Singaporean Mariana Ahmad lives with her Finnish husband and his child in Vantaa, Finland. She discusses becoming a stepmother (yet not wanting children of her own), relationship challenges and what parenting is like in Finland.
Mariana Ahmad opens up about the challenges of being a stepmother when you actually don’t want children of your own. Rather than seeing herself as a mother or even stepmother, Mariana thinks of herself as an adult female living with her husband and his 12-year-old child Alyssa (who goes by the name Ash in school these days – she describes watching “And Just Like That” where Charlotte tries to come to terms with her daughter being non-binary as “art imitating life”). Mariana shares how her parents emphasised academic excellence as a way of getting out of the “structural racism that Malays faced in Singapore” and the effect this pressure had on her which is in stark contrast to the relaxed education system in Finland. “I think Finnish kids are taught the opposite of what their American and, perhaps, Asian counterparts are taught. There is no need to be awesome or the best. This may also explain why the country has been named the happiest country in the world for the fifth year running.” Read on for her full interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Mariana Ahmad. I added my Finnish husband’s uber long surname on social media to mess with people. There is no way I will ever adopt Jani’s surname on official documents. I’m too much of a feminist (cough cough) and it has way too many letters!
When I was first contacted for this interview, I was a little apprehensive as I felt I did not fit in with the usual demographics. I am not a mother nor do I aspire to be one. I was child-free before meeting my husband and we do not want any children of our own. I may be a stepmother to Alyssa, a 12-year-old child born to a Chinese-Malaysian mother and a Finnish father but I am more of an adult female who happens to be married to her father. I am sure there are other stepmothers like me, women who moved to a new country for love and started their own families or became part of a blended family. We are not really represented by media much but we are here to say “Hi there. We exist.”
I was born in Singapore. My dad was a proud working class hero and opposition party supporter. He was a building maintenance technician with a penchant for jazz music and my mum worked in a factory as a production operator for most of her working life. My parents emphasised academic excellence as a way of getting out of the “structural racism that Malays faced in Singapore”. My parents are both ethnic Malay but decided I should pick up Mandarin for my future. Being the odd one out in Mandarin classes throughout my childhood meant I was usually the token Malay friend for some of my Chinese friends. My parents also emphasised the importance of balancing secular life with religion so I went for Qur’an classes every weekday and the Madrasah over the weekends till the age of 19.
I was a latchkey kid by seven years old. When I was nine, I took a bus to Malacca, Malaysia by myself to join my family as they had left earlier that morning but I had band practice in school that I could not miss. It is important to share this detail because I feel this was the beginning of how I became a solo traveler.
I went to Jagoh Primary School (it doesn’t exist anymore) and then Tanjong Katong Girls’ School. When I was 15, my lovely principal decided to reward band members who won gold at the Singapore Youth Festival Band competition with a trip to Los Angeles, USA with a stopover in Seoul, South Korea. We went to Universal Studios and Disneyland. By then I’d been bitten by the travel bug and there was no looking back.
At 19 years old and in my final semester at polytechnic, I went on an exchange program to Barcelona where I learned about lighting and cinematography. I completed my Media Studies degree in Melbourne, Australia before returning to Singapore to work for several years before leaving for good.
What brought you to Vantaa, Finland? How long have you been living overseas?
It was around March 2018 and I had been living in Istanbul, Turkey as an English teacher for six years when I met my husband on… drum roll please… OkCupid. It is a dating website which is a little less salacious than Tinder. I happened to swipe right on this bespectacled man standing in front of a dinosaur fossil. I thought discussing dinosaurs would be a good ice breaker. Nerdy, right? He was a single dad living with his eight-year-old daughter in Vantaa, Finland, a suburb that is part of the greater metropolitan area of Helsinki.
I have been living overseas since August 2010, just a few months before I turned 30. I left Singapore back then on a mission to find a new place to call home. I guess 30 was that age when I thought it’s now or never and you have no one else to blame for not pursuing what you want. The journey took me across many countries in Europe, working as a volunteer in farms and hostels. I spent a year in Georgia as a volunteer English teacher and later spent six years in Istanbul before uprooting myself again, this time to Finland.
Favourite aspect about living in Vantaa?
As an avid traveler with an itchy backside? The proximity to the international airport. It is a mere two train stops away from our home. Vantaa has the biggest mix of cultures and languages spoken among the three towns that are part of the greater metropolitan area of Helsinki. Let’s face it, Finland is still pretty much predominantly white so I yearn for multiculturalism. Also, Finland is known as the land of a thousand lakes and there is always some body of water or park close by that I can cycle to or get on a train to access.
And the worst part?
My neighbourhood Kivistö is still in the midst of expansion so there’s been plenty of construction and dust. We have been waiting for the mall opposite our home to open for close to four years but it is still being built. Covid-19 did not help, of course, and caused a delay but right now, I can see the skeleton of the mall up to the third level so all is good. Gosh, I sound like a true Singaporean looking for a mall to hang out in. True story: I once met a Singaporean who moved to Finland and complained that Finland was not for them because it did not have huge malls, just trees and lakes. Yikes.
What are the current restrictions in Vantaa due to Covid-19?
To be honest, life in Finland during Covid-19 has been a breeze. I believe the mask mandate only arrived in Finland in late November 2020 and was restricted to shops and public transport. There have been no actual lockdowns and the low population density means there is plenty of space for social distancing. There were a few months when restaurants were closed and then gradually reopened with limited hours till 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. but everything is back to normal now. The mask mandate has also been lifted.
Finnish folks are known for their social distancing even before it was the cool thing to do. There are memes online with photos of Finns standing far apart from one another at bus stops in the middle of winter and also photos of them not sitting next to one another on buses. In fact, the joke among Finns is that two metres for social distancing is way too close for comfort.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
Jani’s remote work increased from 70 per cent to 100 per cent since March 2020 and he’s still working from home. Alyssa did online classes for a few weeks and that was the main regret for Finland and the health authorities here. They prefer that students attend school since the rate of infections among children and teenagers is manageable and they also recover pretty quickly.
The “worst” (gosh, I sound like a brat) part for our family was that we had to cancel and postpone a road trip we had planned to do in 2020. We will finally be able to do this trip this summer. We went around the Baltics in the summer of 2020 as the infection rate was still under control there and in 2021, we drove to Poland and Slovakia. I think we have been really fortunate that Europe has remained practically open this whole time and the EU digital COVID certificate has made travelling convenient between EU countries. We had to cancel a trip to our holiday home in Malaga, Spain during Christmas in 2020 but we managed to go there last December for a month so, all in all, we have been pretty lucky and have had lots of freedom to travel despite the pandemic.
We prefer to go to the free drive-through to get tested for Covid-19 and those ART kits that Singaporean friends talk about online are pretty foreign to my family. I think, in Finland, some companies did distribute them but they are not so commonly used. My Singaporean friends are lovely though and I received care packages of masks and hand sanitizers during the pandemic.
How do you think parenting in Vantaa differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
Kids are allowed to be kids in Finland. They play outside in all kinds of weather, rain, snow or shine. They are not encumbered with exams and stress until they are a lot older. The point is to make school as enjoyable as possible for as long as possible. Homework only started when she was in fourth grade, if I remember correctly, and there is no such thing as holiday assignments. Both father and daughter laughed at me when I first asked about that.
I think Finnish kids are taught the opposite of what their American and, perhaps, Asian counterparts are taught. There is no need to be awesome or the best. Finns tend to shy away when praised. It is good enough to give your best. This may also explain why the country has been named the happiest country in the world for the fifth year running. Finns are told they won the lottery by being born a Finn and it is not far from the truth. They learn about contentment at a young age. They receive free education even at tertiary level.
We do not have to buy Alyssa pencils, notebooks or Chromebooks as these are all provided by the school free of charge. The students get recycled textbooks and new workbooks. In the classroom, students are allowed to sit wherever they feel comfortable. They can even lie on the floor if they want. They get free lunches and Alyssa can use the skis and skates that the school provides for physical education classes. She even got braces for free from the dentist.
I am not a mum and am definitely not a tiger mum. The stress I had when I was in school, going from a neighborhood school to a girls’ school with a high entrance score, I would never wish that on any child. I still shudder at the thought of all that pressure to perform well for prelims and GCE O-Levels.
At the end of the day, our grades can only take us so far. We tell Alyssa that having good grades gives her more options to do what she wants to do. I prefer to instill self-confidence and preparedness for the life ahead. I find it more important to impart skills like making your own food, learning the value of money, and taking care of your own needs to feed your soul. Growing up, my mother was adamant that laundry be folded a certain way and till today, I can hear her voice telling me off when I folded or hung my laundry a little askew. Life’s too short for things like that.
Tell us a little about your relationship with your stepchild. Was there anything particularly memorable?
I am child-free by choice so I was petrified at first to meet my husband’s daughter. Yes, I’ve worked with children for many years but the joy of being a teacher is that you get paid to spend time with other people’s children and by 3 p.m., you give them sugar during their tea break before letting them loose to go home to their parents. I was also too used to having peace and quiet when I was living on my own and here I was, faced with a chatty and inquisitive eight-year-old girl.
Before I came into the picture, Alyssa’s birth mum had moved to England to be with her second husband and left Alyssa with her father in Finland even though they have shared custody on paper. The norm in the Nordics for divorced parents is to have shared custody of their children so they take turns to be with them. This means that children would spend one week with one parent and another week with the other parent. This can be a good thing as it frees up divorced parents from childminding duties every other week to pursue new hobbies, romantic relationships or go on short holidays. The drawback, of course, is how the children have to be ferried around and get used to a different household week after week. They also have to learn to get along with the children of their parents’ new spouses or partners.
Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, I have no such set up and I live with Alyssa full-time. I am not her mother but rather, an adult female living with her. I am firm with her but mostly, her father deals with discipline and school work. It was tough at first when I moved into the apartment. We would squabble because she was very loud while playing her video games. I am not a gamer and prefer the quiet company of books or films.
Alyssa goes for horse-riding lessons. In Finland, it is not cheap but it is not overly expensive either. To be honest, I find it all a bit too hoity-toity at first but it was something her birth mother had introduced to her when she was around. I wish that she would pay for the lessons now but hey, one can dream. Luckily, my mother-in-law pitches in for them. Thank you!
I think my relationship with Alyssa has gone through many ups and downs but we are now at a point where she feels comfortable enough to share her day with me. I deal with a variety of day-to-day growing up stuff: menarche, pads vs. tampons vs. moon cups (level 999), coping with bullies in school, dealing with crushes, the desire to experiment with makeup, cosplay, and her interest in the Japanese language. She is an intelligent tween who comes up with the sharpest observations of life and between our laughs and tears, I think we have fun living our lives under one roof.
Can you talk us through your career before and after becoming a stepmother?
I was an assistant producer with MediaCorp at the start of my career. I started at Channel 8 producing afternoon senior citizen variety show Golden Age Talentime (黄金年华), infotainment programmes, and cooking shows before moving on to Channel 5 with programmes like Singapore Idol and gameshows. I also had a stint as a supporting actress in a Mandarin investigative series with Tay Ping Hui. That was a really fun gig. After leaving MediaCorp, I was a film classifier with the Media Development Authority where I was paid essentially to watch movies and television series. I switched to teaching English in Istanbul to pay the bills and live abroad on my own.
After becoming a stepmother, but mostly because I had moved to Finland, my job hunt has proved to be a challenge but instead of just waiting around for the perfect job, I have worked in various blue-collared sectors. I’ve interned at a non-profit organisation and helped them improve a simple website targeted at refugees and newcomers to Finland, made sausages by hand in a factory, worked as a parcel sorter for the postal service, packed protein powder and supplements, and currently, I am a counter employee in a restaurant at the airport.
I call it my #mamulife. “Mamu” is short for maahanmuuttaja, the Finnish word for immigrants. It has been a tough yet humbling experience thus far but I just could not see myself as a taitai staying at home. I was bored to tears especially during the pandemic with zero events going on. I think, like most people who find themselves in new countries, there is this need to adapt or pivot to find our calling. I am still hopeful in finding a vocation that will fulfill me. Wish me luck!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Vantaa?
Alyssa enjoys this buffet restaurant called Kung Food Panda. It is a chain found in malls scattered around Helsinki. For an extra €2.90, you get unlimited soft serve. Her father does not enjoy this “fake Chinese food” as he calls it, so this is a stepmother and stepdaughter treat for the two of us.
Our ultimate happy place is this Nepalese restaurant called Ginger. It is located in an industrial area near the airport and only open for lunch. The buffet spread is amazing with fresh salads, spicy curries, papadums, fluffy basmati rice, mango lassi, and masala chai to end your meal. My husband loves spicy food so this is a real treat. Depending on the day, you can also get Nepalese dumplings called momo, similar to gyoza and guotie, and pakoras and samosas on other days.
Top five places in or around Vantaa you would recommend to parents travelling with kids.
Surf House Helsinki – Vantaa is barely 25 minutes away from Helsinki so my first recommendation is this indoor surfing and beach facility in the basement of Mall of Tripla. The moment you step into the warm humidity, it almost feels like we are back in Sentosa. Great if you miss the heat of Asia.
Flamingo Spa – Seeing as we have almost eight months of winter every year, Flamingo Spa is a godsend of an indoor waterpark next to Jumbo Shopping Centre in Vantaa. There is a family ticket that is great value for money for two adults and two children.
Haltiala Farm – A small piece of the Finnish countryside in Vantaa, this farm gives visitors an opportunity to acquaint themselves with domestic farm animals. They have these cute Highland cows too! Pop by the café next door for some traditional pullas (Finnish cinnamon buns).
Heureka – This is my personal favourite. If you are like me and loved Science Centre Singapore as a kid, then you can understand why I love this science museum in Tikkurila in Vantaa. I can spend a whole day here on my day off to watch films at the observatory and since Covid-19 is now “over”, children are finally allowed to touch the displays again as science continues to blow their little minds.
Is there something you do to introduce your stepchild to your Singaporean roots?
Alyssa’s birth mother is Malaysian-born Chinese so I take it upon myself to celebrate Chinese New Year. I give her a small angpow and take her to eat hotpot or we have steamboat at home. I also teach her swear words in her mum’s native Hokkien dialect as I am an evil stepmother after all. I also want her to see that biracial persons of colour are slowly getting more representation in mainstream media. Case in point? Eileen Gu at the recent Winter Olympics.
I make rendang and some Malay dishes for Eid and special occasions, i.e. whenever I feel I do not get enough spice in my diet. We speak English mostly with each other and she speaks Finnish with her dad but I try to add Singlish and Malay to the mix. So far though, Jani seems to have picked up the phrase “nasi kangkang”. My bad.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Vantaa
– for a child:
At Heureka, there is a terminal where children can design and make their own wooden keychains on a touchscreen dot matrix display. Or anything Moomin. These weird poofy characters are everywhere in Finland.
– for a mama friend:
What do you find is the hardest part of being a stepmother living in a foreign country?
I have met only one other stepmother in Finland like me who is child-free but has shared custody of a child from her partner’s previous relationship. We chat with each other from time to time and share our step-parenting woes. Luckily for me, I have two Singaporean friends who are also stepmothers living in other countries and I have them to rant to on WhatsApp. I think most people think that we are lucky because we are not birth mothers and thus, not burdened with what birth mothers have to go through. To that I say what can be harder than having to love and care for a child that is not your own?
On raising multilingual children …
I speak and write English, Malay and Mandarin and have an A1/A2 basic level in a smattering of languages that I usually mix up on a good day, namely Turkish, Georgian, Spanish, Japanese, Indonesian and Arabic. So yes, it is safe to say that I would love it if Alyssa could speak and write many languages. I constantly point out words that are spelled the same but mean very different things in different languages like “sama” in Finnish and Malay.
She is bilingual in English and Finnish, and very interested in Japanese like most weeabos of her generation. She switches from American to various English accents on a daily basis. I still remember giggling at parents in Singapore who pay good money to send their children to speech and drama centres on weekends so that they may pick up a foreign English accent but Alyssa does it all on her own. Right now, we are challenging each other to learn hiragana on Duolingo. In school, she is learning Spanish and Swedish. We try to get her to speak in Spanish when we are at our holiday home in Malaga.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your stepchild?
I haven’t been back to Singapore since 2018 but there is this particular brand of sweet soy sauce from Johor Bahru which is the only must for me. The closest country I can find it in is England so I always buy a big bottle or two to take home when I am there. My comfort food is a fried egg drizzled with this sweet soy sauce, eaten with jasmine rice.
I take Alyssa to the Asian supermarket from time to time or get her Pocky in different flavours. She also has a penchant for jelly and recently, she has been wanting to try mochi. There is a Muji store in Helsinki and I might take her there for fresh mochi since the pre-made ones are so hard to chew on sometimes.
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
My husband makes a mean Bolognese sauce and I seem to make Pad Krapow (Thai basil minced meat with fried egg) or Mapo Tofu a lot. The sauce changes depending on what I have on hand be it Lee Kum Kee Sichuan hot and spicy sauce or Lao Gan Ma chilli sauce.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Vantaa if you moved away?
The quietness. It was something I had to get used to when I moved from bustling Istanbul to Finland but now when I am on holiday in a big city, I get so irritated at the noise level haha.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Eat! Whenever possible, I used to go to the airport staff canteen for meals before leaving the airport.
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The heat and the crowds. I have gotten used to being outside in the forest or at the lake and not see anyone for some time when I go for walks.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
We Singaporeans love to complain. It is a national pastime. Living overseas brings with it a whole new set of things to complain about and inadvertently, we will compare it to life back home and soon maybe, we will realise, oh it is not so bad after all.