I first started thinking about M/Other during the depths of COVID-19. I had heard about how the pandemic was causing a real ‘she-cession’—women were losing their jobs because they had to take care of the home. Some had to pull a double shift, working full time jobs and then serving as primary caregivers to their families.
Think about the structures of support we have in our society. “Regular” mothers already have a whole host of challenges to deal with—what happens when you don’t fit within heteronormative family structure?
I conducted over 20 in-depth interviews with different parents for this book. I’ve learnt that while parenthood comes in many different forms, love conquers all. Single mothers, for example, are often denied the parental support a dual-parent family would receive. Nobody signs up for an acrimonious divorce. Despite all the struggles they face, the devotion they have towards their children is incredible.
The same is true whether you are a foster parent, an LGBTQIA+ parent, or even a step-parent. M/Other ends with a painful story about a stepmother who is not married to her partner. She is very close to his three kids and loves them unconditionally, but she has no legal right over them. If something were to happen, she wouldn’t be able to be there with them in the hospital. It forces a question of what motherhood really means, because so often we see it through the legacy of marriage. But there’s more to motherhood than that.
“She wouldn’t wish either of her two diseases on anyone, but she suffered more from postnatal depression because she had to suffer in silence”
The goal of M/Other is ultimately to catalyse a reckoning with the realities of parenthood. As a society, we seem to only have empathy for certain types of mothers. Terminally ill mothers, mothers of children with special needs—and, of course, they are more than deserving of our compassion and care. My heart goes out to them. But I believe our empathy needs to extend further.
Consider a mother who has been incarcerated for drugs. The struggles she has gone through are not any less—addiction is a disease. LGBTQIA+ parents are, in my opinion, often denied the fundamental right to love a child. Heteronormative parenthood is so easily accessed, but particularly in poorer communities globally, there is a real crisis of teenage mothers who suffer from a lack of sexual education.
There is particular interviewee featured in the book whom I now call the immortal mum. She passed away in the midst before the M/Other could be published. She told me two reasons behind sharing her story: for her daughters to know how much she loved them, and to use this platform to talk about postnatal depression.
Joycelyn was a beautiful, healthy-looking woman when she was going through postnatal depression. She was almost vilified for it. How dare you have depression when you have two healthy babies, you are independent and you have a good life? She was filled with a deep sense of shame.
Later, she was diagnosed with cancer and fought it with everything she had before she passed on. Till the end, she would tell me that she wouldn’t wish either of her two diseases on anyone, but she suffered more from postnatal depression because she had to suffer in silence. She felt guilt, shame and sadness upon sadness. There was no support, no outlet, no end in sight.
As a society, we have empathy and sympathy for cancer patients but we lack the same for mothers who struggle with depression. One of my students in Hawaii suffered from such terrible postnatal depression that as a teenage mother, she ended up killing her baby. She became a product of the incarceration system.
“The teenage mom who eventually murdered her own son had been crying for help, wishing someone would reach out to her”
But she was not a criminal. She was sick. She needed psychological help, she didn’t need to be thrown into a prison cell. The real irony is that her time in prison turned her into a drug addict. This is what our lack of understanding and support around postnatal depression results in—if we don’t put the right remedies in place, we may be guilty of creating a bigger social problem.
How can we, as individuals, make change and create a safer, more inclusive world for mothers of all kinds? I think we can start by removing our judgments and questioning our biases. Why am I so repulsed by this thought? Why does this person’s story upset me so much? Am I open to listening to people where they are at, or am I putting myself on a moral high ground?
People want to be heard and respected, and many of the issues we face today can be mediated or even eradicated if we become a culture that listens. You’ll see that the teenage mom who eventually murdered her own son had been crying for help, wishing someone would reach out to her instead of blaming her for what she was going through.
I may not be a mother myself, but I believe that dropping our judgments around motherhood is key to becoming more unified, empathetic and accepting as a community. As a futurist, I know that we already have all the technological advances that can change heteronormative approaches to parenting—we just have to be open to them. Singapore has always been an open port, and historically, that has led to our success.
I look at my younger nieces and nephews. They are so inclusive and open-minded even at their young ages. They have friends from the LGBTQIA+ community. They accept diversity in terms of size, shape and colour. As we aspire to become a more supportive society, it’s helpful to see that our future generations are already on their way there.
M/Other is available at Straits Times Press and all major bookstores.