Lessons from My Family:
Growing up, my grandfather was my primary caregiver. When I was a year old, my mother divorced my dad, left Malaysia where they had intended to set up home, and brought me back to Singapore to move back into her childhood home with her 67 year old Indian dad and 66 year old Chinese mom.
My grandfather was still fit and strong, but my grandmother was not in good health. By the time I was 7, she was bedridden, which meant that she and I were the two dependents of the household.
As much as she lay still and enjoyed watching television, I was an energetic child constantly jumping and running all over the house. I figured that since I couldn’t leave the house, I would have to make do with every single space and object within the home.
Lesson Learnt: Resourcefulness!
My grandpa inadvertently left me to my own devices. I suspect he was picking his battles and letting me do whatever I wanted as long as I was safe and cleaned up after myself.
My mother was less tolerant of my disorderly ways. She would come home late at night, exhausted from her work, wanting some peace and quiet. Or she brought home work that she needed to clear. I would fight sleep and stay up late waiting for her to come home, and then sit with her, often falling asleep at the dining table between 12 midnight and 2 am.
The combination of me having full access to the house, my childish curious ways, and wanting to get her attention led to many incidents of me getting into trouble and her taking out the cane.
In those moments, I would run and hide wherever I could. Sometimes locking myself up in a room. Which led to the house having no lockable doors for quite a number of years – we had to resort to a trust-based system of knocking before entering.
She often caned me out of frustration. I know so because she admitted this to me – later on in my early adulthood. She told me that she was upset and stressed out with her life as a single mom, and I was an uncomfortable reminder of unavoidable obligations and a sense of helplessness.
I would often run to my grandfather and he shielded me from the thin wicker strip of pain. Hiding behind his big frame, I witnessed them getting into loud arguments. He would tell her to go easy on me – pulling out the guilt-trip card of how she was already spending so little time with me and that half of that time was spent hitting me. I remember her exasperated expression of defeat as she walked away.
Lesson Learnt: Telling Them What They’re Doing Really Puts a Mirror to Their Face
She had to respect him as her father, and yet, as she later shared with me again, she was somewhat resentful that he was telling her not to hit me, when he himself was a strict and aggressive dad.
“It’s like that one… Children are for hitting and grandchildren are for enjoying.” is something you would hear the average Singaporean say about the different standards of grandparents.
Did he really adore me just because he was my grandfather? I suspect he had mellowed because of his age, and because he was a retired man who didn’t have to work and come home stressed and exhausted.
Lesson Learnt: Grandchildren Are “Do-Overs” for More Carefree Grandparents
How I loved listening to my grandfather’s stories! He would recount the days of forbidden love between him and my grandma, as well as nail-biting tales of how the family survived during World War II. I was fascinated by the account of how he and my grandmother planned to elope, and saddened by how their marriage was a scandal that led to a lot of family discord on both sides. No wonder it was just us as a nuclear family for most of my childhood, which was unusual in those days where large extended family reunions were commonplace.
I felt the piercing looks of unease and judgement as well whenever I went out for evening walks with him. It was my favourite part of the day but it was marked by comments from strangers and shopkeepers, such as, “She’s your granddaughter?!”, and “Oh, luckily she’s so fair…” 7-year-old me would get helplessly upset. All I could do was think to myself, “Does that mean it’s unlucky that Grandpa is dark?! How dare they!”
But I was also comforted by his nonchalance–it didn’t cross my mind, at the time, to ask him whether it was a genuine disregard for other people’s opinions or a mask to cover up any hurt, shame, and discomfort he might have felt.
Lesson Learnt: You Can Survive War and Still Be Judged for Falling in Love with Another Human of a Different Skin Colour
My mom didn’t just cane me all the time- she told me stories too. She tried to rationalise with me about our family situation and why she had to spend long hours working. I felt obligated to be understanding towards our circumstance and I endeavoured to cause as little trouble as I could. It’s not that I was any less curious or experimental, I just challenged myself to do so, without getting caught or making too much of a mess.
I remember being caught playing with matches and burning paper in the bedroom (damn, I got carried away and forgot about the smell!).
When I got caught, I avoided eye contact and stared down at the papers I clutched in my hand, thinking about how I was going to be punished this time. My mom spotted that one of the papers was my drawing of our pet dog that had just passed. She assumed that I was burning letters as offerings to our dog as the Chinese do. I chose not to dispute her story as she leaned in to hug me, offering me some comfort for my apparent grief.
Lesson Learnt: People Will See What They Want to See and Believe What They Want to Believe
Let’s fast forward to me at my wit’s ends with my 2-year-old son. Coming to the realisation that nothing in my 32 years of existence had prepared me for this moment of being utterly sleep-deprived and exhausted, with a toddler who took after me with my high energy levels, and was refusing to take his afternoon nap that I so clearly needed.
I felt completely out of my depth–I knew I wanted to be a present mom whose kid didn’t have to vie for my attention but I didn’t know how to be a mom who could deal with conflict beyond caning, guilt-tripping or keeping silent. Eventually I just sat there crying in exasperated defeat.
Lesson NOT Learnt: How to Manage Big Emotions and Deal with Conflict Peacefully
As I didn’t want to resort to hitting next–I googled “discipline without hitting” and the results of that search was what started me on my journey to respectful parenting.
After some success, I shared what I learnt about respectful parenting with my mother, and she decided to use my kids as her do-over. This was totally fine with me; I was excited that we would learn how to do this together. Me and my mother learning how to re-parent. She was 68 year old–around the same age I was put in my grandfather’s care. But this time, she had me and I her. We were not alone, and we had a lifetime of resources behind us.
We inherited my grandparent’s “thick-skinned” persistence and tenacity of having gone through war, poverty, and social exclusion. My mom herself embodied the bravery of facing stigmatisation from being a single mom with no therapy or virtual village available to her. We had the strength of human spirit–the ability to show up every day and push on, through trial and error.
I missed the opportunity to have more in-depth conversations with my grandfather but I now have the opportunity to reflect with my mother. We talk about her childhood, my childhood. We acknowledge and process as best as we can, the pains and trauma, the shame, guilt and blame. We are far from reaching a place where we are totally re-parented and aren’t triggered, but being aware and having shared understanding is a very good place to start.
There are some things we still haven’t talked about–there are still many more lessons to be learnt. One of them being, why does my son still take so long to fall asleep despite my best efforts?
When I did the podcast with Sherry last year, she asked me a simple question, “How were you raised?”
My initial response to that was: I was raised to be an obedient and ‘good girl’ who tried my best to be one, but ended up rebelling and doing whatever I wanted anyway, and then reconciling with my mother because we still had an undeniable bond.
Recounting my background with Sherry led me to realise that actually, I was raised by a family of rebellious radicals who despite having little resources, took the path less followed, and defied the odds to follow their heart and their truth. I realised how lucky I truly was to be a part of this family.
Sincere thanks to Sherry for giving me this opportunity to share my story with Sandwich Parents. We crossed paths when she started following my Instagram account The Learning Parent SG where I write about my personal learning journey as a respectful parent in Singapore.
I am also a content creator and advocate for Chapter Zero Singapore, a social enterprise embodying values of compassion, respect and mindfulness, providing resources and support to parents and caregivers.