27 October 2012, by Tan Yi Lin
(Warning: The thoughts and views that I set out below have been swirling around in my head for a few weeks now. So this entry may come across as a bit of a rant. if you don’t want to have to deal with some blogger-angst right now, feel free to move along now to the next blogger’s entry. Thanks ah.)
First of all, birthday luck SUCKS.
Not only did I not get any free crabs (of the edible sort, thank you) on my birthday, my birthday wish for my friend didn’t come true. It pains me that I can’t do anything to help, short of lending a listening ear and waiting for my next birthday to roll around and wish again, although I really hope that they don’t have to wait another year to realise their dream of having a child.
Which brings me to my second point: couples who have the ability to realise this dream – but only if the conditions that they lay down are met.
What I Brought to the Table
I have been reading and hearing many conversations on how to convince Singaporeans to have more children. Last month, I had the privilege of being invited to attend a dialogue on marriage and parenthood to share my views on what would encourage Singaporean couples to start a family earlier and to have more than one child.
I attended the latter prepared with one main objective on my personal agenda: To share with the Minister, Ministry representatives, organisers and fellow members of the panel what has worked for me. I didn’t want to go armed with a wish list where every item started with “I Want”. I’m pretty sure our policy makers have heard enough “I Want”s to keep them busy until they retire from their career. As much as public servants are here to serve the people, I think that they would really appreciate and be encouraged by positive stories and suggested solutions on how to solve Singapore’s fertility woes, rather than be faced (yet again) with the same old complaints and demands. It IS a tough job, you know.
I was prepared to do that. On the topic of flexible work arrangements, I shared that my telecommuting arrangement has allowed me to use my time more effectively, in that I can continue to fulfil my work obligations and yet spend more time with Coco, while ensuring that my productivity (and more importantly, my full salary!) does not suffer. While I hoped to see more organisations offer similar schemes to working parents, I stressed that flexible work arrangements are a privilege and not an obligation on the part of the employer to his employees.
For example, while I have the flexibility to telecommute every Wednesday and every weekday afternoon (i.e. total of three full days can be spent working from home), there are days when I am not able to exercise this option e.g. when there is a meeting to attend. On these days, I put work before my child, with nary a complaint – simply because this is one condition of being accorded the privilege of telecommuting. Other conditions include remaining fully contactable during office hours e.g. being available on Office Communicator and diverting my office DID to my personal mobile number.
I also shared that the negative aspects of not having a physical presence in the office are very real: colleagues assume (out of habit, not malice) that you’re on leave; your performance appraisal may be affected; and your chances at promotion and salary increases may suffer. Not only are flexible work arrangements a privilege and not a given right – you even have to put in more effort than before to remain visible and prominent.
What I Took Away from the Session
Instead of the conducive roundtable discussion that I had hoped for, on how to make this parenthood thing work, this is what I heard:
I Want a bigger house at a lower price, before I can consider having children.
I Want to work from home, but not be interrupted by work demands when I’m with my child (Hello? There is such a scheme available: It’s called ‘working part-time’, for a part of your salary)
I Want high-quality childcare but at a lower price.
I Want to give my child the best that I can afford while continuing to uphold my current lifestyle.
And the list goes on. I want. I want. I want.
Give me. Give me. Give me.
I don’t know why there is this air of entitlement amongst Singaporeans these days. Some of my work counterparts have wittily coined it the ‘Post 5/11″ (post May 2011 General Elections) atmosphere. It’s not only limited to couples acting as if someone, more specifically the Government, owes them a living before they will even consider having one child. It’s everywhere: homes, jobs, cars, traffic conditions, a faultless public transport system, etc.
So, okay, it was announced on 27 October that The Powers That Be are going to give us what we’ve asked of them. At least, some of it – to the extent that they are able to. Even Powers That Be have their constraints. Couples with children or intending to have children can look forward to more housing, medical and childcare benefits – the material things. But as the Minister stressed, people’s expectations and values also play a part. I do think that he is right in saying that one can never know and declare that, “We have arrived and therefore we are ready for marriage and parenthood.” People don’t say, “Take the plunge into parenthood” for nothing, you know. But from the sound of things, it does seem like some women are waiting for the perfect Utopian conditions and the stars to align before they will birth a child.
Well, it’s not my job to change their minds (thank goodness) and I certainly don’t envy the persons whose job is to do just that. Don’t want children? Fine. It’s none of my business anyway. I have other priorities to focus on.
I went to that same dialogue session, wearing a badge of honour that my IVF sisters had bestowed upon me: To be their voice in this gaggle of marriage and parenthood demands.
There has been a group of people who have been forgotten in this whole debate: The couples who want to have children but need some medical, and possibly financial, help to do so. It wouldn’t hurt to have some form of social support too in this fight to attain the privilege of parenthood.
I shared my positive experience – and success – of having sought IVF treatment in Singapore. We truly are fortunate to have such technology available to us and the Government grant for Assisted Reproductive Treatment (ART), which I myself have benefited from, certainly helps. I suggested extending the use of the grant to cover IVF treatment in private hospitals, as the waiting list for treatment at restructured hospitals can stretch for months on end. I also suggested extending it to cover pre-IVF procedures, such as fertility checks, and genetic testing of embryos yielded to reduce the rate of recurrent miscarriages.
After all, these are the couples who don’t need the Government to dish out anymore financial goodies to convince them to start a family. They already want that for themselves – and very much so too.
The response I received saddened me. To paraphrase, it was that it made more sense to focus resources on converting the masses, rather than help this unique minority. After all, the reason why these infertile couples have to resort to IVF is because they married and/or tried conceiving late, isn’t it? i.e. IT IS THEIR OWN FAULT (To be clear, neither the Minister nor the Ministry representatives present made this comment. It was made by another person present at the session.)
Hello?! What have I been blogging about for the past 2.5 years? Infertility is NOT solely caused by ageing eggs and sperm. There are many other factors that come into play. As much as I was sorely disappointed by such a reaction, it only made me more determined to continue speaking up for couples facing difficulties in conceiving naturally.
In short, what I’m trying to say is that if you are happily married, young and healthy, and have a great shot at conceiving naturally, do recognise that you are already immensely privileged. The privilege is yours, if you choose to take it. The promise of material benefits, a place in a popular pre-school, and a perfectly balanced work-family arrangement, are simply bonuses that help make your life a little easier. After all, when people realise that it’s too late to start a family, they don’t look back at the chance that passed them by and think, “If only I had a bigger house and a better-paying job. Or if only childcare was cheaper and I could be guaranteed a spot in that popular pre-school. I would have had children.”
It would probably just be, “I wish we had children. Or at least tried for them.”
Of course, I do see the other side of the story, why some couples are reluctant to start a family. Just the tales that they hear from their counterparts on parenthood are enough to scare them off. The fear-mongering amongst kiasu parents is real. I myself haven’t been spared.
But that’s another story, for another day.