DIDN’T WE ALMOST HAVE IT ALL?
Time magazine asked if having it all means not having children. Urk! Was my becoming a parent an act of self-sabotage?
The cover of the August 12th, 2013 issue of Time, features a smiling couple relaxing on a soft, sandy beach beneath the title ‘The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children’.
Inside, the article is even less subtle. Now titled ‘None is Enough’, it shows the same couple clinking cocktail glasses under a beach umbrella, while in front of them, a father, trailed by his wife and children, strains as he drags along a wagon heaped high with spades, buckets, coolers, beach balls and miscellaneous other sand-flecked inflatables.
The article features couples who chafe against what they see as the socio-cultural imperative to have children. At a time when the costs of providing for a family are extremely high, never mind the pressure to arm kids for success, being childless can seem eminently sensible. In fact, the article quotes a London School of Economics study that correlates childlessness with high IQ. The article seems to suggest that questioning a couple’s decision to be childfree is not just blinkered and illogical, it’s even anti-modern.
Forced to put down the article by my four year-old daughter yelling for me to come and wipe her bottom after a poop, I couldn’t help wishing I was lying on a soft, sandy beach somewhere sipping a cocktail.
This was odd, as I’m usually a beachophobic teetotaller.
‘We’ vs ‘Me’
Some have criticized the Time article as irresponsible for seeming to encourage people to stay childless when the US birthrate is at the lowest in recorded history, and the moribund economy sure could use a few more taxpayers.
Most such attacks I’ve read betray a very simplistic reading of the piece and more of the critics’ own political leanings, judging by how many of them seem to think that adults who choose to avoid having kids are merely being selfish. That is pure nonsense.
It’s very clear from the article (and our many childless friends) that the decision not to have kids is never taken lightly, and is often followed by feelings of guilt or having missed out on something fundamental to existence. Very often, the choice is made precisely out of the fear that one will be an inadequate parent. As Leah Clouse, an art teacher in Tennessee, told Time, “I don’t feel we can do what we can do and be great parents – and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents.”
That’s far from selfish – in fact, it’s downright noble.
So why did I feel dissatisfied with the article?
Thinking about it, what bugged me was the reduction of the argument to an abstract one between the conventions and perceived needs of society at large (‘We’) and individual choice (‘Me’).
While I didn’t appreciate the way the “We’s” were judging the “Me’s”, I also felt that the “Me’s” contemplated in the article had omitted people like, well, me.
Papa in the Middle
My feeling is no doubt shaped by the fact that there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t look at my daughter and think that (a) she’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me while simultaneously wondering if (b) she isn’t also the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
The Wife and I became parents comparatively late, at 39 and 38 respectively. We weren’t against having kids, but at the time, all our energies were directed towards trying to reinvent ourselves as writers and filmmakers, and money was extremely tight. To pay the bills, Yen was an entry-level university professor, while I scraped by on freelance writing and cartooning assignments and we all know how well those gigs pay. At one point, I even swept floors for extra cash. We were far from the model of what parents should be. Plus we were in New York, far, far away from our family support network back in our home country of Singapore.
Were we being selfish? Maybe. I was, after all, a qualified attorney in three different jurisdictions, and if I’d really, really wanted to, I could have scored a well-paying job or gone back to Singapore with all its comforts.
But that would have felt like defeat.
Because New York had tantalized us both with creative possibilities we’d never even contemplated, and we were actually making progress at fulfilling our ambitions – ambitions which were extremely rare for Singaporeans of our vintage.
In 2009, despite not having gone to film school or accrued any significant industry experience, we had written, produced and directed a feature film that won, amongst other things, the Montblanc Screenwriters Award (at the time, Europe’s largest, and yes, conferred by those dudes behind the super-expensive pens) at San Sebastian, one of Europe’s premier film festivals, as well as the Best Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. We were nominated for many more awards at other festivals, the film had played at venues like the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and had also been picked up in many countries.
To me, ‘selfish’ connotes stuff like wanting to, oh, play with the Xbox all night or eat at expensive restaurants before catching a Broadway musical or a Godard marathon at the Film Forum. Whereas we were struggling and suffering far more than the vast majority of my peers, living in rat-infested lodgings and on credit card debt, all to challenge ourselves.
Like every couple in the Time piece, we resented the pressure coming from family and friends to join their Family Plan.
Frankly, I think we probably had it worse than the Time subjects – since (a) we’re Asian and (b) both my dad and sister were medical doctors whose exhortations to have kids also came with scientifically-backed warnings about the risks of delay.
What You Don’t Expect When You’re Expecting
We learned we were expecting in the most unexpected way.
Tired of years of handing over our hard-earned cash to feckless landlord after feckless landlord, we began contemplating buying our own little apartment with our prize money and what little savings we had.
While checking out kitchen countertops in a small tile shop, Yen lifted a slab of Caesarstone up for closer inspection.
On seeing her, the proprietress barked, “Careful! It’s heavy and you’re pregnant!”
“No, I’m not!” Yen gasped, nonplussed.
“Then… you just gave birth?” frowned the proprietress, skeptical.
“Do I look that fat?” Yen grumbled later in the car, then we laughed.
We hadn’t been trying for a child at all. Sure, we’d been thinking about it, but we were working on our next film – one even more ambitious than Singapore Dreaming, with – a tighter script! More sophisticated production values! More ambitious themes! Interest from important people!
And we knew the rollercoaster tempo and punishing schedules of filmmaking, not to mention the meagre budgets of the indie projects we had in mind, made parenthood impossible. We weren’t Hollywood types who could demand a trailer and childcare on set.
Maybe after we’re done with the movie, we said somberly. If ever. It would be sad not to have kids, we conceded, but many people don’t. Parenthood isn’t the sum total of being human.
Personally, I also knew that if I became a parent, I would do the responsible thing for my child, even if that meant suppressing my own ambitions.
If I don’t have kids, then the only one who’s sad will be me, I reasoned. But when you’re an unfulfilled parent, you’ll invariably visit your resentment on your children, making them sad too. The math was simple.
Yen and I were both so sure the lady at the tile shop was wrong, but felt rattled enough to buy a test stick from the pharmacy. What the pee-on-a-stick revealed to us rattled us even more:
To this day, we have no idea how the woman knew – Yen’s hormones floating through the ether? Some telepathic message from the womb? Divine intervention?
Our immediate reaction was to begin writing and plotting treatments and screenplays madly, hoping to stockpile enough film projects so we could hit the ground running once the initial frenzy of new parenthood settled down. In our fevered imagination, we thought the delay would be, what, a year or two at most?
Except. Except. Except… What is it Woody Allen said? If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.
At 2.15 a.m. one cold March morning, 3 whole months before our baby was due, Yen stumbled out of the bathroom and woke me, saying she’d begun gushing and couldn’t stop.
“I think I’m in labor,” she said, to which my idiotic response was, “Are you sure?”
“You ask me, I ask who?” she barked, the Singaporean in her surfacing with a vengeance.
We rushed to the E.R., where she was hurried into Triage and informed that yes, her water had burst and she would have to stay in the hospital till the baby was born.
This was a shock as Yen had never mentioned feeling any prior contractions, though in hindsight, maybe there were early signs that she, in her stoic strong-as-a-horse Shaolin kung fu heroine mode, had dismissed – like backaches, indigestion-like stomach pains, and little stomach waves.
The attending doctor told me that Yen was very likely to deliver prematurely, but that they would try to prolong labor as long as possible, as our baby’s lungs were still too immature. They pumped her with antibiotics to ward off infection, steroids to help the baby’s lungs mature faster, and also magnesium sulfate to try to slow down the contractions and inhibit labor.
My head began to swirl. While trawling through the usual pregnancy books, I’d come across all the possible risks and complications for premature babies – from major disabilities to learning delays. But I never expected it to happen to us.
Even when my sister, who by then was working at one of Singapore’s top neonatal hospitals, tried to reassure me that many preemies have done well “in the long term”, I was still freaking out.
It didn’t help that Yen was reacting very badly to the magnesium sulfate. I had never, ever seen her in so much pain, gasping and tossing her from head side to side. I felt wretched and helpless. (I would have said I felt impotent if my potency hadn’t led to her being in this state.)
Thankfully, after they switched her to another drug, Terbutaline, her system began to calm down. In fact, Yen began responding so well that her obstetrician started saying she might even be able to hold things off for several weeks.
After two days, they took her off Terbutaline, as prolonged use can affect the heart. So upbeat were they that they even took her off the monitor before transferring her out of the delivery ward to a mother-and-baby ward.
I was a little disturbed by this, since Yen was saying she still felt contractions, albeit small and far apart. But the nurses didn’t seem to think it was an issue. After some remonstrations from me, the crazy kiasu husband, they restored the monitor.
By this time, Yen’s contractions were getting closer together, and lasting longer, but the monitor didn’t always reflect what she was feeling. I was very anxious, and began keeping my own log of her contractions and her rating of the pain on a scale of 1 to 5. Every time Yen said she felt something, I’d summon the nurse. And almost every time, the nurse would say the monitor wasn’t registering anything we needed to be concerned about. I think she was also beginning to be annoyed at me.
To distract ourselves, we began watching Takashi Miike’s Crows: Episode 0 on my laptop. [ref]The prodigious Miike has always been one of our favorite directors, even though he’s also responsible for the only movie I’ve ever wished I could un-watch: Ichi the Killer.[/ref]
I’d been itching to watch Crows Zero since I was forced to miss it (and also meet Miike in person) at the Tokyo International Film Fest, because I had to attend our own screening of Singapore Dreaming.
We paused the DVD every time Yen felt contractions, whereupon I’d buzz the nurse to come in and check on her, only to be told the monitor showed everything to be OK.
Sometime after this nurse went off duty (her parting words were, “I’m sure we’ll see you back here again tomorrow!”), Yen began gasping and sweating.
I rushed out of the room to corral the new duty nurse, who dutifully stepped in, first checked the monitor, then raised Yen’s gown. (You know, priorities.)
And we both saw it – a tiny foot emerging. Not only a premature birth, but a breech to boot. (Pun not intended.)
To this day, it’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. Ridley Scott’s chestbursting Alien has nothing – nothing! – on my daughter’s bloody foot.
The only thing that might have been scarier would be seeing Sadako crawl out of there.
The duty nurse began screaming for the other staff, while I grabbed Yen’s hand and babbled ineffectual nonsense in a pathetic attempt at calming her.
But she continued yelling and bucking in a way I’d never seen or heard before, clutching the bed rails till her hands were white. I wondered if what she really needed wasn’t a doctor, but an exorcist.
In a flash, a team of around 15 doctors and nurses had swarmed around Yen, urging her to “Push, Mommy! Push!” It was like some scene out of E.R., and I had to suppress the urge to whip out my video camera to film it all.
A nurse tried to usher me away to the waiting lounge, but I pushed past her and came back in time to witness a doctor holding my tiny, tiny daughter, all covered in blood and shit, in his hands. Because the birth had caught everyone by surprise, they didn’t have any isolette on standby.[ref]Let alone a machine that goes ‘Ping!'[/ref]
Speeding past me, he told me they heard her cry (“A good sign!”), then, unable to wait for any elevator, he darted into the stairwell and charged up the stairs to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
As I watched them clean Yen up, I felt faint. Most breech births require a caesarean section, but because our baby was so small, she had slipped out fairly quickly, so much so that Yen only needed the tiniest of sutures. I wanted to tell her she was lucky, but we both knew that assessment would be, well, premature.
Tip for other parents: Here’s the scene we were watching just before everything went crazy. Please, please choose a less exciting movie.
Father and Child Reunion
As Yen recuperated, I went up alone to the NICU. My feeling of anxiety was heightened by the generally tight security of maternity wards in America, where the abduction of babies by, say, estranged parents or psycho strangers, are a real concern.
I noticed the trace of a bloody handprint on the wall, and I wondered if it belonged to the doctor who carried my baby in.
One of the neonatologists waved me over to a row of incubators. And there I got my first real look at my daughter.
She’d been cleaned up, and was now hooked up to a tangle of wires and tubes. Ever the comic geek, my first thought was, “My daughter… is Weapon X!”
But maybe I was subconsciously hoping she would have Wolverine’s mutant healing factor.
The neonatologist told me she was very small for her gestational age – just under 2½ pounds (1.1 kg). I looked around, and it may have been my disquietude, but she looked like the smallest baby in the ward. In fact, she didn’t even look like a baby. I remember thinking she looked for all the world like a skinned cat. Born at a mere 30 weeks, deprived of her entire third trimester in the womb, there was almost no fat on her.
But she was alive. That was important, I told myself, and willed myself to feel grateful. I couldn’t shake the feeling, however, of guilt and responsibility. Was she like this because I hadn’t taken enough care of my own health? Or because we’d waited for too long?
Believe It Or Not
The next five weeks of her internment in the NICU were both nerve-wracking (is she ever going to be OK?) and oddly relaxing (we just had a baby but we can still watch TV at home because she’s being cared for by professionals!).
We visited her in the NICU twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, bearing freezer bags of pumped breast milk. Because she was so tiny, the supply was way more than she needed, and at one point the nurse told us to slow down because the NICU’s fridge was almost entirely occupied by Yen’s output. (We even asked if we could donate our surplus, but the hospital said the liability issues were too great. I really wish I’d seen this article then.)
Yen and I also took turns administering kangaroo care to Yakuza Baby, as I’d officially nicknamed her in my column for the Sunday Times. She’d entered this world, after all, while watching a Japanese gangster movie.
As she lay on my bare chest, skin-to-skin, I remember singing softly to her. No one had told us that doing so was hugely beneficial for preemie babies, but I guess it felt natural, even for a passionate karaoke-hater like me.
We were both tickled by the songs we wound up dredging from our memories.
Ever the child of the 70’s, the song Yen sang most often was the theme to the old TV show, “The Greatest American Hero”:
But that made sense, with its superhero/beating-the-odds overtones.
For me, I was surprised to find the song I sang most often was Fairground Attraction’s wistful “Allelujah”, and that I could remember all the words.
Fairground Attraction was never one of my favourite bands, and I hadn’t listened to them since the early 90’s. But maybe my brain automatically searched for a song that best expressed what I most profoundly desired under the circumstances – to cut the strings, let the past fall away, and kiss the first of a million kisses.[ref]I have since acquired Eddi Reader’s entire back catalogue, with a newfound respect for her talents.[/ref]
Home, Work, Bound
After 4 weeks, Yakuza Baby was freed from the isolette and moved to an open bed. And a week after that, she was deemed healthy enough to come home – still well over a month before she was originally scheduled to be born.
It was such a momentous occasion that as I bundled Yakuza Baby in her car seat through the front door, I felt compelled to utter, “The Eagle has landed.”
In some ways, we’d been lucky to have had the 5 weeks she was in the NICU to rest and prepare for her arrival home.
But I think it’s safe to say that no matter how many people you’ve consulted, or how many books or blogs you’ve read, no parent is ever truly prepared or can adequately prepare.
Her birth was already a cataclysm, but her homecoming was an asteroid strike on the scale of Tunguska.
I thought I could do a little work while she slept – because that’s what babies do most of the time, right? Right?
But as all parents know, when your baby sleeps, you either have to do stuff to prepare for when she awakes (Laundry! Cook! Sterilize stuff! Buy diapers and other supplies!) or take advantage of the downtime to nap and recharge.
I finally understood why people kept urging us to have kids while we’re younger. There are, of course, many good things about being a more mature parent, but youth wields a real trump card when it comes to pure, dumb energy.
I also felt bad for Yen, who had to be the C.O.D. (Cow on Demand). So I volunteered to bottle-feed Yakuza Baby between 10 pm and 5 am every night, so that Yen could have at least a few hours of unbroken sleep. I would then catch my Z’s between 5 and around 10 am.
I also thought that the still of the night would provide fewer distractions, so I could sneak in some writing while Yakuza Baby snoozed in-between feeds. But everything I wrote during that period was subpar. My brain was often just too fried.
It was also hard to write with just one finger. Because Yakuza Baby was very clingy, and didn’t like to sleep in her crib. She liked to be held – which was fair enough for a child that technically should’ve still been in the warmth of her mother’s womb.
So most nights, I would be cradling her and either typing with one finger on my laptop, or reading books or magazines propped up in a second-hand laptop stand I’d bought off eBay.
When I just couldn’t focus anymore, I would watch some TV – with the audio off so as not to disturb the baby’s sleep. This basically limited me to whatever foreign, subtitled stuff was on in the wee hours of the morning, such as ‘X-Boyfriend’, a profoundly weird Korean reality show wherein a TV crew basically stalks an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend on behalf of some sad sack, and then persuades the ex to come into the studio to decide whether to rekindle the relationship before a live studio audience.
We were relatively fortunate in that those first 3 months came right smack during Yen’s summer break.
However, we had little time to relax because we were determined to buy and move into a new home before Yen went back to teach in the Fall. This was especially because the place we were renting had very poor heating in the Winter, and also other defects that the Landlord was lackadaisical about fixing, such as a hole in the wall that vermin were using to enter as the weather turned colder.
So most days were spent checking out properties or renovation supplies, with Yakuza Baby tucked into a baby carrier around either around Yen or me. Yakuza Baby was also present at the closing of the small 2 bedroom apartment we’d chosen.
Still, things were relatively orderly.
To our relief, Yakuza Baby was healthy. She was cheerful, and despite her preemieness, had reached the statistical centre of the weight/height chart for Singaporean babies (although she was still below the range of US charts).
Also, as part of their protocol for premature babies, New York State had dispatched Early Intervention staff to come to our house to test Yakuza Baby for any signs of developmental delay. I was incredibly relieved when the nurse told us that although her adjusted age was only a week old, Yakuza Baby was showing the developmental signs of a 3-month-old.
We’d even begun to feel upbeat when Yakuza Baby began sleeping through the night, from around 8 pm till 5 am.
Pity that lasted only for about six weeks.
The stress returned with a vengeance when:
(a) Yen had to go back to teach, as well as to begin the stressful application for tenure.
(b) Because we hired a Cantonese-speaking contractor, Yen also had to oversee the gut-renovation of our new apartment, which hadn’t had anything done since the 1960s.
As the non-Cantonese-speaking freelancer-in-residence, that left me as the primary caregiver for much of the day.
(c) Yakuza Baby, protesting the absence of her food source for stretches of several hours a day, went on bottle strike.
I bought every single kind of bottle and teat on the market, and even some that were not (I had friends from Asia mail over brands from Japan and Taiwan), and Yakuza Baby refused them all. She would go hungry all day till Yen came home, then drain her like a vampire all night.
With me, she would cry almost constantly, no doubt from hunger. She would also not only refuse to be put down in her crib, but even if I strapped her to me with the baby carrier, she wouldn’t let me sit down or do anything. So I had to be on my feet, carrying her the entire day. My back and feet felt like platters of mincemeat by the time Yen came home.
I felt lousy, because no matter what I did, I was just physically incapable of giving my daughter what she wanted. And because she wouldn’t be bottlefed, I would have to pass her to Yen each time she was hungry, leaving her very little time to rest.
It was also especially hellish for me as a writer known for being humorous. Every week, I’d have to turn in cheeky, cheery pieces for the Sunday Times, 8Days and whatnot, when I actually felt like slashing my wrists.
Lawyer of Diminishing Returns
It was heart-rending to see Yen have to work all day, supervise renovation and breastfeed all night.
But as the butt of Yakuza Baby’s fury all day, I couldn’t muster the energy to show enough sympathy. In my misery, I resented the fact that at least Yen had somewhere to go every day where she could be respected as a professional, whereas I was stuck at home, the failed writer and father.
This period remains the one in our marriage when we argued the most.
Eventually, I was persuaded that we should seek some form of childcare. But we couldn’t afford any.
So I sucked in my pride and applied for a job as a lawyer. Out of practice for nine years, I felt I had no hope with any of the big Manhattan firms. Also, I wanted a job that would allow me time to still be a father, and which I could leave without too much guilt at the earliest opportunity. So I applied to a mid-size firm in nearby Forest Hills.
I got a call back within an hour of sending my first email. I remember taking the call in the parking lot at BJ’s Wholesale Club while loading diapers into the trunk of our car.
Returning home, I dusted off my suit – unworn for nearly a decade – and went for the interview.
The managing partner gushed about my Ivy League qualifications and ability to speak and read Chinese. He was positively salivating at how he could use me to gain access to the burgeoning Chinese population, and even asked me to hunt for office space in Flushing for a prospective branch.
I tried to be as positive as I could even though more and more disturbing things emerged in the course of the interview – such as his tremendously bad hairpiece, how his associates’ duties included buying him lunch, and his ranting about how awful “these Chinese people are”. It felt like an hour with David Brent of the British version of The Office.
But the upshot was that I felt the salary he was offering was insufficient. While perhaps reasonable for someone out of practice for so long, too much of it would be going to a nanny or childcare centre. It seemed perverse to take on a horrible, unfulfilling job in order to pay someone else to take over my horrible-but-still-worthy responsibility.
Leaving the firm, I felt like I’d taken a shower in slime. Professionally, it was my lowest point in absolutely ages.
When I told Yen I couldn’t take up the job, she was very understanding, and I was grateful for that.
We vowed to find a better way together.
Back to the Drawing Board
Things got a little better after we moved into our new place.
By circulating my resumé, I managed to score a few freelance ghostwriting gigs, which provided some financial breathing space. Even though we still couldn’t afford a nanny, I felt I wasn’t totally useless.
Knowing that the best response to desperation is inspiration, we also began plumbing the depths of our imagination for creative things we could pull off while still meeting our parental responsibilities.
We also consciously looked to Yakuza Baby as our muse. What responses did she trigger in us that we could use? What lessons did we learn from her that we wished to impart? What would we create, if we were creating something for her to remember us by?
Sure, she had disrupted our lives, but we were determined to see her as an opportunity too.
The solution was, surprisingly, to do a comic.
I’d been cartooning professionally for over 20 years, but had never done a full-scale comic series or graphic novel. In fact, part of the reason I’d chosen to come to New York in the first place had to do with my love for comics. It felt not only right, but overdue. Even better, with comics, we didn’t need a big crew or any expensive equipment.
Some years before, Yen and I had come up with a comic strip idea about kung fu fighting comic characters, which we called “Dim Sum Warriors”.
I’d submitted sample strips to several newspaper syndicates, and got rejected by every single one. I wasn’t surprised. Quite apart from the newspaper business generally being on the decline, it was really hard for a new strip to displace the long-running ones – especially one with a comparatively exotic theme and cast of characters.
So we revisited the concept, fleshed out the characters and storyline into a more ambitious narrative and started planning what we could do with it.
The premise still resonated with us. (I like to tell people it’s “a cross between Harry Potter and a Cantonese restaurant menu.”) We both loved watching kung fu films and going for dim sum, even when we were kids in Singapore.
It thus seemed a symbolically appropriate project to honor our bicultural child – a tale about kung fu-fighting Chinese snacks, as told through that most American of art forms, the comic book.
I then hunkered down and wrote and drew a 30 page pilot to test the concept (which we’ve included in Dim Sum Warriors Vol. 2 – Feast of Fury).
We circulated it to various people, to collate feedback for the eventual comic, much as we’d done with our screenplays. Everyone who’d heard our concept said they loved it, which was very heartening. I began to feel hope, and a growing sense of momentum again.
We raised some investment, ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign and Dim Sum Warriors was launched not just as a simple comic, but an interactive bilingual language-learning app for the iPad.
Dim Sum Warriors has now gotten us even more high profile press than even Singapore Dreaming:
So it’s now been eight years since Yakuza Baby was born.
Every time I hear someone say, “The day your child was born must have been the happiest day of your life!” I want to flash them this:
Because that’s what it felt like for me – horrifying, traumatic and alien.
Did having a child hobble all our professional plans? Yes.
And she continues to do so.
Working with a child is like wading through a swamp while tethered to a ball and chain. Something that used to take me days now requires months. Used to pulling all-nighters on projects, we now force ourselves to be home early.
It is very, very frustrating to begin writing and enter a groove only to have to abandon it half-way to tend to mundane necessities. Your mind also continues to grind away even as it’s ground down by the guilt of knowing you’re not being ‘in the moment’ with your child.
Already somewhat neurotic, I would lie awake at night worrying about how our professional progress was being hampered by things like, well, the laundry hamper.
We were also forced to pass up many opportunities that we might have seized if we were still childless. We turned down a fabulous project that entailed moving to another country, for instance, because although Yakuza Baby seemed to have caught up, we just didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
And while certain things became easier (she was potty trained relatively early and easily, plus we finally managed to afford a nanny), other things didn’t (as her intellectual capabilities grew, she became more and more demanding of our time and attention).
There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t wish I had just! A! Few! More! Hours! to work.
But our daughter also brought us fresh inspiration that has taken our work to whole new levels.
Is having a child stressful? Absolutely – like nothing I’ve ever faced. And I’ve argued before judges, government censors, and venture capitalists, I’ve been attacked by angry seamen and nearly fallen off an oil tanker, and the Singapore Parliament has even debated whether they have the jurisdiction to “catch” me for my work.
But I love my daughter like I’ve never loved anyone or anything before. All those clichés annoying parents spout about their kids being wonderful and amazing and magical? I’ve found that they’re not only true, they’re an understatement.
Every time I look at the awards gathering dust on my shelf and wonder if I’ll ever helm another production, I also know that no prize, no five star review, and no amount of box office success can even come close to the joy I feel when my daughter tells me she loves me.
At best, the awards, et. al. are a pat on the head. They’ll never love me back. It’s a revelation I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t lucked out and become a dad.
I’m fully aware that at some point she’ll grow up and hate me for the usual reasons. But I’ll still be comforted that at one point in my life, another human loved me in a really simple, uncomplicated way.
Is this ex post facto justification? Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe. But knowing so won’t change my feelings for my daughter.
I still believe no one should judge couples for not wanting to have kids. The decision to stray from the herd is already very hard, and raising a child is even harder.
But Time magazine went overboard by suggesting the decision to be childfree isn’t just a personal one, but an objectively sensible one – that you could have it all if you don’t have kids.
The truth is, being able to “have it all” is pure fantasy, regardless of whether or not you have kids.
There’s no such thing as a life lived without regret or anxiety or sacrifice.
It’s true that having kids may cost you your chance to write that great novel or climb that tall mountain.
But after (or perhaps I should say despite) my experience, I have come to believe that those who deliberately choose not to have children in order to focus on their work and personal goals may be closing themselves off to something truly transformative and transcendent.
Anyway, who’s to say some vicissitude other than parenthood might not come along and frustrate your best laid schemes?
And to be honest, if you think you shouldn’t have kids because you’re worried you might not be a great parent, that probably makes you more likely to be one.
Worth: In Progress
Every so often I get asked, “So was it worth being a parent?” It’s a dumb question because it suggests parenthood is amenable to some dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, or that it isn’t a continually evolving process.
The birth of my child was arguably the worst day of my life, but it provided a wonder beyond anything I could have imagined. I believe that my life would have been infinitely poorer without my infuriating, nerve-wracking, magical, smart, loving and funny daughter. Whether that is empirically true or purely delusion is totally irrelevant.
Today, Yakuza Baby will be going to school for the first time, as a pre-kindergartner.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to having more time to work. But I’d also be lying if I said I’m not feeling wistful that this epoch is coming to an end.
We may not have had it all, Baby. But we sure had a lot, and I’m looking forward to having more.
My blood ran cold when I first heard this podcast from Radiolab, one of the best radio shows in the world. It covers the experiences of a couple whose child was born at 23 weeks and 6 days, even earlier than Yakuza Baby. The account, however, was eerily similar to ours, and touches on very tough issues such as what constitutes life, and whether it’s best to do nothing or everything. You can listen to it below:
I had followed your columns in Sunday Times and wasn’t happy that it was taken out, and frankly I forgot about you until this article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. Totally agreed with you on your write-up, and I actually have more friends who decided very early on not to have kids… Which actually makes me the odd one out. And my husband and I really only thought of having kids after we have done many things together as a couple and as individuals, and yes, we feel we are less likely to blame our boys for some of our unfinished/undone plans and projects.
It’s great to know that your daughter is growing up so well, I can understand all the roller-coaster, through hell and back kinda feelings and your wife is a very brave woman. And your daughter has a wonderful dad in you.
I thoroughly enjoyed this post. You summed it all up so very well. And every time I scrolled down to find a pic of your sweet daughter, my heart melted and I understood.
That was a beautiful read. Thanks, Colin.
I am amazed to see a very different side of the Colin Goh I’m used to seeing at the back of 8 days every week.
Thank you for posting this, I look forward to more of your writing! 🙂
Your story reminds me of Lee Ang’s house-husbanding years, and also of a father-professor-director I know. He just made a movie while (despite?) having a 4-year-old son. So I just want to say: it’s not impossible. Also, loved Singapore Dreaming and I do believe it’s paved the way for certain Singaporean films that are fresh on the screen right now. Thank you for writing this and illuminating what a rewarding thing parenthood is.
While i struggled to balance the fartherly duties of handling my 5 mths old boy and businesses, every day is a joy despite the missed opportunities and i felt for every moment that you have wrote. very heart warming indeed and i look forward to a movie on this part of your journey. God blessm
Glad it all worked out for both of you. Some people may think that being childless seem like we have it all, career, travel, personal time, etc. But sometimes, it is not by choice. I love her first day of school picture, adorable!
I enjoy reading your post! As a parent, you nailed it keep it up
I love this article of yours cos me and my wife went through similar experience with yours albeit in Singapore. My son was born as a 31 weeker…..
I truly love this.
I got married last year and my husband and I were dating long distance for about 5 years that we thought we’d like a couple years to spend together before having kids. I’ve always thought having a kid is such a scary experience because you’re tied to them for life! And what if they don’t grow up to be good people etc. Both of us had been undecided on kids – if it happens, it happens 😀
But then, guess what? Six months after we got married, a month after I moved from Malaysia (hallo, neighbor!) to be with him in the US, we found out I was pregnant with our first child. I had mixed feelings at first; I wasn’t thrilled when I found out — I felt having a child would disrupt with my future plans of going to grad school, getting used to life in the USA etc but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that things will work out in the end, whatever that might be.
Like you, I work from home so it’s going to be interesting to see how I’m gonna be able to juggle that once the baby is here in Oct!
Great stuff Colin. But for the erroneous judgment on people who choose to play X-box all night.. sniff..
Beautiful article Colin. I laughed and teared while reading.
My girl is coming 15 months and it’s been a journey of greatest joys and greatest fears all wrapped into one. And truly everything just melts away when she smiles.
A really moving article. I’ve enjoyed reading your stuff since the Teenage Textbook days, and it’s been a long time since, and I must say, welcome to the club! I relocated to Taiwan from Singapore 10+ years ago and my daughter came to us out of the blue nearly five years ago.
And of course, she’s the most beautiful thing that has happened to me. Sure, I’m tied down in more ways than one, but I’d never substitute this for anything else. Never.
Wish you and your family all the best!
Yesterday, I shared a time-lapse article I saw on TIME Magazine in my fiancee’s Facebook Page and, for a reason still unknown to me, it posted the article with a picture of the cover of the child-free life.
My little sister, in panic, wrote to me that I had to give her nephews and nieces! That this could’t be happening! I didn’t understand what she meant until I saw the picture of the article I’ve shared. I told her that she didn’t have to worry because I actually do want kids some(not to far away)day.
But I became curious, because I’ve read so many articles lately about this matter so I did some research and, luckily, I found your post.
I have to say is amazing! I feel that I walked all the way with you and your wife. That I experienced everything you went through!
That being said, I understand people who don’t want kids. I truly do. This world seems so mean and inadequate to babies and little kids. In my country (I’m from Venezuela, in South America) is getting harder and harder to provide a good life for children. Politics and social issues are making our lives impossible. We’re not living here, we’re merely surviving. And hardly.
I’m a 27 years old telecom engineer who dreams of having a baby before turning 30. I’ve found the most amazing person to do it with. We both have successful careers and an small apartment we bought to protect our savings. We’re getting married next year. Everything seems right.
But there is no way I’m bringing a baby to this country. Not like this.
It’s sad to think that my kids won’t have the childhood I adored in my beloved Venezuela, but it’s not the same country anymore. It’s even sadder to think the only way that we could raise a family is going elsewhere.
We haven’t decided what we’re gonna do, because it’s too painful to even think about it. But eventually we’re gonna have to and that’s why I don’t judge people who decide not to have children. I don’t think is selfish at all.
I just hope they’ve thinked it through and considered it carefully, because of all the decisions you could regret in your life this is the one you would regret the most.
Keep the good work with Yakuza Baby!
Best regards! (And sorry for my english, spanish is my native language)
We are New Yorkers who moved to Singapore (and had our baby here). It’s almost as if we’ve lived parallel lives. Great read.
Hey Colin – really loved this blog post. Yakuza baby rules! I still remember your Teenage Textbook books 🙂
Seriously, my brother is Sonny Liew so I track the comic scene a bit, so cool to hear you came out with this Dim Sum Warriors i have to check it out!
Anyway, I’m an older to-be Mom, due with my first child in a few weeks in October, living in San Francisco and very far from my family in Singapore and Malaysia, and both myself and my husband are feeling simultaneously blessed and excited and terrified at the same time. (as in “can you believe in a few weeks there will be a freaking BABY living in our apartment??”)
Have also been convinced for some bizarre reason that baby will come early (a few friends gave birth recently, between 1-6 weeks early) but at 35 weeks, he is still in there!
Thank you for writing so honestly about the perils and joys of childbirth (seeing the bloody foot emerge…yikes!!!!) and child rearing…
PS where can I get a copy of Singapore Dreaming in the USA?
My bad….i got momentarily confused….blame it on pregnancy brain…Teenage Textbook was someone else..Talking Cock is what I remember you with 🙂
Hi Cheryl! Thanks for the kind words. You’re not the only one who’s confused me with Adrian Tan before! LOL!
And you can watch Singapore Dreaming on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/singapore-dreaming/id522601426?uo=4&at=11l8DA) or Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009FINBKO/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B009FINBKO&linkCode=as2&tag=colinandyen00-20)
An interesting write up. Well, thru it all, you are blessed with a truly beautiful and unique child. What a gutsy pair of parents you both are!
Absolutely love your writing. Thanks for sharing your journey to fatherhood, and for sharing pictures of your lovely daughter.
As a mom of a 3 and a half year old boy, and a woman who never wanted a kid prior to my son, I can totally relate to the simultaneous feelings of (a) my kid being the best thing that ever happened to me ever and (b) the worst mistake of my life.
I actually laugh out loud when I read that in your article, and it was very cathartic.
Parenthood is not without its challenges… In fact, it is likely the most challenging work in the history of mankind… There has to be a reason for the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”!
But with all of its perils and heartwrenching times, when I ask myself if I will do it all over again, it is without any hesitation that my heart shout a resounding yes. I can never imagine this world without my rambunctious, talkative, filled with boundless energy boy.
When I look at him, no words can ever describe the day I took that step towards motherhood, despite my lifelong reluctance to be a mom, and gave birth to this wonderful little human being.
Parenthood is not something to philosophize and theorize about in a magazine, and by people who have never been parents… It is a journey that can only be understood through experience.
“[..] I have come to believe that those who deliberately choose not to have children in order to focus on their work and personal goals may be closing themselves off to something truly transformative and transcendent.”
I wouldn’t just say “may be,” I’ll go the whole hog and say “will be.” I’m actually one of those whom you’ve just described. I believe I am indeed closing myself off, and I’m OK with that. The experience of having children, however transformative and transcendent, is just not something I want for myself (and fortunately for me, my husband feels the same way.) Just as you might find that unimaginable, I find the opposite just as unimaginable. Does that mean either of us is wrong in any way? I don’t think so. It just makes us different. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Thanks for your lovely account, I enjoyed reading it very much.
— An SCGS girl who still has a xeroxed copy of one of the comicbooks you wrote in school. (How many were there in all?)