Mothering and parenting: The superwoman myth

An old photo of Dr Lai Ah Eng with her two children.

The "good mother" must be one of the strongest, and toughest-to-live-up- to ideals in any society.

In Singapore, there have been and are many definitions, expectations and claims of what the role of the good mother is from various quarters, ranging from government to spouse, children, in-laws, neighbours, friends, groups, organisations and each individual mother herself.

But the common underlying theme is the same: good mothering to produce good children.

The family wants the good mother to bear and raise good children for the family and, well, for almost anything and everything good from looks to reputation; the state wants good mothers (with "good" genes too, at one time in the mid-1980s) to produce and raise smart citizens; neighbours and fellow citizens want good mothers to raise well-behaved children, some institutions want good mothers to raise clever children and productive workers, etc. And which good mother herself does not want to be good at raising happy and successful children?

After a fairly long period of mothering since 1992, I have come to the conclusion that there are many good reasons to reject motherhood (and also marriage) altogether.

There are immense expectations to live up to, responsibilities to take up and even more sacrifices to make, while numerous opportunities are missed. It is like a trap. No wonder many women do not want to be mothers or stop at zero, one or two, starting with those in my generation that was the first to receive mass education and opportunities outside traditional homemaking undreamt of in my mother's time.

For those who are mothers whether by choice or accident, mothering is one huge life-long and life-changing human endeavour which, once embarked upon, cannot be reversed or escaped from.

A mother who tries to be a good one inevitably finds this journey filled with everyday mundane chores and incessant minor decisions, and fraught with tussles and tensions. But for her hard work, endurance and sacrifice, she receives in return sweet fruitful rewards, enduring delights and a life status of extraordinary significance and worth.

Mother's Day may have morphed into compulsory and commercial consumption, but it continues to express the valorisation and emotional essences of this journey of love and life.

The difference between my mother's generation and mine: The 'E's

One meaningful way to appreciate how things have changed for mothers and mothering is for each woman to compare herself and her mother as mothers.

Equality made THE difference. Both gender equality and social equality, as ideals and foundational principles, came with post-war decolonisation and nation-building.

My mother's time was already a tumultuous period of social and political awakening and the imminent collapse of the Chinese patriarchal system in China. But caught in the throes of war, post-war displacement and emigration, she, the war widow and illiterate immigrant to Malaya, could only hope for equality and a better life in a vague way for herself and more for her children in the 1950s and early 1960s.

By the time I became a mother in the 1990s, the principles of social and gender equality were already enshrined in the nation's Constitution or embedded in our heads and hearts, taken for granted as an unquestionable right and something to be pursued where still lacking or unfulfilled. I had equal rights as a human being and as a woman, and the three main social divisions of race, class and gender that worked against my mother and women of her time could, in my time, be challenged legally, socially and morally.

Education made THE difference. My illiterate mother said that if she had education, she would have been really smart, which I do not doubt at all.

She was, for sure, very street- smart to have survived, and on my first day of school, she was really smart to say to me: "Remember, they built this school just for you!"

While she coped with life through her smarts (and taught me some such skills, like how to avoid being kidnapped for prostitution), I went from humble school to top university.

The poor of my mother's generation missed the boat; I had a right to education and to pursue it as far as I could go.

Of course, I still had to struggle. If one was poor, attended a "near-bottom-of-the-pile" school and did not already speak English, possess a set of the great Encyclopaedia Britannica at home or knew Oxbridge and Harvard existed, one had to work extra hard and took longer to succeed. But it remains true that education provided me with opportunities, skills and ideas that expanded my world and horizon beyond the slum and the poverty that trapped many smart people like my mother.

Economic empowerment made THE difference. In my mother's time, work for poor women meant either homemaking for a huge, sometimes extended, family or factory work or domestic service.

One outcome of the difference in education and the opportunities that came with economic development is that, compared with my mother who reared chickens, ironed clothes and cleaned homes (plus gambling and tontine to earn extra money), I held secure paid jobs at teaching, writing and research, and developed a work career over time (even though it was not smooth or straightforward).

Both of us were economically active and earned incomes, but I had the clear advantage to earn, access, explore and excel much more.

Everything else (almost) made THE difference. Economic and social improvements meant almost everything else was different for my mother and me in our mothering roles.

Just take births and birthing, that "hallmark" of mothering. My generation saw birth control and family planning, with fathers joining birth preparation classes and witnessing their babies being born.

In short, social enlightenment made THE difference. Enlightenment through values, principles and ideas that opened up and provided conditions, choices, opportunities and possibilities that made mothering in my mother's and my time so different - few and difficult for her and plentiful and advantageous for me.

New and not so new challenges for our daughters' generation?

This is the age of the stressed kiasu parents, complete with websites, Facebook pages and blogs. Notice that there are more kiasu mums than kiasu dads, and also more supermums and tiger mums (there are no tiger dads).

Kiasu mum, supermum, tiger mum - these labels unknown in my mother's time and less in my time - speak of the overloaded, anxious and extreme mothering phenomenon of today which some mothers, driven by extreme competitive and pressuring forces, have been sucked into.

These labels both reflect and build up high social expectations about women and mothers that may be met and sustained by a few privileged groups and individuals.

But they are an ideological myth of success and performance that serve as burdensome criteria which the rest of mothers have to live up to or are implicitly judged by, as they struggle stoically at home, at work and at combining both mother and worker roles.

Being able to work and have a career, with all the accompanying choices and opportunities, is probably the greatest advancement for gender equality and women's development in the last 50 to 60 years.

But combining it with family commitments is also probably the biggest challenge for those who are mothers, as both are greedy institutions demanding their constant attention, energy and commitment.

Parenting and mothering in today's working world of intense competition, key performance indicators, strong ambitions and high expectations require tremendous planning and strategising; yet family life is often fraught with uncertainties, emergencies and things that cannot wait, including the short precious season of children's growing-up years that parents want to enjoy and be part of.

There is all that guilt of leaving children to go to work or returning home late, and skipping work meetings for medical and school appointments, and so on.

Professional women also have to travel or have frequent traveller/ overseas-based spouses who are sometimes absentee spouses and fathers. While some are able to cope with this, others' marriages have been hurt because of infidelity, distance and lack of intimacy over time.

Today's women and working mothers are left with the superwoman and supermum criteria to live up to and to frantically chase after that work-life balance and the family-friendly firm.

A single most important reason for this complex state of affairs is that one constant over the decades, despite the changes: Fathers are still expected to be the main income earner and mothers are still expected to bear the brunt of childcare and nurturing, now reinforced by conditions in which individual mothers are highly focused and determined on advancing their children's interests.

Women today ride on the gains made by earlier generations but still face the same big issues of combining family and work. These issues are still what is important to most people who have family and children, and this will be the case so long as there are families and children.

I am all for a wide range of work options, be they full-time, part-time or flexible-time, trade-offs and sequencing, new work arrangements and a variety of choices available, and I am all for their provision via government policy and corporate practice and their pursuit by every mother to meet her needs during her most pressing mothering years.

At the personal level, the vast economic, social, cultural and legal advances have led women in my generation and my daughter's to continue to believe in equality, that women are poised to be equal with men, and able to have it all or at least a lot.

It is also at this personal level - one where government or organisation cannot intervene or help much - where it now matters most for parenting and mothering in future. And it has to do with choice.

The problem of choice has to do largely with women and mothers themselves: their privatisation of equality and rights.

The main problem is not the absence of employment and advancement opportunities or the lack of diversity or gender-sensitivity programmes to attract, retain or mentor women; the main problem is that of women having and wanting more choices, in an upward spiral of expectations for themselves, in the name of personal fulfilment or development and even perfection.

This is less about social needs and struggles, more about personal wants and personal journeys. These pose challenges that are more subtle than those of the past, and are harder to recognise and deal with.

Coming up against that unchanging constant in social expectations of mothers and women (also of fathers and men), women turn into stressed jugglers and micro-managers who try to live up to unrealistically high expectations, and in turn to the wide range of personal choices within their control for fulfilment and compensation. Work a 60-hour week in a high-stress job, for example, and still be a good mother and wife, while at the same time, maintaining beautiful and youthful looks.

Mothering and parenting for the future require a refocus and reorientation.

Dealing with issues of reproduction is crucial because they are ever present for most women in a distinct way compared with men.

Before women have children, they can compete with men fairly evenly across most segments of life. But "having babies" changes many things and affects women's lives differently from men's for a long time thereon. The guilty juggling and frantic balancing by the superwoman takes over. Government regulation and corporate policy on childcare and family-friendly practices can help in some way, but these are specific issues and tensions of motherhood that women themselves have to deal with, and which men and women without children do not have to.

Mothers cannot avoid these tensions entirely but they can make choices to help themselves.

First, choice raises the issue of involving men. Men should not be left out or left to feel that they are always the enemy or are politically incorrect or at fault. There are more husbands more willing to do housework and childcare than in my father's and mother's time, and more men who believe in equality and shared active parenting.

But fatherhood today also has stressful work-life balance issues, even more than before, as the social expectation of fathers as breadwinners persists amid towering expectations at work. It is mainly work structures that constrain fathers, such as long working hours and heavy responsibilities.

The struggle for work-life balance, responsible co-parenting and gender equality is really one for both fathers and mothers.

So it is better to work with men and fathers for gender equality and parenting in the family. The sharing need not be fifty-fifty in a mechanically measured way but negotiated with care and consideration towards equality and fairness overall.

Including the men in active parenting would also show the children the meaning of their worth, of working towards and practising gender equality and meaningful fatherhood/parenthood.

Second, choice has to do with the pathways women can choose for themselves.

Women and mothers really need to shed the superwoman myth and the kiasu mum syndrome if they are not to go crazy.

There is no need to do extreme mothering and parenting. It puts undue pressure on children and on mothers and parents themselves. Its self-centredness and self-seeking tendencies are also not conducive to sharing, inclusiveness and community, and ultimately undermine the whole notion of social and gender equality.

Women need not feel they have fallen short if they do not achieve or meet the unrealistically high standards set by others or if they humbly reset their priorities.

Instead of focusing so much on how to get their children into the top schools or on their exams, women can pay attention to public education issues such as streaming at a young age, school elitism, fairer school policies and better school resources and programmes that are more inclusive of children from different backgrounds. This would help both their own children and many other children. It is a win-win, not an if-you-win-then-I- lose outcome.

Mothering cannot be considered in isolation but in context and in relation to others, society and mothers themselves.

This should then mean that social goals of equality continue to be pursued and the roles of mothers and parents are socially recognised and valued, beyond just the individual achievements of supermums who raise superkids.

Furthermore, the new redefined purpose for having children nowadays is to enjoy them, not for lineage, legacy or investment. And children deserve to be enjoyed by parents and to enjoy themselves, not hurried to achieve within a "supermum-superkids" syndrome.

The way forward for mothering and parenting is to be less self- centred and more people-centric, progressive and socially oriented, inclusive of other parents and guardians and looking out for other children and not just one's own, in a larger social process towards equality and human development.

If there is anything super about mothering and parenting, it is to hear mothers and fathers themselves say that parenting and mothering is full of stress and sacrifice but it is "one of the best things to have happened in my life". That has been true for me.

The writer, a mother of two, is an adjunct senior fellow at the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.