This article is co-authored by Claudia Tan.
When Kianne, 23, found out she was pregnant last year, she had to make a decision: marry the father of her child, or co-parent her child without getting married. Ultimately, she chose the former, but not for the reasons one might imagine.
Kianne’s dilemma arose because she wasn’t certain of her partner as a spouse. Still, she made the decision to marry him for very pragmatic reasons — having a child born out of marriage will mean no baby bonus, and less maternity benefits and subsidies for her child’s education.
But can a marriage born from practicalities really work out? Well, Kianne wasn’t too concerned. Instead, her mindset was simple – if the marriage didn’t work out, they could just get a divorce. It was as simple as that.
Or is it?
MSF Survey: The Reality of Divorce
When push comes to shove, getting a divorce is far from simple, especially when there are kids involved. Beyond having to trudge through paperwork and legal procedures, divorce proceedings can take up copious amounts of time and be extremely emotionally-taxing, particularly so if the divorce is contested.
It’s not just about legal procedures and paperwork, though. A recent study done by the Ministry of Social and Family Development has revealed that children from divorced families were more likely to face “divorce penalties”, such as:
- Being less likely to obtain a university degree,
- Earning less
- Having lower CPF balances, and
- Being less likely to marry, and more likely to get divorced.
The survey was done across 101,180 Singaporean children born between 1979 and 1981, based on aggregated data from multiple sources of administrative and survey records.
To ensure that comparisons were made between families of similar backgrounds (apart from the parents’ marital status), children from divorced families were matched with those whose parents remained married on a range of demographic characteristics, such as their parents’ ages and their highest qualification at the point of marriage.
In response to the study, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said: “With this landmark study, we now know that the effects of divorce on a child are not temporary, and impact the child’s future, his education and his family when he marries.”
Sociologists from local universities also echoed a similar view, but acknowledged that the survey results do not indicate that children of divorced parents will have worse outcomes.
Things are not always black-and-white
Professor Jean Yeung, founding director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore said that the study had some caveats, such as the fact that there are many other variables in a divorce that the study cannot account for — like personal circumstances, and characteristics that lead to greater stress within the family. As such, the child’s lower achievement may not directly be caused by the divorce, although the latter may exacerbate worse outcomes for the child.
Even though the study may have produced some interesting results, womens’ rights advocacy group AWARE posted a response to the study on their Facebook page, critiquing the study for not taking into account certain important factors, such as not controlling for the strength and quality of familial ties, income status and household stability of subjects.
The advocacy group ended the statement by cautioning authorities about the policy implications of the study: “Making it difficult for parents to separate in order to secure more positive outcomes for children is unlikely to benefit either parents or children.” They added that divorces in some cases are necessary, as some marital relations break down due to complex reasons, such as abuse.
“If we are concerned for children’s well-being, we need to comprehensively determine which factors contribute to children’s welfare more than others.”
With this in mind, is divorce always the worst option?
Divorce is not always the worst case scenario
It is with this understanding that Kianne stands firm to her beliefs today, even as her first daughter is over a year old and her second child is on the way.
She believes that children grow the best when they have “happy and functioning parents”, regardless of whether or not they are married. She says, “As long as both parents are willing to participate greatly in the upbringing of the child, I don’t see how the child will lack/lose out compared to children of parents who are together”.
Kianne’s sentiments aren’t just the musings of a naive young mother either; as a worker in the legal industry, she is familiar with family law and has witnessed more divorce proceedings than the layman. Having seen how messy divorce proceedings can get, she still believes that ultimately, divorce isn’t “the end of the world”. If both parties in a marriage are happier apart than together, getting a divorce might be for the better for everyone, children included.
Jasmine, 30, might just be one of these examples. Although her parents separated when she was still too young to fully comprehend the situation, she has managed to do pretty well for herself — having consistently done well in school, and completing university. She attributes this to her mum’s resilience in taking care of her and her siblings. “She would work in the day then come home to do the housework and make meals for us. She didn’t let us help because she wanted us to concentrate on our studies and do well in school. Education was the main priority in our household because she felt that would determine our future,” she says.
Growing up, she also realised the psychological implications of the divorce on her own mental wellbeing, and consequently sought help on her own.
Although she says that she does not bear grudges against either parent, she acknowledges that parents do have to be accountable to their children in the event of a divorce. “I think what parents may not know in the chaos of handling a divorce is the trauma inflicted on the children and how there perhaps needs to be an open discussion about what’s going on to allow the children to voice their fears and get reassurance.”
If divorce is unavoidable, what can you do?
As difficult as it is, the best case scenario would be if the separation occurs on amicable terms and the division of assets as well as custody rights are mutually agreed upon.
When this isn’t possible, children should be shielded from conflict as far as possible. After all, they are the most innocent parties in this. This means avoiding outright arguments or fights in front of the children, and not speaking ill about your partner to them.
While Kianne believes divorce might not always be a bad thing, she is keenly aware of the impact it can have on her children. When asked what she would do in such a situation, she emphasises the importance of reiterating to her children that “daddy is still your daddy, and mummy is still your mummy.”
This echoes advice given by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), which recommends that parents regularly communicate with their children that they are still loved and cared for. Additionally, they also recommend agreeing on a sustainable parenting plan and minimising changes to the children’s environment as far as possible.
Children might be the victim of divorce, but oftentimes, there is no clear criminal. Parents, too, should take care of themselves first and foremost so as to provide the best possible care to their children.
If you require assistance and support during a divorce, MSF has six Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) to provide specialised services and programmes for divorcing and divorced families. They take on a child-centric approach and provide counselling, case management, and family dispute management services.
For those who require help with the legal proceedings, AWARE runs a legal clinic twice a month. They also provide counselling services for those who need it. More information about AWARE’s services can be found here.
At the end of the day, the main takeaway from the MSF survey should not be that children of divorced parents automatically fare poorer in life; rather, it should drive home the importance in supporting the parents and children alike through the tumultuous times.
The lead-up to a divorce and the eventual separation is often a messy and ugly one, and it is most definitely not helped by society looking in. As a community, the best we can do is to reserve a little less judgement for all parties involved, and offer support and help where needed instead.