The alarm rumbles at the crack of dawn as Cho*, a thirty-something IT programme manager, springs up to whisk her 20-month-old boy off to childcare. She then dashes home to finish all her work by four in the afternoon so she can spend time with her toddler when he returns, squeezing in an occasional catch-up with colleagues or friends in the evening, crediting her husband or helper for taking over.
This balancing act tells the story of many a modern woman in Singapore, a pulsating economy that boasts the world’s largest percentage of women CEOs according to a 2022 Deloitte report and where the employment rate for women aged 25 to 64 stands high at 76.2 per cent as per statistics issued by the Ministry of Manpower in 2022. That’s certainly an encouraging sight, arriving in the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 pioneering bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and entrepreneurs like Sara Blakely and Jessica Alba who brought the multi-hat-wearing modern woman to the fore: family and children on one shoulder, high-flying ambition on the other, and oftentimes in stylish stilettos to boot.
Yet with greater opportunities come greater responsibilities, especially for women in their late twenties and thirties when the corporate ladder and motherhood seem to come calling at once. A 2020 study by NUS reveals that while the gap is narrowing, women still shoulder the majority of childcare responsibilities. As stressors at both work and home mount, what once felt like empowering aspirations to “do it all” may unexpectedly—and often invisibly—rear its ugly head.
“A common struggle I’ve observed in women is that constant feeling of guilt and not being perfect, hence ‘failing’,” explains Kiki Mohan, a seasoned therapist at Alliance Counselling who specialises in areas like gender identity, domestic abuse and burnout among others. “That’s something they likely experience when not being able to fully engage in what they’re doing. Think being at your child’s sports event and constantly being tethered to your work phones. The mental load is real and something that goes unrecognised by most.”
Lin* returned to work just one month after her first child was born, diving right back into her globe-trotting role as a regional director for an MNC she’d held since she was 28. After her second child arrived, she moved on to a bigger job with a bigger portfolio. Having experienced career successes early, she admits she continued to push hard at her career because she measured much of her self-worth by it.
“I recalled vividly when my older child was three, she would come into my study holding a storybook and ask that I read her a bedtime story. I said, ‘Mummy is busy, go to grandma’. I didn’t take my eyes off my screen and carried on with my work. I remembered catching her disappointed look from the corner of my eyes. Regretful moments like this were aplenty,” reflects Lin.
That relentless juggling of glass spheres in the air while fearing they’re not measuring up or missing out has only been compounded by the uptick of social media over the last decade, where others’ successes—whether that be a new promotion, a balloon-filled family milestone, or a body that bounced back in no time—seem to dazzle at every scroll.
“The human mind has evolved in a way for us to survive by ensuring we continue to strive to fit in,” explains Mohan, who believes that social media has dramatically shifted our definitions of our natural comparator groups that included immediate social or religious circles, ridding the limitations on how large and dynamic they can be. “Every time we look around, it’s a different set [of benchmarks]. This is potent in fuelling how women may feel like they aren’t good enough in the roles they aspire to play, giving rise to emotions of anxiety and low self-esteem.”
For many women like Lin, the stresses came to a head when her days turned into “20-hour cycles” and she broke down with mild depression for a second time and had to resign from work. “I knew I couldn’t afford to go into clinical depression,” she says. The burnout was a stark wake-up call to change, ask tough questions, and engage in deep reflection to re-examine her boundaries at home and work.
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Looking back, Lin, who took several “breathers” through her career and now works as an executive at a global consulting firm after her kids have grown up, is glad she had those tough conversations with her family and herself. “I went back to work with a lesser focus on climbing the corporate ladder but I had to overcome my internal huddle of ‘how would people judge me when my career seemed to be stagnating?’ or ‘how would I overcome my own discomfort of reporting to a former subordinate?’. Overcoming the fear of judgement and self-worth was the most difficult, but I reminded myself to stay focused on my purpose.”
Mohan concurs that there is no more important question to ask ourselves than what “having it all” uniquely means for each individual, and to define the values and goals that will make one’s life more meaningful. Mohan, Lin and Cho also point to the vast societal and institutional support needed to help women pursue those goals, from workplace flexibility to reliable and affordable childcare and paternity leave, which has doubled from two to four weeks this year.
For Cho, who hasn’t considered being a stay-at-home mum just yet, her unabashed understanding of who she is and what she desires as a young woman is refreshing.
“I was happy to get back to work after my baby,” she admits, thankful she got to spend ample quality time with her baby during his first year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I love my job, and raising a child in Singapore is expensive. Plus, I think life as a working professional is ten times easier than being a full-time mum unless you have helpers or nannies.”
Whatever lives women and mothers choose to carve out for themselves and their families, a key act of empowering them is perhaps by fostering a nurturing, judgement-free community where they can open up about their vulnerabilities and be celebrated, even when they don’t quite feel like the ball-juggling superwomen that they are. Aspiring for perfection is also not sustainable, Mohan suggests, so redefining for yourself what your version of “good enough” looks like is crucial.
And while women are at it, let’s not forget who they are and what fills their cup, too. “I reconnected with myself when my older child turned 18,” recounts Lin. “It was a celebratory milestone and a reminder of who I am as an individual. I am not just a daughter, wife, and mother; I am also someone who loves adventures. I went on a hike in the glaciers in Central Asia, spending days in sub-zero temperatures surrounded by serene white mountain peaks. I felt blessed to be reminded that it’s okay to take your foot off the pedal once in a while.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.