Within minutes of welcoming me into her home somewhere in the north of Singapore, Nur Zuhairah gets right into narrating the story of how she left her family home as a teenager.
It’s a story that includes her turning down help from her son’s father, who later became uncontactable, leaving her to manage her pregnancy and a difficult birth on her own.
As Zuhairah tells this story, the character that emerges is someone who has taken life’s twists and turns head-on.
It’s someone who’s been in multiple situations with no one to fall back on but herself; who is fiercely independent.
But it is also a story of how help can come from unexpected places: Landlords who allowed her flexible payment arrangements, bosses who were understanding of her situation, friends who advised her and accompanied her to get help, social workers who got through to her with persistence and sincerity, lecturers who found out she was sneaking her infant son into classes and welcomed him with open arms.
And it’s a story of how the plucky 26-year-old has battled through it all to establish herself as a single mother and an infant educarer earning a steady income, to stand on her own two feet.
Leaving home as a teen
Zuhairah grew up as the youngest of four siblings, and was mostly cared for by her grandparents growing up, living apart from her parents up till she was seven or eight.
“I didn't feel [like I was] part of the family,” she says, sharing that she could go for months on end without speaking to her sisters, even after she moved back into her parents’ house together with her grandparents.
As a teenager, soon after graduating with a National ITE Certificate (Nitec) in Nursing, Zuhairah decided that she would find her own place, renting a single room in Choa Chu Kang and paying the rent by working as a retail assistant.
“So that's the time when I know that this is life lah, so I need to work in order to pay my rent and stuff.”
That life of working to pay rent, as Zuhairah knew it, carried on till she got pregnant at 23.
Her son’s father was a Malaysian, and at the time, she’d moved into his house across the Causeway, travelling back to Singapore to work every day.
Finding out she was pregnant
Zuhairah still remembers precise details of the day she found out she was pregnant.
“I didn't know what to do… I came back to [my family’s house], I told my mum,” Zuhairah says. It was her first time back home since she moved out years ago.
Her mother reacted with shock and anger, a reaction that, while negative, did not surprise Zuhairah.
She would return to the house once more, hoping to talk through the next steps.
In that critical period where Zuhairah herself was dealing with her own emotions, a family member told her in plain terms to “go abort”.
“Do not have this baby,” were the clear instructions from the family member.
Zuhairah still doesn’t have the words to explain how she felt at that moment, but sadness and betrayal were in the mix.
While she’d asked her mother to keep the news to herself, to give her space to figure out what to do next, her mother had shared it with that family member.
Disappointed at the apparent lack of support, Zuhairah left the house in tears, and would not return until years later.
Parting ways with her son’s father
With her family’s support out of the picture, it wouldn’t be long before Zuhairah also lost the support of her son’s father.
She’s clear that this was her decision, made in spite of his offer of help.
But she explains how a one-month stay with him in Malaysia allowed her to see that his support might not be enough.
“I see [that] it doesn’t work. Things that I wanted, he couldn’t get,” she says.
And while she gives him credit, acknowledging that “he did try his best”, she saw how he struggled to earn enough for the both of them.
“It hurts to see him struggling,” she says.
That, and the very practical consideration of wanting her son to be born in Singapore were the end of the matter.
“So that's why I just said, ‘Just let me go, let me do things [on my own] with my pregnancy first. If God puts us together in future, we definitely will be back together,’” she recalls.
It would be one of the last conversations she had with him — they then exchanged messages intermittently, up till when their son was born.
“And suddenly he just went missing,” she says. She stopped being able to reach him on his phone numbers, and has not heard from him since.
Going it alone
Left on her own, without support from her son’s father and her family, Zuhairah grew all the more determined to go through with her pregnancy.
Back in Singapore, she rented a place, telling the owner that she would only be able to pay the rent when she found work.
And while the owner was agreeable to this, finding a job would prove to be more difficult — something Zuhairah suspects was due to the fact that she declared she was pregnant on her applications.
She eventually got a job working at a convenience store without declaring her pregnancy.
On a tight budget, Zuhairah admits that she would sometimes sneak into buses without paying the fare. And with a growing baby in her tummy, Zuhairah recalls times when she took more food than she was allocated for staff meals at work.
With a tinge of guilt in her voice, she says:
“I know when it's time to stock-take, I know there will be a variance lah. I was so aware that if they were to CCTV or whatever, I'm ready for it lah. I know, I can own up lah.”
Thankfully, she wasn’t caught.
And although the guilt remains to this day, she hopes that her company — and God — have forgiven her.
But along with guilt, Zuhairah also carries gratitude.
She remembers an understanding manager who eventually found out she was pregnant, and assigned her lighter work, allowing her to continue working for a longer period up till her third trimester.
Zuhairah remembers these as “small little things” that were nonetheless very encouraging.
“Stubbornness” gives way
Although she had initially planned to work through the entire pregnancy, a friend persuaded her to seek help, convincing her that it would indeed be impossible for her to handle everything by herself.
She eventually sought help from a Social Service Office, and was referred to a Family Service Centre (FSC) for further assistance.
As someone who had been living independently since she was a teen, Zuhairah was initially reluctant to open up to the officer assigned to her case, a lady by the name of Nadirah.
Looking back, she now describes her independence as a kind of “stubbornness”, born out of a feeling that no one really understood her.
But Zuhairah recalls how Nadirah helped her feel “really comfortable”, and won her over with sincerity:
“Day by day, each time at our meetings, she always had this drive to want to help me, to want to know me… I could sense that she sincerely wanted to help me, wanted to know my story and how she could help me.”
Helped by Nadirah and the FSC, Zuhairah prepared herself for her due date.
Giving birth alone
Zuhairah’s son, Nufa, was born one day after her 23rd birthday, in 2019.
It means twice the reason to celebrate each year, for both mother and son.
But Nufa’s arrival — some time before he was due — was through a difficult birth, one which necessitated an emergency C-section after a routine checkup revealed that waiting any longer might put his health at risk.
Zuhairah remained conscious and alert throughout the C-section, and recalls feeling scared and alone as the doctors and nurses gave her instructions, telling her to relax and to breathe.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen?’ I keep asking a lot of questions — am I going to do well in raising him? Am I going to do stupid things when I bring him back?”
As these thoughts raced through her head, Zuhairah heard the sound of her son’s first cries — a sound which brought her to tears.
“I was like, ‘Is this real? Is this real?’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, is this even real? Am I a mother now? What am I supposed to do? Give me strength.’
I really don’t know what to do. I'm very lost. I can't go back to my family because my family doesn't want the child.”
The prospect of raising a child on her own filled her with doubt.
But all it took was seeing her son, and the nurses’ simple affirmations, for her to have renewed motivation to carry on.
“I was feeling better when they bring my son towards my face, and then the nurses wipe my tears and [told] me, ‘You are strong.’”
Those encouraging words, Zuhairah says, were just what she needed to hear.
What am I supposed to do?
Settled back in her rented room with Nufa, Zuhairah pondered her next steps.
“I [was] thinking, ‘what am I supposed to do? I can’t just work those simple jobs. Where’s my son going to be when I’m going to work?’ So I kept thinking and thinking and thinking, what am I supposed to do?”
Her thoughts wandered to the fact that as the youngest sibling in her family, she’d never even had the experience of caring for young children, or even carrying a baby.
“How to solve this problem?” she wondered to herself, before having something of an epiphany:
“Oh! I can take [a] course to learn about babies.”
After searching online, Zuhairah found an institution where she would be able to pursue a Higher Certificate in Infant Care, something that would qualify her to be an infant care teacher.
“I was like, eh? Wow, it’s really a two-in-one thing, because I really want to learn about babies, but at the same time, if I pass, I can get a job — a proper job.”
She was able to cover the part-time course fees using her Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA), and would only be required to attend classes twice a week for eight months, leaving her some time to do part-time work in fast food joints, home cleaning, and other assorted jobs.
Sneaking her infant son to class
“At times I did sneak my baby to the class!” Zuhairah says, with a mischievous grin.
“Nufa, since [he was] born, he was very good. He doesn't make any noise, he’s really well behaved — just like a toy doll where he just keeps quiet. He doesn't even cry.”
This meant that she could park his stroller at a corner of the classroom discreetly, ensuring that she was always the first to arrive and last to leave.
Well-behaved as Nufa was, there were eventually occasions when lecturers arrived ahead of Zuhairah, and she was no longer able to keep his attendance a secret.
“Most of the lecturers were like, ‘Zu! Since when did you bring your baby here? How many times have you done this?’”
She gradually came to figure out which lecturers she could count on to “close one eye”, given her circumstances, failing which, she would have to arrange for a friend to babysit.
Zuhairah’s graduation from the course led up to what she calls the “peak” of her life story thus far, in early 2020, where various aspects of life seemed to line up.
She finally had a home to call her own, thanks to a referral from her FSC to the Housing Development Board (HDB) which leased her a unit, as well as skills and knowledge to care for her infant son — and with that, a job with more stability, better prospects, and better pay than she’d had before.
Zuhairah remembers thinking aloud to herself, in a moment of quiet triumph:
“Zu, all those things that you have done alone, all this time have you [worked] so hard, you fight your emotions alone. You eventually got a job, a proper job, a nice pay.”
“And then I was very proud of myself. And I told my son that I'll try my best to [let] him have everything, [just] like a child that has both parents. I wanted him to feel that way,” she shares.
Raising a son as a single parent
Reflecting on her own childhood, Zuhairah suspects that her fierce independence and rebelliousness were partly shaped by the attention — or lack thereof — that her parents gave her.
She acknowledges that her mother may not have been in the best position to give her the attention she needed, having suffered from worsening diabetes since Zuhairah was a teen.
It appears that this is not something she wants to let Nufa experience.
Throughout our interview, the bright-eyed toddler mostly sat beside his mother, fiddling with plastic dinosaurs and other toys, interrupting our conversation at various points with chirpy calls of “hello!” from different corners of the house, each of which she duly acknowledges.
“Mummy?” he ventures.
“Yes Nufa,” she says gently, lowering her tone as she turns to her son to receive an empty bowl from him. He looks at her, expectantly, and isn’t placated until she pretends to eat its imaginary contents with a spoon, which he supplies with an outstretched arm.
Evolution of independence
The independence in Zuhairah’s early life may have taken on a rebellious quality. It’s something she admits came from a desire to “prove” to her family that she could make it on her own.
This is something they’ve since acknowledged, leading to a gradual process of reconciliation between her and her mother, as well as her sisters.
After all these years, Zuhairah and her son have reunited with her family.
And with the passage of time, her motivation for independence evolved as well, as Zuhairah met more people while being referred to various social service organisations.
She couldn’t help but notice that there were others in similar circumstances as her who did not go to the extraordinary lengths that she did, and resolved that she wanted to be the one who was “doing well” — at least, relative to them.
“I told all these words to myself, so that I look up, I look forward,” she says.
But the motivations behind her independent streak would again evolve.
“As time went by, things changed again. I wanted people who are like me, or people who get help, to try to upgrade themselves [and know that] life is too short to always depend on things [and] on people,” she says.
Thanks to this sponsored article by the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, this writer had the opportunity to be inspired.
Top images courtesy of Zuhairah.