Choosing to become a single parent is not an easy choice.
Nonetheless, you could say that it was the best decision Yeni Zulaika, 38, made back in 2017 when she and her kids found themselves without a roof over their heads and making do with the stairwell of her HDB block.
What led them there that night?
Her husband and the father of her children had thrown a tantrum at home and ransacked the cupboards and smashed glass panels in their home, leaving it in a complete mess.
“Until my kids (have) no place to sleep,” she said.
“I was tired, my kids were so tired, so I said: ‘Let’s go.’”
Her kids chose to follow their mother out of the house and the next day, they left their home and their father for good.
This was in 2017 when Yeni finally took the courage to leave her husband and become a single mother.
Leaving her husband
According to Yeni, her ex-husband had quite a temper, often throwing a fit whenever he got angry.
For 14 years, Yeni chose to put up with her husband. But the tantrum that led to Yeni and her kids sleeping outside the house was the last time she was willing to put up with his temper.
Earlier that day, Yeni had just come out of a meeting at work when she realised her husband had left her a series of missed calls.
“Where are you? Why didn’t you reply to me?” her husband yelled over the phone when she eventually called him back.
By the time she got home with her kids, the home was in a complete mess.
Yeni said that this happened at least eight times.
On another occasion, the father lost his temper after a dispute with their eldest son.
“Must understand, he’s growing up, a teenager,” Yeni said, explaining that her son was acting up like any teenager would. But, she did not dismiss her ex-husband’s actions that followed.
She worried about her kids. The fear in her kids’ eyes – who were then aged between two to 12 years old at the time – when they came home from school to see their father wrecking their family home was so heart wrenching.
Seeing their father act up affected the children deeply. Yeni’s eldest son, who used to be “friendly and talkative” became withdrawn, quiet, and aloof for a long time.
“If angry, can, just don't do it in front of the kids la,” Yeni added.
And that wasn’t all. According to Yeni, her ex-husband had an affair when they were still married.
“They cheating, holding hands, holding her shoulders,” Yeni recalled her ex-husband's affair. This was when her youngest child was just a few months old.
He even brought the woman back to their one-room HDB unit.
But, she laughed it off and said: “Like that la.”
For a long time, she tried her best to “take care” of her husband, until she couldn’t anymore.
She left her husband in 2017 and divorced him in December 2019.
Struggles of a single parent
After leaving her ex-husband and family home, she said he has never given the family a cent.
Anyway, her husband never played a part in taking care of the family from the start.
“I got a husband, but it’s still one person (taking care of the family).”
She took on a job as a part-time cleaner to make ends meet which gave her the flexibility to take care of her youngest boy who’s seven this year.
But once he started primary school this year, she decided to work full-time and even managed to clinch a promotion at her workplace.
One of her biggest challenges was paying for her son’s student care fees. It was a luxury that she couldn’t afford. So her other kids helped by chipping in.
Every weekday from noon to 6pm, when Yeni gets off work, her youngest son would take the school bus home and wait for his siblings to come home.
On some occasions, his siblings would be back earlier to take care of him.
But her three other kids, aged 13, 14 and 17, had school and extracurricular activities to commit to and she didn’t want to take them away from what they needed to do.
So, in the end, she decided to enrol her youngest into student care, even though it was too expensive.
She disclosed that she earns S$1,550 monthly. The fees for student care can take up half of her salary.
But speaking to Yeni, I found that she was a problem solver. For Yeni, when she faces issues like this one, her first instinct would be to think of possible solutions, and find the parties who can help reach said solutions.
One was to discuss with her son’s school teacher if there was any way she could keep her son in school a while later so that his siblings could pick him up later.
She also asked if there was a way she could pay in instalments until her salary comes in.
Another possible solution was to discuss with her older kids and try to work out an arrangement where they could help pick their younger brother up and bring him home.
Fortunately, under the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Student Care Fee Assistance scheme, she’s able to get the student care cost subsidised and her son is able to go for student care after school.
Did she pray that her ex-husband would step up to the job and provide for the family? Yes, she did.
But, she is not complaining, because all she can think about is how to provide for her kids by her own efforts.
From money for school, weekend activities, clothes, and food, to spending more quality time with her kids is something she wishes she had more of.
Yet, throughout our conversation, Yeni remains optimistic about her journey as a single mother despite challenges that come her way.
The day I spoke to Yeni, she was celebrating her seven-year old’s birthday.
“What did he ask for his birthday?” I asked.
“Mee goreng, fried chicken. He just asks for food” Yeni replied.
To Yeni, cooking is her way of showing love to her children. Whether it was the end of a busy day, or bright and early before work, she’ll try her best to make sure her kids are well-fed.
Even spending quality time with her kids consisted of a good home-cooked meal.
Their favourite family outing is a picnic at East Coast Park. Yeni would cook some food and then they’ll head out for a full day by the beach.
And if her kids needed clothes, their typical options are hand-me-downs, given to her by her social workers.
“I just pick which one which kid can wear then just take la.”
But as kids grow up, sometimes they ask for more pocket money and other items Yeni can’t afford to spend on.
Opening up to her kids about her struggles
Yeni explained that her kids are usually very understanding about their mother’s struggles – typically involving her finances and her lack of time with them as she is a working mum.
And having an open conversation with them helped a ton.
‘The girls (are) a bit picky,” Yeni commented about her daughters. Sometimes, when they want new clothes or accessories, she asks them to think:
Do you really need it?
Can you use it for a long time?
Will you get sick of it soon?
“You know, teenagers, next week you don't want already.”
But she tries to reach a compromise before getting it.
“If they really, really want it, I’ll tell them to wait for my salary to come.”
For her, the key is to get them to understand why she can’t get anything and everything for them.
More often than not, her kids wouldn't ask her more.
And when Yeni wants to bring the kids out for a fun day, she tries to plan it in advance. On her family’s WhatsApp chat, she texted her kids: “Okay, Ibu (mother) is free next weekend, where do you want to go?”
And then she’ll plan out what to do on that day to make the most of her time with her kids.
Yeni is also grateful for HCSA Dayspring SPIN as they hold multiple outings and workshops for family bonding and for her children to enjoy themselves in which she otherwise could not have been able to afford.
Being resourceful and accepting help
As Yeni told me her story, I found that even though she was dealt a card in life, her plucky spirit and independence helped her to tide over difficult situations.
One thing that stood out during our conversation was how Yeni draws the line between receiving help and getting someone to solve her problems.
An example would be how she handled her kid’s student care issue by finding a solution rather than asking others directly for financial help – something she could have easily done.
Yeni’s priority has always been providing the most she could for her kids, be it for their education or mental well being.
“I help them with their Malay and they also go to tuition.”
But tuition classes can be very pricey, yet she is adamant for them to get as much help in school as possible.
Her kids go for tuition classes at Yayasan MENDAKI (Council for the Development of Singapore Malay/Muslim Community) which only charges a one-time S$10 registration fee.
“How did you find out about this tuition?” I asked.
“Google,” she responded.
She even found out about the Student Care Fee Assistance with MSF through Google.
Handling being a single mother is tough at times. What’s worse is that she sometimes relives the days back with her ex-husband.
“Why can't I just give all the memories away? I want to forget,” she commented about her time with her ex-husband.
But she needed help, not only for herself but so that she can care for her children.
To help herself cope with her traumatic experience, she goes for counselling sessions at the Industrial and Services Co-operative Society Limited (ISCOS) where families who have gone through similar situations share their personal struggles.
It was truly inspiring to see how she had faith that all her problems had a solution.
Everything that came her way, she stopped to think: “Hey, I’m sure there’s something I can do about it.”
And she finds a way.
Thanks to this sponsored article by the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, this writer is heartened by the love and support the community is willing to offer.
Top images courtesy of Yeni Zulaika.