Beyond the veneer of smiling photos and vibrant bouquets, motherhood is also a celebration of the gritty moments. The frantic dash to finish an impossible number of tasks, the grimaces and the tantrums. It is also the magic of unforgettable moments and precious firsts. As the Mother’s Day festivities approach this year, I speak to two single mothers about how their unique circumstances have shaped their stories of motherhood.
At first meeting, Sasha Tomlin is an exuberant force of energy. She’s clad in gym clothes, but she has no plans to head to the gym after our meeting. “I hate the gym,” she says with a laugh. Some six years ago, the British expatriate moved to Singapore on account of her job - married, and with a young daughter.
She thought she would be married forever. But in March 2019, three years into her stay here, Sasha separated from her then-husband. It had been very unexpected, and devastating.
“In the first days, you don’t want to get out of bed. And if you’re a parent, you don’t have a choice - you’ve got to get out of bed, which is a good thing and a bad thing. But those first few months, I was a wreck.”
After the divorce proceedings, Sasha had joint custody of her daughter. The thought of taking care of her child in the time they had together, all by herself, was overwhelming because her ex-husband had been a stay-at-home dad while she worked full-time.
And then she booked a trip to Japan, just her and her daughter. “And I remember thinking I can’t do this, I’m gonna cancel it.”
She didn’t cancel it.
The holiday would turn out to be one that sparked newfound confidence and shattered the doubts she had had about carrying on alone.
“I was like, ‘Ha! We don’t need anyone else. This is incredible. I can do whatever I like, I don’t have to worry about anyone except her and I’. And it’s even now the best trip I’ve been on in my life. That was when I was like, ‘I’m gonna be fine. I am gonna be fine.’”
Still, being a single mother is hardly the norm. And before long, Sasha says, you start to feel like the only person on the planet. For her, Sundays were the worst – it was when she would acutely feel that her family had been almost “chopped in half”.
“I used to feel like this ghost of a person. Everyone’s there on a Saturday or a Sunday, out with their families, and I’ll just be wandering around by myself...And there are times when you feel there’s no other adult, there’s no one here to chat to. It’s just me. And that’s tough.”
Her mother encouraged her to find other single moms, which led her to Facebook. Soon, she had amassed “an army of single mom friends”, some of whom she got to know in person and others via WhatsApp groups.
“Some of these women are still my closest friends today.”
Sasha recalls a conversation she had with one of them whom she had met in the early months of her separation. “I just saw her the other day and it’s all these years later. And she said to me, ‘When I met you that July 2019, you were a different person. You were a shell of a person.’”
Being a “massive” extrovert, Sasha is agreeable to every invitation, whether that winds up being having a drink at the bar or arranging playdates for her daughter. Slowly, she began to see a “little shimmer of hope”; as time passed, she found joy in rediscovering herself and the initial gloom that had shrouded her was overwritten.
“And now my life is bright and wonderful.”
While being a single mom had been a daunting thought at the start, now she wears it as a badge of honour: “I love telling people I’m like that. I wait for them to ask me ‘Where's the husband?’ just so I could be like, ‘No, no husband, single mom, girl power. With my house.’ It's just me and my helper and my daughter. Girls’ house.”
While the questions may be well-intentioned, the ones on the circumstances of her divorce take a toll.
“I don't want to talk about that in front of my daughter. I don't wanna talk about that at all.”
Despite all that, Sasha counts her blessings – her beloved daughter, “the world’s best helper” who is like a mother to her, and the tight-knit community that she has found over the years.
There is this point when you go through a breakup or a separation or a divorce initially, and your heart hurts. Literally. You don't know how you're putting one foot in front of the other, you don't know how the world is still turning, and you feel like how a friend of mine described it to me this week: It's like your blood hurts - everything feels like the worst pain in the whole world.
But it goes away, I promise it goes away. But you have to take steps to get there. But it will.
I catch Joan Lim during her lunch break over Zoom. She’s on a tight schedule with back-to-back meetings for her business, House of Pumpkin. The video stutters at points, but it would be difficult to miss the quiet confidence and calm she carries herself with.
Joan founded House of Pumpkin in Australia, where she had stayed for fifteen years and become intimately acquainted with the market history and culture. The company is based around knitting apparel for children and even matching knitwear for families.
Her inspiration? Her son.
“The reason why I started knitting is because of him. Thirteen years ago, we couldn’t really find good kids' apparel and those really solid cloth fibres. Being a first-time mom, you want the best for your child.”
Having the freedom to choose her own fibre, colours and design was what got her started. Amazed by the knitwear Joan outfitted her son in, then just a baby, others began to order items from her.
Starting from scratch is far from an easy endeavour, but as an unwed single mom, Joan’s experience was an especially rough one.
“To be honest, I have no idea but I just woke up one day and decided to have this child, so it was a one-sided decision... I was in an abusive relationship. And it was a very toxic relationship. And I just woke up one day and said that enough is enough... If I were to have a child, I don't want my son to go through the same thing that I'm going through. So that's one of the reasons why I decided to walk out and disappear and never turn back.”
Coming from a “very stoic, very traditional Chinese family”, Joan could not find the support she desperately needed from her family in the early stages. “Being a single mom, it’s a big shame, I would say.”
During that time, she would sometimes have to distance herself from her family.
Constantly having to contend with her family’s criticisms and self-doubt that she could move forward as a single mom wore Joan’s physical and mental health down. It was her friends’ encouragement that helped her push through.
To be honest, if I don't have the support of my friends or have anyone to talk to, I wouldn't be here today. I might be six feet underground or maybe at the IMH... because depression is such a serious matter... It’s just too hard to handle for one person.
With her son’s birth, however, things would begin to change. “I think I was quite lucky,” Joan says. “Because you know, being a very traditional family, grandsons are always very important.” Here, she chuckles. “Thank god I gave birth to a boy – my dad dotes on him.”
Her father’s attitude began to soften and he retired to take care of her son full-time so that she could concentrate on her career to support the family financially. Back then, she had been working in the financial industry and was based in Australia. It meant that she would only see her son once in a few months, or if they flew over to visit her.
“My son is thirteen years old right now so it’s amazing on the journey, he’s very understanding. Very spoiled because my parents take care of him and that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to have a career and also right now, a company of my own.”
With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joan decided to return to Singapore, where she began offering virtual knitting classes, teaching both adults and children. She is also taking the opportunity to work with more local vendors, such as mothers with young children who need flexible working hours and are willing to teach knitting classes.
“Like I say, I'm one of the lucky ones to have a lot of support around me. So it was only during my pregnancy, it wasn't really smooth-sailing, but subsequently, I was lucky enough to have people to make me who I am today.”
“Whether you’re a single mom or whoever you are, I think your mom guilt is just mom guilt,” Sasha says.
And indeed, both women expressed how torn they were to have to focus on their careers and miss out on precious moments with their children.
“I haven’t been really much of a mom when my son was younger,” Joan says, describing how she hardly got to see him while she was based in Australia. “But I didn’t want to be financially handicapped.”
Sasha talked about how she would get caught up in work for hours behind a closed door during the pandemic period while her daughter was having her dinner alone in front of the television. “That gets tough. But I think that is a sacrifice I have to make. She has a nice life because I am able to work hard.”
Managing these emotions is, no doubt, a constant struggle, but taking time for yourself and strengthening your connections with the people you love are part of the advice that Sasha and Joan have.
Sasha: Everyone is different. Some people like their alone time. But I think you have to be able to have people to lean on, or a hobby. A hobby, I think, is the most important thing anyone can do. Because if you don't have that, then you're just a single mum and you're nothing else. You're not somebody's wife, you're not somebody's friend. You know what I mean? You're nothing else. So you have to build yourself back to a whole person. (Sasha’s passions lie in acting and comedy, the former which she has been involved in for the longest time - she even starred in a movie last year.)
Because the most important thing as a single parent is what your child sees. I think good parenting comes when you're happy. I don't believe in hiding your feelings from a kid. Obviously, depends how old they are, but I do think that making it your goal to show them that life is awesome and you know, everything's okay, is important.
Joan: A lot of moms I saw, they used to be at management level. Due to ego, they are refusing help or they refuse to let their guards down to let someone in to help them which I just want to let them know, it's okay to ask for help. Everyone needs help. It's not a shameful thing.
Asking for help shows that I'm not only thinking for myself, but I care for my child, and I want to leave the past behind and move forward. A happier life with your child and stuff like that. So asking for help might bring in a new perspective on how to lead a better life. God knows if you might meet someone else – you never know what's gonna happen in the future.
I've seen a lot of kids get hurt because their parents are too egoistic to understand what the child is going through after receiving the news that their parents are gonna split up. So a lot of people think that children, they're young, they do not understand what's going on but the fact is that they do know what's going on. And if parents can't let go of certain things in the past relationship, it's gonna affect the kids as well. The kid won't have a healthy childhood.
Sasha: I'm a completely different person to the person I was when I was married. I am, career-wise, more successful. I feel better, I'm in better shape than I've ever been. I'm a better parent than I ever was. Because I would always have someone else to rely on while I focused on work. Now I don't have that. My daughter has a strong understanding of what a different shaped family looks like. So she's my proudest thing. Of course, she is my proudest thing. She's happy, she's healthy, she's loved.
On a more personal level, the way I have built myself back up... I guess I was somebody when I was married, and then I was somebody else as I was going through the separation process, and neither of those people is someone I want to be again.
Now I am an incredibly strong person. I have my moments, but I'm much stronger than I ever was. I have weathered more than I ever thought I would weather. And I have more confidence than I've ever had.
Joan: This company is like both me and my son working hand in hand. I knit with him, we have this mother-and-son relationship which I don't think anyone- You know my son is a teenager right now, so I heard from even from non-single families, some mothers wouldn't have this type of relationship with their sons or daughters so I'm very happy, very proud that this company has brought us closer to each other.
He will come and tell me, ‘Mommy I want this design, I want to have this colour’ so we work together on what we want to wear. How he wants to pose, where he wants to have his photoshoot, what type of hairstyle he wants, so it's quite interesting besides his day-to-day daily stuff. We have our own conversations, so I'm really proud to do this.
The reason House of Pumpkin, why Pumpkin, is because my son’s name is Pumpkin. As I mentioned, the reason why I started this whole brand revolves around him. So I want him to be involved in every little way he can... Maybe he’s still interested in helping me out right now, but in a few years’ time, he might be too busy to even entertain me so I'm treasuring these little little moments with him.
You don’t have to go it truly alone. And as Sasha and Joan share, by taking that first step to reach out for help, and forgiving yourself, things just might not feel so impossible anymore.
Happy Mother’s Day!
This Mother’s Day, Crane is proud to host the single mom-centric edition of the Lion City Divorcees Club - all are welcome to join this informal social therapy narrative. In the same space, have a chat with featured creators, artists, and solo-trepreneurs who also happen to be single mums, including Joan.