Pregnant and solo

ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I was a single mum for seven months of my pregnancy as my husband was working in Japan

It was barely 9am on a Saturday, so there was really no reason for the instructor to be as chirpy as she was.

"All right everyone!" she trilled. "Can everyone take turns to introduce themselves and their husbands, all right?"

I looked around the prenatal class I had just signed up for. Of the dozen or so pregnant women there, I was one of only two who were alone, unaccompanied by a nervous-looking but solicitous male partner.

One by one, the women announced their names and those of their companions, who all turned out to be proper legitimate husbands.

Possibly feeling the pressure, the other lone woman also introduced herself, then quickly added: "My husband is overseas on a business trip."

I decided to take a different tack. Perhaps it was the early hour, or the instructor's overuse of "all right", or just the fact that she was lithe and slim while I was slowly turning into a whale, but I found myself wanting to be difficult.

When it came to me, I said my name, and then deliberately fell silent. After all, not all pregnant women came with convenient husbands attached, I reasoned sanctimoniously to myself.

To her credit, the instructor moved right along. For the rest of the two-hour class, every time she referred to a "husband" helping out with prenatal exercises or lending moral support, she would take pains to add: "or partner, or friend".

I had expected to feel piously liberal for highlighting the existence of single mothers, still an uncomfortable reality for many conservative types in Singapore.

Instead, as I practised stretching and breathing without the aid of an attentive husband, the only thing I felt was a bit sad.

It was hard enough dealing with morning sickness and intense fatigue, which had plagued me since I became pregnant.

But having to go through the discomfort without my husband - as I did for the first seven months of my pregnancy - elevated the challenge to a whole new level.

And this was despite us consciously deciding to live apart for a while. I had found out I was expecting the night before I was due to travel from Tokyo to Singapore for a conference and my husband didn't want me to have to fly back to Japan.

I decided to stay on in Singapore, where I would have the help of my family and, importantly, English-speaking doctors.

My husband wanted to cut short his employment contract in Tokyo and return with me to Singapore, but I persuaded him to stay until his contract was up in May. His firm was fond of him and I correctly predicted a handsome bonus in the works, which would be handy with a new baby.

So far, so rational. But I had under- estimated the stresses of being effectively a single mother, even if it was only to a tiny foetus, and for only seven months.

Since I was new to this pregnancy business, every twinge and pain was cause for worry. I would text my husband concernedly with a new symptom, but often by the time he got to his phone, I had already allayed my own fears with Dr Google.

Buying baby items proved to be such a paralysing process - there was so much I didn't know and a dizzying array of options - that I spinelessly put off all baby shopping until my husband came home.

Even simple things such as hospital visits to my gynaecologist became just that bit more uncomfortable when I didn't have anyone to go with me - a predicament I came to realise was actually quite rare in Singapore. In all the time I spent at the hospital, I saw maybe only two or three other solo pregnant women.

For them, as for me, the interminable waits for the doctor were complicated by hunger pangs. Other women dispatched their husbands or partners to buy snacks and drinks, but I could never even get a seat at the hospital's crowded fast food joint because you needed one person to reserve a table while the other bought food.

As it was, I was lucky enough to have parents, siblings and in-laws who were happy to help with anything I needed, from shopping with me at baby fairs to driving me to work every day so I wouldn't have to take public transport "in my condition", as my father insisted on calling it.

I also had the support of an anxious husband, who called daily to check on me and the baby and flew back when he could.

The whole experience was a limited but visceral taste of what I had known only theoretically before: the million administrative, financial, emotional and other headaches particular to single mothers.

Every time I filled up a baby-related form that had compulsory fields for my husband's details, I wondered what unwed mothers would write in those boxes and how they would feel seeing them.

Whenever I overheard some bloated woman speak self-indulgently of her "push present" or making her husband drive miles at 2am to feed her hysterical "pregnancy cravings", I thought about the single mothers grimly chugging away at their jobs and eating whatever was at hand so they could save up for baby expenses.

They would need the funds. In Singapore, unwed mothers are not entitled to as many government benefits - whether cash gifts such as the baby bonus and Child Development Account, tax reliefs, housing perks, or the full four months of maternity leave - as married mothers.

This has always seemed unfair. In a nation where a fertility rate of 1.2 births per female makes every baby precious, why do some infants deserve less money and less of their working mothers' full attention?

Policymakers have often defended the discrepancy in benefits as encouraging parenthood "within the context of marriage".

But if the maternity perks on offer have so far failed to hike the birth rate, it is doubtful that equalising them for all mothers would spur single parenthood.

Besides, what message does the unequal benefits send to a single, pregnant woman: that her baby is less valuable and she should consider terminating it?

Having gone through a bit of it myself, I can say with some confidence that the experience of being a single mother is not one that most women would prefer if they had a choice. Those who decide to soldier on despite the challenges should be rewarded, not punished, for their bravery.

Now that my husband has moved back to Singapore and I am about to embark on four months of maternity leave, life has become immensely easier. Not everyone can enjoy the support of a good husband, but hopefully in time, they will get to enjoy the support of a fair Government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'Pregnant and solo'. Print Edition | Subscribe