You want more paid maternity leave? Then get married.
That’s the government’s reason for why single mothers currently receive half the paid leave that married mums have. Alright then, that sounds eminently reasonable. Why can’t single mothers just pop down to their neighbourhood Husband Store, browse through the catalogue of eligible bachelors, and get married? It’s so easy to find a husband, why in the world are they complaining? It’s not as if getting married requires years of courtship and a genuine connection between two individuals or anything. Pfft. Women these days.
There is so much wrong with our current stance on paid maternity leave that I honestly don’t know where to begin. What frustrates me most is the sheer, callous disregard shown for the struggles faced by a single mother trying to raise her kid. As if working double shifts for six days a week wasn’t enough, the government then gives her only 8 weeks of paid maternity leave to look after her child. This is a person who is clocking overtime in order to make ends meet, and still has to settle the housework when she gets home. If anything, a single parent deserves more maternity leave, not less. Why are we giving someone who has to do double duties raising a child half the paid leave we offer to married women?
Similarly, it makes no sense that tax incentives are extended to married mothers but not to single mothers. As a single parent, your personal income has to go toward paying rent, feeding the child, feeding yourself, transportation, education, and a whole range of other daily necessities. That’s something that would normally be shared by two people. And yet you are saddled with a heavier tax burden that reduces your disposable income? That seems highly counter-intuitive.
The Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr. Chan Chun Sing, says that these are “additional privileges”. In other words, they are a privilege that has been offered thanks to the largesse of the state, and can thus be used as carrots for the sake of social engineering. Remember that the same argument has been used to justify why it is so much harder to buy a HDB flat if you are a single parent. I would argue that having a roof over your head or being able to raise your child without constantly having to worry about paying the rent is not a “privilege.” Having enough money left in the bank at the end of the month so you can rest well at night is not a “privilege.” Being able to be there as your young son utters his first words rather than working late nights in Chili’s is not a “privilege.” These are rights. These are things that the state fundamentally owes all its citizens, regardless of their marital status.
If, hypothetically speaking, the government were to extend 16 months of paid maternity leave and the whole gamut of tax incentives to all parents but paid married mothers an additional sum (be it in the form of Baby Bonus or CPF contributions) to incentivize marriage, I might be less opposed to the status quo. I would still be uncomfortable, because I don’t think that the government should be monetizing marriage. But something like paid maternity leave and tax relief is especially important to a single mother. Making her life even harder, and even more difficult in light of rising living costs, is not a passive incentive to get married. It is coercion wrapped in a velvet glove.
It gets worse when you consider who single mothers tend to be. If you’re pregnant and single, you have engaged in pre-marital sex. If the child’s father was so uncaring and selfish as to leave you with a baby and walk off in the first place, why in the world would this policy make him more likely to marry you? We have already established that he couldn’t care less about how difficult your life is. So, you’re left alone with a young baby. This means you will have to find someone else who wants to marry you, and will be willing to take care of a child that isn’t his. Remember that the window of opportunity to find a husband is incredibly short – maternity leave is given at the point at which your baby is born. So if you take a year or two to find a spouse, too bad. If somehow, under these incredibly onerous conditions you find yourself a husband, you will still have to forge a healthy and resilient marriage. Divorce or an acrimonious spousal relationship later on will have really harmful effects on both your child and your own psyche.
And don’t you even dare suggest that single mothers should have known better than to engage in pre-marital sex. Just because I consented to having protected sex with someone else doesn’t mean that I automatically consented to every single plausible consequence that would ensue. Is it reasonable to ask of a woman to consider the possibility of being a single mother, denied tax relief and offered only 8 weeks of paid leave, every single time she has sex? To say that single mothers brought this misfortune upon themselves begs the question of why we wrote this misfortune into law in the first place.
Or we can look at it from a utilitarian standpoint: this policy is a terrible way to reduce instances of pre-marital sex, because people don’t consider these things in the heat of a hormonal tryst. So you end up with the same number of single mothers, only that you make their lives more miserable.
To say that this policy “is the prevailing societal norm in Singapore, and one which we seek to reflect and preserve” is a massive cop-out. As one of my smartest friends once whispered to me in a debate, this commits the classic ‘is-ought fallacy’. Just because this is a prevailing societal norm in Singapore doesn’t mean that it should be. And the government, which has tremendous legislative influence to change public perceptions, is the very agent responsible for shaping societal norms in the first place. Yes, it’s perfectly fine to champion the “family” as an important facet of Singaporean society. But perhaps it is time to expand the definition of what “family” entails.
Let us not sacrifice the welfare of single mothers at the altar of social stability.