Want more babies? Then help parents be parents

PHOTO: Want more babies? Then help parents be parents

SINGAPORE - Listening to Members of Parliament (MPs) debate on efforts to raise Singapore's fertility rate yesterday made me want to jump right in and give my two cents' worth.

As a young parent, I naturally hung on to every word about any work-life-balance policy or family-friendly scheme that could help me be a better parent in any way.

You see, for the past two months since I returned to work from maternity leave, I sometimes feel that my mum-in-law is my six-month-old son's surrogate mother.

After all, she and my doting father-in-law babysit Asher, keep house and cook meals while my husband and I - both in the media line - spend up to 12 hours a day at work.

By the time guilt-ridden me gets home to Asher, he has already been fed, changed and, on some nights, put to bed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful to have a supportive network. But I don't think it's fair that someone else gets to experience the joy of being his primary caregiver. Think I'd be having Baby No. 2 because my in-laws can look after my children? You must be kidding.

Besides, that'd mean depriving one more baby of his mother's attention.

If social and financial burdens must first be shouldered by the family - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong often reiterates - then I strongly believe that parents should be at the forefront when it comes to looking after their children.

In Parliament yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Child Development Account - a savings account where parents' deposits are matched by the Government; it is valid for a child's first six years - would be extended by six years, and its usage broadened.

I welcome it. But I also think it's another piecemeal measure that assumes expense is the overriding reason why couples are not having more kids.

The parental dilemma is compounded by perennial calls for the elderly and stay-at-home mums to return to work. Who, may I ask, would be left at home to care for our children? Nannies? Domestic helpers? Childcare and infant-care centres?

Must we outsource the care of our offspring so that we can buoy workforce productivity rates? And if mothers are expected to pull their weight in bringing home the bacon, how can society ensure a more equal division of childcare duties?

So, here's my wish: Can the authorities look into incentives that will allow parents to, well, have time to be parents?

As far as I could surmise from yesterday's proceedings, no one made any indication of legislating paternity leave - an idea proposed by MP Seah Kian Peng and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam. In addition, why not make it mandatory to offer flexi-work arrangements to workers with young children?

Such a sea change in attitude is necessary if Singapore - where the employment rate is high and employees work long hours - wants its population to go forth and multiply.

Mr Bengt Westerberg, the Swedish politician who championed fathers' leave in his country, told the New York Times this: What won the argument was not so much women's rights as rights for men and children.

"Fathers have a right to a more complete life, one that does not revolve only around the job and money. And children have a right to both parents," he said in the report.

How true: Children have a right to a life where their parents are their primary caregivers - not surrogates.

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