Having a child takes a lot out of you. 9 months of physically and emotionally draining pregnancy followed by the process of childbirth. And that’s just the start. Still, with Singapore’s spectacularly low birth rate and an intolerant stance against single parenthood, one of our only hopes for not becoming extinct is to persuade Singaporeans to have more kids.
With Singaporeans currently reproducing at a rate of 1.17 births per woman, the lowest it has been in 7 years, it’s clear that the number of couples who decide to take the plunge and have 2, 3 or 4 is fairly low. I quizzed some of my friends who are mothers of one or mothers-to-be to find out just what it would take to convince them to have more kids. Here are some of the most common answers that came up:
Do government incentives help to increase fertility rate?
The authorities have finally recognised the obvious—that the various incentives designed to convince Singaporeans to get married and have more kids are simply not working. And lo and behold, women have been singled out as the ones being sceptical of the marriage and parenthood incentives.
So once again, the debate rages on, and even though the real reasons are painfully obvious to anyone in Singapore who’s paying attention.
Workplaces are not family-friendly
Even if they’re statutorily entitled to maternity and childcare leave, many women in Singapore know that taking it in full isn’t going to score any points at work. By and large, the marriage and parenthood incentives have failed to change boss’s attitudes towards not being physically present at work or leaving work for child-related matters, and this puts new mothers in a difficult position.
High cost of living outweighs monetary incentives
Most mothers I’ve spoken with agree that the Baby Bonus is fairly generous (you’re essentially getting $6,000 in free cash from the government not counting the various subsidies). But in the grand scheme of things, $6,000 is chump change compared to the real costs not only of raising a child in Singapore but simply of surviving in a city that’s seen costs rise astronomically over the past 10 years.
Paternity leave doesn’t relieve the burden
Husbands are not entitled to paternity leave, which helps a little, but many women are still skeptical because men still fall behind when it comes to helping around the house. Breastfeeding mothers will naturally have a stronger bond with their babies in the early years, and will likely be the one waking up at night to attend to the baby, so paternity leave doesn’t count for much.
So, what other ways can we try to increase Singapore’s birth rate?
1. Promote a less intense work culture
I’ve been hearing this complaint a lot from new mothers. It seems that that many women view childrearing as extremely difficult due to the lack of support in the workplace. Parents lament the lack of benefits for part-time working mums, more childcare facilities at more affordable prices and more jobs that can accommodate working mums.
While the high cost of childcare does come up frequently as a concern, it seems that work is overwhelmingly the top concern when the possibility of having a second child is discussed.
Many mothers who have gone through the entire drill of returning to work after maternity leave, putting their kids in infantcare and trying to juggle the demands of both are not keen to do it again, especially those without help from the parents or in-laws.
“In the first year of a baby’s life, you are basically up all night tending to the child and hoping that he will sleep through the night. Now, imagine you are up all night but still need to leave for the office at 8am, only returning at 7pm or later, and when you do get home you can’t sleep again,” says Alicia, a 31-year-old bank executive and mother of a 1-year-old boy. She does not have a maid and her parents help out occasionally.
“Now imagine trying to do all of this while having to work 10 hour days without flexible hours or the chance to work from home. If you’ve never had a child, you cannot imagine the exhaustion and how stressful it is. After going through this the first time, many mothers say that’s it, I can’t take it anymore, and stop at one. Unless you can afford to leave the workforce for a year or two, it’s really very hard.”
2. Normalise part-time and flexi-work options
Stressed out mothers who just need one more hour of sleep are often ready to throw in the towel and work less over the next one or two years. But the question is, can they find workplaces that will let them do so?
Lynn, a 30-year-old expectant mother, says, “I wouldn’t mind earning less pay for flexible hours. But such options are not easily available. If you work part-time for many organisations you often end up with no benefits, no leave (childcare or otherwise), no bonus or no CPF contributions from your employer.”
Even in workplaces where flexible working options are in theory a possibility, many mothers are afraid to use them.
Grace, a 30-year-old bank executive and mother of a newborn, says. “Our workforce is too competitive. You feel like you’ll be penalised if you take flexible working arrangements even though your actual work contributions may beg greater than those of your colleagues. The East Asian pressure to clock “face time” is still very strong.”
While many of the expectant or new mothers I spoke with expressed a desire to have more children in order to give their first child a companion or simply because they liked kids, a mother’s experiences at work after having her first child often shape her attitudes towards having more.
Yvette, a 37-year-old lawyer, says, “After having my first child I had a tough time going back to work as my employers were unwilling to consider offering flexi-work options and I was expected to be in the office from 9 to 6 every day. While I would have been open to having a second child at the time, my experiences at work swayed my decision in the other direction.”
Of course, there are companies that do implement flexible work arrangements (FWAs) effectively, and if you’re looking to try and push for them, these companies would be good role models to follow.
3. Introduce more affordable childcare facilities
As rosy a picture as you might have had of your family frolicking at the zoo/park/Sentosa with your offspring in tow, the hard truth is that if your family needs a dual income to survive, unless your parents and in-laws are willing and able to look after your child on a pretty much full-time basis, most of your child’s time is going to be spent in childcare.
Despite childcare subsidies from the government, the general consensus amongst the new mothers I spoke with seems to be that childcare is still expensive. While working mothers receive at least $600 in subsidies for infantcare and $300 for childcare, this is cold comfort when full-time infantcare costs are usually over $1,200 a month, with many centres charging $1,800 and above.
“There are long queues for childcare facilities in the neighbourhood areas where the cheaper childcare facilities are. You also have to provide your own milk, diapers and so on. Actually the cheapest option is to get a maid,” says Lynn.
The fact that a dual income family with no maid or help from in-laws will have to pay for infantcare and childcare until the kid is of school-going age makes it quite a significant expense, and one that makes young parents think twice about having another child.
Are you a parent who’s contemplating having another child? Tell us what your concerns are in the comments.