Living With Kids: Justina Tey

By Gabrielle.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live and raise kids on the world’s only island city-state? Me, too. And so…welcome to Singapore! Today, we’re visiting the home of Justina and her family who reside in a high-rise apartment — think 40 to 50 stories high! — and homeschool from way up there, too.

Her life, to me, is pretty normal and yet so fascinating at the same time. I want to visit! I want to smell the aromas of Singapore, walk through the streets around her house, look out from her balcony, ride public transportation… Oh, today is one of those days I wish my home tours could be videotaped and watched over and over, like an episode on HGTV!

Please help me welcome Justina and her boys, plus one little girl who is set to make her arrival very, very soon. (UPDATE! She was born yesterday, on Chinese New Year! Congratulations, Teys!)

Hello, I’m Justina, hailing from sunny Singapore! I’m married to John, and we have three little boys: Jude, Jamie, and Josh, who are seven, four, and two. We’re also expecting a little girl, who will be joining the family really soon, probably by the time this tour goes live!

I’m currently a stay home mum. I used to teach Biology and Science in an all-boys secondary school, which I believe is what you would refer to as high school in your part of the world. I’ve always wanted to be an interior designer, ever since I set my eyes on an IKEA catalogue when I was 13, but my parents hoped that I would be able to get a stable job. And so I ended up becoming a teacher instead.

I did love teaching, and I enjoyed my time teaching those classes of rowdy boys! However, the kids came along, and we decided I would stop work to care for them full-time. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

The hubby is an anesthetist. He’s from Penang, Malaysia, which is arguably the street food capital of the world — this means he’s quite particular about food! We make regular drives all the way back to his hometown, and each trip usually results in me gaining some weight from all the non-stop eating we do when we are there.

Since he’s quite the foodie, he’s a good cook, too. He used to do most of the cooking before the kids came along, since I was hopeless in the kitchen, but I’ve since learnt to cook from the sheer necessity of having to feed the kids!

Jude is our little bookworm, and spends most of his time with his nose buried in a book. He loves to draw and paint, and is just crazy about dinosaurs and prehistoric animals.

Jamie is our spirited kid who can be such a sweetheart. He is fascinated with vehicles and numbers.

Josh is quite the cheeky toddler, who never fails to makes us laugh. He loves to eat, and is always opening the fridge or kitchen cupboards demanding “I hungry, I want bi-kit!”

All in all, our three little boys are so very different, but they complete our family.

We are based in Singapore, where it’s hot, humid, and raining one third of the time! We aren’t too fond of the weather, because everyone’s sticky and sweaty all the time when we are outdoors. However, we spent a year in Germany a few years back, and I’ve learnt that winter with kids isn’t that fun, either. So I’m just glad that we don’t have to pile many layers on squirmy toddlers here, and that we can escape into an air-conditioned mall or eatery when it gets too hot.

Since Singapore is really small, land is scarce and property prices are really high! Most of us stay in HDB (Housing Development Board) flats, which can go up to 40 or 50 stories high.

This kind of high-rise living means everyone is community whether you like it or not: your neighbour might hang her dripping wet laundry over your almost-dry clothes, and we know what our Indian neighbour is having for lunch, because we can get whiffs of the curry cooking in her kitchen.

Thankfully, we’ve been blessed with good neighbours. Sometimes the aunty next door — we call the older ladies Aunties as a sign of respect, and the older men Uncles — brings over green bean soup and other yummies when she cooks them for her family.

Most people love living in Singapore for its cosmopolitan vibe, and its varied and colourful culture. You can get all sorts of yummy food at any time of the day! For us, we are more country folk, so we do find life here a little too hectic and crowded. But the nice thing about Singapore is that there are many green spaces that we can retreat to when the concrete jungle gets to us.

Many find that bringing up children in Singapore is expensive, since the cost of living here is pretty high. The pace of life is pretty fast, as well, and many kids have a packed schedule with school, tuition, enrichment classes, and other activities. I guess we wanted a slower pace of life for our kids, which was why we made the decision to homeschool.

Owning a car here is rather expensive too, so most of us rely on public transport, which runs pretty efficiently. It helps that Singapore is small, so getting anywhere usually does not take more than an hour. We have a car, but my husband primarily uses it.

The kids love taking the bus. While going out with three littles can be challenging, we more or less have gotten the hang of it. I’m not sure how it will be with four, though!

The hubby and I started house-hunting when we were going to get married, and we limited our search to the area near my parents and our workplaces. We looked at a couple of places, had a few debates, and finally settled on our current home. We didn’t choose the place with kids in mind, since we were not thinking that far ahead then.

One of our main criteria was that it needed to be a place we could move in with minimal renovation, since we both had just started working some time back, and didn’t have much money to do much. In Singapore, most people hire contractors or interior designers to do their renovations, since DIY isn’t popular and materials can be hard to find.

We did end up doing some renovations, though, as the kitchen was falling apart. But we decided we could live with the old bathrooms. We hired one of the cheapest contractors we could find, and it was one of my greatest regrets since everything started falling apart with the passing of years!

We ended up renovating the kitchen and the bathrooms after we came back from our one year stint in Germany. I especially love our kitchen now, since it looks so much brighter and cheerier than our earlier kitchen.

We love the area we stay in, because everything is near by: there is a wet market across the road for us to buy fresh produce, the supermarket is a 15-minute walk away, and we have a relatively large green space with playgrounds just downstairs. We would be really sad to bid goodbye to this place because the location is so convenient, but we decided to look for a larger place, since the kids are home more often because of homeschool, and we really needed more space to spread out.

We initially started out filling our home with lots of dark wood furniture before the kids came along. We had a black kitchen countertop and dark cabinets. Looking back, I think it was a little dreary.

Our style slowly evolved with the arrival of the kids, and now I’d say it’s more Scandinavian mixed with touches of vintage. I think having kids makes you want to make your home lighter, brighter, and more colourful?

Because we have to squeeze all five of us in a relatively small space, we try our best to maximize every little bit of space we have. Our entryway houses the kids’ nature corner, with a blackboard wall to doodle on, and we have another blackboard wall that we use for learning and for writing greetings for parties.

The boys all share a bedroom. We did some hacking to some walls in the home to allow for us to have more light, as well as a larger dining area. This way, we could fit a long extendable table in the dining room, so that we can host gatherings or craft sessions.

We find that we have to keep adding storage, so that we can house the crazy amount of children’s books that we have. Kid lit is one of my weaknesses!

Since we have such limited space, we do our learning anywhere. I find that children learn all the time, and we don’t need to sit down with textbooks to make learning happen.

The kids head out some days for co-ops where they get to play with their friends, but on days that we stay home, most of our crafting and seat-work happens at the dining table, as we don’t have the luxury of a school room. As our kids are young, only Jude has an hour or so of lessons, while the younger two sometimes join in and want to do school. Learning these days is still pretty organic, and there’s lots of reading, and exploring at their own pace!

I love crafting, and used to do a fair bit of scrapbooking. These days, I don’t really have the time to scrap, but I enjoy making stuff with the boys. Again, all these things happen at the dining table. I discovered that when you make materials accessible to the kids, creativity naturally happens,. We always have someone doodling or cutting or pasting in some corner of the house. It helps that we ensure all mediums are washable…after one accident of oil pastels on the sofa!

Over the past ten years, we’ve slowly added all sorts of memories to our home: posters picked up from our travels, the kids’ artwork, photos of our family, all sorts of vintage findings, and my enamel plate collection. I love digging around in flea markets, and especially love these enamel plates, since they bring back memories of the time my mum used to serve food in some of these dishes. I love decorating with items that hold a history, where you can tell a story about where you got the item from, or who used to own it, or how so and so painted this when he was five years old.

Sometime ago, I read Marie Kondo’s book about tidying, and her advice to keep only things that spark joy really resonated with me. So I think that’s my philosophy for decorating now, to keep and use only things that I love, not stuff that is trendy or stuff we feel obligated to keep because someone gave it to us. It’s been helping me in my decluttering process, since we are now slowly packing for our move in a few months time!

I started a blog after the oldest came along, in the hope of journalling his growing up years. I’ve always enjoyed writing, so blogging is a way I unwind and unravel all the thoughts swirling around in my brain. Over time, it grew into something bigger since I realized how powerful words posted in cyberspace can be.

I started writing more posts about our own struggles as parents, as well as the crafts and activities we tried as a family. I had readers writing in to share their own problems, sharing how they were encouraged by my blog. From the blog came the FB page, and with it, my Instagram account. I found that Facebook was a great way to quickly share with others links that inspire or encourage us, and Instagram was alternative way of recording memories.

I could never figure out Twitter, though! These days, I’ve been quieter on the blog since life has been so full, but social media has been a way of remaining connected with others.

Blog aside, a friend and I started a little business selling vintage-style home decor items. Both of us love sourcing for such things, so it’s been a fun venture, as we get to buy things we like and see them brighten up the homes of others. I admit, sometimes I feel rather overwhelmed by the needs of the home and family, so having the blog and biz helps to give me a sense that I am not just a diaper-changing, cleaning, and cooking machine.

For me, the evenings just before dinner are the hardest. Everyone is tired, and I am trying to rush to put dinner on the table. Fights seem to be the most frequent then! I am quite the introvert, so after a whole day of breaking up fights, and carrying a sticky toddler, I am usually quite spent.

The hubby usually isn’t home until dinner time or after, but these days my dad comes by in the evenings to bring the kids to the playground, to let me cook dinner in peace. My dad has been such a Godsend! He decided to stop work to help me when he learned of our decision to homeschool.

I used to struggle a lot with having a messy, chaotic home, but I am learning how to look beyond the messes. I love how children fill a home with such joy. The laughter, the bright scribbles of crayons, the pattering of feet. I realize that home would not be the same without them.

I hope that our children will remember our moments spent as a family, of reading together, of crafting, of preparing for birthday parties together, of loving each other even though we sometimes got on each other’s nerves!

I wish someone had told me that I need to take care of myself before I can take care of my family.

It took four pregnancies for me to learn this, that I had to fill my own cup before I could fill the cups of others.

I am quite the Type A person, and I tend to just chug along and focus on getting things done, and suddenly I realize I am neglecting my own needs in the whole busyness of being a mum.

During my third pregnancy, I struggled with a period of antenatal depression. Added to that, I was suffering from really bad backaches from having to carry a toddler while heavily pregnant. I learnt that I cannot neglect self-care, and I’m thankful that I had my faith and a supportive hubby to tide me over that period.

Now, I am a lot more careful to look out for my own needs. I took up prenatal Pilates during my fourth pregnancy, which really helped me to keep most of the aches and pains at bay. I also try to take time to write or read in the early mornings, so that the introvert bit in me has some respite from the daily noise of little people. I’ve been much happier since!


Thank you, Justina, for the tour and your reminder about self-care! No matter how hard we try, it’s sometimes difficult to remember how thirsty we are when we’re so preoccupied filling up everyone else’s cups. It’s true.

I had to laugh and shake my head in wonder when Justina described her neighbors’ laundry dripping down on her own dry clothes, or the odors of a particularly spicy dinner wafting over from the apartment next door. I know a few people who live in neighborhoods and wait to mow their grass on Saturday mornings until they’re sure everyone within a two-street radius is awake! I’m curious how I’d handle such close-quarter intrusions. I hope they’d make me smile and be grateful I lived in such a unique circumstance, you know? I would hope that I would be a wonderful neighbor like Justina’s and bring over food!

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me knowWe love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

33 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Justina Tey”

  1. Such an interesting peak into your life. I’ve always wondered how I would cope in an apartment in a crowded city. Thanks for sharing.

  2. As a Malaysian reading this with a foot of (Coloradan) snow outside my front door, this makes me nostalgic for home! So it’s no surprise I loved the kopi tiam mugs, Justina, and the vintage kids’ plastic-weave chairs! Pray tell, how did you attach those enamel mugs to the wall?!

    1. Hi Rachel! They are held up using the magnetic knife rack from Ikea! Makes it easy for the kids to get them and put them back. Do you get to go back to visit?

  3. Oh goodness, this all just made me smile. Your family (congratulations on the birth of your daughter!), the chalkboard with the human body (so good!) and the maps on the bedroom wall (I have the same one in my classroom – I love it!) -what a packed life! It sounds so simultaneously fun and exhausting. I’m worn out with just one:) But my favorite thing was when you said you had to fill your own cup before you fill the cups of others. So, so true.

    1. Where does the wall map in the bedroom come from? I have been looking for one for ages and can’t find a large format like that.

  4. Such a beautiful family and tour! Justina, it was delightful to meet you here! As a former homeschooler of four littles, I am in awe of all the amazing ways you make it all work in such a tight space! And I love how your father comes to help in the evenings. What a blessing for you!

    Thanks for sharing your space and family with us. :)

    1. Val, it’s so nice to meet a fellow homeschooling mum here! We’ve been finding the space really tight, so we’re moving soon. We’ll miss this little home though!

  5. I love, love, love Singapore and my family and I visit as often as we can. It is a relatively short 9 hour flight from our home in Australia and a great stop over on the long haul to Europe. We love the ArtScience Museum, the Singapore Art Museum, the National Museum of Singapore, the Peranakan Museum, the gardens, Fort Canning, the food (especially chilli crab). I could go on and on. Thanks for the glimpse into your life in such a fabulous place Justina.

  6. Really identified with Evening Introvert Burnout! Also, what a precious gift of your dad coming by in the afternoons. One of those set ups that is great for everyone involved. Love the books and posters as well.

  7. What a lovely home! And her father quit his job to help her out when he found out they decided to homeschool? Hello! Grandfather of the Year Award! That is amazing.

    1. Yes I think we should give him that award! ;) He needed the break too, as he was really stressed at work. I’m glad he’s so much more rested and happy these days!

  8. Such an inspiring read. I also am more of a Type A mom and often neglect my needs in order to take care of everyone else’s. It was nice to read about someone else’s mothering ways, which are similar to my own. It also reminded me to take a step back and appreciate my littles while they are little – and take a little time for me too.

    1. Yes please do take some time for yourself too, Janice! I really learnt it the hard way, and being Type A meant I tend to just bulldoze through my day. Hugs and hang in there!

  9. I love the photo of the bunks with the world map. I could see my home country, New Zealand, from the bottom bunk! Now my grandkids enjoy all the craft materials from the craft area, just like their parents did. I agree, this encourages their creativity.

  10. The colors is what draws me to most of these homes. Thank you for sharing! I love the bedroom with the maps on the walls, and how do you keep your chalk board so clean looking? We painted our refrigerator with chalk board paint, and it so white ish now.

    I totally feel similarly about filling your own up first. It is the only want to survive and thrive through motherhood. Congratulations on adding to your family!

    1. Thanks Annie! We use a wet cloth to wipe the board. I admit, some weeks it looks whitish from all the chalk! Your chalkboard fridge sounds so cool!

  11. This is perfect! My parents will be moving to Singapore soon. I’m going to forward this to them. We homeschool too, and with us wanting to visit my parents sometime while they are there, I was a little worried how it would look with us having our kids out and about during times when school would normally be in session in Singapore. Where we live it’s not too unusual for homeschoolers to be shopping and at parks most kids are in school. It’s a relief to know that we’ll probably be okay. Your home is lovely and inspiring. Congrats on your little girl!

    1. Yes, you’ll totally be ok, Ruth! There is a growing number of home-schoolers in SG. :) I think your kids will enjoy their visits there since there’s so many fun things to do here! Drop me a note when you do visit, and I can recommend you places to go!

  12. I love this! You have a beautiful home. This is what I love about Design Mom, you realte to people on the other side of the world.
    Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top