How do we define a typical expat family in Singapore? While there are many variations, the most common is probably the two-parent household with children. For some expats, though, there is no “other” parent present. Dr Yvonne McNulty from Expat Research takes a look at expat single parents and asks, “How do they do it?”
Being in a “different” family situation in an expat community is not easy, whether it’s a result of divorce, separation, having a special needs child, or adopting a child from abroad. Certainly many single parents (and their children) can feel like they just don’t fit in. The Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZA), for instance, has launched a single-parent networking forum to provide support and advice for parents and their families on topics such as legal rights, financial planning and emotional wellness; to date, around 20 families attend regular events. While the majority of single parents here have got divorced while in Singapore (after the family has arrived), there are a brave few who do make the move after getting divorced somewhere else. In an ongoing study, Expat Research is exploring the stressors and success factors of these expat single parents.
One of the biggest stressors, unsurprisingly, is a lack of family and social networks to provide practical and emotional support. Another is financial concern regarding schooling and housing. There is also the decision about whether or not to relocate away from the other parent, taking into account not just the needs of that parent, but also a child’s wellbeing in terms of the access they may or may not have to the other parent. For employed single parents, childcare and schooling arrangements during business travel can also be tricky. For some single parents there are also concerns around finding a new life partner. Overwhelmingly, the biggest success factor is that nearly all expat single parents studied are what we call “solutions-oriented people” who are determined that their situation will not beat them. It might crush them temporarily, but they eventually find a way to become empowered and to build strength and resilience.
How They Do It – Profiles Of Two Expat Single Parents
#1 CJ Originally from the Netherlands; two children (attending international schools)
The situation then:
In 1999, I separated from my husband, in Singapore, after discovering his affair. I had arrived here only a year earlier with two infant children and given up my full-time job to be a stay-at-home mum. My husband moved out of our home and into his own apartment, and then also lost all our money in bad investments. With no job, no employment pass and no income to support the children, I immediately found a job so that the children and I could legally remain in Singapore. Today, my husband and I are still not formally separated or divorced, but I have secured permanent residency for me and the kids. I rely almost entirely on a verbal financial and custody agreement with my husband, which he has always upheld. We have not co-habited since the day he moved out 16 years ago. We both live and work in Singapore.
The situation now:
I’ve created a stable life for the kids and myself. I re-trained as a marketing executive, landed a job with a large firm shortly after the separation and am still with the company today. My children, now teenagers, attend international schools, jointly funded by their parents. I also have a long-term (new) partner.
One of the hardest things is raising children alone, without family support. I also have health issues that are still with me today due to periods of massive stress in the early stages, and that were never properly dealt with. I’ve suffered financially, having to dip into my savings every year, and I’m acutely aware of the need to remain 100 percent employable. I will probably never be able to retire, because financially I just can’t afford to.
The ability to display a high level of emotional intelligence about the situation. Put your ego and pain aside. Do what is best for all of you, even if it isn’t reciprocated. I had to keep making all the decisions because he was close to a nervous breakdown over what he’d done.
Rebuilding a support network to replace the support of family and friends back home. I met four or five families here through a working mums’ group shortly after I arrived, and they became my lifeline – almost like my sisters. If I had a meltdown, they would come and get the kids and give me space and time to pull it together. As a single parent, you absolutely need that. You can’t live without it.
#2 SF Originally from New Zealand; two children (attending international schools)
The situation then and now:
In 2008, I was asked to undertake an international assignment to Singapore with my company, a manufacturing firm. I had, by then, been a single parent for six years, with two children from prior relationships. I initially said no to the move because I couldn’t see how I could live without – or rebuild – the crucial support network of grandparents, friends, sitters and role models I’d relied on for so many years back home. But the company persisted. So I put a business case to them for the support I would need, and they agreed to provide more frequent home-leave trips to New Zealand so that my children could retain visitation rights with their respective fathers. Although I have full parental rights and don’t face any legal obstacles to relocating with them overseas, I want them to retain these important relationships. My company provides additional compensation in my salary package to accommodate up to three paid home-leave visits per year for each child and/or each parent to fly to New Zealand or Singapore as required, and consideration to travel with my children to the New Zealand headquarters for any extended business trips.
My children were five and seven when we first moved to Singapore. Even today, with a live-in helper, I need to consider flying a family member from New Zealand if a business trip is longer than three days. Our live-in helper is good, but I need a deeper level of support when I’m away. I make a lot of compromises socially, because I don’t have a husband or partner to help me build bridges to those relationships and social outlets. There can also be a lot of emotional stress that I’m unable to share. Being on my own can sometimes feel overwhelming.
I second-guess myself a lot; most of the battle is about the guilt I carry, wondering if I’ve made the right decision to take my children overseas away from their home base, and expose them to a new culture. I compare myself – too often, I think – to those expat families with stay-at-home mums. I observe the extracurricular activities their children are involved in, and I wonder if my own kids are missing out because as a working parent I just can’t be as available or accessible as the mothers of some of their friends.
Being a single parent is about accepting that I can’t please everybody, and that I’m doing the best I can. I have to let myself off the hook sometimes and just go with what we’ve got. I’m not waiting for a man to come in and save us all. This is it for us. And I am fortunate, too, to have had a clean break from the relationship with each child’s father, so I’m in control of my life decisions and of my kids, which in some ways is much easier than having to consider a custodial partner’s views all the time.
We live in an expat area, very close to the school and among other families. This is essential in order to rebuild support networks.
I have a supportive boss, who understands that I can travel for work when required, but never at the last minute, because of my need to plan ahead for absences from home.
I never use my single parent situation as an excuse for not getting work done. I will work until 1 or 2am if needed in order to take a couple of hours off to attend one of my children’s assemblies or mid-afternoon sporting events.
Be clear about what you really need, what really tugs at the heartstrings when you think about relocating, and then work out how to address that in your new country. Don’t try to fix everything; it won’t happen the way you expect, but it will happen.
Dr Yvonne McNulty is an Associate Lecturer at RMIT University, Singapore, and Founder and Principal Researcher at Expat Research, a consultancy specialising in global mobility thought leadership. You can participate in its studies at expatresearch.com.
This article first featured in the December 2015 issue of the magazine.