Suddenly, he asks you, “Are you married?”
The audience erupts into laughter as the implications of the question become clear. You feel your cheeks getting hot.
In an infamous FAQ session at Nanyang Technological University in September 2011, an unexpected back-and-forth takes place between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Ms Joan Sim, a then-PhD student at the university. In a series of personal questions, he urges her not to “waste time” (with her PhD?) and instead settle down with a partner and have children.
In his words, “It’s more important and more satisfying than your PhD.”
What struck me the most when watching this clip was the raucous laughter in the audience at the humiliation of this woman. As the laughter grew, so did the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach; I didn’t find it funny, and neither did Ms Sim, who later stated in an interview that she “wanted to hug myself and disappear”.
I doubt Mr Lee said those words with malice or disdain—he did wish Ms Sim good luck with her PhD (and future boyfriend) in the end. But his casual words of advice were a microcosm of a larger problem in Singapore, where getting married and having children are seen as necessary milestones in a woman’s life, regardless of whether or not she has a career or other ambitions.
10 years have since passed, but has anything changed?
Doing it all—Inspirational or Restricting?
Most of us grew up in an era of post-2nd-wave feminism. Chances are, we have never had to worry about not being able to vote or open a bank account in our name. We never had to worry about whether we could go to school, or about the possibility of marrying a man who had five other mistresses. In the last few decades, the culture has shifted from banning women from doing things, to expecting that they do everything instead.
This heralded the rise of the “superwoman” figure. We dub her “superwoman” because she supposedly does it all—manage a successful career, have a loving relationship, provide for her children, all while rocking stunning looks and making it seem so effortless.
*Provided they get married by 25 and have kids by 30; provided they are good wives, mothers, and daughters; provided they dress well and look pretty.
Like the part of an iceberg that’s submerged and obscured from view, there is a laundry list of rules to being a woman that is never explicitly stated, but which everyone knows exists.
You could be the most successful woman in the country, with a 7-digit net worth or multiple PhDs, but if you are unmarried with no children, you still won’t be seen as “complete”.
Belinda Lee, a popular Singaporean actress, recently got married, and while public sentiment was supportive and wholesome, there were many comments about how she “finally” found love and got her “happily ever after”. I’m sure these comments were well-intentioned, but the fact that people seemed to agree that she had to get married in order to find true lasting happiness just didn’t sit right with me.
To me, women shouldn’t have to hit certain milestones or check all the boxes on a list of things they must achieve before being deemed successful or “complete”. Even before she was married, Belinda Lee should have been perceived and respected as a fully accomplished woman—no caveats about marriage or children whatsoever.
The Hidden Toxicity of “Doing It All”
In theory, it may sound great that we are encouraging women to be well-rounded. After all, who wouldn’t want the “full life experience” of having a successful career, a loving partner, and providing for kids? The problem is the mandatory aspect of it—women who don’t have lives resembling this “ideal standard” are judged harshly by society. And in the quest to meet these goals, women are often forced to sacrifice their personal ambitions or change aspects of themselves.
The Sacrifice that Women have to make for Children
If you’re a man, it is relatively easy to be a good father and a successful worker—you go to your 9-5 job, then spend some quality time with your child when you get home before hopping into bed by 10 PM.
If you’re a woman, being a good mother means 6-9 months of an uncomfortable pregnancy, followed by an excruciating and sometimes even fatal birth, all while assuming there are no complications with your paid maternity leave. If you’re lucky.
If not, your boss lets you go the minute he finds out you’re pregnant, because you supposedly won’t be able to contribute to the company as much after the birth of your child. Or, you keep your job, but potential promotions get postponed indefinitely, and you get reshuffled to teams that are less important. Anything that companies can do to make you feel less significant in the workplace. On top of that, you get handed the impossible task of juggling your career and family, from breastfeeding to attending to all your child’s physical and emotional needs. After all, women are still expected to be the primary caregiver for their children.
Back then, I was adamant that I didn’t want kids in the future (big surprise there, a literal child has no desire to mother her own children). I would be told, “You’re still young, I’m sure you’ll change your mind when you’re older.” Or “Don’t say so fast! You don’t know what you want yet.” Today, I still stand by my answer, and just like in the past, many might insist that I would surely change my mind.
This pressure to have children is not just an implicit one, people are surprisingly blunt about it. Emily*, a friend of mine, has a grandmother who hopes Emily will be married with kids by her early thirties. She regularly reminds Emily to start looking for a husband now. Emily knows that she doesn’t want children in the future, but finds it difficult to tell her grandmother because she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or disobedient to the woman who helped raise her. As such, not only does Emily struggle with satisfying her expected role as a good mother, but also with her inner conflicts around being a good granddaughter.
Look at me, I will never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter. Can it be, I’m not meant to play this part? Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart.
—lyrics from Mulan’s “Reflection”
In my own extended family, my grandmother’s three daughters are the main contributors when it comes to looking after my grandmother, while her two sons are nowhere nearly as involved.
Can women truly be themselves to find love?
My aunt who is in her 60s conforms to the traditional ideals of a wife. Upon the birth of her first child, she quit her job at a bank to become a full-time housewife. For 30 years, she woke up early to prepare breakfast and boxed lunches for her husband to bring to work and her two children to bring to school.
Today, it is uncommon to expect women to meet such expectations. However, certain traits are still preferred in women as romantic partners.
A quick google search with the keywords “women” and “bossy” yields a long list of articles detailing workplace bias where assertive men are seen as “a leader” while assertive women are seen as “bossy” or “a bitch”. Likewise with romance. A plethora of articles on the internet targeting women who want to know “How to Be the Woman EVERY Man is Attracted to” all suggest that men generally prefer women who are demure and feminine, as opposed assertive and/or tomboyish.
There is even psychological evidence that men tend to prefer women who are less intelligent than them as romantic partners. Notice that these traits not-so-coincidentally mirror the patriarchal preferences of men decades ago. Of course, not all men share these preferences. But these are patterns that lead women to question themselves and their personality in their quest for love; do they need to change aspects of themselves to make themselves more likeable?
Attractiveness also falls under the “ideal wife” checklist. Women are all-too-familiar with putting in effort into their make-up and fashion to look good for themselves, only to get asked “Why you dress so nice today? Going on a date ah?” Or “Your future husband would be so lucky to have you as his wife!”
Conversely, women who have tattoos or wear heavy make-up get labeled “not wife material”. It seems there is a cookie-cutter shape of what an “ideal wife” should look and behave like, resulting in pressure for women to mold themselves to fit this narrow description if they want to find love.
“Of course there’s nothing wrong with choosing to remain single,” we tell women. But year after year on Chinese New Year, we ask whether they have found a boyfriend, and sometimes even interrogate them on why they’re being so “picky”. Single women simply cannot catch a break. It is as if their lives are not complete if they haven’t found the right partner to settle down with. My unmarried aunt knows this all too well—she has had to deal with odd stares and pitying glances for about 30 years.
The Effortlessness of “Doing it all”
With the proliferation of social media, it has never been easier to broadcast your life to the world. In an effort to appear like they “have it all”, I’ve observed a growing trend of women carefully cherry-picking aspects of their life to share on social media. Working moms post pictures of themselves carrying their baby with a big smile on their face, but don’t post pictures of their baby crying at 3 AM. They use Photoshop to erase the bags under their eyes. They post pictures of romantic date nights with their husband, while hiding the arguments they get into.
The truth is that unless you’re extremely wealthy and/or privileged, “doing it all” is an unreasonable and unrealistic expectation to put on women. And observing all the other women around you seemingly do the impossible can be a hard blow to a woman’s self esteem.
The Asian Perspective on “Doing It All”
This concept of “doing it all” exists and is a real problem for women all around the world. However, I feel that this issue is exacerbated by our cultural emphasis on Asian values.
Singapore is a predominantly ethnically Chinese country, and most of us were brought up on the idea that we should always prioritize our community over ourselves. This concept stems from Confucian teachings, which state that people do not exist as individuals; they are only the sum of their roles in society which arise from our relations to one another (e.g. husband-wife, parent-child, etc.).
Therefore for us, “doing it all” is not merely a pseudo-inspirational mantra or the epitome of self-actualization (a concept that is highlighted in the West). “Doing it all”, or in other words, being a good wife and mother, is a moral responsibility. Failure to play these important roles would result in being branded as morally-corrupt (“How dare you be a bad wife/mother?”). The pressure to avoid being perceived as a “failed woman” in a society which glorifies Confucian values is crushing, and with it, comes a whole lot of guilt and shame if they fail to do so.
These Asian values are deeply embedded in our society and would be impossible to undo overnight. As women, all we can do is remind ourselves not to let these expectations get to us and make us feel bad about ourselves. We need to understand that these archetypal “roles” do not define a woman’s worth; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a woman, and we need to reject the mold that our Asian society tries to fit women into.
In commemoration of International Women’s Day, here is your annual reminder that you don’t need to “do it all” in order to be of worth in society. To all the women reading this, untether yourself from these expectations and freely live the life you choose. Let us be role models to the future generations of women by showing them that there is no one way to be a woman.