Mommy Wars, Singapore Style

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In the US, there has been long-standing tension between Stay at Home Moms and “Working” Moms (The airquotes are because that’s usually the first thing that gets tempers flaring–yes, ALL moms are working moms).  The book above, if you can get past the title, is actually a great collection of essays that gives voice to the push-me/pull-you of the choices we make about working versus staying at home as mothers in America (and the lack of choice at times, as well).

Although there are many parenting issues that cause a divide amongst parents-breast or bottle, crib or co-sleep, whether or not one sleep trains and how….the divide between moms at home and moms who work outside the home is perhaps the one I’ve always seen as least divisive.  While we sometimes feel that we can change a person’s mind about breastfeeding, for example, I’ve met very few women who try to convince others to stay home or go to work.

What I do see, all the time, from every mom (and this does seem to be a mom-thing–sorry for the stereotype, but I just don’t see this from dads in the same way)–is guilt over our choices, whatever they are.

If they don’t see me working outside the home, am I good female role model to my daughters?

I had to give my sick baby to the sitter and come into the office.

I’d kill to go to the office and get a lunch break.  Hell, I’d love to go to the bathroom by myself.

If I stayed home, I’d go insane.

If I have to play Candyland one more time, my brain is going to atrophy.

I want to the be one getting bored to death by Candy Land

For Americans, the tension between stay at home/work out of house moms is mostly focused on the baby years–0-4/5 or so.  (Or at least I’ve found…please do correct away parents of older kids…I only know the elementary/middle school years from the teacher’s side of the desk).

For those of us at home with younger children, I most commonly hear (and have said myself) that we’ll go back to work once our youngest is in school for the full day.  The choice to be home often has a lot to do with the absurdly high cost of daycare arrangements (as a teacher, it was almost a wash with one child and could possibly have cost our family money with two when compared with my post-tax income).

The visibility of the stay at home vs work out of the house mom tension drops dramatically once kids are in 4/5th grade.  We don’t really have “room parents” or “parent volunteers” in the older grades and I couldn’t really have told you with certainty whose parent was working vs stay at home by grade 6.

Last month’s Young Parent Magazine in Singapore took a new and uniquely Singaporean take on the Mommy Wars..


YOUR CAREER vs. HIS GRADES (Do Stay-at-home mums raise more successful children?)

(I’m not even going to go near the “Keep sane on your maid’s weekly day off” article today.)

Looking at statistics, I’d argue that roughly the same percentage of parents work in Singapore versus the US.  We can compare this report from the Singaporean Government’s Ministry of Manpower the statistics in 2011 reflecting the percentage of women and men in the workforce were as follows below on the left in black, with the US stats in 2010 from the Bureau of Labor stats (source) are on the right in blue.

  • 9.8% of women 15-19  (14.6% men)—US 53.6% of women 16-24/ 56.8% of men
  • 62.5% of women 20-24 (63.2% men)
  • 86.7% of women 25-29 (91.8% men)—-US 75.2% of women 25-54/ 89.3% of men
  • 81% of women 30-34 (97.4% men)
  • 77.6% of women 35-39 (97.7% men)
  • 73.9% of women 40-44 (97.1% men)
  • 71.5% of women 45-49 (96% men)
  • 66.1% of women 50-54 (93.5% men)
  • 55.1% of women 55-59 (85.7% men)—-US 35.1% of women 55-64/46.4% of men
  • 38.4% of women 60-64 (71.1% men)
  • 23.9% of women 65-70 (49.1% men)—US 13.8% of women 65-75/ 22.1% of men
  • 6.6% of women over 70 (20.5% men)

In general, the discussions I hear in Singapore surround how moms need to work to help cover the heavy tuition centre expenses and such, not whether they can or should work (as that’s irrelevant).  Going back to work often means finding family childcare (my friend Kirsten lived with her grandparents during the week and her parents on the weekends, a friend who recently returned to work hired a live-in helper to help with childcare when her mom couldn’t watch the kids, and so forth), as there aren’t as many childcare options here.

The nature of this headline seemed particularly inflammatory and designed to batter moms emotionally.  Parents here worry about how their children will do in school because, far more so than in the US, it will impact the trajectory of their lives (what high school they’ll attend, fewer universities/more competition and so forth).

The pressure is particularly intense in year 6 of primary school, which is when they take the dread PSLE exam (which is what determines your academic trajectory)–so much so that I’ve read plenty of advice to start your Pri 4 or 5 student studying for it.  Naturally, then, this article used one factor to support the anecdotal evidence it put into play–the PSLE score of the child of the mother in question.  Factors like wealth and education level of the parent were mostly dismissed in favor of the binary of working/home and score result.

I’ve heard moms talking specifically about either not returning to work until after the PSLE or taking a break specifically during the PSLE years.



The problem, of course, is that none of the articles written about staying at home versus working really address the moms.  They always focus on the kid’s successes or failures (in whatever arena you want to argue in–sports, academics, future dating rates, whatever).  They almost always fail to ask the following important questions

  • Is it even a choice?  For many families, the choice of working vs staying home is a moot question.  It is elitist to assume otherwise.
  • Assuming you can make the choice, is the mom happy with her choice most days? If you’re going to be miserable at home, or miserable at work, assuming you have a choice, don’t go with the one you’ll hate just because you feel you “should” make a choice in one direction or the other.  And none of us are happy with our choice 100% of the time–anyone who says otherwise is lying.
  • Are your kids doing okay?  As in, are they fed, clothed, reasonably happy, hitting developmental milestones little people with whom you have a reasonably healthy relationship?  Yes?  Then they’re fine.


Dear Parents of Singapore

I’m a veteran teacher.  Let me let you in a little secret–your staying home or not isn’t going to make or break your kid.  You can stay home and have a brilliant or a lazy kid.  You can work and have a brilliant or a lazy kid.  Your staying home in no way affects how your child will do on a standardized test.

Make the choice that’s right for your family.

And for the good of us all, let’s stop giving money to publications with articles like this, and more to publications with Ryan Gosling on their covers.  We’ll all be much happier.

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4 Responses to Mommy Wars, Singapore Style

  1. Cannelle says:

    Very interesting post. I met a Singaporean student who said “I want to work like crazy for 4 or 5 years and then, raise my children. How can my children get good grades if I am working?”. Some beliefs seem still deeply rooted… But, doesn’t family influence (pressure?) and education also influence a lot?
    Anyway, loved your last paragraps 🙂

    • Education level of parents is a big factor in a child’s success in school, in part because it tends to translate to more income, more investment emotionally by the parents in the child’s education and higher standards for the child (as well as the ability to potentially do some tutoring of their child by they). But that’s true whether the parent works or not. And the reality is that if a child has a learning impairment, or the educational system is a poor fit for him/her–all the pressure in the world isn’t going to fix the root cause.

      I find it telling that in the US and here (and in most countries) the onus is on the mom to do the job quitting/parenting.

  2. Carol says:

    I’m all for mags with Ryan Gosling on the covers 🙂 That’s cos even if I avoided buying parenting magazines I get bombarded with questions about should i continue working, should i stay home with the kids, should i start a home business if i were to stay home, should i send my kids for extra tuition every night etc etc when I meet up with other moms, anyway 😦

    • It’s really hard to resist the wave. Trust me, I have firm opinions, and even I wonder if I should just enroll Ellie in that tuition centre or if volunteering at a P1 is something I should do or or or. Remind yourself that you don’t need to do anything that isn’t appropriate for your family.

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