Wong Li Lin: Being a single parent is ‘hard work’

SINGAPORE — The definition of a single parent in Wikipedia: “An uncoupled individual who shoulders most or all of the day-to-day responsibilities for raising a child or children.”
Well, that would be me. While the children’s father is a great hands-on dad when he is in town, the kids for the most part have to deal with my mug on a daily basis.
And it looks like I’m not alone either. Single parents make up 6.8 per cent of Singaporean households, according to a 2014 Ministry of Social and Family Development report titled Families And Households In Singapore (2000 – 2014).
While the majority of Singapore households are made up of nuclear families, many married parents liken their role to that of a single parent as well. Their spouses are constantly travelling and dads will need to play mums, and mums, dads.
And what’s that like, categorical single parents are often asked. Three words. Darn hard work.
It is hard work because one, there is no option to pass the buck in one’s day-to-day. Taking care of human units other than yourself demands effort and time. Time and financial management requires acute attention. Memory gets tested. You feel like a pigeon when you might have been a statue on another occasion.
Two, getting things done day-to-day doth not parenting make. Parenting is about guiding and caring for our children. This means digging deep to find grace even in the throes of fatigue or frustration.
In 2013, my average day was to wake up at 5am to prepare the kids’ school lunch, get breakfast on the table, get them on a bus, drop into Job Number 1, pick up kids from school, make dinner, and then go to Job Number 2.
Some nights, I had classes. Most nights, I was beat. All I wanted to do was to sit slump and do nothing by the end of the night. I did not want the drama of kids fighting over whose pencil was snatched. Silly fights are a normal part of childhood but there were times when all I wanted to do was to teach them a lesson about their fighting and rage like a mad woman.
Instead, I took a few breaths and taught them about conflict resolution. In that brief moment was a decision to take the road less travelled and look past my screaming ego or emotions. To anyone who has tried, you know this is bloody tough work.
‘Father Forgets’, a 1927 poem by W. Livingston Larned, is an apt reflection of the parenting experience. Challenge, love, guilt, habits, consciousness — every parent identifies with this!
Being a single parent (and divorced) magnifies the intensity of this experience, I feel. And naturally, it can be really easy to begin defining myself as struggling, fatigued and having a sucky time when it could be otherwise.
When I’m asked questions like “Was it difficult?” or “Do you have to play dad and learn to kick a football?”, here’s what I say: Yes it was, and yes I have to!
Divorce and getting back on my feet was one of the hardest things I had to go through. The entire process was draining on all fronts. Despite best intentions, the children will sense the fragmentation of what was once the safest place in the world for them.
Doing all you can to maintain stability, to keep them feeling secure while their parents are clearly losing it required resilience, perseverance and depths of compassion.
I had to parent. If that meant being mum, dad, grandparent and friend, and if it meant learning to kick football, then that’s what I did. I coped by putting one foot in front of the other.
Most importantly, I had to be very mindful about feeling limited to, or defined by my situation. I was aware that making my situation a ‘problem’ only feeds the ego. So it was important to develop another frame of mind and to support this awareness with acceptance of my situation.
Accepting means I allow myself to feel whatever it is I am feeling at that moment. And then taking the next small step forward.
That probably is the most difficult part to achieve. It’s easy to pay lip service to neat adages. Understanding needs to take place both in the head and in the heart. My practice as a Zen Buddhist has been helpful. Sitting (what some might call meditation) is central to my growth and provides pause and perspective in a world that can be chaotic with our own self-importance.
If you are wondering how to sit, it really is a commitment to a few minutes to observe your breath.
In. And then slowly, out.
Your mind will wander and start thinking thoughts. But that’s okay. It is the function of your mind to think. Observe that too and then get back to observing your breath.
And that’s sitting. It does not magically make life okay, but it does make space for it to be so.
Finally, I took heed from Mr Larned. He was mindful about his ways and he was humbled. When I paused to truly look at what was in front of me, I realised the volumes I have been blessed with, including the blessing of being a parent. Especially the opportunity to experience it in such an intense manner.
Now I tease the children that they can’t get rid of me because we have so much learning to do together. We talk about divorce — how that does not make mum or dad a better or worse person. But how we manage ourselves in the wake of life’s episodes — divorce and pencil-snatching included — can contribute to, if we are better or worse off as people.
And just like that, through regular occasions of pause and consideration between a crazed mom and two kids, we cope with what life throws at us.
‘Hard work’ are great opportunities for knowledge, understanding and wisdom. And always, love.

Wong Li Lin was a media-personality. She pioneered Pilates in Singapore and has worked in education, lifestyle health and media. She is currently Deputy Director at Thomson Medical where she continues to advocate wellness, family and good health. She has two children, Sage, 12 and Jonas, 10.

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