[This editor’s letter is guest-written by Zubee Ali, the wonderful coordinator and collaborator of our recent writing workshop 🙂 ]
by Zubee Ali
“I feel like I have no voice!” Natasha*, a young single mother with a four-year-old shared after her harrowing experience in court trying to claim regular maintenance from her ex. The experience left her shaken and disappointed with the outcome. She is worried that her daughter will grow up hating her for the difficulties they will face.
As a single mother, she is trying to ensure that her family receives regular support from her ex to pay all the bills, but in her case, the system is not supportive of her appeal. In other words, she lost. Outcomes like these are not unheard of. Although Singapore is well known for its progressive legal system and policies are in place to help ex-wives claim maintenance, the reality may not be so. Systemic issues and judgements that are not favourable to single mothers do occur. In this case, she was told by the judge that she should not be coming to court so often as this might cause her ex to lose his job and then where will she be? After the court session is over, her ex smirked and laughed as he walked away in victory.
You do not get to hear stories like these until you stop to ask about the experiences of single mothers and the journey they have to go through.
Beyond The Hijab and Daughters Of Tomorrow collaborated on a writing project on The Experiences Of Single Mothers for Mothers’ Day 2019. The motivation to start a single mothers’ writing workshop is to give the women a safe space to process the emotional dimensions and events that led to the breakdown of their marriages and how they coped in the aftermath.
We hope that this workshop will not only be cathartic but can lead to further growth and a deeper understanding of their experience. By writing their stories, the authors wanted to help readers understand that the choices they made were created out of complex and interwoven issues. These issues could range from societal expectations, family needs, and sometimes even for safety and survival. Whether they made the choice themselves or because their partner decided to leave; the stigma, marginalisation and “how people see and talk” about them is bound to happen. They will, through no choice of their own, fall into the grey area of “ibu tunggal” or “single mother” and face the judgement and sometimes condescension of people they meet.
The one single myth to dispel about single mothers is that all of them are poor, disempowered human beings in need of help from the public. This may or may not be the case.
Just like any other demographic group, diversity exists within the group. Women who are married could still have the same social problems and economic issues as single mothers as well. Some single mothers co-parent with their ex-spouses while others do it alone. Some are financially stable while others struggle to maintain jobs and pay their bills. Seeing single parents with its myriad of similarities and differences is to see them beyond just the label or stereotype.
My friend Khatijah* chose not to tell anyone at her workplace that she is divorced, just pretending that her family is “intact” to maintain a sense of normalcy and dignity. She did this until the day she died of a stroke, and not one of her colleagues knew she was hiding this dark secret for almost twenty years. Another friend also kept her divorced status a secret for fear that her adult children will be thought of as less favourable, and could not get married.
I remember during the first three years after my divorce I could not identify with the label of being a single mother or feel comfortable telling anyone about it. I carried the heavy weight of failure on my shoulders alone. I felt that I, and I alone, have destroyed my marriage and brought shame and disgrace to my family and community.
Other women shared the same story. They could not look at other people in the eye, and many went into depression and isolation. Many lost jobs and opportunities because of the shame and sense of failure. I now see that this contributed to the spiraling downfall of single mothers. The psychosocial impact of a divorce, the emotional upheaval that comes with separation and loss, and society’s poor opinion of divorcees impact women negatively. It is not the act of divorce that leads to the economic and impoverished state of single-parent families (if it happens) but the lack of support and opportunities to enable single parents to cope with the pain of loss and “fall from grace”. The difficulties they face that range from managing their families and finances, and the over exhaustion of caregiving responsibilities, usually caused by an acrimonious relationship with an ex-husband or shuttling children back and forth, should not be dismissed or minimised.
It was only many decades later that I could surmise that single mothers or divorced women should not carry this blame alone. Our Malay community celebrates marital unions and to a family’s sense of achievement, seeing their child step into adulthood by getting married or “naik pelamin” is a proud milestone. One minute they are celebrated as “raja sehari” or “royalty for a day” and the next minute they are shunned and marginalised when their marriages fail.
When a young adult reaches their 20s, the questions and expectations surrounding marriage began. We are a society that thrives on a culture of marrying young and in most cases, unprepared, without stopping to ask, is this practice harmful to the community. Weddings, whether held at void decks or in more fancy places, are communal affairs, celebrated with music, rituals and feasts, a source of enjoyment and celebration with guest lists of thousands. Whereas divorces are silent, unspoken and hushed up, and adult children (usually the women) return home cloaked in shame to live with their parents, with their baggage full of stories of abuse, infidelity and financial lack instead of bliss and happiness.
Thousands of children are forced to go through the trauma and disruption of unhappy marriages. They are raised by women who are dazed and hurt by the emotional trauma of the experience but trying their best to provide a stable home and life for them. Women have to go to court and the legal aid bureau (if they cannot afford a lawyer) often to seek help to fight for custody of their children, claim maintenance and seek school placements for their kids as they move houses. They have to tell their stories of shame at social workers’ desks to ask for financial support, find a place to live and if there is abuse, seek protection and justice. In many cases of mental or physical abuse, the women left the marital home with the children thus leaving the man who refuses to leave. The process of regaining the marital home or settling housing issues could take years of going “up and down the court house” or “naik turun mahkamah” for the single mum and children.
Often, they have to deal with multiple agencies and systems, spending precious time waiting and attending court sessions, counselling, mediation, making lengthy applications and the process often repeats itself. Having and keeping a permanent job while all this is going on, is hard, and will be the first to go. It is important and timely that the community knows more about these real-life stories.
The call to participate in the writing workshop by Beyond The Hijab started in March 2019 and drew six participants, ranging in age from the 20s to 50s and number of kids from one to four. Although the writing workshop was meant to help them with the technical aspects of writing like how to craft a good story etc., it was inevitable that pain and laughter were the tools used to tell the stories. There were some self-care measures like stepping away, literally, if the emotions get too overwhelming or just holding the space as memories and tears spill onto paper and our soul sister needs time to come back to the present.
After a period of two months where we met regularly, we were a little bit surprised that the stories flowed easily and smoothly. Turns out it was there all along. As the programme coordinator, I was amazed by the quality of writing, the earnestness in wanting to tell a good story and the commitment needed in time and effort to produce this series.
By putting out their stories for you to read, they risk inviting your judgement, biases, but also maybe for some of you, awareness and understanding as well. For many of you, the stories will resonate, either as single mothers yourselves or children of such families. If that is the case, these six writers will tell you that it is worth it to share and talk about your experience. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
*Names in the post have been changed for confidentiality.
Zubee Ali is a single mom of 4 children from 29 to 22 years old and grandmother of a 5-month-old. She works in Women Support and Development at Daughters Of Tomorrow, a community-based organisation that helps underprivileged women to be job ready.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu