Global Mamas: Singapore

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We’re profiling one mother from every country on the planet. (Current tally: 11 down, 181 countries to go!)


Meet Marisa Low. She’s a 34-year-old working in marketing communications in the Singapore civil service. After being married for six years, Marisa became a mom in 2010. While her “very chatty” firstborn son, J.R., just moved into his Terrible Twos, Marisa’s expecting a baby girl in June.

Here’s her story …

Photo by Marisa Lowe

Life before baby …
For five years my husband and I lived a very comfortable (and, admittedly, sometimes indulgent) life as a “DINKs” household — Dual Income, No Kids. We dined out a lot, went on holiday every year, and concentrated on our advancing our careers. We also spent quite a bit of time and financial resources setting up our home, and enjoyed hosting parties at our place. It was enjoyable, but we had always known that it wasn’t going to be just the two of us forever, nor did we want it to be just us. We talked about having kids all the time but we figured that God would bring a child into our lives when we were ready so we didn’t specifically plan for a child

My ideas about motherhood …
I had always known I wanted to be a mother. Even as a pre-teen, I knew that I wanted to have children one day. By the time I was in my late teens, I had decided that I didn’t believe in marriage, but I still wanted children, so I came to the conclusion that I would likely become a single mom. I was open to the idea of adopting, but my youthful imagination (and Hollywood movies) had me believing that I could eventually find a supportive platonic male friend who would be willing to father a child with me and would leave the child-rearing to me.

When I was 17, I wrote a letter to myself that I was to open when I turned 35. I cheated and opened it when I turned 30! Apparently, my 17-year-old self had hoped that by age 35, I would have at least two children. I also once played a game with my friends where you dangle a ring over your open palm to determine the number and gender of the kids you would have. According to the ring, I was to have a boy and a girl; that sounded very nice and balanced to me.

Meeting my husband changed my perspective on marriage, but my desire for motherhood never wavered. The only thing that changed was we started envisioning ourselves with three kids.

Then came baby …
My husband and I moved in with my parents for a few months when our son was first born so that we could get some help with the baby. Though I was worn out from a lack of sleep, my new routine was decently manageable because J.R. was an amazing baby, feeding well every 3 hours like clockwork, and then sleeping or playing quietly for the rest of the time. He was also comfortable being carried by just about anyone, so whenever I needed a nap, I was able to hand him off to my parents.

The only challenging bit was around the third month when Josh developed problems passing gas on his own. He would wake up in the middle of night, crying and screaming because the build up of gas was bothering him. My husband and I would have to massage his tummy, “cycle” his legs, and do all sorts of shenanigans to relieve the pressure. That was a difficult couple of months. Oh, and the lack of sleep. That was a big change.

The most challenging part of motherhood …
The biggest challenge for me has been to make decisions knowing that it would greatly impact J.R.’s development. For instance, deciding when to wean him to solids, what to feed him, when to potty train him, when to start him in playgroup. My husband leaves these decisions to me, believing that I’d know best what to do, but half the time, I’m flying by the seat of my pants and making decisions based on advice from other moms, child-rearing books and online motherhood forums. It worries me that the decisions I make could be wrong and would end up hindering his development. And then, of course, every now and then other moms will say something that makes me second-guess the decisions I’ve made. The latest was,”Oh! Your child is NOT potty trained yet?” I feel like such a failure when that happens.

On balancing work and life …
Singapore offers a maximum of four months of maternity leave, but I took an additional two months — one of which was unpaid. When I returned, I missed the time with J.R. so much that I requested to work a four-day week (with the corresponding pay cut). Though it’s just one day extra to spend with him, I felt like my week was theoretically at a little more balanced: four days at work, three days with J.R.
But even with this flexible work schedule, the fact remains that the work itself — the expectations of my colleagues and my own sense of obligation/responsibility to my job — don’t quite allow for that clean separation of work and family days. I often had to work from home on that fifth weekday that I was supposed to be off.

At the start of this year, I went back to a five-day work week, so I see my son in the morning and then I’m home to put him to bed at night. I often feel like I’m in a lose-lose situation: I don’t get to spend time with my child, and I also don’t have much of a career to speak of because I would need to sacrifice a lot more family time in order to really forge ahead with my career, and I’m not willing to do that. So I’ve actually stopped calling it my “career” and started calling it my “job.” It’s a pay check, not something I do because I’m passionate about it.

The best part about raising a child in Singapore …
I’ve lived my whole life in Singapore (with a few years spent in the U.S. getting my university degree), and I always knew I wanted to raise my children here because it’s very safe and the healthcare system is top-notch but affordable — it’s the best part about raising him here.
It’s also great that Singapore is a nice blend of cosmopolitan Westernism and traditional Asian values so J.R. gets the best of both worlds. The fact that the country is so small also means that we’re never more than an hour’s drive away from family.

I’m really blessed to have two sets of healthy grandparents to look after J.R. while I’m at work, in addition to a domestic helper. I don’t think I could have raised my child as confidently without the help and support of my family.

The Singapore government has put in place policies to encourage couples to have children because the country is experiencing a steadily declining birth rate. Our country’s total fertility rate is at about 1.16, far below the replacement level of 2.1. So there are things like the Baby Bonus — which is basically credits banked into your child’s bank account to help you defer the cost of school fees and medical expenses — and tax exemptions for mothers.

They’ve also increased the number of infant and child care centers in Singapore, and there is a certain fee subsidy as well. These measures aren’t enough to defer the cost of raising a child nor are there enough quality infant and child care centers to support working parents, but the government constantly reviews these policies to see what more can be done.

The parts I wish were different …
The very competitive education system. Parents here place their yet-to-be-born children on waiting lists for the best kindergartens/pre-schools. Enrichment classes start from when the kids are as young as 6 months old, and continues all the way through until they’re in university. You get sucked into that competitive environment and your child is the one that suffers. I have yet to put J.R. into any enrichment classes besides gymboree and even though he’s only 21 months old, I already worry that I’ve shortchanged him and jeopardized his academic future somehow.

In general, being a mom in Singapore isn’t easy. Almost all of the married women I know are employed full-time, and most of us feel like it’s just not possible to strike the right balance. The working culture in Singapore is as such that you are expected to be on call 24-7, and that will inevitably cut into your family time. It’s something all of us working mothers struggle with, so gradually more and more women are just choosing not to be mothers.

Best piece of advice I ever heard …
“Enjoy your child. You’ll never get the time back again.” I remind myself of this whenever I’m tempted to stay a little longer at the office to finish off some work.

If we could jump into the DeLorean and race back in time …
I would tell myself: “You’re doing just great. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Just enjoy your time with J.R.”


We’ve got over 170 countries to go (yeah, whoa.). So if you would like to nominate a mother who is living and raising a family abroad to be featured on MMM’s Global Mamas series, do let us know! Drop a line to: get[dot]msmack[at]gmail[dot]com.

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