I’m not a mother. Not yet at least, but I’ve always known that I do want children at some point in time. From the smell of babies after they shower, their soft sighs when they sleep, to dealing with teenage angst and rebellion – I can’t wait to experience the joys (and pains) of parenting!
Since I’ve graduated and starting working though, that thought has become more of an ideal rather than something attainable. My job has been taking a toll on my life, so much so that my home has become more of a place to sleep rather than a place where I catch up with my family over dinner and light-hearted banters.
There isn’t any positive precedence to help my cause. My mother gave up her hair salon and dedicated her life to the family, and although she has never uttered a word of complaint, I do know that she sometimes thinks about how different things would have been if she had hold on to her career.
I look at my sister, who returned to her full-time employment after four months of maternity leave. She’s perpetually torn about taking childcare leave when my niece falls ill because she has responsibilities to fulfil at work. She even passed up on a promotion because she knew she wouldn’t be able to juggle both sets of obligations!
That’s why I can’t really be blamed for being apprehensive about throwing a husband and children into the mix. How am I to cope and do a good job straddling between being a good mother and a career-driven woman?
Our Foreign Minister K Shanmugam recently pointed out that there needs to be a “sea change in societal attitudes before more women can progress without having to make a choice between career and family”. He was speaking to the notion that men should take on an increased responsibility at home, similar to what is being practiced in Denmark.
While it is heartening to see the government practice what they preach – as part of the enhanced Marriage and Parenthood package, working fathers will also be entitled to share one week of the 16 weeks of maternity leave – I think the problem lies beyond a change in policy.
The crux of the question lies with the mentality of the society at large, exactly like how Mr Shanmugam has put it. Traditional Asian values dictate that the role of child caring and home making is helmed by women.
We’ve made a lot of progress regarding shared duties and responsibilities between men and women, but I’m inclined to think that the balance of the scale is still tilted towards the mother being responsible for the family.
The statistic speak for themselves: according to an article published in The New Paper, the Population Census and General Household Survey reported the number of stay-at-home husbands in Singapore to be at 2,151 in 2005.
Understandably, the stigma attached to the reversal of roles between men and women in a family is so pronounced that it is not something that can be shifted over a decade or two.
In fact, there’s a word in Mandarin for men in such positions and surprise, surprise, it is kind of condescending: 吃软饭, or “eating soft rice”.
Perception shifts towards shared responsibility at home aside, I think women also need to understand that it boils down to managing your personal expectations. You want it all – a happy family, a successful career – but what does that actually entail? Do you want to spend more time with your children, or enjoy quality time with them? Does having a successful career mean climbing up the corporate ladder, or having control over your working hours and appreciate the work you do?
There’s a subtle difference between “sacrificing” and “striking a compromise”. It’s hard to tell for sure sometimes, but quoting my sister, “it’s not a sacrifice I’m making to my career when I’m gaining so much more in return by spending time with my daughter”.
Women should also make full use of the flexible working policies implemented within their organisations to give them the confidence to juggle both mother and work duties.
For example, a number of my colleagues who are moms operate on a four-day week at the office and have the option of working from home every Friday.
Technology has certainly helped them in their cause. With hi-speed Internet connections and the necessary equipment (laptops and smartphones), it’s really easy to be productive without being physically present in the office.
This opportunity to work from home greatly reduces the barrier for working mothers to balance between work and family!
Unfortunately, there are instances where flexibility in work arrangements are frowned upon.
According to Ms Joan C Williams, founding Director of the Centre for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, there is an informal consensus that employees are penalised for using these policies despite them being on the books.
Thus, employers can do their part to change such perceptions by nurturing an environment where their employees’ performance are not assessed on their physical presence in the office, but rather their level of productivity regardless of whether they are working remotely or not.
Ultimately, I think we can all agree that it is absolutely necessary for society at large to empower working mothers (and fathers!) to truly strike a healthy balance between work and family.
After all, the family is the basic unit of society, isn’t it?