Commentary: Want more babies? Help couples build stronger marriages first
Wanting Singapore families to have more kids requires going beyond dishing out monetary bonuses to helping couples become better partners for life, says one mother of three.
SINGAPORE: Why do women struggle to find a balance between the economic pull to establish her career and the biological desire to raise a family?
In Singapore, domestic help is accessible and relatively affordable. More fathers are taking up positions as carers and homemakers.
Grandparents also contribute to the "village" that a couple needs to raise a home while building a career. And more workplaces are adopting family-friendly policies.
Yet amidst all these support measures, our women are still choosing to have fewer babies. Singapore’s resident total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.16 births per female in 2017, down from 1.20 in 2016.
MORE PRO-FAMILY POLICIES AT WORK
Women are not only having fewer babies, they are also having babies later in life. What’s more, the higher their educational qualifications, the later the age of marriage and parenthood.
It is ironic, but the highly skilled workers that we focused on developing in the past are now finding it hard to choose between careers and family.
Considering how much we’ve invested in our education, it’s understandable for men as well as women to pursue career goals first, and leave marriage and parenthood until later.
Can our workplaces be more supportive towards a workforce who wants to raise babies at the same time?
I too experienced having to dial back on my career. After my second child came along, I scaled down to part-time work. When my third child arrived, I stopped work altogether for a season, just to focus on the children’s needs.
Luckily for me however, freelance opportunities came along, and I managed to carve a reasonable balance between work and family.
Many women who step out of waged work to care for their family report facing tremendous challenges trying to find their way back years later.
While the odds improve if they have kept abreast of industry changes, more can be done to protect their interests.
If more flexi-work options are availed to women and their spouses, allowing them more freedom to decide when to work and when to play, it will help to tip the scales in favour of parenthood.
ESCALATING PRESSURES OF PARENTHOOD
The unfortunate truth is, children are no longer seen as a source of joy. Instead, it is a source of stress, and is overshadowed by a dazzling array of lifestyle options.
A newly-wed couple could decide to take time off and travel the world, or build lucrative careers around Instagram or YouTube as celebrity influencers.
Having a baby, sleepless nights and all, can cramp both freedom and style.
Singaporeans are pragmatics at heart.
The economic cost of child rearing is real – from diapers and milk powder during the infant stages, to childcare fees during the preschool phase, to tuition and college fees in the later years.
The pressures of education are also suffocating. Because of the push to give our young the best ingredients for success, many couples hold back from parenthood or having multiples, knowing the costs involved in tuition and enrichment lessons can stand in the thousands.
This may lead some to question: What’s the point of having kids when we have to push them to study so hard? Where is the joy?
Modern-day parenthood can be a stressful affair as society piles all manner of expectations on us.
“What? You haven’t registered your newborn in such-and-such kindergarten yet?”
“Why haven’t you enrolled her in any tuition/music/sports class?”
“Why don’t you buy your kids a handphone?” Or, “Why did you give them a handphone at such an early age?”
Our decisions for our children are scrutinised and questioned at every turn, often by well-meaning passers-by and family members. Everyone has advice to dish out, whether or not they have kids themselves.
Some parents also set high expectations on themselves, and in turn, their offspring.
Is parenting perfectionism getting in the way of simple, back-to-basics parenting, and thus parenthood itself?
WHAT'S YOUR IDEA OF BLISS?
Childbearing is a tough and complex decision, one that reaches into the very core of who we are and what it means to live well.
Someone’s idea of bliss is just he and a spouse, a nice condo and a dog; while another may include a spouse and three kids in a modest HDB.
It is difficult to convince someone whose ideal picture does not include kids, to have kids.
On the other hand, there are couples who are crazy for kids, and would do all they can to have more.
Then there are also others who are “cautiously optimistic” – open to having one or two.
How do we get more people to move into this band, hop on the kiddy bandwagon and to take the plunge earlier rather than later?
READ: Raising 7 children on S$3,000 a month in Singapore, and a tale of constructive parenting, a commentary
STABILISE MARRIAGES EARLY
Parenting is a 20- to 30-year commitment at the minimum; a long-hold investment with no guaranteed returns – well, none except oodles of joy, hope and wonder.
We have invested so much into building our people’s skills for the future economy. How about future-proofing our nation by equipping couples to build loving marriages first?
Just getting two persons to marry is no guarantee of a stable and generally conflict-free home.
If you’re busy fighting fires every day, your energies are driven towards repair and resolution, rather than procreation. This is not to say that all childless couples are dysfunctional; it is still a private decision with other factors such as age and health at play.
But when a couple enjoys a healthy relationship (and sex life), and feel they are able to cope with the demands of nurturing a newborn, they may be in a prime position to procreate.
Given that there aren’t many love and marriage online forums, where can couples turn to for advice on affairs of the heart?
Perhaps more marriage preparation classes and relationship workshops can be offered to couples to equip them with communication and conflict resolution skills. Through these, they can learn how to relate better, cope with stress and conflict, and even lower divorce rates in the long run.
To sweeten the deal, we could incentivise young married couples by throwing in a “baby-making” or couple therapy retreat at a steal.
Author Elizabeth Stone once penned these words: “Making the decision to have a child – it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.”
Childbearing is a momentous decision, one that needs a good measure of faith but also practical skills.
So for the “cautiously optimistic”, we need to offer compelling reasons not to hold back.
Improving work-life balance can help alleviate some of the stresses that they face in raising their families.
Equipping them with skills can enhance their sense of marital bliss and help them see the joys and meaning of parenthood.
This goes beyond dishing out monetary bonuses to helping couples become better partners for life, empowering them to build strong marriages and futures.
Hopefully, they will also begin to appreciate the positive aspects of parenthood, and see it as something worthy to be embraced.
Thriving families – made up of loving parents – are our children’s best hedge for a successful life, and our nation’s best bet for its long-term survival.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.