Structural Problems Yet Unaddressed
Our discussion has revolved around women and children. Yet men and the structures of society have not yet been factored into the equation when looking at the root issues driving the need for the EEF policy.
The policy is rationalised on the idea of an older, (possibly career-minded) woman, who wants to get married and have children, but cannot find someone to settle down with at the moment.
How did we arrive at this archetype?
It would be helpful to re-examine the role of men in this equation. The concept behind EEF sees the issue of fertility as ultimately borne by women. The woman has to, therefore, take extraordinary steps in order to fulfil her life goals and aspirations. But why should she be the one to bear the responsibility of fertility by herself?
Perhaps, if conversations around fertility included men rather than silencing and ridiculing them, more would welcome the opportunity to share the responsibilities, trials and joys of pregnancy and child raising, rather than having women be the ones to bear the weight of pregnancy largely alone. In the real world of autonomy-centric “my body my choice” and “my eggs my choice” arguments, while rhetorically compelling, could actually be structurally disadvantageous to availing the social nature of fertility in the public consciousness.
Second are the structural or systemic attitudes towards women and childbearing that put career and marriage/childbearing at odds with one another. For instance, the tendency to begrudge those who go on maternity leave. Could we engender cultural change to normalise standing-in and job-sharing practices for those who need to care for their children? Would transparent and equitable performance assessment frameworks relieve the stress and perceived trade-offs that women grapple with when considering pregnancy?
This tension is also experienced in the struggle for a person’s time and attention. Singapore has an unresolved problem in work-life balance where we have put the cart before the horse, believing that the demands placed on us by the office supersede our non-vocational goals and aspirations like parenting and family life. But does work exist to enrich our experience of life, or do we fundamentally exist to serve the interests of our paymasters?
Perhaps, instead of using technology to solve cultural problems, a more lasting solution is to be found in reforming unhealthy cultural perspectives to resolve some of the root causes of delayed and unsupported pregnancies.
Paradigmatic Problems Yet Unaddressed
Finally, there are also deeply held paradigms which contribute to the phenomenon of delayed pregnancies in Singapore.
Are there unaddressed issues concerning men’s attitudes towards marriage, childbearing and fertility? Do Singaporean men need to have renewed paradigms about the desirability of marriage and parenthood? What are the disincentives that they are facing in this regard? What does it mean to be a good man and how might we encourage more young men to be good husbands and fathers?
Second, have Singaporean men and women adopted a degree of artificial compartmentalisation in our lives? Do we believe that one must be established and accomplished in our careers before we are actually marriageable or ready to have children? Do we artificially bifurcate our lives into neat, segmented stages, instead of allowing it to unravel organically, embracing the overlaps of phases? Does this have anything to do with our desire for control and order and our aversion to uncertainty, difficulty and chaos?
Third, how do our expectations of what success and accomplishment look like affect our willingness to have children? Do we believe that we deserve to have it all in life? If so, what price will our future children pay for the time that it took for us to accomplish our dreams before having them? All the money in the world cannot buy that time back.
How do our perspectives on success and accomplishment affect our approach to family life? Does adequate parental provision include the belief that money is the root of happiness, or is happiness about time spent together, close family bonds which last well into our old age, and having the privilege to see our children and grandchildren mature?
Fourth, do we believe in a Ms or Mr Right who is going to be a perfectly compatible spouse for us in every way for a lifetime? Does this not mean that we too have to be perfectly “Right” as well? Is that reasonable or even realistic?
If we’re honest with ourselves, perhaps we secretly hold Mr Right as a euphemism for “Mr Perfect”. Sadly, this sets unrealistic expectations for younger people who are more susceptible to the fictional ideals of fairytale marriages and perfection. Since we are all a work-in-progress, perhaps we ought to be looking for Mr Good-enough. It stings because good is the enemy of the perfect, but there are no perfect people.
Perhaps to address unhelpful paradigms, we need to deal with this at the level of cultural values and paradigms by helping our young adults get ready for marriage and pregnancy earlier. By setting realistic expectations of what good men and women look like and what it means to be for others what we desire for ourselves. By encouraging Singaporeans to embrace life as it comes without trying to bifurcate life stages to have all our ducks neatly in a row. Perhaps it would be good to remember that few will have it all and that’s ok, because children shouldn’t have to pay the price for us to achieve our dreams. And perhaps, we need to know that we can do this, despite being unprepared, because we are resilient people who can rise to the occasion when life demands it of us.