We've Got Work-Life Balance All Wrong

You may have caught me on TV fumbling for the first half hour of the panel discussion on work-life balance on Talking Point a couple weeks ago. If you did, I apologise for fumbling for the first half hour.

If you haven’t, it’s here:

Again, sorry.

But the Blogfather had his reprieve when a caller decided to complain about her colleague’s misuse of childcare leave (and I took on the latter half of the show rather swimmingly). I was told the disdain showed in my reaction, and my point was also made clear: childcare leave isn’t just for when your child falls sick and no one else is there to take care of the little fella.

But as the discussion wore on, the panel also started realising that (a) workplace discrimination is shockingly prolific, and (b) the discussion on work-life balance in Singapore seems to overwhelmingly revolve around working mothers, and very little, if any, of anyone else – working dads, stay-at-home parents, single parents, non-parent guardians, children taking care of their elderly parents, spouses taking care of debilitated spouses, long-term live-in partners… I think we need to recognise that “family” is a much bigger word than our state currently understands it to be?

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“The younger set of dads who want to be family men, we get discriminated against at work.” says father of 2, Winston…

Posted by Talking Point on Thursday, 9 July 2015

That said, I think we’ve been excessively over-reliant on the government (and probably even hiring organizations) to dictate the path forward on the work-life balance issue. The Marriage and Parenthood Package was never meant to promote procreation and push Total Fertility Rate like we all thought (I said as much to The New Paper 2 years ago as well). What it does set out to do is to provide a better support structure for existing families and soften the ground for couples already looking to settle down. And we mumble under our breaths that our companies are not doing enough, out of earshot of our supervisors, while we’re still working in these companies. Seriously, how does that work for you?

Joe Augustin said at the 2013 Dads for Life Conference that bears repeating, “I hear people putting the blame on or giving the power to somebody else – you know, time doesn’t allow, this doesn’t allow, the pressures of this and that… No, it’s you. I mean, really, it’s up to you. You decide.” It’s only been 3 short years since I decided to follow that advice with aplomb, and take matters into my own hands career-wise, and those that follow me also know it hasn’t been all smooth-sailing. But I can tell you a few things that worked for me:

1. It starts from the moment you draft your cover letter.

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In addition to committing to doing my job during working hours, I’ve taken to stating my position as a family man in my cover letters. If you think that’s going to turn prospective employers right off, you’re absolutely right. If a prospective employer decides he won’t consider you because he can’t work with the priorities you’ve set, it’s not a company you want to work for anyway.

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2. Treat your working life like your love life.

Think about it. The job interview is like a first date; both prospective employer and candidate should looking for points of compatibility. In fact, job interviews shouldn’t be treated like a one-way assessment. Then comes the second interview (second date), letter of offer (“Want to go stead?”), confirmation (getting serious), promotions (third base, moving in together, joint accounts, etc.), when a job becomes a career (marriage), and when you decide it’s not working out (if you haven’t established your career foothold yet, it’s a break up; if you have, it’s a divorce). And if you don’t like who you’re working with, that old dating adage also applies here: there are always other fish in the sea.

Now, if you were to make the same kinds of considerations with your job as you would your eventual life partner, wouldn’t you then take extra care to ensure you have the necessary compatible traits to build a cooperative, symbiotic relationship with your company (spouse) before settling down and settling in, and not end up enslaved in your circumstance?

Oh, wait…

3. If you need something addressed with your employer, just ask.

This works a lot more than people think. When you open up discussions with your boss about something you need, be it needing time off to fly kite with your kid (yes, I was serious when I said that on the show), flexi-work arrangements, or even a salary review based on the home finances you need to take care of, a lot of times something can be worked out.

work-life-fly-kite

That said, if “just asking” doesn’t work out, it also serves as a useful gauge as to how much you’re really valued as an individual in the eyes of your employer, and you can (and should) decide where to go from there.

4. Prioritise before compromise – then be ready to compromise.

“Jobs can change, and careers are never set in stone, but family sticks with you for the rest of your life whether you like it or not — or whether your workplace likes it or not.”

That’s my justification, but circumstances will differ from individual to individual. However one decides to live, as long as you have your priorities well-considered, no one can or should judge. But remember that ultimately the company you work for still has a bottom line to maintain, and that is the primary reason why you were hired in the first place – to maintain the company’s bottom line. And when you knock on your boss’s door to “just ask”, expect one of two things: to be rejected, or to negotiate a compromise.

Learning the art of compromise can be quite rewarding; it’s the reason why aunties love the thrill of the bargain, and salespeople can achieve such satisfaction from coming away from a tightfisted auntie with alternative offers that don’t involve a price reduction (ah, see? That’s skill, bols).

5. Accept that change is needed when it’s needed.

I was going to say “don’t fear change”, but if there’s one thing I learnt the last 3 years, it’s that fear is useful for prudently evaluating possible paths ahead, though it should still never be a factor for not moving ahead with decisions.

If you’re already in a place you’re not happy with, and you know you can do better, then really, grow some balls and go do better, fopr the sake of yourself, the ones you love and the ones who love you (and I’m talking beyond spouse and kids here). You are the only one who knows what’s best for you, and no one else.

And you are the only one capable enough to be the master of your own fate.

Making the Blogfather: Turning Point

2 years ago, yesterday. It was a Friday.

“Can I speak with you, downstairs?” I said to my editor.

She looked up at me as I stood next to her. “Uh, sure. Could you give me about half an hour while I clear out my morning routine?”

“Of course, take your time. I’ll be waiting at the coffeeshop downstairs. And just so you know, I won’t be coming back up into this office, again.”

The whole office heard me – a drawback of an open-concept workplace, and one that I was banking on. I took no notice of the others as I turned back, but not before I caught a glint of apprehension fall on my editor’s expression.

A while later, my editor came down to meet me, and what followed was a three-hour long exit interview that began with me saying I was resigning from the company, and looking at the way I was being treated -as an employee, a father and a person – it would be much better off, and much safer too, if everyone accepted that it be with immediate effect.

It was almost as if everyone knew this job wouldn’t last long. I never really settled in the whole 2 months I worked there. I was never given a proper desk of my own to settle into, anyway. As a result, there was nothing of personal importance that I brought to work, and thus none that I needed to bring home with me.

Except my heart.

I told my editor what her boss – the person who hired me – told me; that I was hired because I wrote with heart. And while I was in there, I tried to keep up with what I felt were their ridiculous demands, with all the hope and innocence of a writer that would put all his heart into his writing and his job, no questions asked, simply because I was in absolutely no position to argue against those demands. When I voiced my concerns, I was made out to be disruptive. But to manipulate my circumstances in such a way and force me into a corner (from full-time to freelance, with only 4 days to either decide or leave, and even a now-empty threat of legal consequences should I freelance for any other publication in a related field), whilst either knowing full well or completely neglecting the fact that I was a father with a family to feed, and after two whole months of me trying to conform to their standards, and pleading for chances when I failed to, one can hardly expect me not to snap, and subsequently push back with equal force.

They wanted a writer with heart; they didn’t consider that they also had to deal with one.

Throughout that morning, the editor was trying to explain the company’s actions away, but as I threw down (and reiterated) point after point in rebuttal, over and over again, she found herself less able to protect the interests of the company she worked for, and at some points, even wondering if she was safe from the treatment I was subject to. She even tried to recalculate the articles I had to submit, stating again that this was the workload she routinely had to deal with herself when she first started. But you could tell from the faltering resolve in her voice that the numbers were starting to look ridiculous even to her.

Later after lunch, she would request I go to the conference room for a talk with the CEO’s right-hand man, the company’s sales director. Having not been privy to the emotions I displayed in the morning, he commenced the afternoon’s session with the remark, “I’m sorry, but by leaving without notice, it feels like you’re screwing us over.”

My editor’s face went pale as mine turned a richer, bolder dark red, and I swear the room also went a few shades darker. I said, in as calm a tone as I could muster, with my left hand clenched and pressed hard on the conference room table and my right index finger pointed solidly just a centimetre away from the skin between his eyes, “Consider what you have put me through, and please speak to the editor should you have any doubt of the ordeal that your company has orchestrated over the last 3 days, and Say. That. Again. To. My. Face.”

He backed up a little, fumbled with his words as he tried to mask his confusion over the sudden turning of tables, then asked to be excused with the editor and left the room for a few minutes. He’d return later with the editor (who decided she would take notes of our afternoon meeting for whatever reason), and try to explain his company’s position over the last few weeks that led to such a drastic restructure, ultimately involving their proposal to switch me to a freelance contract.

But he had already lost me.

In his bid to salvage what was left of our working relationship, he said two things to me. First, that based on my writing for Blogfathers SG! and Dear Xander, I could seriously consider monetising my blog(s) as my primary means of income (something that I did consider later on). Second, he hoped that I wouldn’t consider any part of this a “burning of bridges” of any sort.

I replied to his second notion with not a little scorn: “Haven’t you already beat me to it?”

Then I stood up, and I left.


At a recent blogger event, I was introduced to someone who was looking for dad bloggers to join her company’s writing pool. When she passed me a namecard indicating she was a new marketing manager for this company, I froze for a good 15-30 seconds, and my wife had to briefly (and curtly) explain why on my behalf. A few minutes later, I couldn’t bear to stay, and we left in haste. It had been close to 2 years since I quit, and the wounds still felt as fresh and raw.

I decided to pen this down not so much for public reading, but to figure out how to close this chapter in my life. I can’t say for sure I won’t freeze again if I ever encounter another member of that company in the future, nor can I say I can put all this behind me right now.

Because right this moment, I’m not sure where I will be headed. Last Friday, I was told my services would not be extended for my current job.

The feelings I had facing the uncertainty of my future 2 years ago came flooding back over the last three days. And once again, I am at a loss.

Making The Blogfather: Dark Days

In one of the last coffee sessions I had thanks to the cover letter I wrote, I took an editor job with a company that had a good focus on family (judging from the category of content they dished out at least), and the person who interviewed me was kind (or crazy) enough to overlook the fact that I had no prior full-time editorial experience (I only had my blogs and freelance writing to show in my portfolio at the time). I felt was being granted a first step in chasing a dream, but in my eagerness, I committed my first fatal flaw: an editor is a very different level from a writer, and I was inadvertently skipping a couple of levels. I’d learn this the hard way in a bit.

There were other warning signs: as I started familiarising myself with their editorial style, I found a number of “sensational” articles being published alongside their regular fodder – strange, tabloid-ish incidents, kinky sex stories, domestic abuse gone wrong, even gruesome deaths due to neglect or crimes of passion. I was uneasy about the content arrangement. This really isn’t the kind of thing our target  want to read, I thought. But then I was told that this was necessary to attract readership (advertisers were the business’s core source of revenue, and readership numbers were crucial to maintaining our price point), and it also worked (somewhat) to lead people into our more serious writing. So I tried to swallow it and move on.

Then there were the KPIs. I was tasked to come up with at least 2 articles a day, 5 days a week (my editor at the time would tell me each writer would typically do 4 articles a day, but since I was new, she’d start me slow), while maintaining 2-3 hourly Facebook posts to drive online traffic to everything we published.

But the biggest sign I should really have taken heed to: I was the only writer in the company, and the only one of two in the entire organisation, that had kids. When I raised this concern with my editor and the CEO, both understandably didn’t subscribe to the notion, saying that in the many years since the publications were established, they got by fine without writer-parents. Besides, they both didn’t have any children, either, and they were both contributing to the content pool anyway. The revelation – and its subsequent brushing off – made me feel, somehow, alone.

A week into the job, the company went through a surprise restructure. Though editorial was assured that our jobs were intact (which later turned out to be untrue), a staffer in charge of one of their newer websites decided to resign, giving his two week’s notice. The website was handed over to me, with a view for me to drive unique visitor numbers up from its current 10,000 to 30,000 by the end of the following month.

My own inexperience showed, both in the way I worked and in the way I accepted my work. In the 2 months I was there, my dream turned into a nightmare. I was being chided for not being able to keep up, criticised for coming to work late and leaving on time (I was dropping my son off at school and had to pick him up on time after work). The stress of the job was taking a toll on me; I found myself unable to meeting my daily writing quotas, neglecting my blogs, and at one point, fighting with my then 3-year-old son. The stress manifested physically as well; I started losing sleep and my mojo, and I had bouts of uncontrollable trembling. I lost confidence; I felt I was failing, as an employee, as a writer, as a father. I felt impotent, hopeless, and utterly useless as a human being. I was slipping into depression.

Things came to a head when the editor brought me to the conference room in private to tell me that I was not performing up to expectations; I was still only able to churn out about 2 articles a day for the websites -some days only 1 – and I was only able to bring the website under my care up to 29,000 visitors, 1,000 short of the 30,000 I was supposed to hit by the end of that month. In view of my performance, and in line with the recent decision by the board to restructure, the management was converting the entire editorial department from full-time to freelance.

The entire editorial department consisted of 4 personnel: the editor, that was to remain full-time because she had to manage the editorial department (hmm), a writer in Malaysia that was to remain full-time because he was to be reassigned other tasks, another writer in the same office as me (because, as I was told, the other writer was allegedly also not performing), and me.

Then I was told not to worry, as they hoped to assign me enough work to match my full-time salary, at between $30 ( for non-advertorial, non-sponsored articles, or what they termed “summary articles”) to $100 (for advertorials). (Again, I may have been terribly naive to think it should have been higher, but can someone enlighten me about this as well?) So  under this new arrangement, I now had to churn out more work than I already was the last two months – between 61 to 92 articles a month (including event attendances) in order to keep my salary level, with no benefits and no freelancing with any other parenting publication.

And as if I wasn’t dazed enough from the obvious double-talking, I was told I had till Friday to decide – I was notified at the end of our Tuesday workday.

The next two days nearly broke me. I tried to cope with the sudden and rather brutal changes that I thought was all in a day’s work in an industry I was slowly realising I knew nothing about. To this day, I still couldn’t figure out if the company was screwing with me, or I was simply not fit to be in a full-time editorial position. My wife initially advised me to “grit my teeth and bear it”; I was a father, and we needed to sustain ourselves whilst I tried to find something new.

But even she could only bear so much; the final straw came when I received an email from the CEO of the company while I was attending a gala movie screening as the Blogfather with the Mother of Xander two days later. In the email, amongst the reiteration of my alleged incompetence, I was also accused of being “highly unproductive and disruptive”, with “a work style that is not compatible with your immediate supervisor”.

Something in me snapped when I got to that line in the message. Gone were the feelings of loss, hopelessness and depression – pushed aside with a fresh, slow burn of quiet fury.

Just before the lights dimmed at the theatre, I showed my wife the email on my phone. She took about 30 seconds to go through it, then returned me my phone, turned her eyes back at the cinema screen and said, “Quit.”

And that was all I needed to hear.

Making the Blogfather: A (Cover) Letter to My Future

I’d like to say I left my law firm job amicably, but regrettably, and in what on hindsight now seems like a recurring trend in my abrupt life-changing moments, it began with a quarrel – with my sister, one of the firm’s partners. The day ended abruptly by lunchtime, with me saying I was quitting. As with many quarrels in my life, I cannot for the life of me remember what or why I got so angry. I could only remember thinking if I didn’t, things would have gone far worse.

But leave I did, and I found myself wandering around Fort Canning Hill, wondering what to do next. Over the blazing hot mid-afternoon, after I had taken enough deep breaths to calm down from the fight prior, I decided to whip out my phone and write a cover letter for myself. And this was a letter that would change the direction of my life; for better or worse, I can’t say.

And it went like this:

Dear Sir/Madam,

Seasoned socialites will tell you that “hello” is usually the most effective icebreaker, so here goes.

Hello.

My name is Winston Tay, and I was wondering if you would perchance have a full-time opening for a struggling writer/editor/content manager/father of one who’s looking for a happier way to feed his family.

I am a wordsmith (not necessarily by trade, though most of my career endeavours do involve in large part a mastery of the English language) seeking a permanent position in the publishing industry to build up my writing career. My writing style is best described as fearless, friendly, and fun.

By fearless, I mean I am not afraid to broach controversial topics (of course, within Singapore’s OB marker range). I have a strong curiosity in my ways, which leads me to ask hard questions where hard questions are necessary.

By friendly, I mean I set myself to be highly approachable in conversation, and highly amenable to meeting and engaging people. I also make it a point to simplify my writing for common simplicity and readability, a skill I garnered from dealing with lawyers who pride themselves in complex legalese befitting of the 16th century lawmakers who authored the English common law system.

And by fun, I mean I have a sense of humour, and I’m not afraid to use it.

I’ve attached my resume for your kind attention and (hopefully) pleasurable reading. Samples of my work (commercial and non-commercial) are available on request, if not semi-permanently etched in the vast digital world which we would commonly term the World Wide Web.

Do let me know if you are interested to meet up for an interview. I’ll buy you coffee.

Regards,

Winston Tay

I sent this letter as an introductory email to 6 magazine publishers, both print and online; 5 of them got back to me within a week – I think the last one got filtered into the addressee’s spam folder. And 2 of them never got to looking at my resume before calling me. I ended up having a lot of coffee that month; and as if I needed proof that decisions made in a huff are ultimately not the best decisions one can make, my last coffee session resulting from this over letter would end up tasting extremely bitter.

Making The Blogfather: My Lawfully Shredded Life

A nong, nong, time ago, I used to be a civil servant. Yes, I used to work for gahmen. The Supreme Court, to be exact. As a court transcriber.

This was back in the day just before technology fully infiltrated into our lives; the transcription team would take turns to make cassette tape recordings of court hearings, then after we finished the session, we’d have a 2-hour timeframe in which we’d individually work on behemoth computers with big-backside 19″ CRT monitors installed with Windows 98 and Word 97, to type out transcripts based off our recordings, and then send them off to our department head to compile all the transcripts together before the day ended. There was an entry test for the job: you had to type a minimum of 45 words per minute to qualify. I had only 2 years experience with computer keyboards prior to this job, but fortunately I managed.

And that was as much qualification as I had to enter the legal industry. But enter it I did. 9 months into the court job, I was poached by my then brother-in-law (who co-owned a law firm with my sister) to write for a website that sought to pair people who needed legal representation with a large network of lawyers. Officially, I was known as a content development executive (we made up occupational titles as we went along), but on my namecard, my title was “The Kid” (because we ended up not liking the occupational titles we made up).

And I was still a kid back then; I was 23.

As the partners focused on beefing up subscriptions and developing the infrastructure for the website’s core business, I was charged with overseeing the design of the website user interface as well as proofreading and editing articles submitted by the lawyers (most of which came from the three lawyers running the project). And a little later, I even created a subsection of the website which I lovingly called the Court Jester, where I would curate lawyer jokes, and even write Onion-style parody articles, much to the bemusement of the legal community-at-large.

But it wasn’t always fun. The website was conceived at the height of the dotcom boom, and launched as the era passed its peak. There was a lot of in-fighting as well, a downside from everyone being so close and comfortable with each other that we were practically family (in my case, half of us actually were).

2 years later, our dotcom bombed, but not before I decided to go back to school. I enrolled into a polytechnic and focused on mass communication and media as a full-time student for the next 3 years.

One diploma, one job, one marriage and one kid later (a total of 8 years), I (re-)joined the law firm at the request of my now-ex brother-in-law (sigh, divorce lawyers), as a sort of a writing and marketing consultant to change the way lawyers talk to people – clients and court alike (that’s a rather mindset-changing blog post in itself). And for a while, it was a secure, stable job that more than paid the bills and allowed me to explore my own potential. I even found time to start Dear Xander in December 2011, and 3 months later, Blogfathers SG! as it was known back then. 

It was during this time that I truly understood the power of writing well. We decided to take an actual case and apply my style of writing to the lawyer’s style of, er, layering, and came up with court submissions that read more easily and expressed intentions and logic more fluidly and richly than the more common, drab and dry legal drivel. We got a better verdict as a result, and kept our client, too.

But there was a rather heavy downside to working in a law firm that specialised in civil litigation and divorce: it takes a very strong mind and an even stronger heart to watch people bickering over large amounts of money, and witness marriages break apart on an almost daily basis, either through the client meetings that we conduct, or through the opening statements that the lawyers draft, or through the affidavits that they write, or through the paper trail you have to pick through – bank statements, receipts, letters, emails, phone messages – in order to determine which side is more skilled in weaving the non-fiction into their fiction.

After a couple of years, I decided I needed to leave to find a better way to be happy, and in large part to maintain my sanity as a family man.  It was only at this point that I really started considering writing as a full-fledged career option,  even though I was already writing professionally, both in-house at the firm and as an occasional freelancer in lifestyle magazines, and the jobs I held in the legal industry thus far had elements of writing infused in my scope.

So I tendered my resignation, quite honestly without formulating much of a plan (much to my wife’s chagrin). thereby committing myself to conduct the personal upheaval of my own life that people might call switching careers.

A Day in the Life of a Working Active Father

I wake up at 7 in the morning; these days, I try to clock a good 8 hours of slumber, which is much more than the average parent can ask for, so it doesn’t usually take much effort for me to dig myself out of bed. I wake my son up, and we brush our teeth and get dressed. I make him his sandwich while he’s wearing his socks, and I make sure his bag is all packed – spare school clothes, water bottle, and on some days, something for him to bring for show and tell – before we give the Mother and the Sister of Xander their first kisses of the day, and leave for the morning.

After I drop Xan off at school, I head to work. Some days, I might have enough time to eat before stepping into the office. But by 9am (9.30am at the latest) I’m paid about $18.75 an hour to supply an indefinite amount of words, wit and, on occasion, my knowledge and experience in the name of advertising.

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At the end of every work day, when I decide to leave at 6pm sharp. I do so knowing I leave a trail of talk behind my back. To some, my leaving on the dot is an inconsiderate act, a disruption of work processes, a disregard for timeliness, even disrespect. This mindset exists not just in my own workplace, but in many organisations around Singapore, if not the world, wherever there exists such things as an “office” or a “work culture”.

But I have to say something in defense of those that disagree with my incorrigible punctuality. I did say it myself: I decide to leave at 6pm sharp every day. I have a choice. Of course I do. Everything we do is a choice. It just doesn’t seem like it when I explain why 6pm is my magic hour.

You see, my son’s school, which is 45 minutes away from my workplace by train and peak-hour Shenton Way human traffic, charges a fine of $1 per minute should a parent be late in picking up his or her child, so I have to pay a touch more than one hour’s salary if I’m late for just 19 minutes (for justification of the math, see paragraph 2). That aside, my son’s last meal would have been a half-fold peanut butter and jam sandwich I made for him and a packet of milk at about 3-4 hours before school ends, so he will be famished by the time I get to him, making it imperative that he have his dinner by 7.30pm. And if you ever get to see the face he wears when I happen to be the last parent to reach his school, you’d make sure I always pick him up from school in time, too.

Still, I choose to.

***

Some will choose to make establishing their career the utmost priority, setting out, in properly planned and measured steps with varying degrees of speed, effort, and single-mindedness, to achieve – or exceed – industry benchmarks recognised nationwide, across regions, or around the world, if not for the full satisfaction of personal achievement.

Some will choose to take care of the very fundamental, physiological needs. In a nation like ours, this is in itself a tall mountain to climb, and its peak seems to grow with every passing year (or perhaps by our own insatiable tendency, we shift our own goalposts more frequently than we can catch up to our goal).

I once chose career over life. Then I quit a five-year stint with a company very dear to me because I found myself missing one too many milestones in Xander’s first year.

Then I took on work in a bid to clear my own financial debt from trying to shoot at goalposts I could never reach. But the emotional debt that took its place proved too much to bear; I left a very stable job at a law firm because I had too much empathy to hold on to a job that earned its keep from very messy family breakdowns.

Next, I tried my hand at self-actualisation, and decided I wanted to pursue a dream. But as a full-time writer for a grand total of 2 months minus 2 days after my law firm stint, I learned the hard way that an online publication with content geared towards parents and parents-to-be (you know the one) doesn’t necessarily mean they are run or written by parents, much less a parent-friendly employer; in this case, not by a long shot.

Throughout all the job-hopping, career switches, bad life decisions, and that year-long, nearly incomeless period of wondering what happened and what will happen next, my wife stood by my side, making sure our son was taken care of with one arm, and with the other, working on me while I worked on life. My son continues to love me because I am first and foremost his father, and for the last 5 years of his life, he made sure I knew that. Even on days when I’m the last to pick him up from school, when I see his disappointed face follow me to the car, and I apologise, and he takes a deep breath, looks me in the eye, and says “It’s okay, daddy.”

So, which do you think I would choose to prioritise: people who would grumble about me leaving on time after work, or a 5-year-old boy who will readily forgive me for being late, and still call me Daddy?

***

To my current company, clients and colleagues, I do apologise for inconveniencing your evening of clearing in-trays and requiring that office work be done after office hours . I cannot say enough that I love my current job immensely, more than anything I’ve ever done in my career up to this point, and for 8 hours every weekday, rest assured I will fully dedicate my life to the service of this organisation.

And from hard-earned, mostly painful experience, I also cannot stress enough that no one – not this organisation, nor you, nor me – can ever guarantee that any of us will still be working in this company, with each other, by this time next year.

But what I can and will guarantee is that I will be there for my family, and my family will be there for me, for the rest of our lives. That’s a promise my wife and I made to each other the day we got married. It’s a promise we made to Xander the moment he was born. And we are all committed to making sure Yvie gets all the love she can get from us.

I have to guarantee this because I chose to be an active father.

Taking Leave, The Blogfather Way

Yesterday I was filling out leave forms so I could bring the Wife to her gynae appointment,? and in anticipation of her delivery. When I got to the “Reason for leave” field in both forms, I wrote in the first one:

“Gynae appt (wife, not me)”

And on the second:

“Giving birth (wife, not me)”

I don’t get to give paternal reasons for applying leave very often. So when I do, I make the most of the opportunity.

gynae-leave

The Non-Working Adult

We were visited by a door-to-door charity spokesperson last Saturday. My son stood next to me at our half-opened flat door with me in my sleeping clothes as the guy on the other side immediately raised his house solicitation card and his other hand in defense, blurting out as his first words of greeting, “Don’t worry, sir. I am not trying to sell you anything.”

Thanks to my rather well-documented dealings with various telemarketers and over-enthusiastic salespeople, I instinctively knew I was gonna have fun with this one.

In the middle of his well-rehearsed introduction, he said this: “… we’re encouraging working adults to go for health screening and also introduce our donation drive. Are you a working adult, sir?”

“No,” I said. My son was still next to me.

“Oh,” the volunteer said, face drawing a blank. Then the short little man stretched his neck and looked over my shoulder, and he asked me, “Is there a working adult I could speak to?”

I looked at him. Hard. “I am an adult. But I am not working. This is my son standing next to me. I own this flat. Can you clarify your use of the term ‘working adult’? You seem to be assuming only ‘working adults’ are qualified to listen to what you have to say.”

Our little hero was visibly growing even more little as he struggled to find an answer to my question. “Er, actually that’s the term we were taught to use.”

“Well, could you go back to your teacher and feedback to him or her to use another term? You have effectively lost me at ‘working adult’.”

Now visibly shaken, the little guy tried to maintain his composure and asked me in his bravest voice, “Sorry, sir. Are you still interested in findi–”

“No.”

“Yup. Okay.” And he left.

I went back to the living room. My wife asked me who it was, and I told her, “Charity. Little fella. Assumed I was a ‘working adult’.”

She looked puzzled. “But you are a working adult what.”

I smiled. “What if I wasn’t?”

To the little hero (and anyone out there who is in danger of becoming another of my currently 7 little heroes and counting),

It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to save the world or sell someone a 240-in-1 can opener. Please, if you’re going to read from a script, at least understand what you’re reading, and don’t take for granted that your script was written by someone who knew what he or she was doing. If I can – and I will – catch you not thinking about what you’re saying, I’m sure somewhere down the road, as long as you keep to the same schtick, it’s only going to get uglier for you.

Please, learn to be sensitive with your audience, or you’ll get nowhere very, very fast. And with me, often you won’t even know what hit you.

Your Job – The Ultimate Contraceptive

I sat on the “National Conversation” for quite a while without commenting, particularly when it came to our terrible fertility rate. I know a number of fellow blogfathers who have jumped in on the discussion already (namely, Sengkang Babies, J Babies’ Dad and Daddy Nivlek); I was also knee-deep in covering the opinion of various organisations (the Lien Foundation’s survey and NTUC’s not-so-well-thought-out recommendations, as well as dissecting the PAP Women’s Wing recommendations in light of the PM’s National Day Rally Speech). For us parents-at-large, vibrant discussions such as this is indeed a very welcome thing.

But I kept largely quiet about the whole issue here because something was missing from all the debate. Something I wanted to get to the root of, not only for the purpose of including my opinion to the already opinionated fracas, but for myself and my family as well.

My wife and I have been trying for No. 2 for almost a year. Evidently it hasn’t been easy to schedule some alone time, what with the kid and the recent changes in my life, but as I settled into my new job, something else unsettling grew in its stead, something I never realized until now.

I seem to have lost my mojo.

For a while, I thought it may just be temporary; I got my dream job, my wife and I are having the most wonderful time of our marriage together, and my son was growing up to be a beautiful chirpy little man. I should be in the mood for multiplying like rabbits every other night, but no. Then one night (the same night I’m writing this, in fact), I went on a cycling trip to ask myself why this was so, and this is what I came up with.

It was work. It always has been. This has nothing to do with parental leave of any sort, nothing really to do with money or paying the bills, nor of my son’s future in the Singapore education system. I mean, strictly to the very points mentioned (taking time off for family, money and preschool fees), do any of these really keep a guy from wanting to do the do? (Ladies, shush. This is a blog for dads, you know, that half of the species that’s supposed to be perpetually horny.)

But as I come to this realization for myself, I realise work stress does keep guys from getting frisky. Male executives will worry about keeping their deliverables delivered on schedule, male managers will worry about keeping their projects on track, male directors will worry about keeping their KPIs on target, so much so we don’t have the time nor mood for an erection. And if you were to compare genders, the men really can’t deal with juggling work and our sex life as well as our female counterparts can. We suck multi-tasking.

And really, isn’t that what is really wrong with our fertility rate? I know back in my parents’ day, my dad worked non-stop, never earned much, put his children through university with god-knows-what money, and still found time to have 5 children. So what’s changed over the last 40-50 years in our country that is making us argue that longer paternity leave, lower school fees and more work-life balance is required?

I might have an answer to that, and it points squarely at a legendary Singaporean 80’s icon: Teamy the Productivity Bee. Back in 1982, Teamy was conceived as part of the government’s effort to instill and drive the population into a high-achieving workforce, and the economy that would turn this nation into a first-world country. Teamy did his job too well; KPIs are now part of our culture. Singapore is ranked the 3rd most competitive country in the world, top easiest country to do business in and 186th in fertility rate out of a list of 195 countries by the United Nations.

Feel free to facepalm right about now.

You know what’s the worst thing about all this? Just about everyone is looking to the government for answers, but what’s really confounding to me is, why isn’t anyone asking the businesses, companies and enterprises to just stop bugging us with their bloody productivity standards and just let us procreate already?

I know this whole fertility rate issue isn’t just about one problem, and I may well be oversimplifying the whole issue, but I do acknowledge this is a viable talking point for dads especially, and it has become a very major point of contention for me. If this blog post has got you thinking a little deeper about what’s really up with our collective mojo, let me know if you’re facing similar issues with doing your so-called “National Service”.

Image via coolpicturegallery.us

Chasing Dreams is Hard Work

Dear Xander,

It’s been a month and a half since I switched careers to become a writer. You might have noticed it isn’t the easier of transitions; for one, I haven’t written to you or a while. Sorry about that.

I took this enormous leap of faith knowing it will be an entirely new experience, but knowing it and actually experiencing it seems to be two completely different animals. There are moments where I feel like I’m very much on top of things, as a vocal contributor to the company I’m working for and a suitably experienced parent (I am, after all, hired to be a parenting writer). Then there are moments where I feel like I’m in way over my head, wondering what I’m doing and whether I made the right decision.

And then, there are moments when I simply can’t write.

It isn’t writer’s block. It isn’t for lack of inspiration. It may have to do with time management, or a management of expectations from colleagues or bosses, or a lapse of confidence. I don’t know.

I will usually have some sort of takeaway for you, a moral of the story for you to chew and reflect on. Right now, though, I have no answers, not even for myself.

I’m writing this to you because I’m hoping one day, you can read about what I’m going through at this point in my life, and you can give me that answer. Hopefully by then, you’ll have grown into a better man than me.

Hopefully by then, this job would not have killed me yet.

Love,

Dad