PERSPECTIVE: Chiong Xiao Ting is a mother of two daughters, aged seven and four.
At the time of her eldest daughter's Primary 1 registration in 2019, Chiong initially placed her daughter at her alma mater, which is a SAP school.
However, after much consideration, she decided to withdraw her daughter from her alma mater and register her at a neighbourhood school instead.
Here, Chiong writes about how her own difficult childhood informed her initial expectations of her oldest daughter and how she eventually came to the decision to choose a neighbourhood school.
An earlier version of this excerpt first appeared in the book Letter to My Daughter.
Edited by Theresa Tan, Letter to My Daughter is published by Marshall Cavendish and you can get a copy of it here.
By Chiong Xiao Ting
Fortunately (or unfortunately), you are my firstborn. When I was pregnant with you, I was 26 and I gave birth to you at 27.
By our society’s standard, I would be considered a young mum, but definitely not so in my mother’s times.
The huge difficulty I faced being a first-time mum was that I grew up mostly without a mother.
My Dad and Mum were separated not long after I was born, and Mum had to raise me all by herself. She had to work hard to provide for the family and take care of me. For most part of my childhood, we were in survival mode.
My mother spent most of her time working to provide for us
I remember how she would take up multiple jobs, and it seemed like she tried everything possible, from selling property, to tutoring, to clerical work—she even resorted to being a part-time cleaner to earn extra bucks.
I did not find anything abnormal with that lifestyle—I would follow her everywhere she went, whether it was to her tutee’s home, or to the houses she had to clean on the weekends.
This was the norm I embraced and enjoyed.
When I was 10, I lost my mum to cancer. To say that it was devastating would probably be an understatement, but growing with Mum all these years, I had learnt only one way to deal with things: to be strong.
When faced with life’s difficulties, my Mum had only one mode of operation, and that was to be strong and to survive.
Hence, since I was young, this was the only way I know how to deal with things: to be strong and to survive.
She had never spoken to me about her health issues
Mum never spoke to me about her cancer, her sickness, her pain — anything she faced.
Before she passed on, she had put everything in place, instructed various people to carry out what she wanted, made sure that I would be well taken care of.
But I don’t remember her saying any last words to me. That was my Mum — she would not reveal her weaker side, or express her pain and grief. In a sense, that was how I learnt to deal with my emotions.
In my growing up years, even with the absence of a mother, I did forge on.
After Mum’s passing, I studied hard and worked hard, scoring A’s, making my way to top schools and I guess, I did Mum proud.
I was the top of my cohort in Primary 5 and in Primary 6, I achieved the school's second-highest PSLE result of 271.
In hindsight, my academic success in primary school became such precious memories to me because I remembered it so clearly amidst the trauma and grief I felt.
When I had my own daughter, I was intent on training her to be like me
Many years later, I became a mother myself.
I had high hopes to “train” you, the way my Mum did me, to become this strong and independent young lady. But alas, your personality is quite the opposite. You are very sensitive, persistent and you have a strong personality.
As a young child, you were very sticky and, somehow, insecure. You would cry
whenever we stepped into an unfamiliar house. You would break down when strangers talked to you, and by strangers, I mean anybody other than Daddy or Mummy!
Where was that strong, independent girl that I had envisioned?
Many times, I would get sympathetic or disapproving looks (depending on the observer’s parenting philosophy), or others would make well-meaning comments that ended up annoying me.
You were not a typical baby that enjoyed others’ attention — you only wanted Mummy.
When we were home, you could not play independently and I had to be by your side almost all the time.
But I was determined to train you, and like how I was “ruthless” with myself, I was pretty “ruthless” with you. I had no qualms about allowing you to have meltdowns — I
would not adhere to your requests because I felt that that was spoiling you.
During your meltdowns, you would want nothing but Mummy, and I would walk out of the room just to leave you alone to “grow up” and “get your act together”.
But I began to question if I was too hard on her
Yet, in recent years, I have started to question myself: have I forced you to grow up too fast? Have I not given you the space and security you need to develop emotionally?
Have I failed to recognise that you are different? And most importantly, have I imposed the very same survival mode that I had inherited from my Mum on you?
You turned seven this year, and there are days that I am still dealing with your meltdowns. Sometimes it is unbelievable to me that you still have these moments.
During these times, it seems like you are regressing back to toddlerhood, and I start reflecting that I should have held you longer, calmed you further, and not force you to grow up prematurely.
Yes, I am learning, baby. These moments sometimes frustrate me greatly, but I am pushing myself to hold you longer, to tell you it is okay, that Mummy is here, though as I’m doing it, my mind is saying you should grow up and stop behaving like this.
When it came to primary school, I registered you in my alma mater at first
But, Jaime, we are in this together! Turning seven is a huge milestone because it means that you now enter into formal education: primary school.
Education is a big deal for us in Singapore, hence many parents do their utmost to secure a place for their children in the best school possible.
I was blessed because my Mum recognised the importance of education, and she managed to secure a place for me in a SAP (special assistance plan) school — it’s a place for academically bright students who are strong in both English and their mother tongue.
I loved my alma mater; this school held precious memories for me, and it was the place that I had excelled and thrived in in the most difficult season in my life — when Mum passed away.
I was determined to send you there too, even though it meant that you had to be on the school bus an hour in the morning and another hour home.
But I was hopeful that you would replicate the success I had academically.
I also wanted you to have a good Chinese education and master the language.
The school's strong roots in Chinese culture and its emphasis on the language was therefore another draw for me.
Being an alumna, I registered you for the school with no hiccups at all. I was elated.
However, there was a nagging feeling on the inside of me that I could not shake.
However, I began to question if I would be pushing you too hard
Numerous promptings from God made me rethink my decision. Doubts and questions began to surface: in this time and era, do I really need to send my daughter to a “branded school” so that she can maybe gain a head-start in life?
I was challenged in all areas: What do I value more? Do I value your happiness in your childhood years over your academic success? Do I need to put you through two hours on the bus daily just so that you can attend a seemingly better school?
The matter of the school's distance began to grow in my mind.
You would have to wake up at 5 plus in the morning to board the bus at 6:15am and you would only reach home at 2:30pm in the afternoon.
You would have to sleep by 8.30pm, taking away a significant amount of time for family and play. You would be left with essentially only six waking hours for lunch, dinner, homework and attempting to play.
My in-laws even asked if you should be subjected to such a commute.
And on further reflection, I came to realise that I will also stress you out.
I know that I'm a tiger mum at heart. If you are placed in a competitive environment, I feel that I will stress you out even more.
I cannot try to make you replicate my success, nor impose my past achievements on you.
And as much as you have the aptitude, I cannot impose what I want on you either.
I battled with all these thoughts for many days, only to relent to God’s leading at the last minute.
I eventually made the decision, although I still found myself agonising about it
I deregistered you from my alma mater, and signed you up for the “neighbourhood school” next to our home.
I wept over this decision for days. I felt a deep sense of loss that you would probably not walk in my footsteps and replicate my success.
I wondered if I might be shortchanging you of opportunities and advantages you might have, and if you might even blame me in the future for putting you in a neighbourhood school.
In those moments, I recognised that I needed to let go and allow you to live the life that God has created you for.
You are you, and I am me. I cannot—and must not—impose my dreams on you, and I must allow you to discover all the gifts God has placed in you.
Ultimately, I knew I had made the right decision to place you in a neighbourhood school
These days, there is a simple joy in my heart, when I see how happy you are to wake up each morning for school, which is now only a three-minute walk away.
You don’t struggle with the early mornings, since you now wake close to 7am, you look forward to school and you enjoy your classes so much every single day.
You are not so stressed out academically, which means you have had the chance to explore hobbies such as learning piano by yourself, rollerblading and gymnastics.
We even get quite a bit of family time together before you sleep at 9:30pm.
I am so happy with your holistic development. I have come to realise that this is the most important thing: your happiness and well-being.
You have come a long way from that insecure baby who would only cling to me and no one else. These days, you are expressive and confident.
You have taken on primary school like a champ: you fiercely pursue and persevere at the things you take interest in. You love tagging along wherever I go, to the office, for work assignments, to run errands.
You became the class monitor, and even received the Good Service Award because you were so helpful to your teachers and classmates.
Not so long ago, you even followed me on a work-cum-leisure trip overseas. To be honest, I genuinely enjoy bringing you places, and you have become the strong and independent lady I hoped for, and more.
Thank you for being my firstborn. I knowingly (or unknowingly) put greater pressure on you as you are the big sister.
And I am proud of seeing how much you have grown and matured
I am often more demanding of you because you are the older one. But you have taken on all these responsibilities so well. You have grown up to be a great older sister to your Meimei (younger sister).
You would give in to her or try to navigate your way around things, even when she is at times demanding. I am so proud to see how you are growing, not just intellectually, but also emotionally, socially, physically and spiritually.
Thank you, Jaime, for allowing me to “experiment” motherhood on you. I am learning and you are too, and we have both come a long way.
I am glad that every new day is a day for me to become a better mother, to undo the mistakes of my past, and to help you become all that God wants you to be.
In these seven short years, you have taught me so much, and helped me become a much better version of myself.
You will always have a special place in my heart and I can’t wait to see how you will blossom in the future to come.
Love you so much,
Top photo by Chiong Xiao Ting