Desmond Choo: Families at the Core of National Policies

Advocating the importance of spending quality time with the whole family, Director of NTUC's Youth Development Unit, Desmond Choo, joined over 1,400 happy families at the NTUC U Picnic

I was in my usual rush to round up my documents and tie up odds and ends before leaving for work.  As I was leaving the room, I heard this ever so soft whine.  I turned around and saw that it was Sarah straining her neck to look at me from her cot.  She had this almost cheeky smile (or at least I thought so!). My gosh, Sarah is already 5.5 months old.  She is no longer content to lie on her back.  With her neck strong enough, lying on her belly is now her favourite pastime. Still amazes me how she can find this simple act so pleasurable.  Then again, watching her grow has been equally satisfying for us.

We survived 5.5 months as parents! In many ways, we have indeed been blessed.  A typical conversation goes:

Friend: “Hey Des, do you help with the night feeds?”

DC: “Nope.”

Friend: “You slacker.”

DC: “Never had to coz Sarah has been sleeping through the night since she was born.”

Friend: “You lucky %&^##!”

Indeed Sarah’s sleeping pattern is a real blessing.  But equally so were the 16 weeks of maternity leave that my wife took.  We could not imagine how before 2009, our mothers did not have such privileges – many companies then felt that they could not adapt to this operational challenge.

My wife having had to go back to work posed another challenge – we needed to adapt to another routine.  This is something that every working couple faces.  We are thankful that we have supportive parents and in-laws who take turns to care for their only grand-daughter while we are working.  (What if we did not have this support system?) But even then, we were worried if she could cope with new caregivers. Or if she would end up watching dramas (ok, this is less a problem… I would be ok with CNA or Channel 8 dramas!).   My wife painstakingly wrote out the SOP.  But the anxiety was evident.  Our mothers need time beyond the 16 weeks to adapt to being working mothers.  Even more needed when breastfeeding is recommended to be a minimum of 6 months.

We are blessed that my wife works for MOM which offers Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) and breastfeeding facilities (in fact, MOM deserves an award for being very family-friendly).  But this is not always possible in other companies, especially the smaller ones.  This is even trickier for shift workers involved in frontline service and production work.  We need to study how best to incentivise more companies to help our mothers.

Advocating the importance of spending quality time with the whole family, Desmond Choo joined over 1,400 happy families at the NTUC U Picnic on 12 March (Photo Source: NTUC U Family)

Advocating the importance of spending quality time with the whole family, NTUC Director of Youth Development Unit Desmond Choo joined over 1,400 happy families at the NTUC U Picnic on 12 March (Photo Credit: NTUC U Family)

I spoke with a banking executive whose son is around Sarah’s age.  To her, she would have wanted flexibility such as tele-commuting or part-time work.  But she was worried that asking for FWA might cast her in a poor light with the bosses – thought of as “less committed to the cause.” Or even, the first in line to be cut in a downturn.

Legislated or a default right to request for FWA after maternity leave opens up the conversation for women.  It also encourages our companies to seriously work towards providing FWA.  Going a step further, putting in place 8 weeks of FWA on top of the existing 16 weeks of maternity leave would go some way in supporting working mothers to more successfully transition back to work while still being able to do their best in caring for their newborn.

As for me as a father… It is a mixed bag of joy and guilt.  It is way cliché but I finally understood why it is a “bundle of joy”.  I enjoy the mornings when I read to her (from the books in the SG50 Baby Jubilee Gift Box… But we have since moved on to “Ollie”). We have 20-30 minutes of Papa-Sarah time.  But that is all I usually get.  I try to do my part by cleaning as many bottles (and lots of strange items) as I can.  (Frankly, this is nothing compared to childbirth… 23 hours in the delivery room told me all I needed to know about the will of a mother) And I wanted to be there for as many vaccinations or check-ups as possible.  I want to be there for both mum and daughter. I can’t imagine not being there when she had a most painful procedure for tongue-tie (or Ankyloglossia).

Fathers want to be there for their wives and children, and I am no different.  The one week of paternity leave is helpful but most fathers would have used it during the few days after delivery.  A second week of legislated paternity leave would help fathers be there for their wives and children, and at the same time, more can be done to encourage better take-up by fathers.

Yet, perhaps more importantly, is that we need to place families at the core of our policies.  Quite unappealingly pragmatic-sounding, if manpower is an important asset for our future economy, then we need to have family-centric workplace practices on par, in terms of level of importance, as our other economic policies.

I have heard not quite infrequently from employers and senior management that they should hire less women because at some point, they become operational liabilities.  Such thinking is not only archaic but it also denies your company of half the talent pool. Not to mention the fact that it is also somewhat ironic because surely they would not want their wives and daughters to suffer from such thinking!  Beggar my neighbour perhaps. We should treat both mothers and fathers not as problems to be managed but partners in a life journey who could do with a helping hand.  Indeed, companies will face operational constraints but we need to start and adapt like we had in 2009.

Back to my little girl.  I was sure I was 10 minutes late for work that morning, but it was all worth it.  Had 10 more minutes of Papa-Sarah time. Am sure I would make up for that 10 minutes … Somehow.


Desmond Choo

This is a post by NTUC Champion for Women and Family, Desmond Choo. Any extracts should be attributed back to the author. 14 March 2016. 

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