Singaporean mama Sonia Saddiqui talks about life as a single mum in Australia and how it’s helped her become more aware of her teen daughter’s needs
Life’s thrown many a curveball at Sonia Saddiqui, from being a single mum without her family around to her daughter’s health struggles and even retrenchment. But despite all that, the mum of one says she wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. She’s lived in Sydney, Australia for years, and loves the freedom and flexibility of life here. This Singaporean mama shares the lessons she’s learned as a single mother to one teen daughter, why she thinks there’s room to live life more authentically in Sydney and why she thinks she would not have had the same opportunities to thrive as a single parent had she remained in Singapore.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Sonia and I’m living, working and raising a teenage daughter in Sydney, Australia. I work in the higher education sector and I love what I do. The work and the people are interesting, and the conditions are fantastic. I’ve been writing casually as a hobby in various fandoms for about 20 years and I’ve finally decided to do it as a part-time job. I remarried earlier this year, and now my daughter and I live together with my husband, an adorable Ragdoll cat called Gooseberry, and a small army of frogs. Suffice to say, it’s been a hectic year but this would be true for anyone on the planet in the last two years, I think!
What brought you to Sydney, Australia? How long have you been living overseas?
After essentially flunking my O-Levels in Singapore, my parents shipped me off to finish my tertiary education in Perth, where I attended the equivalent of Junior College for two years. The plan was for me to attend university in Perth and then come back to Singapore after graduation but this never happened. While in Perth, I met a boy who would later become my husband. We were both 18 years old at the time. He was from Sydney and so I decided to move from Perth to Sydney to attend the same university as him while we lived together.
In hindsight, I was far too young to fully comprehend the enormity of that decision. The relationship lasted for 13 years before we went our separate ways when our daughter was two. I had to rebuild my life at that point, as well as my confidence. The prospect of being a single mother was scary but it was clear I had to leave for our safety and wellbeing. Fortunately, I had a good job and even if things were tight financially, I was able to support my daughter and myself. From that point, it was just the two of us, and this is probably why my daughter – now 14 years old – and I are extremely close.
At one point, I was retrenched from one of my jobs and had to rely on two other part-time jobs. This experience made me very paranoid about losing work, so I easily said yes to new opportunities and tried to keep more than one job going at the same time just in case. This may sound stressful but it was pretty amazing working in so many diverse research fields. I even co-published a well-received paper in neuroscience despite not having any scientific background.
While working, I also went back to university to do a PhD but I never finished because my daughter became very unwell. I still grieve over giving up my postgraduate studies as I was – and still am – passionate about my research. It has taken about five years for my daughter’s health to stabilise to the point where she can now attend school. Last month, she set foot in a classroom for the first time in two years. Prior to this, her entire high school experience has been online.
Favourite aspect about living in Sydney?
If we’re talking about a non-pandemic situation, it would have to be the freedoms. I’m not sure why, as much as I love and miss home, I always feel a little self-conscious in Singapore. In Sydney, I feel more comfortable speaking my mind and being myself. Granted, I cannot say for sure if I wouldn’t have ‘come into my own’ eventually had I stayed in Singapore.
I appreciate the freedom and safety I’m afforded in Australia with regards to self-expression, sexuality, gender identity, spiritual beliefs and bodily autonomy. There are of course some serious social problems and public sector failure but for the most part, there is a level of accountability and transparency in government services and agencies that is reassuring.
During the times I was back in Singapore, it felt very much like being a part of youth culture. There is a definite delineation between the generations that is less pronounced in Sydney. At a certain age in Singapore, one is inherently expected to have done or achieved X, Y, Z and to occupy a particular role or identity in society. That expectation is not as apparent in my experience of Australia where I feel like there is room to live more authentically. Also, there are more options for women, mothers, and, by extension, single mothers. There is less stigma here about being a single parent. Families, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. I don’t know if I would have had similar opportunities had I been a single mother in Singapore. But on the flipside, I would have had the support of my family, something I don’t have in Sydney.
The lifestyle in Sydney is another positive factor. I live quite close to the city, in an area that is very green and lovely, with access to national parks a short drive away. I’ve always made it a point to live close to public transport so I don’t have to rely on having a car. It was difficult to get around with a small child at first, but I got a lot of exercise! I love the food, the cafe culture, access to beautiful beaches, nature and decent shopping. It’s relatively safe as well.
The free public health system in Australia is very reassuring. You may not get all the bells and whistles but people have options when they get sick and cannot afford the cost of healthcare. It’s no small matter as it reduces the worry we all have if we become seriously ill. Here you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg to be treated.
And the worst part?
Being so far away from family and my old friends is hard. I wasn’t able to be there when I was needed, missing births, deaths and birthdays. The Internet makes it possible to still be a part of people’s lives but there’s just something about holding a hand or holding someone that can never be replicated online. I haven’t been able to be there in person to support my elderly parents or my sister, who lives in the UK, and that really hurts.
I miss the food back home like all Singaporeans living abroad. I daydream about mee siam and on the rare occasions that I have durian, I could only eat it on the balcony because my husband and kid couldn’t handle the smell. My daughter, being half-Singaporean and very passionate about her Asian heritage, is quite disappointed in herself and has been seeking tips on how to ‘acclimatise’ herself to durian. It’s been a hilarious process and I look forward to her continuing efforts.
Lots of Sydney locals complain about the cost of living here, but coming from Singapore and being accustomed to the cost of private housing, I’m more tolerant of the steep prices. It’s still ridiculous, as is the cost of renting, but we also have a minimum wage, which ought to be a basic human right, and in general, salaries are pretty competitive. Food and amenities cost a lot in Sydney but this is because of the higher wages so there is a trade-off.
Occasionally, there is also racism but I’m very fortunate that it is less prevalent in the incredibly diverse higher education sector. I have never worked in a corporate environment other than as a consultant. From what my sister tells me, racism and prejudice in a professional environment can be bad in Singapore as well as where she is in the UK. The other thing I miss is the ability to be part of the changes that are taking place in Singapore. It is a weird feeling to have – to be simultaneously proud of your home country while also being open to talking about its systemic problems. The national identity seems to have changed over the last two decades, for better or worse, and I feel like I’ve missed out on experiencing this evolution.
What are the current restrictions in Sydney due to Covid-19?
We’ve been in lockdown since late July due to the outbreak of the Delta strain but in October, we entered the first phase of a three-phase process to exit the lockdown. If you have been twice vaccinated, you can move around in the community now. Restrictions will be further relaxed once 80% of the population is twice vaccinated.
How have you and your family been coping in the midst of Covid-19?
Pretty well, I think. We’ve all been adhering to restrictions in Singapore, Australia and the UK respectively. I’ve lost two uncles during the pandemic from natural causes unrelated to Covid-19. The funeral arrangements were tricky as no one could travel at the time. I worry about my elderly parents and hope that I’ll be able to see them soon. I’ve been working from home pretty much full-time for the last year and my daughter has been attending school online as well. It’s a huge struggle balancing everything and our mental health suffers.
How do you think parenting in Sydney differs from parenting in Singapore? What do you appreciate most about it?
I think the differences between parenting in Sydney and Singapore are associated with the best parts of living in Sydney – freedom and flexibility. I feel I had more options in terms of opportunities as a single mother. I’m not sure what kind of parent I would have been if I had raised my daughter in Singapore. I think it would have been a very different experience mainly because I would have my ‘village’ to help me.
My daughter (pictured) is a pretty amazing creature. She’s been through a lot but is perhaps one of the most authentic and emotionally mature people I know. I was a late bloomer in terms of scholastic aptitude and when it happened, I threw myself into academic work and enjoyed it a lot. I confess I also feel slightly vindicated that my poor academic performance in Singapore was perhaps not a reflection on my lack of skills and competency but the way we were taught and assessed in the system at the time. I know a lot has changed and the education system is now more well-rounded.
I’m no tiger mum and yet I’ve found the learning curve quite steep to help my daughter with her schoolwork. She is similar to me in many ways but also very different in terms of her learning preferences. She is a phenomenal artist and is at a specialised school on a creative arts scholarship. I have no idea where she gets it from. I feel a bit bad because this is a competency I cannot help much with other than providing support, encouragement and software! I think I had to be a more hands-on parent here because I didn’t have help when she was little. This forced me to be present and more aware of her needs, aspects I may have outsourced had she been raised in Singapore. My employers have been very family-friendly, which means I enjoy flexible work arrangements that allow me to be with my child when she needs me. I’m not sure if this would have been available to me back home.
Did you give birth to your child in Sydney? If yes, what was memorable about the experience?
Yes. It was not a great experience mostly due to the lack of support and an unsafe environment at home. Thankfully we got through it and I’m not keen to repeat it!
Can you talk us through your career pre- and post-baby?
Before the baby came along, I had graduated with a humanities degree and had trouble finding a job for nine months. I tried applying for entry-level positions but employers wanted to experience and I had very little. I worked in retail part-time during this period while also buying my first apartment with my husband. Eventually, I found a job at a university and was so happy there that I stayed for 10 years. Towards the end of my time at this job, I split from my husband and was on my own with my toddler.
Being single again was a completely different life, with a lot more flexibility and freedom. I was able to enrol in a PhD programme, which was something I could never have done while I was married. I’m still amazed at how much more I was able to do on my own, than with a partner, including being a better parent (I hope!). Once I got into research by virtue of simply being in a PhD programme, my career options increased. I was hired to manage large-scale government research projects in fields like education and foreign affairs. I had some excellent female mentors who were senior academics and leaders in their respective fields. They had the work ethic, integrity and fierceness you would expect in successful professionals as well as compassion and practicality.
I’m only in the position I am in today due to them. They inherently understood the challenges of raising children while trying to carve out a career and were very flexible in work arrangements. In fact, I was hired for a job at one university while living in another state. It was unheard of at the time but my boss and I both knew we could make it work. She would fly me to ‘home base’ in the other city, about four times a year when we had special events to run. Otherwise, I could work from home and from anywhere else I happened to be. Sometimes I would be with my daughter at the local play centre, park, shopping mall, food court, library or public pool. I was always working and my laptop was my constant companion. Without this flexibility, I don’t know how I would have managed to look after my daughter on my own.
Now that things are stable on the homefront, with the love and support of my daughter and partner, I’ve thrown myself back into writing and I’m aiming to turn it into a part-time career. There’s so much I don’t know about the publishing industry. I do know it is brutal and over-saturated so I’m not hoping for huge success, I’m just hoping to put out something that I can be proud of. Even though I’ve only just launched my author website and am working on two books at the moment, I’m having the time of my life!
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Sydney?
Eateries here are generally family-friendly. I find cafes the best places to take kids to as they usually cater to families. Some might even have baskets of toys and books for the kids or have menu items planned with children in mind.
Top five places in or around Sydney you would recommend to parents travelling with kids and why.
Darling Quarter Playground – Basically an enormous playground for kids and families—with water! You can eat on-site or pack some food. Always an excellent family-friendly day-out I’ll give five stars to!
Art Gallery of NSW – When you have finished viewing the exhibitions, there are plenty of picnic spots and the harbour is just nearby.
Australian Museum – Australia’s first museum is close to Hyde Park so you can go there for a picnic before or after your visit.
Is there something that you do to keep your child in touch with her Singaporean roots?
We talk a lot about Singapore, its culture, history and the stories of my grandparents and parents. We watch lots of YouTube videos about Singapore and also keep in contact with my family and friends, many of whom have visited us.
Best souvenir one could bring back from Sydney:
– for a child:
Instead of buying a souvenir, I think a really nice idea is to give the child a camera – disposable, Polaroid or digital depending on the age and what camera you have. Get the child to take just one memorable shot at each significant location during the trip. The photos can eventually be added to a scrapbook about the trip and the child can add a caption to each photo to recall the experience. This is a neat idea because it encourages the child to reflect on each experience and decide on one single meaningful memory to capture.
– for a mama friend
I’m partial to ethically-sourced Indigenous-themed home decor but a local skincare brand like MooGoo or Jurlique is always a great idea. I send a parcel of MooGoo skincare products to my mother in Singapore every three months because it is more expensive in Singapore and not easy to find. MooGoo has amazing skincare and baby products. Their customer service is excellent too and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
What do you find is the hardest part of being a mother living in a foreign country?
In short, it’s the tyranny of distance – being away from loved ones. There is also cultural drift. It takes a concerted effort to stay connected to your roots. After the initial culture shock (I definitely experienced this in my first year in Australia), I find things here pretty easy to get used to. You create your own routines and that soon becomes the new normal.
On raising a multilingual child…
My daughter and I think there is something special about being multilingual and multicultural. I find it’s been a strength and asset. It makes you more open-minded and you are more likely to see the world through different lenses and can empathise with others more.
What do you always bring back from Singapore for yourself and for your child?
Whatever food I can get away with!
Tell us about your go-to recipe for your family.
My family’s favourite recipe is my nut-crumbed lamb cutlets. Instead of using the usual breadcrumb mixture, I chop up at least three different kinds of nuts (usually almonds, pistachios and pine nuts) and add them to breadcrumbs with any dried seasonings I want. For the crumbing, I use hemp seeds or flakes instead of flour to make it healthier before dipping the lamb cutlets in egg wash and tossing them in the nut-and-breadcrumb mixture. I usually serve the nut-crumbed lamb cutlets with a salad of canned beetroot, olives and feta to cut the fatty taste of the lamb. By the way, this nut-and-breadcrumb mixture is great for chicken and vegetables too.
What’s the one thing you would miss about Sydney if you moved away?
The sense of familiarity and safety. Probably the socialised healthcare too, depending on where I move to.
What is the first thing you do each time you come back to Singapore?
Eat. I eat at the airport upon arrival!
What do you dread most if you are moving back to Singapore?
The crowding, I think, and certain curtailing of freedoms. I would also miss my cat unless he comes along too.
How do you think Singaporeans can benefit from living overseas?
Singaporeans are a well-travelled bunch but I think living overseas and experiencing other cultures can be an eye-opener, allowing us to understand that differences and diversity are what makes us amazing.
Thank you for your time, Sonia!
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