Bringing up kids in Singapore

Some friends from Singapore are in town and they very generously trekked over to East London for dinner last night. Lucky me as I wasn’t sure my 36-week pregnant self would take me very far these days. We went Turkish and headed for Mangal on Kingsland Road.

As they have two children, conversation automatically steered towards the topic of children. Typically.

I am always curious about my Singapore friends’ childcare arrangements. Just for background information: Singapore’s a city-state in Southeast Asia famed for its high standard of living. Low crime rate, good food and an education system that regularly tops global league tables. The streets are so clean you could even lie down on it – although why anyone would want to do that, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Back to the topic of childcare. Nursery fees in Singapore average $700 (Montessori nurseries probably about $1400) a month, which comes to roughly £350. The majority of families with kids have live-in help. Filipino maids are paid about $600 a month (£300), but you can find cheaper ones. For $400 (£200) a month, my friends’ Burmese maid looks after their two kids, cooks for them and baths them. Both parents work, and long hours (10 hours) is normal. Leaving just weekends for family time. A typical week day for my friend would be reading bedtime stories and none of the chores that come with bringing up children.

A part of me is envious. But the more time I mull over a set-up like that, the less I think it suits me. Peel away my daily grumblings and frustration, I do actually enjoy being able to do the basic things for the kids like picking them up from nursery and slaving over a hot stove. How often do I wish I could be relieved of these chores so I can concentrate on work or have an hour of time to myself? All the time.

But without a family life routine consisting of boring chores which the kids are integrated into, I think I’d feel very disconnected from reality.

My personal MOT

It’s been six months since I decided to set up my own business – with two other partners – and to go into freelance writing. Last week, thanks to a cold that would not go away, I found myself reflecting on the months that have passed.

Sickness is a hindrance when you’re self-employed. It hampers progress and interrupts the momentum. Mornings can be difficult when I’m this out of focus. Then I think of this Charles Bukowski quote which helps kick me out of bed,

Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.

So what have I learned in the last six months? That working for yourself requires a different rhythm to being an employee. As it turned out, I discovered in the first month, I did not have a rhythm at all. All my life I have worked in offices. Used to the daily pattern of the 6.30am alarm, the rush through the morning routine: family breakfast, dress my toddler and out the door at 7.30am sharp in order to be first through the nursery doors the second it opens at 8am. A normal work day ensues, then hurry back to pick up the children for 7pm. It didn’t matter that I was less productive one day and more so the next. Nor did it matter if I took a day off sick. I’d still get paid the same. It’s a routine that can very quickly numb the senses and make one lose touch with oneself.

Over the last few months working on my own, I’ve learned a lot about myself. That I write best in the mornings, that working hard doesn’t mean sitting at your desk for eight hours straight, that when you’re working on something you’re passionate about it won’t feel like work, that work never really stops when you’re doing it for yourself.

According to Lewis Hyde (in his book The Gift), he makes a distinction between work and labour.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.

Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems. But I have no feeling that I wrote them.” That is the declaration of a laborer…

What would I rather be: a worker or a labourer? And what about you?

A mother’s work meme

Work, family and finances, the three interconnected subjects everyone’s talking about at the moment. I have written before about not being able to afford to go back to an office job. So when mother.wife.me. started a Mother’s Work Meme, I got tagged.

Rules:

  1. Please post the rules
  2. Answer the questions in as much or as little detail as suits you
  3. Leave a comment on mother.wife.me so we can keep track of the meme
  4. Tag 3 people and link to them on your blog
  5. Let them know you tagged them
  6. Tweet loudly about taking part (well ok, that isn’t a rule, but how about if we start a hashtag – #amothersworkmeme

Questions:

  1. Did you work before becoming a mum?
  2. What is your current situation?
  3. Freestyle – got your own point you’d like to get across on this issue? Here’s your chance…

And, most importantly…. you’re tagged!!

HPMcQ

Joanne Mallon

Ministry of Mum

1. Did you work before becoming a mum?
I did and went back to work after child 1 and 2. With child 1, I went back after 16 weeks maternity leave. With child 2, I went back after 5 months.

2. What is your current situation?
I am self-employed – setting up my own fashion magazine and freelance writing at the same time. I’m also due to give birth to child 3 in April. My freelancing started in October last year; before that I had a full-time job in the West End where nearly all of my salary would go into childcare costs. Work involved a lot of early starts and staying late in the office, which meant extra childcare costs. Travel costs, even though I only live in the East End, made a sufficient dent into expenses. This was with two children, so obviously with the expense of child 3, it would be impossible to hold down a similar five-day a week office job.

3. Freestyle
Employers need to consider new methods of how to make an office work. It could mean breaking out of the traditional 9-to-5 way of working, but with sophisticated communication technology such as Skype and Basecamp, it’s less important for employees to be location specific as, say, five years ago. We live in an age of mobile devices. Anywhere can be an office.

Employees seen to be bending over their computers from 9 to 5 or into the evenings are not always all they seem to be. How focused have they been in the day? Have they stretched out work that could have been finished in 2 hours across 4 hours? How much time have been spent on Facebook, Twitter and surfing the net while they appeared to be ‘hard at work’? Or maybe they don’t have anywhere to go that evening so end up larking about in the office after the working day’s ended. And let’s not forget the long conversations at the watercooler or over making cups of tea.

I have personal experience of all these situations. What I see is low morale and motivation generally in the workplace. Staff are disgruntled and frustrated, while top management remains oblivious and do little to nurture and motivate them.

It’s been proven that flexibility is a powerful lure in recruiting and motivating top talent. Employees are able to concentrate without being interrupted by phone calls, meetings, and other workplace distractions. Eliminating watercooler gossip sessions — a significant time sink in a high-anxiety environment — is a huge boost to productivity. And knowing that an employer trusts and respects its people enough to help them do what it takes to perform better — through remote work options, staggered schedules, and reduced-hour arrangements — pays back in greater appreciation and loyalty.

What I’m saying is flexi-work should not just be for the mother returning from her year-long maternity leave. It should be an option for everyone. The traditional office, as we know it, needs shaking up. The old way is not working.

On the subject of new mums going back to work. I have friends who complained of getting sidelined after going back and some who have been pushed out of their jobs. And if you work in an environment where most of the women do not have children, it’s pretty much like working in a male-only office. Your childless female colleagues don’t understand why you have to leave at 5.30pm every day. Nor do they know about astronomic childcare expenses, which runs up if you’re late picking up the kids. They don’t understand that repeated negotiations with your partner down the phone every other day (about working late and who should pick up baby) has a bad impact on home life. They don’t understand that, unlike them, you don’t have down time when you get home.

Don’t have children then, I hear you say. Well, my children will be paying for my pension when I – and my peers – enter old age.

There are currently 4 people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain, by 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just 2.

Women are more educated today than 30 years ago – they can work and want to work. There is greater sharing of domestic responsibilities between partners than 30 years ago. So why do we still have offices (and attitudes) built for a workforce from 30 years ago?

My one big busy messy life

English: An artist's depiction of the rat race...

“Human lifetime is less than 1,000 months long. For only 1/3 of those 1,000 months will you have time for serious thinking, serious loving and serious acting – that gives you only 300 months.” (The rest of the time you’ll spend doing things like sleeping, eating or being stuck in a traffic jam)

It’s a quote from Prof. AC Grayling, who teaches philosophy at the University of London, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012. He was arguing for the return of philosophy.

You read it right. We live for only 1,000 months (or less!), and then we are no more; we return to dust. The big question hits me, like one of those anvil dropping on your head moments in cartoons. How many of those 333 months do I spend them unhappy in a job, complaining or wishing I were doing something else other than what I’m doing at that moment. What kind of life am I living? What kind of life do I want to lead?

Carine Roitfeld said in an issue of Gentlewoman magazine, when asked how she juggles her work/life balance, ‘what is that?’ She only understands that there is one life, her personal and work life criss-crossing into each other. This division between work and life is a modern phenomenon which keep mostly the British and Americans awake all night. Tons of books are devoted to this subject, about how to help one ‘get more out of life’ or ‘have a 4-day work week’.

I’ve tried all kinds of productivity methods. From prioritising inboxes, scheduling meetings in the afternoons, to synchronising my Gmail calendar with to-do lists. Any newspaper or magazine article with the words get-things-done has my attention. What happened is, I just worked harder and faster. Not necessarily happier. And falling on the old cliché, I became a ‘human doing’.

Nothing was working for me. So in a last ditch effort, I decided to dispense with achieving the ideal work/life balance. To hell with it. So my life now is just one big busy messy existence. Moving from working at my desk and cooking dinner, school runs and work meetings, there are no boundaries. I even write in spurts of 15 minutes, when the children are in the bath or in that lull between them finishing their tea and bedtime.

I do work in the day. But what I’m saying is that my working doesn’t have a clock-out time. It just goes on even after picking up the children  from school. Of course this is only possible because I work for myself. The kids and I have fun together and I get to work.

An unexpected outcome of this big messy way of living is that I’ve learned how to live in the present. Concentrate hard on whatever it is I’m doing before moving to the next thing. It’s much more pleasurable than referring to my to-do list all the time then stressing over how much there’s still left to be done. Because I’m chipping away at things in 15 minute bursts, things just end up getting done. Like magic.

I don’t stress because I’ve sat at my desk for four hours and only produced two sentences. I get off my chair, do something else (probably some boring household chore), and then go back to work with a clear head and some solution would have worked itself out. Actually, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s messy, it’s busy and it never stops. But weirdly, I am content. And this is how I choose to live my 333 months.

Is it a good idea for mums to give up work?

And so the debate rages on: to work or to stay at home. Every mother’s million dollar question. Some reports say children are healthier if mums work, some say it’s bad for children to start nursery too young. Who knows. Tossing a coin or consulting the magic eight ball would give you more accurate guidance.

My son is 7 years old. And meeting mums at the school, where their babies are now Wii-playing and Tracy Beaker-watching children, I see them at the other end. It’s given me a new perspective to the SAHM versus the working mum debate. When baby starts school, lots of them who gave up work when baby first arrived, feel lost, lacking in self-confidence and unsure about what to do with themselves with all those free hours until Junior’s done at school.

Years ago, one friend told me her ambition is to be a housewife. Cooking and cleaning gives her satisfaction. But for every one of her, there are many others where playing domestic goddess holds as much appeal as eating rotten apples.

Chatting with a mum in the playground yesterday, she said how she wished she had a career. All her time is spent looking after her four children – three in primary school and the fourth nearly two years old. Before kids, she had a bog standard office job which she wouldn’t dream of doing now. Seeing how dejected she was, it made me wonder, perhaps it is better (especially in the long run) to persist and continue with some kind of work when the children are little.

Do it in whatever shape or form. In however big or small quantities. Just carry on working.

The principle that writers write through ‘mental blocks’ applies to work. To continue working, through jobs good and bad, until you find one that has the best fit. (Notice how I avoided saying ‘the perfect job’.)

That dream job you landed at 25 might be hell on earth when you become a new mother at 35. Life changes, priorities change. Tough! C’est la vie. First jobs often aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. But keep pushing, learn more about yourself, discover qualities you never thought you had (like filing perhaps. In my first job, I became an expert on the franking machine.) There’s bound to be some kind of good office experience to glean from every job. So get some and move on. Pay attention to those inner voices as you go along. But the only way to do it is to keep on doing it. By this, I mean to carry on working. No amount of theorising on the sofa while watching daytime television or bookshelf dusting can give you that kind of insight.

Much better to keep one foot in the door than to shut it behind you completely. Otherwise the next time you come up for air, it can feel daunting. I can’t speak from experience, but can only imagine the unimaginable fear for a woman going back to work after a five-year hiatus.

I’m not passing any judgement; it’s horses for causes. All I’m saying is, the decision is always yours. Do jump in with your eyes wide open. Understand that your post-pregnancy hormones could be tricking you into exercising your maternal instincts more than you’d like, and it’s not entirely in your best interest to give in.

What’s your view on the stay-at-home versus working mums debate?

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