I was just a month shy of my 36th birthday when I gave birth to my second child, a son. I often joked that I was very privileged to have experienced both being a very young mother, and then as a geriatric mother. (Which was not really true, because there are far many more women now who give birth beyond the age of 35).
Geriatric / old was how I felt, when I made an appointment at my ob-gyn, who hadn't heard from me since I gave birth 16 years prior. I was a bit flustered as I explained the matter over the phone to the receptionist, wondering if they still kept my records. It has, after all, been 16 whole years.
Amazingly, they did.
I was just 19 when I became a mother for the first time, but age wasn't the only difference between these two pregnancies. It was the stark comparison in the level of responsibility taken between the fathers.
Maybe he was young at that time, being only 20 years of age, but the father of my first born couldn't care less about his daughter. She was just leverage when he needed it - to cajole me into staying into an abusive relationship that took away my freedom and youth. When I finally found the strength to leave for good 7 years later, he found no reason to remain in contact with his daughter unless it came with the perks of being a "well-taken-care-of-husband".
I too was young - I was never really able to take on the full responsibility of being a mother to my first-born. I was an undergraduate student for the first three years of her life, which she spent mostly with my parents. Even when I graduated with an accounting degree when I was 23, my monthly salary of RM800 as an audit assistant was barely enough to survive on for myself alone. It took me several career moves over many years to finally get into a salary that I could live on comfortably. I can't imagine how difficult it would be if I hadn't received the support I did from my parents. I probably would not be able to seize the opportunities for personal development that I did.
I was both scared and excited, but mostly really grateful when I was given a chance to "try it all over again" when I was pregnant with my son. This time I was in a better position to make financial and emotional decisions for myself. I had a steady job with maternity leave and option for flexi-work or days where I can work from home. And most importantly, the father of my son is also gainfully employed and actively involved in the caring of his child. I wasn't alone in raising a baby, and I was most definitely not alone in the delivery room when it was time to give birth. Not like when I was 19 - unsure and scared about the future.
These circumstances wasn't that apparent to me until I spent 4 months working with Paid Leave for US (PL+US) in San Francisco, under a fellowship opportunity provided by the Community Solutions Program. My aspirations for applying to this program was to obtain skills and knowledge to improve women's participation at work with the long-term goal of getting more women representation at top decision-making positions. My initial solution to this was to get companies to provide for on-site daycare for working mothers as well as other facilities that will be supportive and helpful in ensuring women remain in the workforce.
When I was confirmed with my placement at PLUS, I was a bit apprehensive. Why paid leave? I wasn't really sure that this fits into what I wanted to do, but I arrived with an open mind. Working on gender equality issues and social justice is afterall, my big dream.
Saying that I learnt something during my time in the US would be an understatement. It was an eye-opening experience - I had never actually seriously considered how paid family leave was crucial to the well-being of the general public. According to www.businessdictionary.com; paid family leave is time off from work with pay to care for another family member, give birth and take care of a new baby, or recover from an illness.
As I wrote on Medium, I was shocked that the U.S. is one of the only four countries in the world that does not even guarantee paid parental leave for birth mothers. Malaysia on the other hand, has a labour law that specifies 60 days of maternity leave, but is silent on the issue of paternity leave.
Learning about paid family leave made me more critically aware about the absence of paternity leave - it signifies a culture where dads have no place in raising their kids. It struck a chord in me, as I began looking back at the two instances in my life when I became a mother - with and without a supportive partner in my life.
What would have happened, if I had my son at 35 with a similarly disconnected father to the one when I was 19? I asked myself. I probably wouldn't be in San Francisco, that's for sure.
Malaysia (and most of the world) is yet to embrace the idea that fathers are as responsible for their kids as mothers are. If more people acknowledged this, then mothers wouldn't be especially penalized at work for being a parent, single mothers would have guaranteed child support from their ex-husbands, the list goes on and on.
The more I read up on relevant articles and books such as The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, the more I felt it was relevant to change the mindset that parenting is a women's issue.
I started SERATA with the overall mission to promote gender equality. But I think a specific focus on fatherhood and share responsibilities at home gives it more clarity.
My journey has just begun. Will you support me in changing the face of fatherhood in Malaysia?