It takes a village to raise a child, so goes the popular proverb. In the case of our photo shoot, it took almost a village to make the baby laugh.
But when she did, Bea Claire Tan’s smile lit up the room. The two-month-old cutie was being cradled by mum Carmen Soo, who tickled Bea’s chin lovingly.
Meanwhile, dad Benson Tan was in close vicinity, making funny faces. He was quickly joined by the photographer and writer, all trying to get the perfect shot of a cute, contented baby.
“She’s stingy with her smiles. She smiles more now, but only in spurts,” explains Carmen after the shoot is successfully completed and Bea takes a well-deserved nap. The popular actress and model, 41, has graciously allowed Life Inspired into her Kuala Lumpur home (into which they just moved) for Bea’s “media debut”.
This is the first child for Carmen and Benson, who tied the knot in Bali in 2015. “We didn’t immediately try for a baby after our wedding, or even in the second year. Last year, Benson and I decided to try; we were counting dates and all that.”
At that time, Carmen was acting in Thunderstorm (which co-starred Priscilla Wong and Patrick Teoh), a local play that revolved around a wealthy family’s scandalous shenanigans. Carmen played Fan Yi, a beautiful but venomous lady of the house.
“I didn’t want to conceive a baby while I was playing a character who was quite evil. Unbeknownst to me, my co-star Priscilla was thinking the same thing; that she didn’t want to conceive while performing in such a dark play.”
After the play ended in April last year, Carmen landed a small role in Crazy Rich Asians. The much-hyped Hollywood movie, which stars Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu, was shot in Malaysia and Singapore. (It opens in cinemas this August.)
“I didn’t know about my pregnancy until a month plus into the movie shoot,” exclaims Carmen. “And then I found out Priscilla was also pregnant, in the exact same week!”
After the filming of Crazy Rich Asians, Carmen made a return to television in the sitcom Oh My English! She has a recurring role as a teacher in the long-running Malaysian production.
“The show’s new season sees new students, while retaining some of the teachers. By then, I was showing a little so I had to find ways to cover up the pregnancy bump,” recalls Carmen with a smile.
“Right after we wrapped Oh My English!, a film I was meant to do was postponed to October, so I had to pull out of it,” she adds.
For a sought-after thespian, who has acted in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines (where she gained immense popularity in Filipino soap opera Kahit Isang Sagit), Carmen has absolutely no reservations about taking a break from showbiz to concentrate on motherhood.
“Carmen is awesome as a mother,” concurs Benson, 37, who is a business development director. “For her to put her acting career on hold and to focus solely on Bea, I consider it a huge sacrifice for her.”
However, where Carmen is concerned, she doesn’t consider it a sacrifice at all. Motherhood, she enthuses, is something she has wanted her whole adult life.
“I am never one to place my career before family. It’s just that the right guy didn’t come along in my 20s, so I focused on my career. Almost all my friends were married, had kids and I was constantly playing with their babies. So, I have always wanted to have children … and now I have Bea!”
Bea was welcomed into the world on Feb 9, 2018. At that time, Carmen and Benson had just moved into their new house. “We couldn’t move in earlier, as renovations were taking longer than expected. Benson rushed for the bedroom to be ready, so at least we could sleep here. Even then, construction workers were coming in and out of the house.”
Two nights in their new abode, Carmen’s water broke. “It was two days earlier than my due date, and I went to the hospital at 3am. After 10 hours in labour, I had dilated only 1cm, and the doctor said we were looking at a possible 24-hour labour. The baby was caught around the neck (by the umbilical cord) and her heartbeat dropped. In the end, we decided on an emergency caesarean.”
During that period, Benson was understandably stressed. “After the delivery, I was in the hospital for four days. Benson had to be at home to supervise the construction then pop into the hospital in the evenings. We sort of took it one day at a time.”
Though Carmen is obviously besotted with Bea, she is candid about the struggles that come with motherhood.
“Being a mum in my early 40s, my energy level is different than say, a mother in her 20s. I was a little paranoid when I was doing my check-ups, and then I worried that my baby wouldn’t accept me, that I would not be able to soothe her. I had all these fears, like what if I don’t have enough milk to feed her?”
She had some help in the form of a confinement lady who stayed in their home for the first month and a half. But at nights, it was solely Carmen who had to get up every two hours to feed Bea.
“The first month was the toughest, as I was only sleeping three hours on average every night. I thought I could cope with not sleeping as I’ve done overnight shoots as an actor, but this was completely different. Staying up all night was getting to me, and I was just so tired; a lot of times, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Talking to her friends who are mothers – and her own mum – helped.
“They all advised me the same thing: that the situation will only get better, and the baby will sleep for longer periods of time. I was told not to be so hard on myself. I sought comfort in the mini triumphs, like watching Bea grow in my care … that kept me going.”
No doubt, Carmen is already envisioning a future where she gets to share fashion and beauty tips with her daughter. “Bea does this thing where she raises her pinky. I always try to catch it, link our fingers together and say ‘BFFs!’
“Bea is born in the Year of the Rooster, like Benson. So, I think they’re probably going to be alike, which is a good thing, as I can bond with Benson. But they might gang up and try to bully me in the future,” jests Carmen.
Hair and makeup: Sharman Yee@Plika Makeup