Growing up with a single parent.
I got a barbie doll for my seventh birthday. To any other little girls out there, it would have been a long-forgotten present months later, replaced by newer, shinier toys. For me, I will always remember the doll I got for my birthday. Unlike the doll in the picture above, it was not Barbie but instead, a cheaper make. The doll was packaged in a flimsy box, and dressed in a princess dress that was evidently poorly stitched. I still remember the day my mum gave me the present, and the disappointment I had when I first received it. I was too young and egocentric then to truly appreciate the sacrifices my mum made. My mum was supposed to go to the doctor that day for she was running a very high fever, but instead of using the money to visit the doctor, she spent it all on a doll instead. Just to satisfy her little girl’s wants, and to make her birthday a significant one.
That was not how my birthday always was. It used to be a big event, with friends and family invited on that day just to celebrate me. The best part was opening my presents when everyone has left, and having my mum, dad and brother marvel at each and every one of them. Money was never a problem then, and I always got what I wanted for my birthday even if it costs over a hundred bucks.
I never knew that the departure of a single person can affect my life so much. Like a butterfly effect, a small ripple caused a huge tidal wave of impact throughout and over each of us — my mum, my brother and I.
My dad was unfaithful to my mum. In today’s society, it would be common to hear of extramarital affairs. Hell, there is even Ashley Maddison to facilitate it. But back then, especially in an Asian society, it was unheard of. I don’t know when or how exactly my mum found out about the affair, but I knew when and how exactly I found out.
I still remember the day I was preparing for kindy, and my mum was arguing with my dad. She was trying to grab my dad’s phone from his hands, but my dad was yelling and pushing her away. There was blood, and my dad got punched in the eye. The neighbours called the police because of the huge commotion and I never got to go to kindy. That was when I found out about the affair — my mum told me that my dad was busy texting ‘his other woman’. That was also the day my dad left and never came back home.
A mould first starts as a tiny spot — barely unnoticed, and overtime it festers and grows till it takes up all the space it can. That was how a single event, the departure of my dad, festered and grow to occupy and alter my entire life. The first alteration was noticing the importance and value of money. My mum, who once had a comfortable lifestyle, had to clean houses, wash dishes and be a kitchen hand, with back-to-back shifts, to make ends meet. A barbie doll was now considered exorbitantly priced, and a cheaper make a pricey one still. I had to work part-time to help make ends meet since I was 13. It was not easy growing up like that, especially in Singapore.
Singapore is a metropolitan, first-world country in Asia. In a country like that, children are always pampered by their parents and most of them would have never worked in their lifetime till they have a long holiday break or graduated from university. I wasn’t that lucky, and I never had a childhood. Most of my childhood could be remembered working in a greasy fast-food chain instead till midnight, and starting school the next day at 8 am. For others, their childhood is filled with hanging out with friends at playgrounds, or in my neighbourhood, at Pasir Ris Park racing each other to the top of the spider web.
I think the hardest part of it all was not the work, but rather, the fact that no one understands you. Especially when you are from one of the top schools in Singapore, and nearly all your classmates are from middle or high-income families. Everyone can afford tuition and textbooks, and they don’t spend every single waking moment of their lives wondering if they can afford the roof over their head.
My teachers couldn’t understand why I keep nodding off in class, and they thought that I was skiving, when in actuality, I was busy frying fries and wrapping burgers till wee hours of the morning. My friends would never understand the feeling of coming home to a house foreclosed by a bank, and being literally homeless. Everything gets frustrating because working seems endless and all you wanted to do as a young kid was play and have fun. Instead, all my extra time I had was spent catching up on school work and taking part in CCA to boost up my portfolio. Three days a week after school in training, and other days in a fast-food joint. That was my life.
I still wish that I could rub a magic lamp and Aladdin would magically appear to grant my wishes. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot from working part-time growing up. Ironically, when money becomes everything, you realise that it isn’t everything. There is not much happiness that can be achieved from money. It is just a means to an end — a way to survive and meet the demands of life. But it can never ever truly satisfy because there will be always be more demands, and more needs. It is endless and at the end, your life is burnt out for things that never lasts.
One thing that I wished I learnt growing up was being emotionally healthy. I realise that there are very little help and safety nets for children from a single-parent family, and more support is definitely needed in this area. I wish there was a child psychologist or someone that could guide me when I was younger. If only someone was there to tell me that everything is going to be okay. Instead, I was forced to grow-up fast and handle my emotional burden alone.
I grew up traumatised repeatedly by my mum. My mum couldn’t handle my dad’s departure and went ballistic. There were days when she would stand on a chair and stare out of the window, as if she is going to jump off the building anytime. A time when she fainted in front of me as she took one too many pills. Days when she took out our luggages and packed our clothes full, and threatened to throw us out of the house. Times when she would suddenly fling a whole shelf of china onto the floor in a fit of anger. Countless times of living on the edge of fear — not knowing if my mum would successfully commit suicide or when I would get thrown out of the house.
It is difficult for me to write these down, and these were events in my past that I never could quite bring myself to tell anyone. But I am compelled to publish my story so that you would understand what it is like to grow up in a single-parent family. If you know a child that is going through something like I did, I implore you to reach out to the child and just be there for them. Let the child have an emotional rapport and someone to guide them.
The lack of emotional support I had in my childhood manifested into emotional issues in my adulthood. I could not handle my feelings and thoughts well. Imagine standing in the sea with a huge wave coming towards you. No matter how hard or fast you swim away from it, the power of the tide will engulf you still. This was how my emotions and thoughts consumed me. The overwhelming feeling and thought of being worthless and utterly alone.
I tried seeking affirmation in relationships — flitting from one to another, but was never satisfied. Instead, I left each relationship more disillusioned and battered than ever. It took me a while and a major break-up to realise and acknowledge that I have issues.
It is not an easy climb up the pit. There are still days when I wake up feeling overwhelmed and depressed. Days when I return home completely exhausted by people. Days when negative thoughts preoccupy me.
But there are good days too. I am learning to love myself, to blame myself a little less for what transpired between my parents and to let go of all the wrongdoings they have done. Someone once told me, “Holding on to resentment and anger is akin to drinking poison and hoping the other party dies”. There is so much freedom and release in letting go of all that bitterness in me. I learnt to accept what happened, to understand that the past cannot be altered and to move forward in life.
If you have a similar past to mine and you are reading this, I hope you can forgive yourself for all the blame and self-loathing you held within. I hope you forgive yourself for being unforgiving, and forgive the ones that hurt you most.
You are better and stronger than you think.
As Libba Bray said, "In each of us lie good and bad, light and dark, art and pain, choice and regret, cruelty and sacrifice. We’re each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion fighting to emerge into something solid, something real. We’ve got to forgive ourselves that. I must remember to forgive myself. Because there is a lot of grey to work with. No one can live in the light all the time.”