While her peers were figuring out if they should go to a JC or polytechnic, Izzah* (not her real name) was contemplating an abortion.
It was December 2015, and the then-16-year-old had just completed her O-Levels when the bombshell hit: She was pregnant.
Shy, introverted and extremely low-key, Izzah, who is a personal friend of mine, is hard to picture as a mother.
Fast forward to four years later, however, I am marvelling at how she has grown in her role as she and her partner Haikal* (not his real name) fuss over their now three-year-old son.
Looking at her son, Izzah, who is now 20, reveals that she wouldn't have known about her pregnancy if it weren't for odd cravings.
"I was eating things that I usually didn't eat, like lemon. I hated lemon, but I started eating lemon because I was pregnant. And my mum noticed."
Izzah's astute mother bought a pregnancy kit and made her use it. The kit confirmed Izzah's mother's suspicions and sent the 16-year-old girl's world crashing down on her.
"When I saw the results on the pregnancy kit, I thought to myself: 'What am I going to do now? Do I keep it? Do I abort it?'"
Her parents' reactions didn't help either.
"My mum just dropped down on the floor, on her knees and cried really badly," says Izzah.
And while her dad rang Haikal's parents to deliver the news, he chose to shut her out after.
"My dad didn't talk to me for the whole day. He was supposed to accompany me to the polytechnic I was applying for to submit my documents but he didn't. I went myself.
He fetched me when I was done but he just dropped me off, I don't know where, at a random bus stop. Luckily the bus stop had a bus that went to an MRT station so at least I could go home."
Despite their harsh reactions, Izzah tells me she had expected them to react that way — after all, having premarital sex is a sin in her religion, Islam.
"I felt very guilty towards my mum, but I was just angry at the way my dad was handling everything."
It was a difficult decision to make, but Izzah chose not to abort the baby in the end as that is also prohibited in Islam.
She didn't want to commit any more sins that would worsen the situation, she added.
Banned from leaving her house — even to see the gynae
The subsequent months were tough for Izzah, to say the least.
Fortunately, it was her post-O-Level holidays so she had a few months to adapt to her pregnancy before starting polytechnic.
But of course, it was too much for her to hope to be able to carry on living a normal teenage life.
Izzah's mum banned her from going out of the house as she was afraid someone they know would find out about Izzah's pregnancy.
She wasn't allowed to meet anyone. She couldn't even see a gynaecologist for her medical check-ups.
"My mum was just really afraid of people finding out. I literally couldn't go anywhere. I didn't meet my friends and I was also not allowed to find a job."
Cooped up in her room every day, she would either read a book or stare blankly at the ceiling.
She didn't even have a mobile phone after her dad had smashed it in a fit of anger.
Izzah says she broke down nearly every day and was plagued with suicidal thoughts.
"I felt super lonely. I couldn't talk to anybody. I felt like ending my life," she tells me as her eyes start to tear up a bit.
At this point, I felt a lump in my throat as I realised that while her peers, me included, were out celebrating the end of the O-Levels and secondary education, here was a girl, my own friend, who was struggling to find a reason to stay alive — and none of us knew.
Thankfully, Haikal managed to sneak her a phone. It was an old flip phone, but it was a phone nonetheless and it was more than enough for Izzah. She wasn't alone anymore.
"My mental health was in a really bad place," she says. "But I'm thankful he was there. Like, he never left my side."
To which, Haikal simply replies, "I was always worried about her. And it's not just her baby, you know. It's my baby too. So I have to be responsible."
Mum 'wanted me to have a miscarriage'
About five months into her pregnancy, Izzah was horrified to discover that she was spotting.
At that young age, she didn't know what was happening. "I thought I was having my period," she laughs.
Izzah eventually told her mother about the spotting and that was when she was finally allowed to go for her first gynae visit.
Luckily, the doctor confirmed from a scan that everything was okay — both mother and baby were safe.
Izzah tells me that her mother cried after the check-up.
At first, I was pleasantly surprised, thinking she had finally come round to accepting the baby.
But Izzah says no:
"She wanted me to have a miscarriage. She was upset to find out that I was okay."
Schoolmates called her a slut, ostracised her & marked her down on peer evaluation
By about April 2016, it was time for Izzah to start her polytechnic course.
She contemplated dropping out of her course since she was pregnant, but her mother forced her to continue her studies.
"She told me she didn't care what I felt or what I thought. She forced me to go to school. But I wasn't allowed to tell anyone about my pregnancy and I had to wear baggy clothes."
And while she did a good job of hiding her baby bump, her schoolmates eventually found out.
One day in class, Izzah accidentally dropped her wallet, scattering photos of her ultrasound scans onto the floor.
Before she could pick everything up, her classmates had seen them.
"When they found out, they were very judgemental. They called me names, called me a slut. And I was ostracised," Izzah says with a sigh.
She lost the friends she had and was often left out of discussions in group projects. Her group mates also marked her down during peer evaluation.
"My grades were really affected. I failed a few subjects because of it. It was just a very toxic environment for me."
Izzah says she had wanted to call Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support for help because she was desperate, but she was afraid of angering her mother.
Despite her mother's attitude towards her, Izzah knew that she needed her by her side.
The school eventually learned about her pregnancy too.
When Izzah failed to hand in mandatory medical documents to the school ("I didn't know how to approach the whole 'I'm pregnant' subject"), she was forced to come clean about her pregnancy to the course chairman.
She was subsequently issued a letter informing her that she could not continue school for the next six months because her due date clashed with the year end exams.
It meant that Izzah had to repeat her first year of polytechnic.
'Going crazy' inside the labour ward
Labour was hell, says Izzah.
Because her baby was developing smaller than he was supposed to, the doctor decided to induce labour.
"I was going crazy inside the labour room," she says, adding that the pain from her contractions drove her to scratch her hands and pull her hair.
Her mother, who was beside her in the delivery room, immediately stopped her from harming herself, however.
"My mum offered me her hand. She told me to scratch her hand instead of my own," she says. It was clearly a turning point for Izzah's mother.
Izzah eventually gave birth to her baby boy after about five to six hours of labour.
"I was really drugged up so I was super high. I carried my baby and laughed because I thought he looked like an alien."
When her father saw the baby, he was "the happiest he'd ever been". Another turning point.
The whole situation was like a clichéd Suria drama, Izzah jokes. "Now, my dad loves my son more than he loves me."
Challenges of being a new mother
Life after giving birth was hard, to the say the least.
Izzah struggled the most with breastfeeding — there were nights when her breasts were engorged and sore.
"It was so painful but I told myself, if I could give birth, then I can go through any pain."
But the most challenging thing for her was discipline.
"It's so hard to get angry at someone you love," Izzah says as she gazes over at her son. "Sometimes when I scold him and he cries, I feel super guilty. But I know that I have to discipline him."
She has had to sacrifice a lot for him too, of course.
"Even something as simple as like watching TV or wanting some time alone, it's hard to do that when I have my son with me."
Money was also an issue. Although her parents helped out financially, Izzah tried to make the most of whatever savings she already had.
"All my money was for him. I couldn't buy the things I wanted to buy. Back then, I remember I only had one pair of shoes."
Despite it all, Izzah is grateful that she can spend time with her son every day.
Started school again
In 2017, Izzah returned to polytechnic.
At first, she was hesitant to go back because she couldn't bear being away from her son.
She was also understandably afraid of returning to school in general, especially after what she went through in her first year.
But she forced herself to be brave.
"It's come to a point where I built the resilience to not give a sh*t anymore."
On her first day of school, when everyone had to introduce themselves, she stood up and said:
"My name is Izzah and I am a young mother."
Hearing this, I can't help but feel a sense of pride in my friend. In fact, she tells me her new classmates shared the same sentiment.
They were open-minded and they applauded Izzah for her courage and confidence.
"School is much better this time round. Everyone is supportive and I could make friends, unlike last time."
But it is a challenge nonetheless. There are days when Izzah has to bring her son to school with her, because nobody can take care of him at home.
"I'm lucky because my classmates and lecturers are very accepting this time round. So when my boy is in class, they help to take care of him too."
Once, Izzah had to rush an assignment while breastfeeding her son. Miraculously, she managed to submit it on time, although her grades were nothing spectacular.
"At least I passed," she says.
When she misses her deadlines, her lecturers are often forgiving as they are aware of her situation. It is this kind of support that Izzah advocates.
"People always view young mothers badly. We made a mistake but that doesn't mean we can't grow from it. Just be supportive because I see so many young mums struggling so much. We just need support."
And while things are better now, she admits there are still days when she breaks down because everything can get a tad overwhelming.
But at the end of the day, she maintains that her struggles are nothing she can't handle.
After listening to everything she's had to go through, I can't help but ask if she regrets not aborting her baby.
"I kind of regret bringing him into the world. But only because the world can be a cruel place, not because of how tough things were for me. I'm thankful that I have him because without him, I won't be who I am today."
Izzah is now in the final year of her polytechnic course. She is also doing an internship at a local company.
Once she graduates, she plans to start working straightaway to earn a stable income for her son.
"So many bad things happened to me. But to get to this stage where I would say that I'm somewhat happy, I'm really proud of myself. I kept to myself a lot last time. I was always hiding. But now, I'm open. I'm talking about my son freely."
Indeed, this wallflower from four years ago has blossomed into a bold and fearless woman and mother.
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
- Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (for primary school-aged children)
Expectant mothers can seek help from these helplines:
- Pregnancy Crisis Service: 6339- 9770
- 24-hour Mum-To-Be Helpline: 1800-686-8623
- Breastfeeding counselling: 6339-3558
For teenagers facing a pregnancy crisis:
- BABES 24-hour call or SMS helpline: 8111-3535
- Safe Place: 6817-4202
Stories Of Us is a series about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or making the world a better place in their own small way, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top photos by Syahindah Ishak.
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