I found my parents were getting a divorce on my 12th birthday & my world was never the same again

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | July 26, 2020, 09:58 AM

Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother's Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore describes the story of author Liyana Dhamirah, whose life was turned upside down after her parents announced their divorce on her twelfth birthday.

The book details the numerous obstacles she had to face, including having to move out of her comfortable family home, having to adapt to a vastly different lifestyle, and momentarily losing her motivation to study. Liyana then found herself heavily pregnant at the age of 22, without a place of her own.

Homeless: The Untold Story of a Mother's Struggle in Crazy Rich Singapore is published by Epigram Books and you can get a copy here.

An excerpt from the book is reproduced here.

By Liyana Dhamirah

There is something about turning twelve that you will never quite experience again in your life.

It is the last year of your life when you are still considered a child. Ahead of you lies the tumultuous road of adolescence. Behind you, the magical carefree years of childhood bliss.

Like any twelve-year-old, I was loving every moment of my life yet was also ready for the years ahead.

If you met me during this period of transition, you would be hard pressed to believe I could carry even an atom of a negative experience.

I was surrounded by a loving family at home and by friends in school who all had a part in creating my happy childhood bubble.

Looking back, I sometimes wish that I could have delayed growing up, because that year, my life took a turn. Whether it was good or bad, that is a matter of perspective.

On my twelfth birthday, my parents told me they were getting a divorce

It was 17 February 1999. As the clock struck twelve on my twelfth birthday, a new day was starting.

It was at that moment that I was given a birthday present I had never expected. One I never wanted.

Just moments earlier, my friends, family and I were enjoying a triple celebration.

My birthday coincided with the second day of the Chinese New Year festival. It was also the month of Syawal, when Muslims celebrate Hari Raya Puasa to mark the end of fasting for Ramadan.

My closest friends, also my classmates at the time, were having a great time at my home, a modest flat sandwiched amidst the many rows of typical HDB residences in Yishun.

It was an evening of nonstop festivities with friends and family. Even my younger siblings—ten-year-old Danial and my two sisters Siti, who was seven, and Sri, who was only two—were well behaved.

My parents were their usual selves: Mum was busy in the kitchen, making sure all the platters were full with fried rice, chicken wings, hot dogs, fishballs, epok-epok and samosas.

Dad was clowning around and cracking lame dad jokes. Even serious Aunty Zainab was there, in her frown and sombre dress.

Merriment punctuated the air, fried bee hoon and watermelon (my favourite!) were piled on plates and joy illuminated everyone’s countenance.

At the end of the night, as soon as my friends filed out of the flat, I received news so bitter that the lingering sweetness from the birthday cake disappeared instantaneously.

After sitting me down, my parents broke the news to me.

“Yana, Bapak and Mak are not going to be together anymore,” my dad reluctantly said, barely looking me in the eye.

I thought my dad was the toughest man in the world

I had always thought of my dad as a strong man.

He was not known as a talker and only spoke when he needed to. He drove a Prime Mover truck and had done so for ten years.

In fact, in my innocence, I had concocted an image of my dad as the toughest man in the world.

Yet there he was, telling me that the institution of love bonding him and my mother had collapsed. His voice was weak as he uttered the words.

My parents were getting a divorce. No discussion, no grace period, no ceremony. A new world lay ahead, one that frightened me to my core. I knew I would be truly alone.

As the eldest child, and the supposed role model, I couldn’t turn to my younger siblings nor to the adults in my life.

Over the next few weeks, strangers in suits and ties walked through our home, checking every room and intruding on our private lives.

They spoke of how much our house would be valued in the open market. My siblings and I did not understand what was going on but I later learnt the people in suits were property agents.

When they started bringing in potential buyers to tour our flat, Danial and I, being mischievous children, decided to play a prank.

We hid in the storeroom, and when the agent and the buyers opened the door, we gave them quite a fright. It worked every time.

One evening, after a particularly successful storeroom scare, Danial and I were reprimanded, and finally told what was going on. My parents were selling the flat.

To me, they were putting a number on years of memories. What is a home truly worth? Is its value tied to the land it is built on? Or is the value intrinsic to the love and happiness that flourished inside?

If sentiment were a factor, then every house that has ever been built would be priceless. For the walls were once the boundaries of a haven that had meant everything to me.

My brother and I had not been allowed to ask our parents any questions, and judging by the sadness on their faces, I had understood the seriousness of the matter.

As the days flew by, relatives whom we hardly knew or had even spoken to before called to offer words of support and condolence.

All those were but pleasantries, familial obligations fulfilled. Not once did any of them say, “Here, we’ll fix this. This doesn’t have to happen.”

I was showered with pity and controlled by fear. But mostly, I was reeling in pain.

The only sliver of light was my Aunty Zainab, my mother’s eldest sister, who went out of her way to help my family and tried to enforce a sense of stability.

Aunty Zainab, a stay-at-home mother, knew how to take charge.

She was the eldest of ten, and the only sibling older than my mother. All of her own adult children already led separate lives, so Aunty Zainab took care of my siblings and me.

She gave us home-cooked meals and clean clothes while our mother searched for work for the first time.

Instead of toys, we had to resort to our imaginations

Before this, my mother had always relied on my dad’s income. I learnt to adjust to this patchwork family, but it was not easy. I found we had to get used to the living situation fast.

Soon the inevitable day came when my family had to move out of our executive flat—a thousand square feet that felt like a castle to a little princess with big dreams.

A home that was once filled with chatter and laughter became nothing but an empty shell.

Together with my mother and siblings, we moved to a smaller flat close to the school that Danial and I attended.

Every day became a struggle. My mother’s desk job earned her a meagre S$1,200 per month. That and the child maintenance we received from my father were barely enough to run the household.

When my parents were together, we ate at restaurants and went grocery shopping as a family.

If they were in a good mood, they even let us buy toys. Now, things were different. We stopped going out for dinner as a family.

In fact, we stopped going out at all. We received hand-me-down clothes from cousins and had to discard many of our favourite toys due to space constraints in the tiny flat.

We did not even get to go out to play on weekends.

Instead of toys, my brother, sisters and resorted to using our imaginations.

We pretended that our mattress was a lifeboat coming to the rescue as our imaginary ship sank.

Upon that grey, fraying mattress, we shared an embrace and protected one another from the circling sharks, our only sustenance were bananas we had brought onboard.

We could entertain ourselves for hours until Aunty Zainab called us for dinner.

Bit by bit, chunks of my old life were being chipped away. I was thrust into a world without a plan.

I studied extra hard to escape from the reality around me

I took this all very hard. It affected me mentally, and I felt listless. With each passing day, my motivation suffered.

Where I once looked forward to opening a book to study, now I stared at the words, unable to recognise what they meant, unwilling to comprehend their importance. Nothing made sense.

After six months since the announcement of the divorce, I eventually vowed to try to control at least one aspect of my life: my studies.

Every night, I buried my nose in books, studying extra hard for my PSLE examinations as an escape from the reality around me.

Through it all, I maintained hope that everything would return to normal someday and when it did, I would have paved the way for a better life through academic excellence.

I was part of the cream of the crop, which would be considered a huge step for anyone, but I was numb to the achievement. My mum and dad were still separated.

My future was still swallowed by a deep, dark tunnel.

One without an end insight. One without light.

Top image via Unsplash.