For a recently remarried woman in her 30s with a well-established career, my urge for having a child has been fleeting at best. Despite my years of observation of my own immediate social network and reading up on the subject matter, I have never been able to define the profile of the childless woman. It seems that women who choose to have children come from as diverse and varied backgrounds and education levels as those who choose not to have children. Education and privilege only seem to delay parenthood in women who have them, while never completely eliminating parenthood from their lives.
To start with, I have never had the certainty that some of my friends – who are mothers now – have when it comes to having children. Once, I asked a five-year-old daughter of a friend what she wanted to be when she grew up and her spontaneous answer was “to have babies; at least three”. I have friends from all walks of life – Oxbridge scholars, polytechnic/ secondary school dropouts, well-travelled professionals, office workers, and those who never had to work after they were married – who were clear and had made it clear to their partners about wanting to start a family. The more educated and progressive ones were less bothered about having children than having children within the confines of a marriage.
I also seem to find that highly educated women who choose to become mothers tend to be less interested in pursuing their careers if (a) they are not empowered in their positions or feel that their contribution does not have as much impact as they would like and/or (b) are not emotionally invested in their work. Many of those who have dropped out of the labour force to become stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs) complained of their inability to endure “incompetent people” or “being coerced into being sociable” in order to get things done, their decisions further sealed by glass ceilings within the organisation which can be attributed to a variety of reasons, which I will not elaborate in this article.
This is where I find that I have been fortunate in that as an entrepreneur; how, where and when I run business is to a great extent determined by who I choose to engage with, whether he is a client, a supplier or an employee. I don’t have to force myself to do more than necessary to make a relationship work, which also implies exercising my right to terminate an agreement as and when the situation calls for it. This convenience of engagement and disengagement is something that is impossible when it comes to having a child (if you want to raise him/her with his/her best interests at heart), which unlike business contracts, is irreversible.
Of course there are the usual reasons cited by other women for not having children: the unpredictability of conceiving and raising a child, how child-rearing impinges upon one’s finances, freedom and time, and even looks; motherhood changes your body and accelerates ageing! However none of these factors seem as compelling as these two factors – the nature of a woman’s childhood and her relationship with her own mother – which I believe have a large part to play in determining whether or not a woman will act on nature’s urge to breed and see that to fruition and beyond.
My mother’s conception of me and my own childhood were difficult. Being the youngest child of a working class couple who were already struggling with feeding themselves and their two children, my mother’s conception of me was fraught with anxiety; her cortisol levels must have gone through the roof when she found out I was not a boy. At two weeks old I was put up for adoption and at nine, my stepmother died of cancer. My stepfather remarried when I was 10; my stepmother is still alive and kicking today. When I was 19, I was returned to my biological parents; I lived with them until I married my ex-husband seven years later, just over a year after my biological mother passed away.
Those unfortunate circumstances have probably bestowed upon me the instinct to fight to survive. Growing up, while I was the best of pals with cousins my age and older, I hated the younger ones – even my own stepsister – and often either bullied them or ignored them. In my mind, the younger ones always had all the attention (and resources) and the adults often seemed to be easily forgiving of their breaking things or throwing up or peeing on everything and crying, while conveniently heaping the blame on me.
This survival instinct underlines my envy of women who choose to be SAHMs. Most of those I know – even when their husbands don’t appear to be earning six-figure salaries – never have to worry about their next meal. I’m not envious of the fact that they don’t have to work. I’m envious of the fact that they can choose to focus their energies on child-rearing, just like they can choose to focus on their careers or writing their books or volunteer full-time with an orphanage if that is what they really want in life, because someone else is taking care of their day-to-day necessities.
But for me, not focusing on my career has never been an option. When I was returned to my biological parents at 19, I had to relinquish my own room in a large six-room apartment, to live in a room half that size with two other sisters in a three-room flat. It was an uphill task sustaining my freelance writing business in an environment where my parents were mostly illiterate and that I had to save and scrimp to rent my own office space and buy my first office table and chair, laptop, printer and phone.
While I did eventually have my own office space and did fairly well in the first years of the business, my survival instincts were once again tested when I divorced my ex-husband and lost most of the money I invested in our marital home. We were just hitting the tip of the 2008 financial crisis when my then-boyfriend-now-husband lost all his clients who were mostly in the finance industry, and as a result had to depend on me for work. While we have emerged from that predicament stronger and better people and partners and money troubles are long behind us, it’s only in the last two to three years – with the aid of therapy, no less – that I’m beginning to shake off the feeling that I am and will always be the sole breadwinner with the world’s cares on my shoulders.
I was never an affectionate child. In my adolescent years, right up to my early adulthood, I would often hear from my stepfather or concerned relatives that my (step)mothers had said to them that “I never treated them like a daughter would treat her mother.” There were few hugs and cuddles unless the occasion called for it, like the morning of Hari Raya when it is tradition for children to seek forgiveness from their parents and vice versa. My mothers, especially my late biological mother who carried her guilt to her grave, would be emotional and tearful, while I would be the awkward one wishing that the “touchy-feelyness” would end soon.
And so while it seems that I do not have the appropriate biochemical apparatus to even predispose me to develop the urge to be a mother, I have seen many women with troubled childhoods and backgrounds giving birth and raising their children with the kind of love and caring that I can never see myself being capable of. Of course there are those struggling with poverty who continue to breed and perpetuate their circumstances further and further down the line, but there are also women who have had estranged relationships with their mothers, but who were able to rekindle their relationships with them when presenting their firstborns.
The last time that I had actually felt that I could be a mother was in Bali. Bali is fecundity personified, with flora and fauna flourishing on ancient volcanic mountainsides, weather made for sex and images of nude Balinese women in paintings awakening my own sensuality (it’s a struggle to get used to wearing underwear once I’m back in Singapore).
Whenever I visit, I often imagine having a house on one of the many steep river terraces of Ubud, where I would also have a little holding with chickens, a vegetable patch and a herb garden. In that vision, Puddy Tat, my cat, is often curled up in the sun on a bamboo ledge. Several years ago, I wrote a story set in a traditional-style Balinese bungalow, in which there is a wall of books in one of the rooms, reaching from floor to ceiling. The story was narrated through the eyes of an seven-year-old child. In that story, the mother has just sold her company and returned to Bali from promoting her first book in Singapore. The father is a frequent traveller; in one scene, he phones the house. Upon knowing that it is the father calling, the child drags a giant world map mounted on a corkboard to the phone; it is riddled with thumbtacks marking the places the father has been. The mother watches with fondness as the father, with his gentle voice, guides the child to finding his location on the map and then driving the thumbtack safely into the board.
These images are of course shattered the moment I land in Singapore and switch on my cellphone which will beep continuously from the SMSes, Whatsapps and emails streaming in from staff, associates and clients. And for the next several months until I can visit Bali again, the thought or even desire to conceive is scarce if not non-existent, slightly roused only when I see a good-looking toddler, and such instances are far and few in between.
The odds seem to stack against me having a child in this lifetime. My husband thinks that we will need to win at least $1 million from the lottery to be even able to feather a nest like a holding in Ubud plus take a year off for child-rearing, and right now I would much rather write and publish books than have a child, and already as it is, it’s troublesome enough finding the time to edit my book and maintain my blog.
But who knows? I’m contemplating buying a lottery ticket for the annual TOTO Chinese New Year draw this year.