SINGAPORE: Weekday mornings have been a battleground in the Lim household, where nine people have been sharing three bedrooms. And mother of five Ethel Lim is the field marshal, waking up and directing her troop of teens and pre-teens.
She has 40 minutes to get her children, aged between 10 and 16, in and out of the toilet they share and out of their apartment in time for school. This means she would need everything to run like clockwork.
What the 37-year-old would usually get is chaos, with lots of knocking on the toilet door.
Her second daughter Bernice attested that the mornings could be “very crazy”. “Each one of us only has five minutes in the bathroom, so we can only brush our teeth, wash our face and change our clothes,” said the 15-year-old.
“Sometimes one of us gets to school late because somebody woke up late, then (got ready) very slowly.”
Mrs Lim would receive complaints from school, usually about 14-year-old Ambrosia, her middle child and “the late one”. Her reply? “I have five kids to ferry.”
Despite the trend here towards having fewer children, a few families like the Lims have gone against the grain. The programme On The Red Dot spent months filming three large families (by today's standards), to see what it takes to raise a big brood in Singapore today. (Watch the series here.)
MARRIED AT 19
In the case of the Lims, they did not plan specifically for five children; rather, husband Nick wanted a big family, “so we just went ahead”, said Mrs Lim, who was similarly inclined because “maybe the noisier the better”.
She got her wish, with five different personalities – “monsters”, she calls them – fighting for space in the rented condominium penthouse shared with her husband’s sister, a domestic helper and two dogs.
Mrs Lim was 19 years old when she got married after dating for six months, while her husband was 25.
She still gets asked about tying the knot at that age, and her reply is no different from what she said back then to her friends, who had wondered if it was a shotgun marriage. (It was not.)
“I found the right guy; the chemistry’s there, the sparks were there, he’s good. Okay, let’s go for it,” she said, adding that her parents were supportive because he treated her well.
Two years later, she had her first child, Crystal, followed by the next two girls – each of them a year apart. Her son Bryan is now 12, and she had her youngest daughter, Melody, by the time she was 27.
She was a part-time real estate agent previously, and has been a stay-at-home mum since her second pregnancy – a role that has kept her contented as she watched her children grow up.
“My family are my top priority, so they’re my happiness. I don’t think anything is a sacrifice for my family,” she said.
She found her children easier to handle, however, when they were younger. Now they are more vocal and have growing needs. It has proven to be a challenge satisfying one demand in particular.
Said Mrs Lim: “All of them request, 'I want my own personal space.’”
In their maisonette of about five years, Bernice, Bryan and Melody have been sleeping in the master bedroom with their parents, while Crystal and Ambrosia have been sharing a room, with the helper and their aunt in the third bedroom.
But it is not only the sleeping arrangements that have been a squeeze. Finding space to study at home in peace is also not easy when their other siblings are playing noisily, as they often do.
This year, it has been particularly difficult for Crystal, who is taking the N-level examinations and is working hard to qualify for the direct polytechnic admission programme.
“I wish that they give me more privacy and a proper space to study,” said the 16-year-old.
Just last year, there was a comfortable study room in the apartment. But it was filled with boxes packed in November in anticipation of a move to a new, bigger home.
Those plans were then derailed by Mr Lim’s work schedule, to Crystal’s chagrin. “I argued with (my parents) a lot about this,” she said.
I don’t want anything to affect my N-level results, which are very important to me.
That focus of hers has meant that she has been spending more time with her friends instead. “When I go out with them, I get to study, so in a sense, I get to do stuff that’s more productive,” she explained.
WATCH: Space crunch for this family of 9 (Dur 4:27)
‘I WISH HE’D BE THERE’
Mr Lim felt bad about the delay in moving house caused by his work. He is in township development and makes business visits in the region almost every week.
He is gone for about three to five days each time and two weeks at the longest, although he tries to be back for the weekends, and he calls his family every night.
Owing to his increasing workload, “it was harder to find the right house for my family”, he said. But that is not the only reason his children are growing impatient with his absence. He also missed Ambrosia’s and Bernice’s birthdays.
“They were very upset,” said Crystal. “Working is important, but then I know that time is also very valuable, and what you miss you can’t get back. Sometimes I wish that he’d be more fatherly, that he’d actually be there.”
But this “can’t be helped”, said Mr Lim, whose pay depends on his commission and who earns S$10,000 to S$20,000 a month to support his family and give them a “better future”.
“As long as a parent isn’t around, like me, there’d definitely be this (feeling of neglecting them),” he admitted. “But as of now, my family environment still allows me to go out (of Singapore) to work.
“The market is larger outside … Wherever gives me better development, I’d go. I was never worried about going to places others don’t want to go to – I’m only worried about having no work.”
To make up for lost time, whenever he is in Singapore, he drives his children to school. It is the best way for him to spend time with them.
‘MY GREATEST WORRY’
Mrs Lim knows that her husband is “a caring dad”, but he is inexpressive and quiet. “So most of the time, I’m the one doing all the talking with the kids,” she said.
Her husband’s absence or his relationship with their children, however, is not her biggest concern. “My greatest worry is Bryan. His PSLE,” she declared.
Her Primary 6 son seems to be more interested in playing – or fighting – with his siblings than in his coming examinations.
Said his mother: “He doesn’t really bother about his studies, but I can’t push him … because the more you push him, the more he doesn’t want (to listen).”
Growing up dyslexic and recently diagnosed with hearing difficulties, Bryan has been struggling in school. And in a family of seven, it has been hard to devote attention and resources to just one child.
“We did try giving them tuition. It did help, but it’s quite costly, so we cut down,” Mrs Lim said. “Nick and I are still … working out with teachers – taking (their) advice – how to handle him.
“But he’s a very stubborn boy, and he keeps everything to himself, so it’s kind of hard to get him to open up.”
His parents only want him to pass his subjects, but in his recent report card, he passed only his English out of three subjects.
“I did try, but … I always end up with only a few more marks (needed) to pass,” said the 12-year-old, who had to then promise his parents that he would do better or else they would take away his phone.
While Mrs Lim hopes that her son will now strive to do better this term, that ultimatum to him is the nearest approach to being a discipline mistress that her children would see from her.
Having had her children at a young age, she prefers to be more of a friend than a mother. And she doubts that caning them really works, since she herself became “more rebellious” when she was caned in the past. She reasoned:
If you’re doing the ‘mother’ role, (children) won’t tell you a lot of things. Rather, when you’re friends with them, they can tell you a lot of things.
But her lenient parenting approach does not always work, thinks Crystal. “(My siblings) talk back to her without any consideration of the situation,” said the girl.
“They should show her more respect and care instead of just arguing all the way without a valid point.”
Indeed, there are some things about having a family of seven that do drive Mrs Lim crazy. “Sometimes they’d argue non-stop for a few days or throw tantrums,” she said. “Mostly it’s the children fighting.”
That is when she needs a break from them – and a chance to catch up with her best friend Kristine Khoo, whom she has known for about five to six years.
“Talking to Kristine makes me more relaxed because she’s a mum herself, and our kids of the same age. So we understand each other more,” said Mrs Lim.
One of her biggest reliefs, however, came recently when her husband found a new home for them after months of house-hunting: A three-storey terrace house with five rooms.
And it has been an exciting time for the family as they went about cleaning their rooms before the big move. “My husband did a very good job finding this place,” said a happy Mrs Lim.
Their children must still share a room, but there is now an adjoining toilet for each. “I don’t have to queue up! I don’t need to wait for all them!” exclaimed Crystal.
On the other hand, one of the reasons her mother is thankful they have their own space is that, for the first time since the birth of her first child, she and husband may just be left "very peaceful” at night.
“It’s no more noise at night, no more calling them to sleep,” she said with a laugh – even if waking them up in the morning may be no less difficult.
The Lims are one of three large Singaporean families who share their stories on On The Red Dot. Read about another family raising 7 children on under S$3,000 a month.
New episodes air on Mediacorp Channel 5 on Fridays at 9.30pm.