Top image: César Abner Martínez Aguilar/Unsplash
“Sometimes I do think that it’s not moral for people to give birth as children are likely to suffer in the future, for example, in their education journey and career,” Lynn shares during one of the random conversations we have about life in the near future.
“Life is too stressful nowadays, and people do not seem as happy as before. Bringing a kid into this world would mean opening a door for the kid to suffer in the long term.”
Lynn is a 23-year-old undergraduate and a friend who’s always been a tad more critical about life in Singapore since our secondary school days. Out of many friends who do want kids, she’s less enthusiastic about the idea of procreation and more keen on adoption.
Still, in every conversation about having kids, it’s easier, and in these times more kosher, to explain why one doesn’t want them. In contrast, it feels like an uphill ride to justify the opposite. An individual choice now brings its own qualms simply by its undoubted implications.
Yet with every reason after another rejecting procreation, it’s still a pronatalist society here, after all, which makes having children a decision that very much goes against the grains of community—and stubbornly at that.
Perhaps that’s why it’s refreshing to meet individuals in Singapore who willingly buck such societal trends and have very good, salient reasons for doing so. And in the broader debate of what it means for the world for anyone to have children today, their views, while not as widely discussed, offer fresh perspectives that we should not discount.
A natural progression
Having children is a very personal and intimate choice, and its root concerns the values and meaning people attach to a child.
For Miss Ling-Anne Hsieh, 30, co-founder of Project Green Ribbon, children represent the bond she shares with her partner. With three boys aged three, six, and nine, for her, parenthood was a decision borne solely out of love.
“I wanted to have kids because it represents the bond I share with my partner, and it’s interesting to see whose form our child takes more. Also, I thought it was a natural step in our marriage,” she explains. “Plus, it’s a little boring to be just on our own, so the thought of having children came.”
Along similar lines is Mr Sudirwan Juhaimi, 38, an owner of a brand consultancy and a gay man. He has been in a long term relationship with his partner for a decade now, and the couple has been looking at adoption.
He has always loved children and has nieces and nephews too. But the leaning toward having children of his own only came amid his relationship.
“I never thought of having children until I got together with my partner,” Sudirwan recounts. “When we moved in together at our two-year mark, he randomly said that our house would be too small if we wanted children. That was when I realised that he wanted something more than a casual relationship.”
Sudirwan and his partner have been together for a decade. They’ve always wanted the relationship to feel real throughout the first few years of their relationship, like a heteronormative family union. This included having a home together, having kids—typical couple stuff.
“But as a gay couple, there’s not much we can do,” Sudirwan says. “We could go overseas to register our marriage though legally there would be no difference in Singapore. So our next step would be having children. It felt very real when we started talking about it over dinner—about how and where to raise them.”
“Given the situation that we’re in, adoption is our priority. We talked to many gay couples who have adopted kids, and although it’s an overly complicated process, it’s something we were willing to go through.”
For Miss Hsieh and Mr Sudirwan, their want for children stemmed from love for their partners and a “natural” progression in their relationships. A common notion among many in Singapore, this view perhaps reflects society’s conditioning of our lives by instilling the expectation of having children as a concrete milestone.
However, for Mrs Nicole Yam, 47, a Primary school English tutor, her desire to have kids always came more from her love for children.
A child is not a global responsibility
As Mrs Yam’s former student, her love for kids, and the joy she creates, displays, and seeks in every interaction with them, has always been evident. Mrs Yam has been married for 15 years, and although she desires to have children of her own, she’s unable to procreate due to health issues.
“I grew up in a big family, with three older brothers and my cousins. During my childhood, there were lots of laughter and fun. For the longest time, and still today, children have been a big part of my life,” says Mrs Yam.
“It’s (having children) also the next milestone of life once you’ve settled down. But for me, I want kids more so because of my love for children. I realised that I work very well with kids after my first job as a kindergarten teacher. I thoroughly enjoy the laughter and fun we have together, their candour and innocence (laughs).”
As an educator, Mrs Yam believes that she can mould and nurture children so their world views would also be positive when they grow up. “This small difference to the world is sufficient,” she adds. “Similarly, I would want to have children to show them how to love, so they can spread such values to others.”
The choice of parenthood is not that simple
Still, despite their love for kids, it’s not without its concerns.
Issues of trade-offs between career and motherhood aren’t bulletproof to Miss Hsieh.
“I got married at 21 and had my first child in the same year. I thought about whether I had to choose between being a good mother and a career woman and then realised that there’s no such thing. I can be everything. We don’t have to sacrifice any when they are all different roles that we take on.”
For Mr Sudirwan, as a gay man in Singapore, the choice of parenthood came with both legal and financial concerns.
“Adoption has always been on our minds, and for us, as a gay couple, it’s been a matter of money. It does require us to cut down on our spending for leisure, but it’s possible since we have no biological deadline.”
After talking to many parents, he’s gathered that you will reprioritise and make it happen as long as you really want children. “It’s always the first step that’s fearful,” Sudirwan intones.
For him, there’s also the issue of how and where to raise and educate the children. “The nature of our relationship (as an unmarried gay couple) may affect the child psychologically too, and perhaps expose him or her to bullying in school.”
But common to all three interviewees, having kids is a personal choice that looks and feels different to everyone.
Miss Hsieh chimes, “I think it’s not right to comment on others’ views on having kids. It’s all about perspectives, how we view having children, and our wants and needs—they are all different. There’s no right or wrong.”
Mr Sudirwan adds, “The potential harm of having children is a valid opinion. Like climate change, it might end the earth,” Mr Sudirwan shares. “But having kids is beyond that.”
“A child is not a global responsibility. It’s for you and your partner to raise. You’ll consider your own goals rather than those beyond your control. It’ll be impossible to drive and even take the bus if we do. At the end of the day, whether you want or don’t want kids is a personal decision that’s not to be judged.”
The societal investment of being a parent
The best things in life, like the joy of having and raising children, may be free. But the process of achieving it isn’t. While having children is an individual right, certain benchmarks and qualifications are expected of parents to provide for their children.
Yet, by extension, this implies, however cruel, that being richer or poorer may make one a more or less qualified parent.
“It’s a conflicting thing because I believe that kids should be raised in an environment where parents give them their best. But this is an elitist mindset because only a certain class can afford and be allowed to have kids,” Mr Sudirwan explains with a sigh.
Mrs Yam shares, “It’s not cheap to have a child—basics and enrichment lessons amount to lots. If you can’t, it’s a lot of mental pressure.”
For Professor Tan Ern Ser, Associate Professor of Sociology in NUS, it’s less about ethics and more about child-centric indicators to consider and fulfil.
“Instead of condemning parents of lower social classes and material wealth, we should take judgment away and focus the conversation on whether parents can provide for the child and give it a supportive and nurturing childhood. It pains me to see an innocent child mistreated and neglected.”
An interview with a group of students on this topic inspired Prof Tan to talk about Good Parenting in his LinkedIn post. He was shown a photo of a family with many children who weren’t well taken care of, and he felt sympathetic for them.
“Rather than meritocracy and competition, it’s this inequality of opportunity that’s not okay,” Prof Tan stresses.
“It affects the ability of parents to provide social and cultural capital for their child, which includes mentoring and role models, as well as knowledge. Do they have enough enrichment and stimulation for a fighting chance in society? We need to level the playing field for them, and as a parent, can you equalise this opportunity?”
“At the same time, children also need fun to explore during childhood, not just academic enrichment. In nature, for instance, there are many things you learn that are not taught in a formal classroom setting. But exposure is needed from parents who are willing to spend time with them. Are they ready to invest in that? When you decide to have a child, it’s about being future-ready, working backwards to provide all these for them.”
When asked about social class being a qualification for having children, Professor Abelard Podgorski, Assistant Professor of Philosophy in NUS, opines that using that as a yardstick to decide worthiness is tenuous.
“It’s not a definite line differentiating whether the rich are more worth living than the poor. More relevant considerations include a parent’s expectations for their child and what their lives will be like.”
There are no perfect parents, but that’s okay
“Humans are resilient survivors,” Mrs Yam reassures. Regardless of financial and family background, parents who try their best still can bring up successful children.
This strikes a chord with Miss Hsieh, as she shares pensively, “There are no perfect parents, but also no parent who could love their own child better. I want to give my children a better life than the one I grew up with, and I feel bad when I can’t afford to give them more sometimes. But the comparison doesn’t make me a bad mother.”
“The base of the home you can build for your child is never about money and materialistic things. It’s about providing your child with a safe space to be themselves and learn on their own. As a parent, you’ll always adjust and improve along the way. As they grow up, I want them to be kind, compassionate, and successful in their own ways.”
To Mrs Yam, the goal and reward of having children lie in a change of perspective of the world—focusing on the bright side.
“Why does having children have to be an immoral decision? There are many other bleak and toxic things in the world, but I believe that my decision is beautiful—I can bring up loving kids. It’s our reaction that matters. The pain of growing up and nurturing them is about being human and is our strength.”
I asked Mr Sudirwan his thoughts about a society that judges low-income families with children who need assistance with day-to-day living.
“It’s a mindset problem,” he offers. “Why can’t there be a system that helps parents raise kids? There are policies to assist families who need financial support. However, we as a society still judge families who live in less than ideal living conditions.”
“If you really want kids and can’t afford it, we should fix the system to find ways to help families comfortably and rightly raise their kids in the best ways. Is there value to being human in Singapore? I think that the choice of having kids has inherent value, which should be protected.”
[Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to reflect the accuracy of the Adoption of Children Act 2022. We apologise for the oversight.]