“On Becoming Mom” ~ Mae Chan Frey on Ruby’s Garden and her path to “NOW”

“Give ’em what they never knew they wanted.” ~Diana Vreeland


Royal in “Baby Royal.”

The challenge of being a new mom is not just figuring out how to care for a newborn baby, but what to do with your time, your self, your career (if you even had one) afterwards. Do we go back to doing what we were doing before having the baby, or create something new with both the child and our new role as mother in mind? This is the dilemma I always seem to face as I move through the world. And there are countless mothers out there used to one type of lifestyle before pregnancy and then had to make choices postpartum that involved the balance of motherhood and sanity. I love hearing other moms’ stories of what they chose to do, which puts into perspective the choices I had made, now that my daughter Royal is 11, and my son August is 8. I didn’t have a career when I got pregnant at 29, but was finishing up a graduate degree in anthropology and film, and embarking on a possible career in clothing design. I had the luxury of developing my brand ~ both women’s and baby/toddler ~ as Royal was growing up. The key for me was how to integrate being a mom with raising a child as my husband worked… Below and left are a few images that invoke what I did integrating designing clothes and having a child into a business that kept literally moving forward as Royal grew. And although many clients and friends thought developing a business partially inspired by my daughter was the perfect solution to merging being a mother and having an exciting career, there were many times I just wanted to run away to a salaried job that was absolutely unrelated to motherhood. As much as you deeply love that little being you just birthed, spending 24/7 with your baby for her first three years can drive you utterly mad! But these are the choices we make as we “become mom.” My friend Mae also did a 180 or actually (in retrospect) a 360 from architecture to knitting and then opening Ruby’s Garden (also inspired by her daughter Ruby) which funnily enough uses many of her academic tools and training from architecture in the retail realm. Many of us try to do this ~ integrate our past experiences and expertise into what we are passionate about and actually doing right now. But I also realized how important places like Ruby’s Garden were to me, and still are, especially knowing that they exist for other moms who, like me, very much need such a space ~ a place to go and “rest”around a community of people who seem to not only care but empathize deeply ~ a calming refuge. And it was sobering to re-connect with Mae and talk about those very difficult choices we face as working mothers who are at times happy and elated, but also lonely, emotional, irrational and just plain exhausted, and basically need a place to go, an ear to listen… Below, Mae talks about her store, located in the Temescal area of Oakland, between two of my favorite eating spots on Telegraph Avenue ~ the fried chicken sandwich and strawberry shortcake haven BakeSale Betty and my morning cafe and evening pizza joint Pizzaiolo. Mae and I met a few blocks down at Barkada, after I dropped off my son August at her husband Rick’s Urban FARMCAMP that he and their daughter were hosting in their backyard earlier this summer…

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Above, left ~ my “maternity line.” Center ~ Royal wearing one of my own childhood sweaters hand-knitted by a great aunt, with a “Baby Royal” outfit, paired with one of the dozens of barrettes I would buy at Ruby’s Garden and other stores. Right ~ Royal and I in matching silhouettes at Academy of Art fashion show.


photo 35Mae Chan Frey, Interview #41, Barkada, June 26th 2014

On her journey from architect to retail ~ “As an architect i was always looking for a design solution. Retail is like architecture in that I’m essentially solving a design problem whether it’s a new baby gift or a parent shopping for their own child. The parent is the client until their child is around 8 years old. Then the child starts having his or her own opinions which seems to always surprise (and disappoint) the parent ~  you used to love this floral dress. why don’t you love it any more?” On how she got to here ~ “I have an answer for that but it seems to keep changing; I think the way I usually see it is the path to NOW. I was born in Maryland, in the suburbs of DC and grew up in a typical Chinese American first generation household. All my parents cared about was achieving in math and science. I watched my sister push that boundary but she gave it up: in college she said she was thinking about being an art major and it was like she said “dad i am going to go throw away my life.” In hindsight, I think that’s why i picked architecture. It was art that was practical. It had parameters and a problem to solve. I went to CAL which I know now was more like art school. ~ “Don’t get real, we’re just thinking conceptually” in contrast to when i went to work, it was all about protection against liability which was not interesting to me at all. The part that I loved was the first phases of schematic design and development. Like for you, doing custom work for a client. For me, my favorite part of design was spending time with the end-user to find a solution that made their life better, and that is the part that is retail over and over again. I’m curating a collection of well-designed pieces which are whimsical and hopefully engaging for many ages. I’m showing them there are solutions beyond what they’ve seen before. They may come in with an idea of what they want but my job is to give them more ~ “But what about this recycling truck (by “Green Toys”) that has been locally made out of one gallon recycled milk jugs (and you would never know it.)?  Or these impeccably-made-in-San Francisco superhero capes?”

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Above ~ Green Toys Rocket, hand-made super-hero capes, “Oaklandish” tshirts and onesies for boys and girls.

On how Ruby’s Garden began ~ “Stay at home mom life was a huge adjustment for me emotionally. I was really missing tangible creative work so I was knitting and making things after putting Ruby to bed. The structure of knitting was appealing to me in it’s technical aspects, which also reminded me of building. So when I came out of the “new mom cave” I was able to work at Article Pract just a few hours a week and that’s where I realized helping customers was like fostering little building projects. From a design background, it was the fun part of initial planning and design with clients but without having to live through the construction details. I learned a lot about retail there, but at the time I thought I wanted to be a knitting designer. [Back story ~ Before moving to Temescal, I lived in an apartment complex in East Oakland, where a team of us tutored Cambodian refugee kids, helped with ESL and citizenship classes for their parents, and basically got to know whatever their needs were. Eventually we helped organize the tenants in suing the landlord which resulted in a couple of great non-profit housing developers taking ownership. This was in 2001. And I was a part of the non-profit architecture firm that was to redesign it.] But back to the knitwear company, I had the idea that I could design knitwear and hire the Cambodian moms to knit the designs. One of the problems we were trying to solve was how they could make enough money to support their families. But then it scared me to have a staff financially dependent on my company, especially people who had been through so much. In 2006 Ruby was 3 and I knew from the way I was knitting that I was hungry for work. I already knew I didn’t want to go back to architecture. When I found out my friend Mary was opening a flower shop in our neighborhood, I couldn’t stop thinking about what that shop could be. And I thought “I’m an entrepreneur ~ hungry for doing that type of stuff.” For the first 15 months we were on Shattuck in a tiny space with the flower stand in front and about 200 square feet of shop space! Then we moved to a bigger space across Shattuck next door to Genova Deli where we stuck out a difficult five year lease. Then two years ago we moved into the current space which is about 1,800 square feet, and we really like our landlord, who also owns Asmara next door.

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Above ~ different views of the store and it’s aesthetic. I remember the couches to hang out on (and nurse and talk), and the tables for my kids to play at.

On the merchandise ~ “Most people come to us for new baby gifts and birthday gifts. Our main focus is clothing but we’ve also got a tight selection of toys and books. It’s easy to find great clothes for up to 6. I’m always hunting for what will work for up to size 12, but that’s harder to figure out. We hunt for local brands; we carry Tea Collection up to size 7, Oaklandish t-shirts and onesies for babies to size 12, capes by Baby Leo. Baby Leo was started by Mimi who lives in Daly City, who designs super hero capes. She has 10 stock designs and does custom ones too. Different seamstresses in the city cut and sew each design, so it’s very cottage industry. I like the idea of people being able to work from their homes and make a flexible life. And then a portion of the store is gently-used . “Local” is supporting the local community as well. We’re buying clothing and shoes from local parents; I call it The Mommy Paycheck, because it’s usually Mom who is curating Baby’s wardrobe and caring for those pieces day in and day out. If they chose great pieces and managed to keep them in good shape, we give them what amounts to major discounts (store credit) on whatever they want to buy in the shop new or used.” On clients and building customer relationships ~ “Our client is the neighborhood mom. I like being a community building place. The best brick and mortar stores are interested in the community experience because you can get product anywhere now. Restaurants have the advantage because you can’t get that experience on-line. So you have to think about “what is the experience” ~ it’s a place that supports moms. It’s my bias too. Because I was so overwhelmed adjusting to new motherhood, I really try to focus on supporting moms. And I don’t want to necessarily do classes because then the tone is “here’s what you need to do differently”… What we do is try to figure out first “who are you buying for. tell me about them.” Right there we’re opening up a conversation, getting to know them. They also want us to tell them what gifts work best ~ for example the capes are a hit, and people come back and tell me so, and then i can say “get that” they will love it. And then that relationship ~ it gets into life. You get to know people and you are in their lives and you realize that you’re the person they needed to talk to today. it reminds me of the Oak Park days. After college i thought what did i want to do and kept thinking did i want to be a social worker? I went to bar tending school for a moment, because I love to hang out and talk (like we’re doing now). People kind of fly through and that’s my sweet spot. I’m happy. I’m good at it. I like to go heavy, deep and real with people.”

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Above, left ~ My favorite thing to do was hunt down amazing used clothes, and I got many of Royal’s at Ruby’s Garden. Center ~ I love both the display of and the actual leggings/skirts that I would wear if they had my size, and darker colors. Right ~ Appaman was my favorite brand for my son August.


On what mom’s need and Mae’s next step ~ “Curbside delivery, dropping something off at their house. The question is how do you retain customers? We try to “surprise and delight” whenever we can, but day to day we just try to be kind and hospitable. It’s person to person versus on-line.. so it’s about community. And maybe the next thing, in terms of growth, are second and third stores ~ Albany, Solano, Elmwood.

On a few Favorite PLACES in the East Bay ~ Sagrada ~ It’s a peaceful place. Carlo and Mary are the nurturing presence of the block They have been so kind to us. Tian Jin Dumplings in Chinatown are the best around. We served them at our Chinese New Year party and everyone asked where we got them! Viv and Ingrid makes wonderful jewelry, and I find great girlfriend gifts at their retail store in Berkeley. Walrus is in the alley (in Temescal). Wendy finds furniture and repurposes and refinishes it. We’ve been displaying her pieces in our store and making it a part of our merchandising. Article Pract is still my favorite local yarn store. They know how to choose the yummiest yarns that make your project worth all that time you put into it.


On EVENTS at the store ~ “We try to make events that are fun for the whole family. We try to respond to what people want. Like the Frozen Sign Along.. All of us moms were listening to it a lot ~ Frozen became this phenomenon, so I posted it on Facebook and said let’s do this together. We did a movie screening inside the store, kids watched and sung along. For Halloween, Temescal Trick-or-Treat where we have a costume contest and give prizes to the scariest and most creative..There is the annual Temescal Street Fair which has grown. I like that aspect of merchant community of us all doing something together; and of course First Fridays when we are open til 8pm. I also want to do more mom’s night out parties. We did one with Kiehl’s on 4th street where someone came and brought product and we had a masseuse. I hope to renovate our downstairs sometime for a “Mom Speakeasy,” where moms get to hide out for awhile and recharge….Moms are so focused on their kids. I call it “when i was in the cave”. We moms need self-care and need to think about and take care of that part of us who is not mommy. Something about our culture is unhealthy because it’s un-balanced. As professionals we just focus and we put ourselves ALL into it as if it were our full time job, and our child becomes “the product we’re supposed to perfect.” There’s no balance.”

EAT: perfectly cooked eggs
DRINK: tapioca drinks at Sweet Booth, any cocktail at Pizzaiolo
LISTEN: to podcasts when I run
WATCH: the entire series of Felicity (now I’m watching the Americans–very different!)
LOVE: girlfriends
BE: free
FORGET: old boyfriends
SWEAR: I’ve worked at not swearing lately but Fuck is such a good word.


Last thought ~ on how Ruby inspired her ~ “Once I was pregnant with Ruby, I felt a little relieved that I could stop trying to make myself fit the architect mold. But I felt anxious about not having any career path. My mother gave up her nursing career when she started having kids, which was just what women were expected to do in the 1960s. Since I was very young I watched my mother fight for the right to go back to work. She eventually flourished in real estate, and I wanted to show Ruby a mommy who loved her work also. It was important to me that the shop felt like a second home for Ruby.My business partner Mary has been like a second mother to Ruby. Ruby and I joke now that she’ll eventually take over the family business which already bears her name. I just hope she’ll find work that is as fulfilling as this is for me.”

When I left Mae, and again when writing this post, I thought about the dilemma we face every day ~ the decisions we have made with respect to raising our children and having a career ~ something we do every day that we truly love. I thought about my other friends and the questions they raise about deciding to have children at all. What I tend to tell people are that you have to make a choice, and hopefully in the end figure out a balance that can work for your passion and ambition to correlate in some way with raising a family, which becomes the center of your world. I like to think of it like so ~ my dear friend Peter Sellars, the opera director, said to me a few years ago at Cafe Milano near the UC Berkeley campus one of my favorite mantras ever ~ “you need to imagine a space, create it and live in it.” We all can attempt to do this in various forms, some of us taking our past experiences and professional training and making them relevant to encompass the world of our families, children and selves. For some of us, it may be our homes, for others, like me it is my design studio that I transform once a month into a “salon,” and for Mae it is her store, her home and the Temescal Community she inhabits. It’s truly inspiring.

“If I had to embrace a definition of success, it would be that success is making the best choices we can…and accepting them.”                     ~ Sheryl Sandberg

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Above ~ Ruby (who actually went to school at Kaiser Elementary with Royal), at age 5, modeling local designers for the shop ~


Ruby’s Garden 5026 Telegraph Avenue (recent NYT article on Temescal and Oakland) Oakland, CA 94609 510-595-5325 Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am – 6pm First Fridays, 10am-8pm


Also, please note that my BABY ROYAL hats are available at Ruby’s Garden in various sizes, colors, fabrics.  Below, my friend’s daughter Cornelia is wearing a wool Baby Royal hat, whilst playing inside The Ark on 4th street, one of my “local” (to my studio) favorite shops across from another favorite, the magical Castle in The Air, which both Royal and I love these days.




“The real world is in a much darker and deeper place than this, and most of it is occupied by jellyfish and things. We just happen to to forget all that. Don’t you agree? Two-thirds of earth’s surface is ocean, and all we can see with the naked eye is the surface: the skin.” ~ Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

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