This month’s That Mama is the inspiring Singaporean Sherlin Giri, who lost her husband in 2013 and has since been outspoken on changing the stigmas of single mamas and widows.
We caught up with Sherlin, single mama to two kids, her daughter aged 11 and son aged 8. Sherlin opens her heart to us on losing her husband, on the practicalities of being widowed and a single mama and how she is reframing the role of a housewife as a high-level management job (and why you should too mama!). We are so on board with this one! Read on for Sherlin’s story and some golden advice on living life to the fullest.
Can you tell us a little about yourself, your career and your family?
I just turned Fabulous Forty this year and it’s been great! I’ve never been more myself than ever. That’s what maturity does for a woman, I’d say. I’ve been an adjunct lecturer at a polytechnic here in Singapore for the past 4.5 years. I work only during term time and have long breaks during the vacation, which is great because I get to spend a lot of time with my kids and to pursue my own interests. We live within our means and don’t own a car – that helps! My kids go to a school near our home in the HDB heartlands on the eastern part of the island. They have really supportive teachers and great friends. We also have my mum, my younger sisters and brother in law who visit every now and then.
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
I spent most of my career as an educator. Before my kids, I was involved in English and performing arts education – music and theatre specifically. When I entered motherhood, I became a stay-at-home mum. My husband’s job required him to travel frequently so I held the fort domestically. I created his professional portfolio, which led to him starting his own business and then I did copywriting for his website and marketing collaterals.
How did you get back into the swing of things after having kids?
I had to be very patient with myself as it was hard. I suffered from post-natal depression after my daughter so I decided to get domestic help when I had my son. That helped but it came with its fair share of problems. I was so glad when my kids finally started primary school as I could handle things on my own and no longer needed a helper. I also trained my children to be independent and to help out with chores so I could manage the home more easily because by that time, their father had also passed away.
How have you managed being a young widow and single mother with kids to look after?
No amount of academic education can prepare a person for the loss of a loved one. Neither is it a topic we like to discuss as a society. The irony is, loss is very much a part of life and that is something I have had to learn to accept on my own, over time. I had to first come to terms with the loss of my own identity as a wife. That part of me died when my husband died, overnight. So it was like mourning a sudden physical and metaphorical death simultaneously.
I decided to continue working to earn a living for my family but not full-time because I wanted to raise my own kids. So I sold my former home, bought a smaller place and scaled down my life to suit my means. It was not difficult as I grew up in a working class family. My mother, a single mum herself, is a very resourceful, hardworking woman from whom I learnt a lot in terms of simple living and financial discipline. It took me four years to clear all my debts after my husband passed away and now, I’m raising my kids on a single income. I have savings from years ago (rainy day, people!) and I don’t believe in credit cards. That helps. I may not be rich but I have no debts. That’s an awesome feeling!
Yes, there are times I wished I had emotional support from a partner, someone to hug at the end of the day and a sounding board for all my thoughts and hopes – but I have a lot for which to be grateful already. As a single parent, I’d like to think that I’m a ‘cookies and milk’ kind of mum. But I’m also the drill sergeant type.
Give us your essential advice for other single mamas that might never occur to other women.
You are not incomplete just because you don’t have a man. I was initially worried about my son not having a male role model, but that’s just gender bias. Over time, I learnt that I am as a good a role model as any man or woman. Many amazing young men out there were raised by women who taught their sons to respect other human beings, regardless of gender. I am a good parent because I do my best, to the best of my ability, the best way I know how. I set my own standards, maintain my own ideology and live by my own values. It takes a lot of courage and conviction but after a while, it becomes you, and you no longer need affirmation from others. You are your own woman.
How do you maintain an identity separate from your child?
Good question! I have my own interests, my career and my achievements other than those in the domestic sphere. Off the cuff, I’d say my kids are my greatest achievement, but they’re not my only. I love my job and I also engage in volunteer work and social activism. I am also starting to write more and hope to have some of my work published soon.
How has having a child changed the way you define work?
Work is more than just formal employment outside of home. Housework is also work – so is raising children, taking care of the extended family, managing expectations and being there for your partner. It is a high level management job and yet one that expects the manager herself to carry out all the tasks she is managing. To some extent you may outsource to a helper, a nanny or a relative but at the end of the day, it requires intelligence, resourcefulness and impeccable management skills – logistical and financial – as well as a great amount of people skills. Just because we don’t get paid a salary when we choose to stay at home, doesn’t mean it’s not work or we’re not contributing to the economy. Our partners would not be so successful in their careers if not for us. Our kids cannot grow up to be assets to the nation if not for all our ‘invisible’ labour (no pun intended). So I’d warn anyone to seriously reconsider using the phrase “just a housewife” if they prefer not to endure a sharp telling off by me. I also believe that as much as I can be a good housewife, a man can also be a good househusband.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
I don’t have a door to my storeroom. It keeps me from hoarding junk I don’t need because then, I can’t hide piles of rubbish. I give away things I don’t need. I place everything as neatly as I can manage in boxes on shelves. A clutter-free home makes for a clutter-free mind. I don’t over-decorate, so then there is less dusting to do, but I do love my one shag rug by the couch. The home needs to be a comfortable retreat in which one can find solace, far from the madding crowd.
Do you have any tips for working mamas in Singapore? How do you balance work and kids?
Love your job but know when to stop. By that I don’t mean quit your job but know when it’s time to walk out of the office every day and do so without regret. Leave your work behind. Then, enjoy your kids. They grow up very quickly so I don’t want to miss these precious years when I can still grab and squeeze them.
I wish I had more time for…
Lazing around doing absolutely nothing. It helps with creativity!
I always feel saner after….
Cleaning the house! Haha! There’s something absolutely satisfying about shiny floors after a good mop! Doing my own housework is so therapeutic. Plus, breaking into a good sweat with housework saves on gym membership.
What part of Singapore do you live in? What do you like about it?
I love that there are mangrove swamps, the beach and even a water theme park right at my doorstep! I live next to a river – an actual river with mud banks, monitor lizards and hornbills that fly amongst the trees outside my block. Once, we even had a family of otters swim upstream, barking excitedly and splashing water as they scurried through the mangrove roots. It’s unbelievable! We do have crocs near the river mouth but they’ve not harmed anyone yet so I’m not too bugged by that. They probably balance out the thriving ecosystem here.
And I absolutely love that I can hear the ships’ horns as they pass through the narrow Johore Straits a ten-minute walk away. It reminds me that there’s a whole world to explore beyond our HDB-serrated horizon, which makes island living feel a whole lot less claustrophobic.
Favourite kid-friendly activity in Singapore?
We love to swim but the beaches aren’t always conducive due to pollution from the maritime industry, so the occasional trip to the swimming complex and the Wild Wet Wet water theme park are quite a treat. My kids are daredevils who have taken the scariest rides like the Free Fall and Torpedo, so yes, the place is a favourite with us all, Grandma included!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurants in Singapore?
The Coastal Settlement at Changi has good milkshakes and a cosy, family atmosphere away from the chaos of urban life. We also like George’s by The Cove at Pasir Ris Park where the kids can play by the beach while the adults enjoy a beer.
Favourite restaurant to go out without the kids?
Piedra Negra on Haji Lane. Tequila shots with sangrita chasers. Need I say more?
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Bintan. Not the touristy northern part but east of the island where the lesser known resorts are. It’s cheap, easily accessible and the food is great.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Cooking. Then maybe it won’t feel like such a chore!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a mama?
You don’t need to be strong all the time.
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Every day, we have dinner together. Then we watch a Singaporean TV series we all like, despite the somewhat stiff dialogue, but it does bring us together as a family. We discuss the themes of the show that pique our interest and then watch the news so I can discuss local and global issues with the kids. It’s fodder for conversation and also helps remind us that we don’t live in a bubble.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
Joe, my husband. I miss him beyond anything words can describe.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When the dishes are done, the lights are out, the kids are in bed and the whole flat lies still in the umbra of a single night lamp I leave on in the living room. In that palpable quiet lies the satisfaction of a day well spent and the promise of a new tomorrow.
Thank you so much to Sherlin and her kids for taking the time to sit down and chat with us. And a big shoutout to Harriet Koh for the gorgeous snaps!