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Lifting the veil of Singapore’s stay-at-home mothers

Housewife, stay-at-home mother (SAHM), taitai (lady of leisure) — these are some terms used to describe female adults in Singapore who are not in the labour force, with each term carrying its own connotations.

Lifting the veil of Singapore’s stay-at-home mothers

Some stay-at-home-mothers told the author that they became one because they had no other options.

Housewife, stay-at-home mother (SAHM), taitai (lady of leisure) — these are some terms used to describe female adults in Singapore who are not in the labour force, with each term carrying its own connotations.  

Before the mid-90s, it was more common for women to be active at home, than in the labour force. The highest ever recorded proportion of women residents  (aged 15 to 74) in the work force was 62.6 per cent in 2015. In 2019, this figure was 61.2 per cent.

According to the Government's report "Labour Force in Singapore 2019", 118,700 female residents (aged 15 and above) are not in the work force because they are caring for their family member(s).

A total of 51,600, of whom 87 per cent are aged between 30 and 49, are caring for their own children aged 12 and below. The other 67,000 are caring for their own children aged above 12, grandchildren, and/or relatives, with 95 per cent of them aged 40 and above.

In the past decade, I have mainly been a housewife and have had my fair share of joys, doubts, and attendant coping strategies, often wondering about how other SAHMs cope.

Putting on my public policy lens, I set out to learn about SAHMs in Singapore.

Recently, through my personal network, I got in touch with 26 former and current SAHMs individually (six of whom I know personally). We chatted over email, WhatsApp, and Zoom about their lives, satisfaction, problems and worries.

They are represented across ethnicities, Singaporean, with ages ranging from 31 to 47 years old, with one to five children, and mainly from single income households ranging from around half to more than double the median household income (about S$9,500).

While the group is admittedly small and therefore not representative, their conversations with me offer some insights into their lives which I would like to share here.

My hope is that policymakers and society at large will have a better appreciation of the challenges faced by SAHMs as well as their concerns.

NOT ALWAYS A CHOICE

Singapore’s push for women to be in the workforce (with its attendant family-focused/friendly public policies) has resulted in a policy ideal-type family: A couple, both with jobs and growing Central Provident Fund (CPF) accounts, gets married, buys a home, has two or three children, who will in turn be taken care of by a combination of their grandparents, foreign domestic worker, and/or child/student-care from 7am to 7pm, while the couple is at work.

Unfortunately, many families fall outside of this ideal. Some SAHMs told me that they became one because they had no other options.

For example, childcare was and still continues to be unsuitable for their children with special needs. Childcare also does not cater to parents who do shift work and have no help from the grandparents.

Some of these problems only surface (sometimes years) after their children were born, such as a child’s developmental delays, learning difficulties, grandparents having to take care of other grandchildren, grandparents falling ill or passing on.

Such cumulative costs and disruption to their lives can be disorienting.

UNLIKE HOUSEWIVES OF YESTERYEARS

It takes a particular mindset and disposition for educated women to deviate from the norm to actively exit the workforce, give up one’s identity as a working/career woman so as to focus on caring for one’s family members.

In general, these women place their family’s welfare before their own and tend to be self-reliant and open to learning new skills to cope with their evolving and at times seemingly insurmountable home situations.

For example, many experienced SAHMs tend to become “automatically” responsible for caregiving to the ill elderly in the family, because “everyone else is busy with work”.

“I have become very familiar with the different departments at the hospital because I have been bringing my mother-in-law there so many times. Her own children are working,” said a SAHM, a former head of department at a secondary school in her mid-40s.  

“My constant worry is that one of my parents or mother-in-law will fall ill, and I will become a caregiver to them," said another SAHM, a former regional director in her late 30s.

"Then the rest of my life will just be a caregiver — my children, my parents, my grandchildren. I guess I am okay with that. But (it) would be nice to pursue something for myself.”        

These SAHMs are keenly aware that their specific roles in their respective families can neither be reduced nor outsourced significantly. They are not seeking to do so.

Instead, emotionally, they seek something poignantly simple — respect for their effort and ethos.

While this sounds simple in concept, it requires our society as a whole to reconsider its current views on and any biases against SAHMs. 

DIFFERENT NEEDS

SAHMs are a diverse group. The contrast between the fresh SAHMs typically in their 30s and the experienced SAHMs who tend to be in their 40s is stark.

For example, fresh SAHMs do not worry as much as their older contemporaries about financial issues, retirement adequacy, health and their husband’s employment, because they are relatively younger and have not felt the need to deal with these issues yet.

LACKING RETIREMENT ADEQUACY 

Only one SAHM talked about retirement adequacy voluntarily and directly. Three SAHMs reported that their husbands had topped up their CPF accounts.

This means that the CPF accounts of SAHMs have remained mostly stagnant.

Of the three SAHMs who had their CPF accounts topped up, one of them was for Housing and Development Board mortgage repayment purposes, while the other two were incentivised by the CPF Cash Top-Up Relief, suggesting that their husbands’ personal income taxes were high enough to enjoy this relief.

While these single income families may be coping with current demands, it is not implausible that many may well face more difficulties later on, especially those supporting children with special needs.

Is personal tax relief for the working husband an appropriate alternative to help long term SAHMs achieve retirement adequacy, especially those in the lower household income brackets?

SEEKING PAID WORK

Availability of suitable work and flexible work arrangements are top concerns of any SAHM thinking of re-entering the work force. Experienced SAHMs are more likely to seek paid work, though some are unsure how to.

After a decade or more as a single income family, the experienced SAHMs’ sole breadwinner husbands are usually in their late 40s and early 50s. This is also an age when retrenchment risks are higher, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Existing labour policies, such as those under the Work-Life Grant (Flexible Work Arrangement) and Job-Sharing Incentive, SGUnited Mid-Career Pathways Programme, Place-and-Train Programmes, and the latest Jobs Growth Incentive, tend to focus on and benefit individuals who are or recently have been in the workforce.

The relatively new Career Trial scheme targets SAHMs more, with its offering of over 500 positions for jobseekers and employers to try each other out over a period of time.

It can be daunting and confusing for the SAHMs to keep up with the multiple programmes, grants and schemes.

It may be more useful for the relevant information to be channelled to the SAHMs in a more targeted manner, and through existing platforms such as the Life.sg app.     

GIVING THEM A VOICE 

While some SAHMs face financial and other difficulties, most do not think of depending on the Government to resolve their problems and worries. It is common for these SAHMs, including those with below median household incomes, to state that the Government ought to be helping the most vulnerable segments of society instead.

Nevertheless, more than half of the SAHMs felt that it would be more inclusive if there was dedicated representation of SAHMs in Parliament.

However, therein lies the quandary. Being a SAHM is in essence a 24-7 job, so SAHMs generally do not have the luxury of taking time-off to get formally organised or represent themselves in Parliament.

Yet, it takes one to know one intimately, and to represent this unseen group effectively.

In the United States, since 1999, there has been a rise in the number of SAHMs after decades of decline.

Will there be a similar trend reversal in Singapore, especially amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and recession? How should we as a society respond empathically to the vulnerabilities of this segment?

These are some questions for us to think about.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lee Hsin is a stay-at-home-mother and also a PhD student in public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Related topics

family and relationships parenting mother children caregiver motherhood

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