It might be the 21st century, but social entrepreneur Florence Tay recalls being advised by a school administrator not to tell her daughter’s form teacher about being a single parent: “Like it’s supposed to be some hush hush secret.” And it is these kinds of attitudes that perpetuate the exclusion of non-traditional families in society. Yet despite encountering these conservative mindsets, Florence considers herself fortunate that family and friends gave her the support she needed when her marriage collapsed. Her daughter Si En was only four months old when the divorce was finalised and she was left bringing up her new-born child alone.
But many women in similar situations find themselves struggling to cope emotionally, mentally and financially when left to fend for themselves and their children after a relationship fails. For single mothers who have fallen through the cracks, Florence hopes to offer solace, either through a chat group she set up, or by employing them at the social enterprise she started with a business partner in 2018.
UnPackt, Singapore’s first zero-waste grocery store, currently hires two single mothers to produce items, such as reusable wipes and handkerchiefs, to sell. These jobs allow the women to work from home, offering them financial independence, while having the flexibility to care for their children.
NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Florence Tay: As a single mum, and my daughter was very young, it was a struggle for me trying to juggle work and caring for her, because she still needed a lot of attention, a lot of care. I was lucky, I had my mum to help me with it. But I felt that sometimes as a woman, when you need to feed a child, and you need to take care of the child, emotionally, physically, it can be very draining. So I set up a social enterprise trying to help other single mums who are in the same situation as me, hoping to help them to be at least financially stable, and be able to provide for their child.
TheHomeGround: That’s a lot to handle as a new mother, where did you find the strength while ensuring that you did not neglect yourself too, while taking care of your daughter?
FT: During that period, it was really challenging. I was lucky I had a group of friends who are also mums. Our kids were of the same age. So we got to know each other when we were pregnant. And I was glad that there was a strong support group that helped me to keep things going. Most importantly, the emotional support must be there. With people to positively encourage you it really makes a difference for you to pull through the challenging period. I have very good family support, to help me physically, emotionally take care of my child. And I have friends who I can confide in. And they help to encourage me. And when I had unhappy thoughts, they actually managed to counsel me through them.
THG: How important is it for single mothers to find that support not just in their personal life, but also at work?
FT: For me my work environment was challenging. My daughter had some academic challenges adapting to her primary school. And I wanted to ask for flexible working hours at my previous workplace. Even though the government was encouraging that and I was working at an NGO, I requested for flexible work, but it wasn’t approved. But I felt that my child was growing up, and it was only me. And since the request for flexible working hours was not approved, I decided to come out to do my own thing, so that I could care for my child physically, and to be there emotionally when she is going through one of her younger growth periods, when she needed a lot of attention, and to be there for her.
THG: Why a zero-waste, organic food grocery business?
I’ve always been quite health conscious. Sometimes it’s not the quantity of food that we consume, but the quality. And I grew up as quite a sickly child. I was in and out of the hospital; I had about three operations when I was below 10 years old. So I think that for a child growing up healthy is the most important thing. It creates a strong foundation for them.
I came from a low-income family and my dad was the sole breadwinner, and we bought only what we need. And I think that reduces a lot of unnecessary waste. So when I was feeding my daughter organic food and some of the food expired, I consumed it instead because I didn’t want to be feeding her expired food. I thought that was not a sustainable solution. Therefore, I think that there’s probably more mothers out there who would like to feed their children fresh food. Or maybe themselves also, and I thought it was practical and most importantly, being able to just consume what we need.
As a mother, we want to leave a legacy, something tangible that our children can inherit. The last thing we want our children to inherit is a polluted Earth, which will cause more trouble for them. We want to educate the current generation and future generations how we can consume in a sustainable way and reduce food waste.
THG: You had to take a considerable risk too to start a business, and also because it was hard to find a job that allowed you to both earn a living and be there for your daughter.
FT: It was a big risk for me financially, and also I was worried whether it was the right decision because I might end up sacrificing more time to take care of the business and not be able to take care of her needs. But in the end, we made some sacrifices to the growth of the business so that I could take care of her.
THG: What has it been like for Si En not to have grown up with a father? Have you had to explain this to her so that she does not feel different to her classmates not coming from a traditional family unit of two parents?
FT: She’s quite okay with it. She’s never asked me where her father is. For her when she was growing up, she’s blessed. She has me by her side most of the time. We are lucky that we are staying with my parents, so she has a very close relationship with her grandparents. She is particularly close to my father who spoils her and tucks her into bed every night. She feels loved in the family, which I think is very important. When they feel that they are loved by their family members, she doesn’t feel amiss that she doesn’t have a father’s love and for not having a father. I once shared with her that she will always have my unconditional love. That’s most important.
Her friend’s parents recently went through a divorce and her friend was quite affected. They were having lunch at my place and the child was telling me, “You know, my parents are divorced, I’m upset.” But I was really taken aback when my daughter said, “It’s okay if you only have your mum, I also only have my mum. But then I get 100 per cent of my mum. It’s better than having your mum split up that attention between her husband and you.” That was how she comforted her friend.
I was worried that because she’s very young, she doesn’t know how to express what she felt was missing or was unhappy about. That was one of my biggest fears. But when she managed to counsel her friend, I thought at least she has processed it well and it wouldn’t affect her growing up.
THG: Having had to deal with all these areas in your life, did you face discrimination as a woman for not conforming to socially constructed gender roles?
FT: My family is still very traditional. My parents would wonder, “Why do you have to go through this?” The extended family too…My parents feel more affected about my failed marriage than me. But eventually, I showed them that I’m living a better life than before. That going through a failed marriage doesn’t impact a person that much. It’s more of the ability to pick yourself up and continue walking forward. At the end of the day, I think it’s more about how happy we are, how content we are with life. It doesn’t really matter how we failed before.
THG: How important was your upbringing in nurturing the ability to tackle any existing gender inequalities?
Growing up, my mum taught me the most important thing as a woman is to be independent, self-sufficient. So she raised me with that concept, and I’m a person who is quite headstrong. I feel that anything that a man can do, I can do as well. It also helped that I had a very nice father who taught me a lot of things. He said that maybe sometimes people feel that a guy should be fixing the furniture, fixing the lights, but he says these are actually basic life skills. So I grew up pretty independent.
THG: How are you passing on these lessons to your daughter and showing by example that a woman does not have to be restricted by what society might expect of them?
FT: I always share with her that whether you are able to complete a task [or not] is all in your mind. It’s not how many skills you have, who you are, what education background you went through. But whether you want to put your heart and mind to it. The other thing I always teach her is to use your ability to help other people. Not just use your skills for your own benefit.
When she was two or three years old, I brought her to a rollerblading class with my cousin, because learning to rollerblade teaches a very important life skill. When you start learning how to rollerblade you keep falling, and you try to balance. So it teaches you the first life lesson, which is balancing your life. The second thing is, if you fall down, the most important is not to sit there and cry, but to get up. And then you try to learn to balance your life again, and you can move forward.
THG: What would you like to challenge in society around the issue of single parenthood?
FT: When we were talking to her school about her school issues, I was told that I don’t need to mention that she is from a single-parent family. To me, it doesn’t really matter. But I was quite surprised that people still feel that there’s a label [stigma] towards single-parent families. There’s nothing wrong if a child happens to be from a single-parent family. I told my daughter that she doesn’t need to feel negative about it. It’s okay. It’s just that different people have different families. I was quite surprised because the school should share the same mentality that single-parent homes are like any ‘normal’ family. There shouldn’t be any [discrimination]. It’s a very traditional school.
I also have friends who feel that the family will judge you, like you have a failed marriage so you are a failed person. That kind of concept. Well, I think everyone goes through failure, but it doesn’t mean the end of the world. We should be proud of people who managed to walk through a failed marriage. That person is mentally strong to be able to do so.
THG: Having set up this chat group for single mums (with more than 20 women), what have you discovered have been the hardest parts about their journeys?
FT: The most challenging period is the divorce period, when unfortunately, most women cannot find affordable [legal] help with their divorce cases. And also getting their maintenance [from their ex-husbands]. When I went through that period, I was directed to the Women’s Charter, I searched for legal aid, I went to social service websites. It was quite draining. If we are able to have better resources, or people who fall between the cracks are able to seek help, I think that would be much better, Because sometimes we are not entitled to legal aid. But then we would still need or want to conserve our financial savings for more important things in life.
Sometimes there are also legal loopholes that my friends went through, where they are not able to get decent alimony for themselves and the child. Singapore’s system is really weird where we are given a flat amount for the child. But the child is growing, so the amount increases. But then when you want to revise the child alimony, you either settle it privately, which is the most positive scenario, or you have another court case. My friends are so drained by their first marital settlement they don’t want to go through another round.
It also depends on how good your lawyer is and this depends on how much you can spend, and most women will want to conserve [their savings]. I’ve seen friends who invest a lot of money for their divorce cases but end up [with next to nothing].
Many women end up forking out most of their money to raise a child and still have to be physically there to take care of the child. So it becomes very draining when you have to take care of both sides.
THG: How important is it for women to be able to find employment with flexible work hours or the ability to work from home, without also having to face discrimination from society for being a single mother?
FT: It’ll be good if employers don’t judge a single mum assuming that she’s probably going to take care of a child and therefore going to put in less work hours. I don’t think that’s true. We are pretty able to take care of our work and our child. We are able to multitask. Women are resilient by nature because if anything happens she needs to be strong enough to take care of her child. We are strong enough to overcome quite a lot of things.
THG: What would you say to your younger self? How can your experiences perhaps help other newly single mothers?
FT: If we face any setbacks in life, it’s always good to look at what failed, where it went wrong. Ultimately, it’s to positively move on with life. We are blessed with a life, we should appreciate it. Nothing’s going to be the end of the world at the end of the day. It’s how we want to perceive something. I would say reflecting on what went wrong is very important. But the other side is we also need to be able to see the positive traits. Everyone has good and bad, it’s okay. Everyone goes through mistakes.
Practise self-care. So we regularly have our mums’ outings, especially after very stressful term exams. So the kid’s school holiday is the mum’s school break, and we will have our usual wine and dine, we will relax, we will chat. And we will offload our mental loads. And then after that pick ourselves up, recharge and go back to our family. I think it’s very important to take care of ourselves.
Before my marriage failed, I felt that things were not going well. I tend to have a very negative mindset, and I became a very unhappy person. Strangely after the marriage failed and I had my daughter I started thinking positively. Every day, I think about things that I’m grateful for. So even when the school had issues with my daughter, initially I was thinking how come my daughter is giving me so many problems. But I reminded myself we have to be grateful for the positive things…like, at least she is healthy, she’s a happy-go-lucky girl and she’s a kind child. I think I turned out to be much happier than before.