Being a single mother is Singapore is no small feat. Serena (who prefers to go by only her first name) has experienced her fair share of hard knocks raising her daughter in a system that favours the nuclear family in terms of state benefits. In a tete-a-tete with Five Stars and a Moon, she talks about her struggles being an unmarried mother, the unfettered support she receives from her family, friends, co-workers and employer, and her hopes for the future.
FSaaM: How long have you been a single mum? Is there still a stigma attached to being one in Singapore?
Serena: I gave birth to my daughter three and a half years ago so I’ve been a single mum since. The difference between my situation and most other single mums in Singapore is that I’m unmarried, whereas the general definition of a single mum can include single mums who are divorcees or widows.
There’s not so much of a stigma attached to single mums in Singapore society, I don’t think, but among family members and relatives it was difficult for me at first, as such things are not commonly accepted especially among the traditional elders. I got pregnant when I was already 28 years old and made the decision to keep my baby. My mother wasn’t happy at first and she wasn’t supportive of my decision but she eventually accepted the fact and now helps me raise my daughter.
FSaaM: What is life like as a single mum? Do you generally get support from the people around you?
Serena: I place my daughter in childcare while I’m out at work, but on days where I have to work late, my mum fills in for me to pick up my daughter from the centre and keep watch over her until I get home. On certain weekends when I’m required to work, I have relatives who are more than happy to help me look after my daughter while I’m out. It’s been relatively easy since Singapore is so small and you can get people to help at short notice.
In the US where I used to live and where my daughter was born, it could be a little tougher for single mums to get support because family members and relatives live in different cities, towns or even states.
FSaaM: How is it like being a single, working mother? How do you juggle between work and being a parent, especially since you play both the role of mum and dad?
Serena: I am a strong believer of work-life balance. I keep my focus on my work at the workplace, and devote my time to my daughter when I’m at home. However, there are times when I need to get work done while watching over my daughter. Being able to work from home is a huge advantage for me and it’s really imperative that there is that flexibility and trust from my employer. Also, if there was an emergency concerning my daughter, I could just take my laptop with me and continue working from home after attending to the problem.
In my previous job, I didn’t have a laptop as we used desktop computers, so it wasn’t even physically possible for me to work from home effectively.
FSaaM: What are some of the key challenges you have faced or currently face as a single mum in Singapore?
Serena: In terms of benefits and policies, single, unmarried mums are at a disadvantage. For example I don’t get tax relief that other young mothers or parents get when I file my annual income tax report. When I file my taxes, I do them as a single person even though my daughter’s citizenship certificate – she is a naturalised Singaporean as she was born overseas – indicates that I’m her mother. When I asked the tax department about this, they asked me to provide a marriage certificate and my daughter’s citizenship certificate. I provided the latter document but also told them I was unmarried so I didn’t have a marriage certificate. They didn’t even respond to my email and the next thing I knew I had to pay income tax without the reliefs that my married peers were entitled to.
Another example is childcare leave where each parent gets six days of childcare leave per year, so that’s 12 days between both parents. The law states that the child’s parents must be lawfully married, so this benefit does not apply to me. Single, unmarried mums only get two days a year of official childcare leave. I brought this up with an MP before during one of his walkabouts during the last general elections. I raised my concern about how being a single mum I don’t receive the same benefits as a married parent. I explained how I get a lot of support from my family and my employer, but I wasn’t getting support from the government.
I also can’t apply for an HDB flat as my official marital status is single and I’m not above 35. Rental units are so expensive and I can’t afford private property, so buying an HDB flat would be an option but I’m not entitled to that. I was lucky enough that my mum offered to share her home with my daughter and I when we returned from the US.
There are a lot of single, unmarried, working mums in Singapore who are not getting support from the state. I can still manage with my salary as a manager, but there are a lot of women like me who are from the working class, and life for them and their children can be really tough.
FSaaM: Have your employer and colleagues been supportive?
Serena: I’m lucky enough that my employer and colleagues support and understand my situation. My colleagues would cover for me if I needed to take my daughter to the doctor. As for childcare leave, my employer gives me six days regardless of my single status. What’s important is that my employer gives me the same benefits as with my other colleagues who are married parents. There’s no distinction between parents who are married and those who aren’t.
In general, I have to emphasise that I’m not expecting more benefits as a single parent, but at least be treated no differently from married parents. My employer has been great and I’m very fortunate, but not every single, unmarried mum out there is as lucky. At the policy level, something needs to be done to help women like me but whose employers don’t afford them the parental benefits just because it’s not required by law.
FSaaM: What kind of change would you like to see in Singapore society, both culturally and policy-wise, in its attitude towards single mums?
Serena: I think that culturally we’re evolving and our generation will shift the general mindset as our society becomes more well-read, well-travelled and exposed to different things. In terms of government policies, all I ask is that all working parents be given equal rights and benefits. I want to be seen as a parent first and not as a single mum. Our basic needs should be met. Regardless of our marital status, as parents, we need to provide our kids a roof over our heads, and attend to them when they’re sick, or meet their teachers at school. As single, unmarried mums, we should be able to get the support from the government to ensure the well-being of our children first and foremost, regardless of our marital status.