Sunday, December 26, 2010

More grad mums having big families

SINGAPORE faces a perennial baby drought but a surprising group of women is helping to alleviate it.

While small families of two or fewer are the norm here, increasing numbers of graduate mums are choosing to have a lot more babies than that.

Last year, 55 women with university degrees gave birth to their fifth or subsequent child. These graduate mums formed 8.8 per cent of women who had their fifth or subsequent child last year, double the 4.3 per cent in 2000.

The trend is even more dramatic if you look back 20 years. In 1990, only 2.3 per cent of mothers who had their fifth or subsequent child that year were graduates.

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the proportion of mothers with no paper qualifications or with just a primary school education who have five or more children has shrunk.

These women make up the largest group of mothers with five or more children, but their proportion fell from 54.7 per cent in 2000 to 46.4 per cent last year.

In 1990, these mums made up a whopping 83.4 per cent of women who had their fifth and subsequent child that year.

The latest statistics from the registry of births and deaths offer some hope for Singapore, which has been bedevilled by baby woes for decades. Since 1975, the total fertility rate - the number of babies born per married woman - has hovered well below the 2.1 needed to replace the population. Last year, it fell to a historic low of 1.22.

Since 2008, the Government has deployed a range of policies to encourage those willing to have even more babies. These include extending paid maternity leave, the Baby Bonus and other tax benefits to those having their fifth and subsequent child. Previously, the perks went only as far as Baby No. 4.

The latest figures must bring some relief to policy-makers, who are perpetually concerned about these two groups: the poor who struggle to bring up large broods and female graduates keener on careers than changing diapers.

For the first group, government incentives such as childcare subsidies have encouraged poor, less-educated women to stay employed and contribute to the family income, bringing down their family size over time, noted sociologist and Nominated Member of Parliament Paulin Straughan.

Schemes such as Home Ownership Plus Education - which gives low-income couples about $100,000 worth of grants if they have no more than two children - have also helped to keep poorer families small.

But the emerging group of graduate mums, who are bucking the trend by having many children and even giving up well-paying careers in medicine and banking to stay at home to care for them, are unlikely to be prompted by government incentives, she said.

These well-educated mums are usually driven by their values - religious or otherwise - to have many children, she added.

Three gynaecologists interviewed noted that these mums tend to be either Christians or Muslims who believe that children are a blessing from God and are willing to let God do the family planning for them.

Mr Henson Lim, 46, a pastor at the Covenant Vision Christian Church, and his homemaker wife Serene see it as obeying the Christian call to be fruitful and multiply. The couple, both graduates, have seven children aged between 21 months and 12 years.

'If we really believe that children are a blessing, why do we ask God to stop blessing us?' he said.

Madam Cheong Tsui Ling, 37, a mother of five children aged between one and 10, echoed the sentiment. Before she got married, the National University of Singapore business administration graduate felt two would be enough.

But along the way, said the teacher-turned-housewife, her Christian faith grew, as did her brood. She added: 'If we believe that children are gifts from God, why would we reject them? If someone gave you a million dollars, would you reject it?'

A key similarity between these serial mums, said Dr Peter Chew, 65, a gynaecologist with over 30 years' experience, is that they genuinely enjoy children.

He said: 'They don't see them as a burden or liability. And they tell me that after the first two children, the rest are quite easy - they know what to do.'

These women also tend to be from large middle or upper-middle class families, with their husbands earning comfortable salaries, so affordability is not an issue.

Madam Lynne Chong, 41, who is three months pregnant with her fifth child, said she herself grew up with five siblings. The Catholic said the joy of having a large and close-knit family is priceless. She has four sons, aged between five and 13, and hopes to have a girl to complete her family.

However, the real estate agent said she chose to expand her family because she could afford to. Her husband runs a snack bar business and the family owns more than one property.

The diploma in business studies holder said: 'If we were not comfortable, we wouldn't want to have so many children. I don't want to bring children into this world if we cannot provide for them well.'

She said her family expenses come up to at least $15,000 a month, with monthly tuition fees for her two older sons setting her back by at least $2,000.

But others, like Pastor Lim, said they have to tighten their belts and 'make sacrifices'.

His family is not poor, he stressed, but lives simply. Home is a maisonette in Bishan. The family has no maid and the children have to help with household chores, including cooking and washing.

Mr Lim, who declined to reveal his income, said: 'Most people would look at my income and say it's definitely not enough for my family of nine... But we trust in the Lord to provide.'

The way gynaecologist Dr Chew sees it, the crux of raising a big family all boils down to expectations.

He said of his patients with a big brood: 'They are not so concerned about the material aspects of life. Their children wear hand-me-down clothes and they borrow books from the library.'

To pass down their own values, some of these graduate mums have taken to home-schooling their children as well.

Mrs Ong Su Wei, 35, a former teacher and mother of five kids aged between 20 months and 10 years, said she does it because 'it is a Biblical injunction that parents are given the responsibility to raise and educate our children'.

Similarly, Madam Cheong, a former primary school teacher, takes charge of her children's lessons herself.

She said: 'I think giving them personal attention is better than putting them in a large class in school. At home, they can learn and grow at their own pace.'

Both women cook, clean and conduct their children's lessons without the help of a maid.

What hardly ever surfaces in interviews with big families are the various government pro-natal incentives. Many of the parents will tell you that the perks hardly benefit them at all.

For example, those who are not working do not enjoy the four months' paid maternity leave nor the working mother's child tax reliefs.

Most of all, the incentives are no help at all in dealing with the social pressure some feel from having a large family.

They are sometimes greeted with sneers from disbelieving strangers.

Pastor Lim said: 'Sometimes, we get looks of disdain - like we have no self-control. While people don't say such things in front of us, we still pick up these vibes.

'Once, when we had only four or five children, we walked past an old aunty who scrutinised us. She shook her head and said, 'Kia si lang' (Hokkien for scare people to death).'

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