Mother of all success

The National Family Council wants Singaporean youths to factor marriage and having children early into their definitions of success. This is after years of conditioning that has led our society as a whole to place education, career and financial security above all else. According to the report in TODAY (23rd September 2010), NFC is going to have a strategic planning session soon where they will bash out the details. I will be very interested to see what they come up with. As usual, the term ‘new media’ has been bandied about, as though putting it online will convince young people to put the nation first. Why would they, when everything our society values puts the family last?

The hand that rocks the cradle, it is said, rules the world. I have put in my cradle-rocking overtime hours. No one is coming forward to give me a crown. ‘Woman of the Year’ contests run by various organizations don’t value the home maker. Always the ones feted with individual glory are the CEOs, the political figures, the successful professionals. Women who have demonstrated their undoubtedly well-honed abilities in fields where their skills are measurable. Behind these successful women are other women(mothers, mothers-in-law, maids) who keep the home fires burning. Let’s not pretend that anyone can do it all. I want to laugh every time I read articles where the Woman of the Year says she makes sure she has dinner with her family. Yeah because THAT’S what it takes to bring up children.

I don’t want to give the impression that I dismiss the contributions of these ‘Superwomen’. I am a great admirer of people who have what it takes to rise to the top of their profession. Woman have so much to contribute to the world and it is only right that their efforts are lauded.

My point is that we need to shine the spotlight on the silent sisterhood as well. Aside from that marvellously lucrative invention of Hallmark, Mother’s Day, what do we really do to make women who stay home to raise their families feel appreciated? Perhaps there is a sense that turning it into a competition would be inappropriate. Who can really say what the ‘Mother of the Year’ should do to win that title? Altruism is presumed, sacrifice is a given. Stretchmarks and loss of bladder control are no big deal- what would it take to ‘exceed expectations’ when expectations of motherhood are already culturally defined as being close to superhuman? In a meritocratic society which glorifies individual attainment, how can we re-frame the role of  motherhood so that young people feel it is worth their while? When happiness depends on achievement, how do marriage and children fit in?

It is unfair to center this discussion on women, of course. In an age where women’s contributions in the wider world are so valuable, the only way for the family to survive is for men to become equal partners in the parenting process right from the beginning. It is heartening to see so many young fathers playing with their children, reveling in the time they spend with them, taking pride in their active role in their children’s lives. However more often than not, when one parent has to stay home with the kids, it turns out to be the mother, either because of cultural norms related to gender roles, or sheer financial pragmatism.

I am assuming that the ideal situation for raising children is one in which at least one parent stays home with the children in the formative years. This may raise hackles among those who have successfully used childcare facilities, as well as those who may have felt that they had no choice but to have a dual income family. With such a complex array of factors that determine each family’s unique situation, no one has the right to judge anyone’s decisions. I can only speak for my family. My husband has always had a job that involves a great deal of travel. Very early on, I decided that I wanted to be the one who stayed home. A convenient decision of course, given the cultural and financial context.

So I resigned from my teaching job on the eve of my first son’s birth, and for the next 10 years, my attention was centered on my home. I cooked, cleaned, did laundry and everything. But I also spent huge amounts of time with my children. I talked to them, listened to them, sang to them, danced with them, played with them, dreamed with them. How can you have quality time if there is no quantity? Children do not schedule their thoughts. Their little insights come as you stir cake batter together or sort marbles together. Their fears are expressed as they finger paint, drawing abstract shapes with their fat little fingers in soothing rhythms that encourage disclosure of secret doubts. Their questions are asked as you lie on the grass together gazing at clouds. They learn to trust you when you hold them to your breast to feed them, speak sharply to them to protect them from danger, then gather them up in your arms to wipe their startled tears away. When they start school they unload their immediate memories as soon as they get off the schoolbus, then bring out the ones that have been stored much deeper as the afternoon progresses and you fold clean laundry together.

What was my gratification? The hugs, smiles, kisses, proclamations of “I love you more than anyone in the world”? Of course! These are the currencies of motherhood. Freely given, gratefully received. For almost 8 years I slept every night with at least one child in my arms. Even now, my children are quick to kiss me, hug me. My teenage son who is taller than I am slings his arm casually around my shoulder as we walk, no sign of the moodiness and distancing you normally associate with kids his age. My tween moves in to hold my arm if he sees men he thinks are threatening, because he wants them to know I am ‘taken’. My husband is the solid rock on which all this love has been built, for it is his hard work and sacrifice too that has allowed me to revel in my motherhood. If my sons respect me it is because their father does. If they protect me it is because he does. If they shower me with love and tenderness it is because they have known nothing else all their lives.

But these are intangibles. My 10 years off the radar translate into a yawning gap in my resume. My tour of duty is not over- it never is when you are a parent. But my children can stand on their own two feet and it is time for me to build my career. How do I tell prospective employers that I have gained so much that would be of great value to them if only they could see it?

My sons are my pride and joy. They do reasonably well in school, but more importantly, are strong in character. They will be men the world can count on. They will be men who believe in marriage, children and sacrifice for the greater good. But if I am looking for awards and accolades I will be disappointed. Our society does not reward parenthood with individual glory. Yet our youths are trained to crave individual glory.

We have to find a way to show that we value parenthood and appreciate the sacrifice that goes into it. We have to look beyond producing the children and think about how much time we are prepared to spend raising them. In our country, we cannot depend on the altruistic motivation of nation-building or the continuation of the species. What’s in it for young people raised on meritocratic principles? What will be their gratification?

While the NFC works all these details out, I am going to work on a revolutionary new resume format that allows for the inclusion of the years devoted to parenthood. When those years are seen as societal assets and not gaping holes, and when they can be translated into professional capital, then our young people might step forward and proudly bring forth the next generation of Singaporeans.

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