be?
Always the Maldives. We love the sea and we love scuba diving, and it’s so close to Dubai that we are not too worried about the children.
Best restaurant in Dubai for a date night?
In the heat of the summer, Armani Ristorante. In the late winter, outside at 101, at The One and Only, The Palm.