*Translated: No one to care for my child
Two years ago, I came across a BERITA Mediacorp article in which Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support Ltd (Babes) had reported a rise in the number of Malay teenagers under 21 years old facing unplanned pregnancies from 2013 to 2017. Babes had asserted that instead of labelling it as a ‘Malay problem’, the phenomenon of unplanned teenage pregnancies could be due to structural factors, such as a lack of access to knowledge and services for abortion. The article piqued my interest in the phenomenon of unplanned pregnancies, especially among young, unwed, single mothers who chose to keep their children. Are there available and sufficient resources accessible to and provided for them? How do these women support themselves and their children at their young age?
Since the article had focused on the perspective of Babes, I wanted to learn about the experiences of the individuals who received support from Babes, particularly unwed, single mothers. After examining existing studies on the topic of single mothers/parents and unwed mothers in Singapore, I realised there was a gap in the research on the experiences of unwed, Malay, single mothers in Singapore, especially those under the age of 30. Existing studies focused more on single mothers who were divorced/separated and widowed, and those containing research on unwed mothers did not look into the narratives of young, unwed, Malay, single mothers.
My research was an exploration of the experiences of young, unwed, Malay, single mothers in Singapore in meeting their financial, childcare, and other needs. The main question guiding my thesis was: How do young, unwed, Malay, single mothers navigate motherhood and family responsibilities? Through in-depth interviews with five research participants, I explored the following themes: ideas about family, ideas about marriage and parenting, resources accessible to the women, and challenges and strategies in ‘doing’ family. For this article, I will be focusing on the challenges faced by the mothers and the strategies adopted to address these challenges.
Salina studied the multiple burdens that Malay single mothers faced and analysed the complex connections between different aspects such as finances, childcare, housing/accommodation, household maintenance, health, and socio-cultural networks. She discussed them as “complex connections” due to the impact of one factor on the others. Salina’s approach of detailing the complex connections between each ‘burden’ faced by the mothers was useful to understand the interplay of different factors that pose challenges to the mothers. One difference in my study would be the participants’ young age. For the divorced women in Salina’s study, their problems were related to the management of singlehood after having established a household prior to the divorce. Using the categories of ‘burdens’ in Salina’s study, I looked at how the challenges faced by the women were related to the attempt at establishing a new structure of family in light of their pregnancy.
Using the strengths and resources approach adopted by Nur’izzah, I will also examine the resources that unwed, Malay, single mothers use to meet their parenting responsibilities, beyond the support they receive from family relations. Such resources may be observed through the day-to-day activities and decisions of the women and can range from tangible resources such as finances and housing to intangible resources such as personal values, time, and socio-cultural networks.
The five research participants were Syah, Siti, Hood, Feebie, and Ferdah (not their real names). As N-level graduates aged 18-21, all participants were unable to pursue their intended education path or had to postpone it due to reasons related to their pregnancy and/or child(ren). Syah and Feebie were employed as a part-time delivery rider and McDonald’s crew respectively, while the other three devoted their time to taking care of their child. Feebie was the only participant with two children and had an ongoing relationship with the father of her children. An email interview was also conducted with Babes to gain their perspectives on the themes discussed with the participants.
FINDINGS – CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES
Focusing on the challenges the unwed, Malay, single mothers faced and their strategies, I refer to the fourth chapter of my thesis, which examined the resources accessible to the research participants, the challenges they listed in ‘doing’ family, and other aspects of their lives, and the strategies adopted to address their needs and challenges.
“Anak Takde Orang Jaga”
Two challenges that were common across all the interviews were the lack of financial resources and childcare.
Syah had applied for financial help at a Social Service Office (SSO) after finding out that she was pregnant. She received $450 each month during her pregnancy, which was increased to $670 each month after childbirth. Despite the financial aid, it was not sufficient to cover all her expenses. Hence, Syah resorted to part-time income as a delivery rider, from which she earns less than $100 a week. Even then, Syah could only begin working after childbirth when her godmother or her ex-boyfriend’s family was able to take care of her daughter.
The lack of financial resources is important to note because all the research participants had their children when they were younger than 21 years old, an age at which youths would usually still be financially dependent on their parents. Among the women, Syah, Feebie, and Ferdah were driven to earn income or seek financial help due to the lack of monetary support from the people they considered family. Moreover, the stunting of their education at N-levels meant that there were limited job opportunities that ensured sufficient income to raise their child and prepare for their future. Despite desiring to pursue a higher level of education so that they can earn a higher income, the women still face the challenge of breadwinning while being a student. The added responsibility of having a young child also raises the concern of childcare while the women went to work or school.
Salina’s and Nur’izzah’s studies highlighted the factor of time as one of the most significant challenges faced by single parents. In contrast, the more significant challenge for the women in my study is access to childcare. While Teo spoke of care gaps when women partake in wage work, the young, unwed, single mothers simply cannot afford to leave infants and toddlers by themselves. This was an example of the multiple burdens mentioned in Salina’s study, showing how the financial resources of the women would be interconnected with their accessibility to other resources, such as childcaring support. The women needed to put their children in someone else’s care if they intended to seek employment or continue their education. While the women in Nelson’s study largely relied on their mothers to help take care of their children, this arrangement was not always possible in the case of the women in my study.
Unwed, single mothers, particularly, were also at a disadvantage because they are excluded from certain benefits that married mothers have, such as the Baby Bonus cash payout. While current policies allow for a $3,000 payout from the Child Development Account (CDA) First Step, this amount is limited to the payments made to approved institutions such as childcare centres and certain medical and healthcare expenses. As highlighted by Babes in their interview, although the women can qualify for the cash payout if they marry later, this amount would be greatly needed post-delivery. Babes added that this support was all the more invaluable because many of the women come from underprivileged backgrounds. In the case of my research participants, such policies then present the catch-22 situation described in Jauhari’s study. Young, unwed, single mothers are then doubly disadvantaged by this policy because they may also desire to further their education while earning an income to support their child but are unable to do so due to the issue of childcare.
These unwed, single mothers may be able to benefit from new initiatives by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) aimed at helping single parents. A pilot childminding service in partnership with Daughters Of Tomorrow was announced in April 2022 for low-income parents, including single unwed parents. It is hoped that the service, which operates beyond regular childcare and student care centres’ operating hours, will fill the care gap parents face if they have irregular work schedules. More research will be needed to look into the effectiveness of this pilot programme and how the needs of unwed, single mothers can be met more effectively.
“I Got Stressed, Depressed, Everything”
The issue of mental health was commonly brought up during the interviews, with a few of the women being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
For Siti, she felt she did not receive adequate help for her mental health mainly because of her mother’s trivialising attitude. Not only did Siti’s mother prevent Siti from attending individual sessions with her specialist, she also did not allow Siti to consume her prescribed medication. To cope with the stress she had been facing from her new role as a mother, Siti turned to drinking instead, which she was able to do whenever she goes out with her friends.
Lit highlighted how negative family support could become a source of major stress for young unwed mothers. Unlike in Salina’s study, the mental health issues faced by the women in my study were particular to young, unwed mothers because the most common sources of stress were negative support or conflict with the women’s family members and/or (ex-)partners as a result of the unexpected pregnancy. The mothers also faced significant stress post-childbirth while adjusting to their mothering roles.
Given such issues, the women mentioned how the programmes held by Babes were helpful in their journey being young unwed single mothers. Some mentioned the monthly Zoom meetings being beneficial because every meeting would have a sharing by a different person, which made them feel less lonely. Feebie was able to attend workshops and an overnight chalet activity organised by Babes in the past, which were enjoyable and allowed her an occasional break. Syah, Feebie and Ferdah also listed their befrienders and/or social workers from Babes as a good source of emotional support, besides their counsellors. While young, unwed, single mothers may be prone to experiencing mental health issues, such support from organisations like Babes appear to be effective strategies on top of seeking regular help from counsellors.
“People Will Start Staring At Me… Judging Me…”
Stigmatisation was also a challenge faced by a few of the women in my study, as brought up by Feebie and Ferdah. Feebie highlighted that the support she received from the people in her environment helped her cope with these events of stigmatisation. She had a group of friends to turn to, besides the school counsellor. She also compared her experiences in public with the safe environment in Babes, where she received support and encouragement, especially from her social worker.
Ferdah dealt with such comments by acknowledging the truth:
“I would just tell them the truth lah. Yes I’m young, yes this is my kid, and yes I’m not married. It’s not your problem. I can’t shut their mouth[s] anyways.”
In Ferdah’s case, although she did not list anyone she turned to for emotional support during the times she faced stigmatisation, she expressed that her family included her befriender from Babes, her social worker, and her close friends. What was apparent for both women was the institutional support through counsellors and befrienders. These individuals played an important role in the women’s lives.
While the women in existing local studies[10, 11] also faced stigmatisation related to their divorcee status, that of the women in my study was regarding their young age and unmarried status. A similarity would be that these mothers face stigma “due to their status and how they arrived at it, without looking at the circumstances that led them to make those choices”. According to Jauhari, this stigma stems from the idealised norms of marriage. For both divorced mothers and unwed mothers, the “choices” that they make leading to their single status cannot really be considered choices, given the circumstances they were in. Each woman had their own reasons for keeping their children and staying single, which must not be ignored. Hence, it is imperative for studies on single mothers to draw on the personal narratives of the women and consider the forces shaping their decisions.
“I Have To Quickly Apply For [Rental Housing From] HDB”
While housing was an immediate challenge faced by divorced mothers in existing studies on single mothers, the issue of housing only arose for Syah, Feebie, and Ferdah. While recent policy changes meant that unwed parents over the age of 21 will be able to apply to purchase up to a 3-room flat, applications for rental housing remain on a case-by-case basis. Unwed mothers and their children are not considered a ‘family nucleus’ – a requirement for eligibility for grants under the Family Grant scheme. Such barriers to housing are significant for young, unwed, single mothers, especially as many of them are either unemployed or earn a low income. The women may be predisposed to housing instability due to family-related issues or non-conducive home environments, which further exacerbate the challenges they face as unwed single mothers.
Given that the women in my study have limited financial resources, the kind of concerted cultivation that middle-class parents carry out may not be possible for them, at least in the near future. As shared by Teo, this falling short of middle-class ideals has tangible consequences for the mothers. These consequences are shown not only from the lack of long-term security and social belonging from housing ownership and the catch-22 situation mentioned earlier but also in the possible reproduction of poverty and inequality. Given the circumstances that the women were in, the decisions they had to make were done out of necessity; the options they faced were non-choices. Due to limited financial and time resources, these women are simply “doing their best” in parenting.
The challenges faced by the unwed, single mothers highlighted the complex interconnections between the multiple burdens as mentioned in Salina’s study. The women also shared their strategies in addressing these challenges, using their strengths and resources that are accessible to them, just like the participants in Nur’izzah’s study. While becoming pregnant was not a decision that the women made, they chose to keep their child knowing the difficulties they may face. Having the child as an utmost priority, the women also decided not to get married simply for the sake of having a husband or father figure around. Instead, they turn to the individuals they consider family for resources and support and utilise other resources accessible in order to meet their needs and take care of the child. The notion of seeing to the child’s needs before anything else despite the multiple burdens also serve to shift the women away from the stigmatisation that people may have towards these young, unwed, single mothers.⬛
1 Abdul Hamid, U. R. Jumlah remaja Melayu bawah 21 tahun yang terlanjur meningkat sejak 5 tahun lalu: BABES. Berita Mediacorp. 2018, September 21. Accessed on 2021, April 20 at: https://berita.mediacorp.sg/mobilem/singapura/jumlah-remaja-melayu-bawah-21-tahun-yang-terlanjur-meningkat/4135690.html
2 Samion, S. Multiple-Burdens And Coping Patterns Of Malay Lone Mothers. [thesis]. 1996. pp. 75-89
3 Mohamad Affandi, N. Strengths & Resources: An Exploration of Economic, Social, Cultural & Time Resources of Malay Single Parent Families. [thesis]. 2015
4 Teo, Y. Falling Short. In: Yeung, W. J., and Hu, S. Family and Population Change in Singapore: a unique case in the global family change. (first ed.) Taylor and Francis, London. 2018. pp. 96-111
5 Nelson, M. K. Single Mothers “Do” Family. Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 68, No. 4, 2006. pp. 781-795
6 Zaini, M. K. J. Lone Rangerhood: Everyday Life Of Single Mothers In Singapore. 2016, June 30. p. 53
7 Tan, T. Govt’s support for family extends to unwed parents and their children: Sun Xueling. The Straits Times. 2022, April 1. Accessed on 2022, September 1, at: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/community/govts-support-for-family-extends-to-unwed-parents-and-their-children-sun-xueling
8 Lit, S. Getting to hear the voices of the unwed mothers: their decisions to keep their babies for lone motherhood. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2011. p.150
9 Samion, S. Multiple-Burdens And Coping Patterns Of Malay Lone Mothers. [thesis]. 1996. p. 65
10 Zaini, M. K. J. Lone Rangerhood: Everyday Life Of Single Mothers In Singapore. 2016, June 30. p. 43
11 Samion, S. Multiple-Burdens And Coping Patterns Of Malay Lone Mothers. [thesis]. 1996. pp. 68-69
12 Zaini, M. K. J. Lone Rangerhood: Everyday Life Of Single Mothers In Singapore. 2016, June 30. p.43
13 Hingorani, S. Commentary: The road to housing for single, unwed mothers is clearer but still bumpy. CNA. 2020, March 8. Accessed on 2021, April 20 at: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/single-unwed-mother-hdb-mnd-policy-child-family-support-subsidy-12508616
14 Teo, Y. Falling Short. In: Yeung, W. J., and Hu, S. Family and Population Change in Singapore: a unique case in the global family change. (first ed.) Taylor and Francis, London. 2018. pp. 107-108
15 Ibid, p. 104
Wan Hazimah Mohammad Salemi is a Malay Studies graduate from the National University of Singapore, with a minor in Sociology. This article is an extract for Wan Hazimah’s Honours thesis,“Yes I’m young, yes this is my kid, and yes I’m not married”: Explorations of young, unwed, Malay, single mothers in ‘Doing Family”,which was completed in 2021 under the guidance of her supervisor Dr Suriani Suratman.