Super Women

Text by Tiffany Hervey & Lisa Yamada

Photography by John Hook

Shown left to right: Law professor Mari Matsuda, TCM executive director Allison Wong, and jewelry designer Noelani Love.

Is it true that children will ruin your life? A recent cover story in New York Magazine, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,” which examined the relationship between raising children and happiness, woefully summed up research on the topic: “As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest and that each successive child produces diminishing returns.” It’s all enough to make any guy or gal thinking about having children go sterile.

And if you’re a woman with a career? Forget about it. You’re likely to work long hours, spend less time with your children and spouse, and more likely to forget about why those darn kids ever made you happy in the first place because you’re too busy thinking about getting them to soccer/piano/baseball/hula/taekwondo practice on time, while stirring the spaghetti and changing the litter box, as you bounce your third child on your hip.

But here’s the glimmer of hope – because there is one – shining every so faintly through the impossibility of the current strain of thought: It’s possible. More than that, it’s purposeful, which inevitably leads to happiness and fulfillment. That New York magazine article goes on to cite Martin Seligman, a psychologist and self-help author with seven children of his own, who says that “happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it.”

Here we feature three women who are, despite what all the studies say, happily doing the extraordinary. They may not be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but they can raise a family, find success in professional life, and still be poised doing it. And that’s pretty super.


Professor, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa

“Cuban dance is like salsa, but I think it’s hipper than salsa because you have a little more of that backbeat. Everyone lines up in a circle, and everyone’s doing the same thing, and you keep going round and round in a circle until they call ‘switch!’ The moves are swift, and the music is good.”

I’m sitting in Professor Mari Matsuda’s office at the William S. Richardson School of Law at UH Mānoa, and she’s explaining to me the technique behind Cuban dance. It’s one of the things she does, she tells me, to be kind to herself. “You know, for women I think we’re so socialized to do for others all the time that it can become easy to lose yourself, then when you get depressed or angry, hostile, passive aggressive – whatever – you’re not that much use to the people around you.”

Like most women, Mari switches roles as quick as she changes Cuban dance partners. Only this time it’s at the call of those around her. She goes from mother to lawyer to professor to activist on a daily basis and is physical proof that you can possess both a highly impactful career and have a family. “For me the question was not, ‘Is it possible?’ For me, the question was, ‘Is it possible not to do it?’ She pauses to take a sip of tea. Then articulates, quietly, thoughtfully, “For some people, they can cross off one of those things – either career or family – at least for a big chunk of their life, but for me, that was not possible. Having children was a really important part of who I am, in part because I admire my own mother and her mother and all the strong women that came before me.” She contemplates our plantation history: “It’s not like the women in our background had a choice to work or not. They worked and had kids, sometimes right on the side of the cane field. You know, the babies right there beside them in the basket!”

Just as important as having children though, was advancing social justice and equal rights. She is gracious when she recounts moments in her career she is most proud of: becoming the first tenured female Asian American law professor in the United States while teaching at UCLA’s School of Law; being invited by South Africa’s supreme court at the end of apartheid to help interpret a new constitution for the country; being invited to the White House for a reception for leaders in the Asian American community; having authored three of the ten most-cited law review articles according to a list compiled by a Yale Law School librarian.

“Now here’s what’s not possible,” she says. “It’s not possible to be a good mother as a patriarchal society conventionally defines it, and to be a first-rate professional, as a patriarchal society defines it – at the same time. … So we need to readjust our ideas of what it means to be a good professional and a good parent. You are not going to be able to make the Halloween costume, bake the cookies from scratch, show up for every school event, and run your professional life the way most businesses expect you to run it if you’re going to rise to the top. And since the world is only changing slowly for individual women, that means we have to change internally, give ourselves limits.”

In fact, just a few nights before, Mari faced one of those tough decisions that every parent, who’s also a professional, inevitably faces. Her 15-year-old son Paul had a basketball game at the same time one of her students was giving an important presentation on islamaphobia and homophobia. She had to make a choice. She chose to see her son’s game, then immediately dashed over to the University to hear the second half of the presentation, Paul still in his basketball jersey. “Chuck’s out of town so Paulie has no parent at the game,” she explains. “You can survive that, but at some point you have to say, sometimes the kid deserves to have their perspective taken.”

As much as Mari and Chuck are involved in their kids’ lives, the kids are also very much intertwined into mom’s and dad’s. Kimi, 16, and Paul regularly attended demonstrations in Washington D.C. against police brutality or anti-war and gay rights demonstrations, where 10,000 people piled into the streets, all simultaneously standing up for what they believed in. (Mari’s oldest step-daughter, was already an adult when Chuck and Mari were married.) There were days when one of the kids was sick, and because she couldn’t find childcare, Mari had to bring them into her classroom. “So they would be sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, while I’m teaching on torts.” Ultimately, though, what Kimi and Paul got to see through it all was a wider world, a unique set of experiences that have resulted in two of the most well-adjusted teenagers this author has ever seen.

Still, Mari acknowledges that parenting is not easy. “A lot of it is just physical, and you’re not sleeping, and you’re just trying to survive. Get up, go to work, pick up the kids, make sure they’re fed, give them a bath, all that.” Because of the stresses that arise when raising children and juggling careers, Mari says that it can become easy to forget why you were ever attracted to your spouse, “when mostly, what you’re doing is using your partner as someone to do half the work. And if they’re doing less than half you get pissed off.

“I don’t think it’s possible to make a lifetime partnership with someone and raise kids together and not have conflict. Pain. Work. Everybody gets pushed to the breaking point, and a lot of people don’t make it past because you do forget to honor and value the individual you chose to make a life with when the weight of everything else is pressing down on you. … But if the love is there, at the end, you look at each other, and you say, all that work we did, it makes the love deeper and stronger.”


Executive Director, The Contemporary Museum


It’s 7:15 p.m. at the dinner table in Allison Wong’s house and Cameron, her 11-year-old son, is still talking about Scott Yoell’s sculpture installation at The Contemporary Museum’s Biennial exhibition. “So how many do you think there were, mom?” he asks again. “A hundred? A thousand?”

Allison smiles when she realizes she doesn’t know the answer to her son’s inquisitive question, even though she is the executive director of the museum. “You know what?” she tells Cameron, “I don’t think we ever asked him. So that’s a very good question.” With them at the dinner table are also Allison’s husband Thomas and their youngest son Evan.

You wouldn’t guess by the calm scene at the dinner table now, but Allison’s day actually started in a flurry 13 hours before. Up at 6:15 a.m. Breakfast, then pack lunches. Drop off to school at 7:30 – Cameron to Punahou, Evan to Noelani Elementary. Dash home, wash dishes, start a load of laundry. Note to babysitter. Arrive at The Contemporary Museum 8:30, 9:00 if she’s running late. Meetings to attend, schedules to coordinate, exhibitions to plan. A call from Evan’s school saying he’s sick at 11 a.m. Missed meeting with client at TCM. Pickup the boys at 2:30 p.m. Soccer at 4:00. Soccer ends at 5:30. Cook dinner. Eat dinner. Homework. Bath, bed, story, lights out for the boys at 9:00. Catch up on emails, Facebook updates and newsletter blasts, logistics, strategies. 11 p.m. Sleep. “Then we do it all over again.”

It’s a packed schedule that any mom/professional might be familiar with. (Mari Matsuda, previous, outlines a similar day.) “It is a juggling act,” Allison says of balancing career and family life, “so sometimes you have to give a little get a little. I think, though, as long as you are always completely honest to yourself and to your partner and to your family, you can definitely find that balance.” But, she clarifies, “it’s not always easy.”

Allison’s ascent into the art world began from early on. With art collectors for parents, Allison would frequently go gallery hopping with her father. Though she says she’s not artistic by nature, Allison always knew her future lay somewhere in the art world. She graduated from Mills College in Oakland, which historically is a college for women only, and worked as an intern (unpaid) at both The Honolulu Academy of Art and The Contemporary Museum. Eventually TCM asked her to stay. She was promoted to the curator for TCM’s First Hawaiian Center space, where she worked for 10 years before she moved to Fine Arts Associates as an art consultant, then to the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts where she was the director of the art in public places program. All that to say, she experienced the gamut of the art world: “I went from non-profit to for-profit to government, so it really gave me an outlook on how our state is structured in the arts.”

Although many in the art world would consider the position of executive director a dream job, Allison’s decision to accept was not an easy one. “I was on the fence forever about it,” she recalls. “I had to ask myself, ‘Can I do it? Will I have the time? Can I put 110 percent into it? … But I decided to take a chance and make it work.”

Though she finds herself away from her family more than she would like (at exhibition openings and social events for the museum, traveling to other states and countries for work), Allison still finds a way to be involved in her children’s lives as much as possible. Somehow she finds time to manage being PTA and classroom president, to chair silent auctions, to participate in school fairs and song festival.

Allison says the most important thing in managing the precarious balance between work and family is “having a partner that’s supportive. … So yeah, he can make home lunch and get all the boys’ things together,” she says of her husband, who works as a contractor. “And eating together. I just celebrated my 40th birthday, and we went to Tokkuri-Tei. That’s one of our favorite spots, along with shabu shabu, which is both of my boys’ favorite. Oh, they love it! And they love cooking.” I guess what they say is true: A family that eats together stays together.


Entrepreneur/Designer, Noelani Designs

Meeting Noe at the beach is easy. We set a vague time and surf break, and then I show up and look for pink. For some reason she is always dressed in pink. As a successful local jewelry designer, Noe has fabulous taste, but her personal pink obsession has always been an entertaining quirk. Today, I’m almost blinded by a blur of varying shades of hot pink coming toward me on the bike path. Noe’s two-year-old son Aukai is nestled in front of her, gripping the handlebars of the bike, screaming, “Hi Auntie Tiffomeeee!”

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Noe and I had big plans when we moved into a little house on the North Shore a few years ago. This was not a scenario either of us dreamed of. What was it John Lennon said? “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

Noe and Aukai are both beaming and giggling as we ride to drop him off at preschool. I remember the day she moved out of the house with him in her belly; the day he was born; all the days between then and now when it all seemed so big and overwhelming. The truth is, Noe embarked on being a mother the way she does everything: with grace and constant refinement. I’ve watched her make tough decisions out of integrity rather than fear, and the results are increasingly rewarding.

“I feel like I’m happier because I am a single parent,” Noe says. “There’s more freedom and not as much conflict since I only have to consider my needs and Aukai’s. I make my own schedule and make my own money. I call on my friends and family a lot for support. I couldn’t do it without them.” She lives and works from her home studio on the North Shore, which means she gets in the car maybe three times a week. “It’s such a great community up here.” She adds, “We help each other. There’s not much hustle bustle. We don’t care about going to the movies or going out. We have the beach, and we’re happy with that.”

Beyond the bronze appeal of her Hawaiian-Chinese-Scottish-French-English mix, Noelani Love has that sparkle – that special look of someone who is living a purposeful life. While becoming a single mom has definitely lit a fire under the entrepreneur to accomplish career goals much faster, she has always been passionate about what she loves and wanted to do from an early age.

None of her success thus far was in a business plan per se, but constantly striving to be a better version of her self is at the core of what makes her prosperous. Had she a plan, she probably wouldn’t have planned to be a single mother at 25, but she wouldn’t change a thing. She would have envisioned having her own store, but selling at Hale‘iwa Farmers Market on Sundays and stocking her jewelry in 15 local boutiques and 11 stores nationally and internationally has worked out just fine.

The jewelry, made of rock, precious stones, shell, wood, and sustainably grown mother of pearl, embodies the natural elements that inspire Noe. The designs, each named after a different girlfriend or customer, reflect a woman’s curves and Mother Nature’s fine lines. The pieces truly emphasize skin tone and face shape in a way that gives each woman an inimitable glow. And just like the natural forms they emulate, the pieces are timeless.

“It’s all a dream come true,” Noe says of her life and style. “I represent a dreamer’s lifestyle, just always being loving, improving yourself and the world around you, standing up for what you believe in, and owning your power.” She believes that each design she makes holds energy, not just from the natural materials, but because she is crafting each piece with the intention of empowering women to feel beautiful. “I put love into every piece,” Noe says. “I think when women put it on they can feel that love and in turn feel beautiful.”

Noe’s clientele is really part of her ‘ohana, as each paying customer becomes a friend, because she listens to them and uses their feedback to evolve her craft. “I’m never satisfied with feeling comfortable,” she says. “I know there’s always something to be done to be better.”

Noelani Love is an artist, business owner and single mother who surmounts her daily challenges with the simple belief that everything is going to be fine as long as she remains grateful and committed to growth. “Constant gratitude and a positive attitude – that’s what keeps me going,” she explains. “I have to just roll with it all and be appreciative because there’s a blessing in every challenge if we choose to see it.”

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