The many hats of the Singapore woman

  • Parenting, eldercare and career – how does the Singapore woman juggle it all?
  • Apart from help from foreign domestic workers and daycare centres, what are some of her coping tips when it gets too stressful?
  • TheHomeGround Asia delves into the pressure cooker of the Singapore woman’s life.
About 96 per cent of married working women say they are equally or primarily responsible for care-giving duties. (Photo source: Canva)
About 96 per cent of married working women say they are equally or primarily responsible for care-giving duties. (Photo source: Canva)

Every morning at 8, Mrs Nahesh K, 33, and her husband, would drop their two daughters, aged 3 and 4, at the childcare centre on their way to work. 

Their youngest, an eight-month-old boy, stays at home, under the care of her mother-in-law. He will join his sisters at he the childcare centre once he turns 18 months old. 

As a working mum, Mrs Nahesh says apart from the challenges of her current daily routine that includes trying to figure out who will send or pick the kids up, her mind is often preoccupied with thoughts about who is buying or cooking dinner, and how she can rush back home after work to have enough time to spend with the kids before they go to bed. The family does not have a domestic helper.

Even after the kids go to sleep, Mrs Nahesh, who works in the PR industry, says she sometimes logs on to her computer again to send emails to clients. “It can be hard trying to make sure the balls don’t drop. I also have to prepare enough frozen breast milk for when my mum-in-law looks after the baby during the day, so I’m constantly worried if there is enough for him,” she says. “At night, I’m the main caregiver because I will wake up to feed him – and he still wakes up two to three times a night.”

One woman, many hats

An MSF survey indicated that married working women contribute more to caregiving and household chores, while married working men contribute more to the household finances. (Photo source: Canva)

It is not uncommon for mums like Mrs Nahesh to be juggling multiple roles, both in their careers as well as caregiving duties – perhaps significantly more so than their spouses.

A 2017 report by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) noted that about 96 per cent of married working women said they were equally or primarily responsible for care-giving duties. This was compared to 43 per cent of married working men.

The survey found that married working women contributed more to caregiving and household chores, while married working men contributed more to household finances to maintain the family.

Ms Jeanette Houmayune, a counsellor at Talk Your Heart Out and a mum-of-two herself, says, “At the work front, we strive to meet bosses and client’s expectations, manage projects and deadlines. At home, we give our best to ensure our children’s needs are met and make time for quality engaging play-time,” she says. 

In addition, when caregivers — like parents, in-laws or domestic helpers– are roped in, “working moms will also have to manage the dynamics, ensuring certain expectations we have for our children in terms of diet (both food and TV/digital devices) and behaviour are consistently managed”, she adds.

Ms Houmayune says there is also the tendency for the woman to take on “key liaison roles, communicating with children’s teachers, helpers and care-givers on child-related matters that crop up during the day – such as a fall, HFMD (hand, foot and mouth disease) symptoms, or even bullying in school.”

There is a tendency for women to take on the ‘key liaison role’ in the family. (Photo source: Canva)

Some mums are also “sandwiched”. As caregivers to their elderly parents who may have chronic medical conditions, they would have to support them by accompanying them to medical appointments and catering to their emotional needs. 

Such obligations can negatively impact the woman’s career, says Ms Houmayune. “She may be perceived as showing a lack of commitment by less understanding bosses, and this may take a real toll on her mental, emotional and psychological well-being, if her career development prospects or even job security is jeopardised.”

Ms Yuyun Tan, a child and teens therapist at Psychology Blossom adds that some mothers face “mother’s guilt” as they leave their children to perform duties at work. “They may also have to manage judgment from family members about their decision to return to work.”

It takes a toll

Some level of stress to everyday pressures at work and family life may be needed to drive and motivate, but with the rush of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, there can be dangerous consequences when there is too much on the plate. 

Taking on too much can be dangerous – burnout is real. (Photo source: Canva)

For one, it is easy to lose your own identity when you enter motherhood and its unrelenting demands, says Ms Tan. “You get so caught up in the doing that sometimes you forget about yourself. Burnout is real. Sometimes it can bring about so much fatigue that a deep sense of loss and meaninglessness can occur.”

Pressures at work may also spill over at home. You may find yourself snapping more than usual, or having less tolerance and patience. “Some working mums may project their anger, irritation and frustration on their spouses and children, and this may cause rifts in the marriage and relationship with their children that can widen without adequate time for repair and restoration,” says Ms Houmayune.

The woman’s health is at risk, too.

Ms Houmayune says that excessive cortisol can lead to rapid weight gain and high blood pressure, resulting in physical health risks of stroke and heart problems. There are also mental health risks where some working mums put a lot of pressure on themselves to expect very high standards of performance at work and as parents. “Over time this builds up a lot of negative thinking — insecurities that they are not good enough, fear of being judged by others, or that they have failed if their children don’t perform well in school or sports.” 

All this can lead to anxiety and depressive disorders. In such cases, Ms Houmayune says that excessive, persistent worries about work, children, marriage and finances, together with negative intrusive thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness can interfere with the woman’s ability to sleep, eat and even relax.

Some women may start to withdraw from others and turn to unhealthy coping and distracting mechanisms which may be addictive. These include drinking, gaming, social media, online shopping, binge-watching Netflix or even binge-eating.

Coping mechanisms can include addictions to drinking, social media or online shopping. (Photo source: Canva)

Guilty pleasures and coping with the stress

What happens then? How do such mums cope with the stress of juggling it all?

In California (where cannabis has been legalised for adult use since 2016), it was reported that an increasing number of mothers are using it to calm their nerves, ease anxieties and help them parent. 

While this may not sit well with some, especially when cannabis is illegal in Singapore, experts agree that some form of relaxation and “me-time” is important. Mums tell TheHomeGround Asia that they often turn to hobbies like gardening, working out, or even going for solo-staycations. For Mrs Nahesh, her “outlet” comes in the form of “some quiet time away from the children”.

“I get that at the office,” she chuckles. “Lunch time with colleagues, chit chatting with other adults and meeting up with friends for meals are good for the soul.”

Take time out for yourself and recharge with friends and regroup yourself. (Photo source: Canva)

Whether you are a mum of a newborn or  teenaged children, it’s important to put aside time for yourself, even if it is just 15 minutes a day. “Enjoy the things you used to enjoy – even if it’s tough. Put in necessary boundaries so you can regroup yourself, and importantly, remember you are doing a good enough job,” says Ms Tan.

Here are some tips: 

1. Get a good rest

Take care of your basic needs. Good quality deep sleep for at least 7 hours, take short breaks during the work-day, have nourishing and well-balanced meals, and keep well-hydrated for optimum brain performance, advises Ms Houmayune. “Positive thinking also helps to build up physical and psychological immunity against stress.”

2. Have a strong support system

This can include your family members like your parents, in-laws and siblings who share their wisdom in marriage and parenting, as well as fellow parents in parenting groups or those of your children’s classmates who are going through the same parenting journey as you. 

3. Communicate with your spouse

“I can’t stress this enough,” says Ms Houmayune. “Always voice out your feelings and needs. Use ‘I’ statements so you don’t seem confrontational or blaming. Even if the request needs further discussion, putting it out there gives a huge sense of relief as you are not continuing to carry the burden of the chores and the annoying grudge that your spouse is not putting in a fair share.”

4. Schedule “We-time”

Don’t forget to fill the love tank. Try penciling in date-nights, or go for special treats like a massage or staycation getaway without the kids, just to reconnect with your spouse. 

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

It’s fine to admit that you are vulnerable and need help. Many assume that friends and relatives are too caught up in their own lives to help. However, you may be surprised at how many would be willing to help, if you only asked. If you need further help, seeking professional counselling to help you process your thoughts and feelings is also an option. 

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