Kids First, Jobs Second April 18 2013

Recently, the (female) CEO of Yahoo’s decision to put an end to work-from-home arrangements sparked a fierce debate, particularly amongst working mothers and women who were hit hardest. Then, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg released Lean In, a book in which some claim she “does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough” to achieve career advancement and work-life balance. Now, with the Ministry of Manpower’s family-friendly policies going into action closer to home, our Managing Editor Ruth reflects on her own journey of motherhood and work, and how much she enjoys currently being a part-time stay-at-home mum (PTSAHM)!

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I recently had dinner with a friend who had just returned to work after her maternity leave. She, the naturally chatty and effervescent one, was recounting the travails of dealing with a newborn, establishing a good sleep routine, and breastfeeding, with great drama and humour. This was all stuff that I’m familiar with, having three kids of my own. The struggles of new moms are so similar, and we two had a terrific time laughing our heads off, thanking God that “things have now stabilised” after “six months of hell in the beginning” and then, quite naturally, my friend moved on to talk about her return to work. As a doctor, her work is demanding and these days, she hardly sees her baby girl. For a mere 30 minutes before bedtime. And that’s it.

“But it can’t be helped,” she said, trying to hide the disappointment in her tone. “That’s the life of a working mom. Too bad.”

A strange silence followed her statement. I wasn’t sure how to react, and so, didn’t react at all. We began talking about other things, and that was that.

But this issue of working and motherhood has been bothering me for a long time, and not just because of my friend’s comment. For me, it started way back. Perhaps it started with my own mum being a stay-at-home mum. She raised three kids by herself while Dad worked long hours, and on weekends. Or, perhaps it started with me studying in the US for four years, me being determined not to hang out with Singaporeans, and consequently, me making a lot of American friends who invited me to their homes and introduced me to their parents. I had friends who talked to their dads every night in college, as if they were chatting with their best friends. I had friends whose mums were homemakers. They made jam which they stored in their basement and prepared delicious roast turkey for Thanksgiving. One of them even sewed the cushion covers of all the cushions in the house! It’s weird—most people think going to college in the US is all about getting drunk, joining a fraternity/sorority, “finding yourself”, and of course, developing a thick and fake American accent. I’m sure all those things were there, somewhere, in my college experience, but what stood out the most was not all these superficial and ultimately pretentious things. I found amazingly affirming friends in the US. I also discovered a new pattern of family life and parenthood, which starkly contrasted with my own slightly dysfunctional family in Singapore.

And I found God. That brings me to my next point. When I returned to Singapore, I began moving in the opposite direction of most of my friends. My other Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) and Raffles Junior College classmates were joining big law firms, saying things like, “I have to make partner first before I start a family.” I, on the other hand, found myself in a job where I was trying my best to do as little as possible, so that I could get off work by 5pm to meet up with my boyfriend or go for Bible Study! I’m being totally frank here, and my former bosses and colleagues would probably be shocked to read this. You see, there was still enough of an “RGS girl” in me to at least try to appear career-minded and driven. Like all the other scholars in my batch, I tried my best to look like a “rising star”, to be someone who had a “helicopter view of issues”, who was able to “distil the key issues” into “salient points” and develop “comprehensive and innovative ideas” to address challenges, taking into consideration “ground up feedback” and the “uncertain security and economic environment”. I did work hard—until 5pm, that is—and found myself taking on more responsibilities and challenges as the years went by.

But these are not the things I remember of my eight years in the Civil Service. Yea, the “Civil” years were more about me adjusting back to crowded life in Singapore, losing my thick and fake American accent (I confess, I had one, and it was super thick and super fake!) and finding an amazing church community which I eventually called home. There are stories about that as well—because in searching for a church home, I went from ultra-charismatic to super-conservative. At the end of the day, I found myself settling into a church that actually preached the Bible faithfully every week, and where sermons made me feel uncomfortable because of how challenging they were.

One particular sermon series was about working and motherhood. By then, I was six months pregnant with my first child. I remember I was sitting on the carpeted floor of a large ballroom in a Malaysian hotel. It was our annual church camp, and the speaker turned his attention to the issue of motherhood. He challenged the mothers in the room to think about whether they were truly putting their kids and their husbands first by making the decisions they did, and organising their life the way they did. Two months later, I gave birth to Daniel and shortly after that, I decided to take no-pay leave from the Civil Service and become a stay-at-home mum.

Why did I make that decision? Was it because my own mum stayed at home? Was it because I had friends in the US who had amazingly close relationships with their parents? Was it because of that sermon series? As I listened to my friend saying, “It can’t be helped. That’s the life of a working mom. Too bad,” I reflected on why I decided to stay at home. And the best way to put it, after years of thought on this issue, is: I’m just more at peace if I put my kids first.

Kids first. Job second. Kids first. Work second. Kids first. Career second. A few months after stopping work, I did actually have lunch with one of my high-powered RGS friends who had ended up joining a big law firm. I remember saying something like, “So you have to think, at the end of your life, will people remember the long hours you put in in the office? Will they remember what you did at work? Or, is it the relationships that you build that count to eternity?” My high-powered RGS friend stared blankly at me. She had driven her boyfriend’s Lamborghini to meet me for lunch. With her once-pimpled complexion (in secondary school) now masked with make-up, and wearing a powersuit (with a string of pearls no less!), I’m not sure the significance of what I said sunk in at all.

She was probably thinking: in Singapore, the way people raise their kids is to hire a maid, get the grandparents to help, and both parents continue to work. But, come on. It’s one thing to continue working because you can’t afford to stop, because your family requires two incomes to survive. It’s another thing to continue working because that’s the way it’s done in Singapore and you don’t even want to think about it further because you just want to follow what everybody else is doing.

For me, I embarked on the lonelier path. I admit, I did have a bit of a self-righteous mentality. A sort of I’m-better-than-all-working-women-because-I’m-sacrificing-my-career-for-my-flesh-and-blood pride. Of course, all of that was very quickly dashed to pieces when I discovered how utterly mundane and mind-numbingly boring staying at home could be. How many times CAN an educated woman listen to “The Wheels On The Bus” before wanting to be put to death before she hears it again? And have you ever had to deal with a toddler the whole day long, let along two (at one point, I had a two-year-old and a six-month-old to deal with concurrently!) Let me tell you—your worst boss? The one who’s erratic, offensive, tempermental? The one that keeps going back on his word? The one that lashes out at you for no reason, fails to motivate you, the one you can’t understand? YOUR TODDLER MAKES HIM LOOK LIKE JESUS.

So many times, while I was pushing my pram with my second child in it, while scolding my first child (who was walking by my side) between clenched teeth (walk faster! walk slower! drink your water! stop drinking your water!), I would wonder, “WHAT am I doing?” Once, while taking one of those “leisurely” strolls down the street, we walked past an RGS girl in uniform, carrying her bag. Forgetting that I was in a baggy T-shirt with yesterday’s dirty shorts on, I smiled at her with a knowing smile. She stared at me disgustedly—You’re just a housewife with two unruly kids. Stop ruining my RGS aura! At that point, I had enough irony in me to want to shout out to her, “I’m an RGS girl too! This is what you have to look forward to!”

Of course, I did no such thing. Staying at home was not quite the “holiday from work” and the “idyllic tai tai life” that is typically imagined, especially because I did not have a helper. But looking back, I would not trade it for the world. Because despite feeling sad enough to eat an entire bar of chocolate when I discovered my peer at work was now promoted to deputy director in the ministry I was working at, staying at home has brought tremendous joy. I have seen my children go from helpless baby to senile toddler to think-he’s-got-superpowers boy/girl to near-tween. All those teachable moments, all those one-to-one lunches, all those not-really-funny jokes that they make up and look expectantly at you to laugh at, all those conversations about evolution and God, all those sad moments when friends have spurned them, or when they were bullied in the playground, and all those times spent doing afternoon outings, library visits and swimming. I’m not saying that all this would not be possible if I were a full-time working mom. But I’m saying that less of this would be possible if I were not around during the day for them. And the truth of the matter is: I would have missed out.

After three years of staying at home, I returned to part-time work because I had to serve out my bond. Then, I joined Epigram Books in November 2008, also part-time. Having worked part-time for more than five years now, I think I have some street cred to say conclusively that, “Part-time work rocks!” This is a message I want to bring to the world of close-minded bosses who are too skeptical to be family-friendly. If that happens to be you, or if you happen to know someone who vaguely or partially resembles aforementioned said “type of boss”, do me a big favour and tell him the following:

1. Part-timer stay-at-home mums (PTSAHM), are super motivated individuals who will work hard for you.

Reason: Stay-at-home mums are looking for something to balance their life at home. If you give them a job, they will be, first of all, very grateful. They will want to do well, to keep you happy, and in addition, they will want to be efficient BECAUSE they want to go home to spend time with their kids. Hence, they will not Facebook in the office, they will not download porn movies on iTunes, and they will not stand around the pantry making coffee for an hour while chit chatting with everybody. In short, it is in the interest of a part-timer stay-at-home mum to get the job done efficiently and effectively.

2. Part-timer stay-at-home mums usually come with prior job experience and skills.

Reason: To achieve the status of part-timer stay-at-home mum, this person must have gone through several years of full-time work, usually at least three to five years. This puts her in the category of NOT an entry-level candidate, but a “person with prior experience”. Hence, there will be less training time involved.

A super-motivated, super-efficient individual who has work experience and skills.

What could be better?

Furthermore, studies have shown that workers who have a life outside work tend to be better workers that those who make work their life. Hey, that totally describes the part-timer stay-at-home mum! Bosses, pay attention!

I’m blessed to have found part-time employment at Epigram Books, all thanks to Edmund Wee. I’m sure he didn’t hire me for altruistic reasons. In fact, I AM ACTUALLY sure he didn’t. A while ago, he told me point blank, “I hired you because you were cheap.” As a part-timer, I had to accept a portion of my usual full-time pay, of course. But hey, I was happy to do so, since I was only working part-time! So, I was motivated, efficient, experienced and CHEAP. Once again: bosses, pay attention!

Of course, there are problems with part-time employment. It’s not all a bed of roses. In my previous part-time job, tongues started wagging when I left work in the middle of the day, even though those were my official working hours. It just seemed strange to people that I was leaving, even though I was supposed to! People were also unhappy that my then-boss seemed to be doing something special for me, like carving out a special portfolio, just so that I could work part-time. In that department, and sadly, in the rest of the Civil Service, part-time work remains uncommon and part-timers are seen as unreliable, odd individuals.

When I joined Epigram, things were slightly better. Edmund is the sort of boss who empowers you and leaves you alone to get the job done. (Once again, he’s not being enlightened. He just hates details! But hey, win-win!) However, my irregular working hours meant I took longer to bond with my colleagues, who preferred to come in late and work into the evenings, by which time I was at home snuggling with the kids. I also felt very upset with some colleagues who didn’t seem supportive of stay-at-home or part-time moms. One person in particular said to my face, while at lunch one day, “I never want to stay at home.” “Why?” I asked meekly. I hate confrontation. Her reply was quick and curt: “You lose touch. I don’t want to lose touch.” There was a bit of a silence before I felt the need to say: “You DO know that I stayed at home for many years right?” Once again, her quick reply: “Yah.”  And that was it. I spoke to her less often since then. I wish I had had the courage to forgive her for insulting my life choices to my face, but I wasn’t so big-hearted then. Of course, I need to add that many other Epigram colleagues were wonderful and, supportive, if not politely indifferent, to my “weird” choice not to dedicate all my working hours to sitting at a desk. And, I have to reiterate again that I respect and support all options for moms: I DO NOT think that staying at home is better than part-time work which is better than working full-time. There is NO definitive scale of what is better and what is not. Every family and every mom may have a different model. But I do believe and am even more convinced now than ever before that children needs their parents to put them first. You can do this as a full-time worker. You can do this as a part-timer. You can do this as a stay-at-home mom. It is all possible. But only you will know in your heart what your priorities are, and where your treasure lies.
If part-time work were more accepted and prevalent in Singapore, women would not have to make that difficult choice of ALL or NOTHING. Bosses would benefit from part-timer stay-at-home mums. And perhaps, full-time employees would gain more openness to the diversty of work options that should be a normal part of our employment landscape, and become more family-focused themselves. I have a lot of sympathy for women who wish they could go part-time, but have unwilling bosses, or are just not able to because they need the income. I genuinely feel the struggle of these women, and pray that more employment opportunities would open up for them, enabling them to care more directly and quantitatively for their children. As my experience has shown, spending more time with your kids is a tremendous experience, not one that is entirely trouble-free, but one that is undeniably rewarding.

But as for now, I celebrate the patchwork journey that God has led me through. I’m very sure that life will continue to bring more surprises, heartaches and through it all, growth. What is important to me, I have realised, is the relationships that I have, not the work that I do. And, for me, at least I can say with a clear conscience, that I have tried my best to put my family first.