The Modern Working Woman’s Predicament & the Implications this has on the Family Unit
Aug 19, 2015

A saying goes, “Man must toil from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” Indeed, as the modern woman becomes more educated and has more access to the job market, her life has ironically, become more difficult. In the past, domestic gender division of labour was clear – the man works while the woman tends to the house, her husband and children. The disadvantage of such an arrangement is parents who are contented in such roles and therefore, do not see the importance of female education may unwittingly perpetuate female domestication by raising a daughter who will be a proficient home-maker and little else. Besides, the daughter herself may not want to be like her mother – a full-time housewife and/or she may not be as happily married as her mother and thus, ends up financially dependent on her husband and so, vulnerable.

Over the years, female roles as wife, home-maker and mother have changed dramatically. The most significant change is the education level of women having risen and more employment opportunities being presented to them. The corresponding roles of men, however, have not evolved equally, resulting in many working wives and mothers becoming over-loaded and working harder than before – a situation writer Arlie Hochschild describes in her book as “the second shift” in a “stalled revolution.” Women working dual shifts – a paid wage job outside the home and unpaid housework at home is not a unique phenomenon in western societies but prevalent in Asian societies too. In Singapore for instance, more women are no longer contented to dedicate their lives to being only home-makers but desire to have careers just like men. According to the Marriage and Parenthood Study by the National Population and Talent Division in 2012, women want to have both families and work. 80 per cent of single women think that they want to continue working after they have children and 77 per cent of married women prefer to work after they become mothers. Clearly, being a good wife and mother are no longer the core identities that women identify with. Whilst being a committed wife and mother is still important to the female, women today also want to excel in their jobs and have some form of financial independence.

This desire to balance the demands of work and home has put the modern woman who wants to have it all under unprecedented emotional, physical and mental strain. Despite the enhanced pro-family leave schemes introduced in 2013 under the enhanced Marriage and Parenthood package to support the family institution, many Singaporean women still find juggling work and home a struggle. Firstly, many full-time working women continue to do most, if not all the housework at home, with little help coming from their husbands and this unequal workload is based on the former arrangement where women were predominantly full-time home-makers. This domestic distribution of work has to change since more women are now engaged in paid work outside of the home.

Secondly, many women find that they bear the dominant responsibility in caring for the child even if more men have been persuaded to help out a little more at home. Not only do women need to interrupt their careers when they become pregnant, it is more difficult for them to compete as intensely and climb the corporate ladder as quickly when there is a young child whose well-being and needs depend very much on the mother’s nurturance waiting for her at home. Any mother who has to return to work after giving birth and has no extended familial support knows the mix of angst and guilt of leaving her child with a babysitter, maid or with the childcare centre, and this psychological burden is typically more acute for the mother than for the father. Traditionally, the father who leaves the child to attend to work is seen as a responsible parent who brings the bacon home but the mother who leaves her child to attend to her work is seen as somewhat irresponsible or greedy for material comforts. Yet, leaving her job means that the woman’s career will possibly be derailed and having no income, she becomes financially vulnerable as she is then dependent on her husband for support. Holding on to her job makes the career woman seems selfish because then she has chosen to put her ambition ahead of her baby’s needs and for those who cannot do without a dual income because the cost of living in Singapore is so high, the emotional turbulence experienced when a mother leaves her baby for work becomes an inevitable cost the impoverished mother must pay.

The workplace can be equally hard on the mother. The Singapore government may have introduced a one-week paternity leave, paid maternity leave may have been extended to four months and child-care leave may have been given for parents with a child below seven years with a recent add on feature -- the extended child care leave -- but how readily can such leaves be taken without covert penalties during the annual ranking and promotion exercise is the challenge that many working parents face. After all, the Asian culture continues to see the successful man as one who excels in his career, so even though the man is entitled to paternity and childcare leave, those working in very competitive environments may still forfeit their entitled leave for fear of losing out during appraisals. Similarly, the woman who takes leave regularly to attend to her child is inevitably seen as less committed to her work and therefore less suitable for promotion. Such experiences make parenthood an unattractive option for many couples, which may explain why Singapore’s fertility rate as with many developed economies’, have been low. To correct this, cultivating a pro-family larger environment is just as important as having pro-family social policies and it is the latter that we are lacking.

For well-off parents, the availability of quality care is actually more important than managing the high cost of raising a child in Singapore. While the baby bonus of 12k (the government co-pays up to 6k) is a help, it remains a good-to-have incentive and not the game-changer for couples to start a family. Singapore has around 220,000 maids, many of whom are employed to care for the aged and children. The total number of child care centres in Singapore has risen to 1,196 as of May this year compared to 955 in 2011. Total enrolments as of May this year is 83, 273 compared to 63, 091 in 2011 based on statistics compiled by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). Clearly, a rising number of children are being placed in surrogate care and this has social and emotional implications for both the family as an institution and the child himself. According to the Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST), it has received 3,110 calls to its hotline between June 2013 and last month – 45 per cent of the calls were due to emotional issues. Employment issues made up 30 per cent of the calls. Based on the Ministry of Manpower statistics, there were 53 cases of ‘maid abuse’ in Singapore in 2008. Having a foreign domestic helper can ease the load for the working woman, especially working mothers but the presence of the maid can also alter familial dynamics at home. The lack of privacy, trust issues as well as the child’s growing attachment to the helper who spends more time with the young one compared to the working mother are costs that dual-working couples have to pay in order to manage the responsibilities of work, home and parenting all at the same time via the engagement of a stay-in paid helper. The need for external care support such as child care centres is also due to the rise of the nuclear families where extended support is not readily available. More aged today also need to work to support themselves as the retirement age has been pushed back and may not be able to care for their grandchildren full-time. Paid external help, thus becomes indispensable to the supermom today.

In the latest National Values Assessment Survey polled, the number one personal value of Singaporeans is family. Evidently, the family unit remains the basic social building block and emotional anchor for the majority. To protect and preserve this cherished institution, fractures in gender ideology need to be mended, active fatherhood, shared domestic loads, available quality care and pro-family workplaces need to be established. In an age where rising expectations of marriage and parenthood have been ill-matched by corresponding socio-emotional support, the family institution has become more fragile than ever. According to the Department of Statistics (Singstats), 7,307 marriages were dissolved in 2014 down 2.9 per cent compared to 2013 but that does not necessarily mean that divorce rate is easing because if we compare this number to 2009 State of the Family Singapore Report, there is an increase of 81 more cases of divorce in 2014 and if we compare the number to 1997’s, there is a rise of 2,419 cases of divorce in 2014. According to sociologist William Goode, women who worked have a higher rate of divorce compared to housewives in former Soviet Union, Germany, Sweden and France. In France, women who worked are twice more likely to separate compared to their home-maker counterparts. Indeed, according to Singstats, female plaintiffs made up the majority (62.9 per cent) of civil divorces in 2014. Although we are not sure how many per cent of this 62.9 per cent are working women, it is likely that financial independence make it easier for a woman to walk out of a marriage, especially one in which she is overwhelmed and overworked.

The new economy’s demand on women who work and the exacting expectations for these same women to be good wives and mothers is clearly doing more harm than good to the familial institution. Men, especially husbands and fathers need to step up to the plate and do more while the larger climate need to make it easier for couples to raise their families and enjoy the experience of raising a family, without which, procreation will increasingly be seen as a liability and even marriage may gradually be viewed as a limitation. All these will erode the family unit and has a dear social cost as more public money needs to be spent on helping single parents and children of estranged couples. More complex family units such as stepfamilies may also be formed as couples remarry and children from their former marriages are thrown together to live as a family unit. Over half of American families are remarried, for instance. This situation can be made more problematic as one in five marriages in Singapore is now inter-ethnic, increasing the possibility of inter-ethnic stepfamilies, which have to adapt to one another’s cultural practices, racial characteristics and even religious beliefs. This is probably most challenging for children of such unions. Weakened family ties also undermine a sense of belonging to the country, making it more difficult to cultivate national solidarity and a unique national identity. Weighing the long-range benefits and costs, more can definitely be done to strengthen the family unit via greater support for marriages and parenthood.

Photo Credit / China Daily