Mum at 18: I told mum about day before he was due

SINGAPORE - No one knew. Not even her parents. It was nearing the end of her first year in junior college when she discovered she was pregnant by her boyfriend of three years.

The decision to keep her baby was simple, Pauline tells this reporter. We are not using her real name to protect the identity of her child.

Aborting her own flesh and blood would have been "too cruel", and would have haunted her for the rest of her life, she explains.

But it was hardly an easy decision to live with either.

She did everything to hide her swelling belly from those around her. Her worst fear was that the school would find out, and that she would be expelled or asked to defer taking her A Levels.

The level-headed 19-year-old says simply: "I needed to keep studying, so that I can go to university and get a good job."

She feels a university degree would give her the best chance to break out of the poverty her family is mired in: "My father is 50 plus and every day I see him... he would tell me, 'In Singapore, if you don't have a degree, you can't earn a lot of money.'"

The sole breadwinner takes home around $1,000 a month. She, her parents and two older siblings live in a four-room flat in the north.

Hiding the fact

While pregnancy for most women is a special time when they feel cherished and pampered, Pauline felt mostly anxiety.

Thankfully, says the thin teenager, her belly wasn't very big.

"I bought a set of school uniform one size bigger than my original. The school totally did not know."

She would resist the urge to buy children's clothes and baby things when she and her boyfriend walked the malls.

"If we had bought anything, I would have had a lot of explaining to do when I got home," she says.

"I went for PE classes as usual, even running the 2.4km segment of the National Physical Fitness Award test when I was three or four months pregnant. If I didn't attend the lessons without a valid reason, they would surely probe and eventually discover my pregnancy," she explains.

Once she passed the fitness test, she was left pretty much alone.

There was none of the cooing at prenatal pictures. She only went for one check-up when she was five months pregnant, because her belly was so tiny, she says.

Breaking the news

She admits she would have continued to hide the baby until he was born, if she had the choice.

She avoided telling her parents for as long as she could.

"I simply didn't want to disappoint them. I didn't want them to worry."

But she had to. As she was under 21 at the time, her parents needed to sign hospital forms for the delivery, she explains.

She waited until the day before her expected delivery date to break the news to them.

Her composure throughout this interview wavers a little as she recounts how she, with advice from counsellors from teenage pregnancy crisis service Babes, asked her to meet her mother at the void deck of her block. Two counsellors from Babes accompanied her.

Pauline says: "I told her I wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk with her, and that she should come down to the void deck at about 8pm." She told her mother not to bring her father along but he came down anyway.

"I wasn't afraid they would scold me, but that I would disappoint them. They always had the impression that all I did was study," she says. Her opening line?

"I need to go to the hospital tomorrow".

"They asked, 'For what?'. I said I needed to give birth. The doctor said tomorrow is my expected due date...," she recounts.

The initial shock, bewilderment and later disappointment quickly gave way to concern, says Pauline.

Her mother was crying.

Not so much from disappointment, but from the fact that she was concerned that her daughter never had the right nourishing food while carrying the baby.

Later that night, her mother told her that she would help to look after the child.

The then-sales assistant made the choice to quit and care for her new grandson.

It is a decision which still moves Pauline today.

"He's my child, but she has chosen to look after him, even though she had doubts about her own ability to care for an infant at an older age. She says it's been so long since her own children were that small."

The aftermath

Pauline gave birth - without painkillers and after a gruelling 10 hours of labour - in early June last year, during her school holidays. Her parents paid for the hospital bill, which she says came up to about $600.

The pain was like nothing she had ever felt, but there were no tears, only joy.

The traditional month-long confinement was cut short to three weeks as she had to go back to school.

"I broke the rules like not bathing. It was simply not practical, you can't go to school smelly," she says with a laugh.

While mothers go on about the benefits of breast milk, practical Pauline notes that her son has been fed on formula milk from birth.

Breastfeeding and school simply do not mix.

From Mondays to Thursdays, the baby slept with his grandmother, because she had to wake up early for school in the mornings. The baby only came back to her room on Friday and Saturday nights. "I studied from 9pm, after he slept, until about midnight," she explains.

Breaks in between classes were spent calling home to find out how he was doing.

Her efforts paid off - she scored four As and will enrol in a local university later this year.

Going forward

These days, her hopes are simple: Get a scholarship, graduate and get a good job.

Unfortunately, the father of her child is no longer in the picture.

"He was unfaithful somewhere along the way, and I decided to break up with him," she says. But she is happy and thankful that her toddler, who will be one soon, seems to be doing well.

"My main priority now is to bring up the child and make sure he's healthy.

"After I graduate, I hope to find a good job so that my parents can retire and stay home to play with their grandchild," she says.

She's working two jobs while waiting to get into the university so that she can help with the expenses.

Wistfulness creeps into her voice as she talks about how her only regret is that she can't do as much for her son due to the family's financial situation.

It is the only other time during the interview that her stoicism cracks.

"He's been only around the neighbourhood. There are many things he hasn't seen. It's a bit troublesome to bring him around since I have to take public transport.

"And because of my financial constraints, I can't bring him to baby spas, swimming and so on. Maybe if I were richer, he can have all of that..."

Motherhood has changed her, she admits. "I'm more responsible now.

"In the past, the money I got from my part-time jobs I spent on myself. These days, I contribute more to the home than on myself." The grandchild has also brought a new kind of unity to her family.

"My parents and I used to lead separate lives. They worked late, I studied.

"Nowadays, I bring them and my son for a simple meal in my free time," she says with a smile.

In fact, dinner together is just the reward she hopes to pamper her own mother with this Mother's Day.

"I've noticed how she hardly has any rest helping me look after the baby.

"Unlike other mums, she doesn't go out or shop for herself.

"Without her, I don't think my son would be so healthy and happy, and I wouldn't have come this far.

"She's never complained, and she inspires me to work hard, to give her a good life in future," she says.

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