SINGAPORE: Eight-year-old Raphael Heng found himself asking all his classmates: How many siblings did they have? That's how he figured out how unusual his family was – in the entire class, his was the biggest by far.
The middle child of seven children, and the only boy, he said: “I have more sisters than friends. (My classmates) say it’s very unfair because I have more siblings than them.”
Certainly, there's never a dull moment in the Heng household, where simply keeping track of everyone is a miniature feat. To the extent that the family almost left home once without Raphael, when they were setting off for an outing to the swimming pool.
Harder to manage than the logistics of going out, however, are the family’s expenses. So when Raphael wants his favourite snack at the supermarket, mum Esther Heng, 40, often has to tell him to wait until another time.
“Which one is more worth it?” she asked him, pointing to his snack and a loaf of sliced bread that would feed everyone in the family for the same price of S$2.
Despite the trend here towards having fewer children (or none at all), a few families like the Hengs have gone against the grain. The programme On The Red Dot spent months filming three families with large (by today's standards) broods, to see what it takes to raise a big family in Singapore today. (Watch the series here.)
GETTING BY WITH HELP
In the case of the Hengs, it was dad David who did not want to stop at two, which was his wife’s “initial plan”. Now they have seven between the ages of three and 16.
It comes as no surprise when Mr Heng says he loves children. “Many couples would rather not have children, or they have a maximum of two,” said the 42-year-old. "I see children not as a burden but as an inheritance – as a blessing.”
He comes from a small family himself, with just two siblings.
His wife has a younger sister only, which is why she did not expect to have so many children. A secondary school teacher for a decade, she quit after her fifth child, Arielle, was born in 2011.
Raising their children on just one breadwinner's salary, however, has not been easy.
Their monthly expenses amount to about S$3,000, which means there is nothing left to set aside as savings from Mr Heng's income as a social service worker.
His parents help out, and the family receives assistance from the Social Service Office with things like the conservancy charges for their five-room Housing and Development Board flat. Their children are under the Education Ministry’s Financial Assistance Scheme, and the family can tap the Community Health Assist Scheme for their medical bills.
Sometimes, Mr Heng also gets a “love offering” from his church friends. “They’d drop by and bless us with groceries or even bless the children with tickets to Universal Studios,” he said. His church has gifted them with staycations and trips to Malaysia.
And “that’s how we’ve been living our lives for the last 11 years”, he said, since he left the army to work in social service.
To save costs, the younger children must share their toys. And grocery trips are fraught with dilemmas.
“When I buy things from the supermarket, I always have to check the prices,” said Mrs Heng, who looks for offers such as double-purchase discounts.
“Because we’re such a big family, we’ve been living minimally … We don’t get to eat out in restaurants that often. We sometimes do eat out, but it’s just at food courts and the coffee shop.”
AN OVERWORKED MUM
Since March, however, Mrs Heng has been increasingly concerned about the stability of their family income, after her husband abruptly quit his job at a children’s home.
Having coached at-risk youth, Mr Heng decided to start his own company conducting enrichment workshops for such youth and their guardians.
While waiting for his enterprise to take off, he has been working part-time on projects for children with special needs, and freelancing for another company to bring children to heritage sites. His current earnings fall short by about S$500 a month.
Despite this financial uncertainty, he felt it was the right move to shift gears. In the last two years especially, because of shift work that included nights and weekends, he'd not been spending enough time with his family.
I was doing so much for these other children (at work), but my own children didn’t even see me at home. I was an absent daddy.
“That, I think, in a way has caused some strains in the family," he said.
Mrs Heng's entire day revolves around her supersized family. “I cook, I wash, I fold the laundry,” she said, her most precious ally the washing machine.
“I can do without the TV, but … if the washing machine breaks down, that would mean I have to hand-wash five to six people’s clothes every day. It’s no joke.”
She had a domestic helper once, but the family could ill-afford one after she became a stay-at-home mum. And Mrs Heng feels she has even less personal time now, than when she was working as a teacher.
“When I’m overwhelmed with their schoolwork deadlines and then a lot of housework, or if one of them is ill, and I’ve to handle so many things … I do think about whether I’m raising them all by myself,” she said.
There are times I just want to have a meal by myself, without the children calling me every 30 seconds: ‘Mummy, I need a bowl; Mummy, I need this; Mummy, my drink spilled; I need chopsticks.’
She also wakes the children up, prepares their breakfast, walks them to school and tutors them. Her day starts at 6am and ends at 11pm.
Though her youngest, Isabella, stays with her in-laws on weekdays, Mrs Heng is still too swamped to cook on most days, so the family uses a tingkat meal delivery service.
WATCH: Life in the Heng household (4:58)
Seeing his wife take on “so many extra duties” has made Mr Heng feel guilty. “As a husband and a father, I don’t feel good,” he admitted.
Before he quit, his job had usually left him worn out when he was at home. “I’d be (lying) on the sofa and taking a nap,” he said. And so, the children often went to their mother to see to their needs, leaving Mr Heng – the disciplinarian in the family – feeling “jealous” and like a “lousy daddy”.
He especially feels a “painful” disconnect with his oldest daughter, Samantha, who agrees that the two of them have “drifted apart”.
“After Hannah was born (in 2013 – the sixth child), he had to work harder. He wasn’t at home as much,” said the 16-year-old, who cried a little as she remembered those times she missed her dad while growing up.
While she spends more time with friends than family now, she remembers how it was when she was six and had only one sibling. “It was only Rachael and me, and Rachael was a small baby,” she said.
I miss it because, for example, it was 100 per cent about me. Now it’s 100 divided into seven portions.
Rachael, meanwhile, has different bothers of her own. While the 11-year-old, like her elder sister, says she dislikes having so many siblings “because they’re annoying”, she is also the most responsible among them.
She is always being asked to “help them do stuff” every day, and is the sibling the younger ones listen to – the family's “little mother”, as she has been nicknamed by her mum.
Said Mrs Heng: “Whenever there’s a conflict, I think Rachael would be the peacemaker … She’d try and find out what happened and who’s supposed to give way." Like the time Elisa, 10, kicked seven-year-old Arielle’s hand, and they were arguing whether it was an accident or not.
While that makes it hard for Rachael to read her books or do her homework uninterrupted, her mother has had to rely on her to help ease such tensions, given that there are seven children requiring attention.
“I tend to call on her most of the time because she’s obliging,” said Mrs Heng.
She feels guilty sometimes that her children might be growing up faster than their friends. “But I hope, as a mother, I’ve given them enough personal space when they’re growing up,” she said.
At the same time, she believes that, with so many siblings, “they do develop responsibility for each other”. It is also a good way to foster their peer engagement skills, added her husband.
One thing that Mrs Heng still feels guilty about is Hannah’s speech delay. The five-year-old can repeat words but is not speaking in sentences yet, and must be referred to a speech therapist.
Her mother frets that she may have not done enough when the girl was two years old. “I was expecting Isabella, so sometimes I wonder if it’s because I was too tired, and then I didn’t communicate enough with her," she said.
With all that the family has had to manage, quality bonding time has not been easy to come by, let alone getting all nine to go out together. Chinese New Year was one such rare occasion.
That is why Mr Heng recently organised an overnight stay for them at a chalet in Changi, saying it was “very much needed for us as a family”.
“This short, one-day getaway did wonders for the kids, and also I sense that it relieved certain stresses off my shoulders and Esther’s shoulders,” he said, vowing to put more effort into his family and his marriage.
One piece of good news he shared with them: He'd be returning to a full-time job, with regular hours and better pay than the S$2,600 he used to get.
Overall, how do the couple feel about having seven children – the number they have stopped at definitively?
“It’s quite enjoyable to see them grow up together,” Mrs Heng said with a smile, though she sometimes wonders how her life would have been if she'd had only two or three children.
Her husband said: “If I were to restart this whole thing, I may even have had more.”
The Hengs are one of three large Singaporean families who share their stories on On The Red Dot. The final episode of this four-part series airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 on Friday, June 29, at 9.30pm.