Daddy's home to stay: After painful divorce, dedicated dad brings up four kids single-handedly

Welcome to Wayne's world: Mr Toh says his biggest challenge is meeting the individual wants and needs of his four children. Mr Wayne Toh with three of his four children (from left) Elliot, Ethel and Tertius. Mr Toh's life went into a harrowing spin w
Welcome to Wayne's world: Mr Toh says his biggest challenge is meeting the individual wants and needs of his four children. Mr Wayne Toh with three of his four children (from left) Elliot, Ethel and Tertius. Mr Toh's life went into a harrowing spin when his wife walked out on the family but he realised his children needed him more than ever.PHOTO: COURTESY OF WAYNE TOH ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
Welcome to Wayne's world: Mr Toh says his biggest challenge is meeting the individual wants and needs of his four children. Mr Wayne Toh with three of his four children (from left) Elliot, Ethel and Tertius. Mr Toh's life went into a harrowing spin w
Welcome to Wayne's world: Mr Toh says his biggest challenge is meeting the individual wants and needs of his four children. Mr Wayne Toh with three of his four children (from left) Elliot, Ethel and Tertius. Mr Toh's life went into a harrowing spin when his wife walked out on the family but he realised his children needed him more than ever.PHOTO: COURTESY OF WAYNE TOH ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Bringing up four kids single-handedly is exhausting but love has its own rewards

Wayne Toh is 39 years old, 176 cm tall and has a 74cm waist.

There is no hint of a widening girth, the bane of many men approaching middle age. In fact, tipping the scales at just 63kg, he could definitely do with a few extra kilos on his frame.

His beanpole figure has less to do with a high metabolic rate than an extremely taxing domestic situation.

The rigours of a full-time job aside, the photographer has to keep house and parent four growing children. Eldest son Seth, 14, is grappling with teenage angst. Ethel, 12, is stressing over her Primary School Leaving Examination. Tertius, 10, is dyslexic, and Elliot, like any curious eight-year old, needs a bit of attention.

Mr Toh does everything himself. And he has been doing it for the last four years after his wife of 10 years upped and left suddenly for reasons he says he still cannot comprehend.

Her departure turned his life topsy-turvy and sent him on a harrowing spin through the emotional wringer with heartbreak, thoughts of suicide, guilt and helplessness.

"But the worst is over," he says. "On a happiness scale of one to 10, I would say I'm at a seven or eight."

It is 6pm and you can see the sun setting from the family's maisonette in Choa Chu Kang. The children have had their dinner.

Seth is singing There Are Worse Things I Could Do from the musical Grease. A student at the School of the Arts, he has a plaintive and soulful voice.

Ethel, tall and graceful, is revising for her PSLE, while Tertius and Elliot are doing their homework. Cheeky and friendly, the two younger boys often clamber over their father to give him affectionate hugs and pecks on the cheek.

Ensconced in a well-worn armchair, Mr Toh looks a little pooped but is candid and congenial as he talks about his life and how it changed dramatically four years ago.

The younger of two children, he grew up in a wooden house built by his paternal grandfather in Lim Chu Kang.

"He nailed every single plank, and even built a car porch for my father. He made me dream of becoming an architect," says Mr Toh, who shelved his plans to study architecture in Scotland to get married in his early 20s.

His parents ran a shop dealing in car audio and other accessories.

Life was generally carefree but for a few years there were domestic rumblings at home because of his father's gambling habit.

"He gambled away my mother's jewellery and trousseau. On more than a few occasions, I had to stop my mother from leaving home to go back to her parents," he recalls.

At Ama Keng Primary, he was a well-behaved and hard-working pupil who excelled in maths but nothing else.

"I could not understand what I was reading. It was after Tertius was diagnosed as dyslexic in Primary 1 that I realised I was probably dyslexic too. He has the same problems that I did," he says.

In Teck Whye Secondary, he struggled with his studies but was a hit with the girls despite being painfully shy.

"When I was in Secondary 1, even Secondary 3 girls would approach me in the canteen and ask me to go out with them. I was so shy I used to hide to avoid them. One girl even came up to me and sang Right Here Waiting," he recalls with a laugh, referring to the sappy Richard Marx hit.

He had to repeat Secondary 3 but, by slogging hard and with help from his teachers, managed to pass his O levels and enter Temasek Polytechnic, graduating with a diploma in graphic design.

National service did wonders to help him get rid of his shyness.

His penchant for neatness and his always immaculately made bunk caught the eye of his superiors who decided to make him a trainee sergeant major.

It wasn't easy. His dyslexia made it difficult for him to memorise Malay drill commands so his platoon was always the last when marching from one place to another. "Every night my bunk mates would curse and swear at me. It affected my morale," he says, adding that it got so bad he sometimes curled up in bed in tears.

The taunting, however, made him determined to succeed. He ended up topping his drill exams and becoming an instructor in the military police division. "I had to train groups of between 30 and 150 people. I became very vocal," he says with a laugh.

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After NS, he worked in a printing company specialising in big advertising banners. By then, he was dating the woman who would become his wife and they had plans to go to Scotland, he to study architecture, she to further her studies.

But all that fell by the wayside when she got pregnant. They got married instead and Mr Toh - who left his printing job to become a photographer's assistant - became a father at 25. The children came quickly, every two years.

"I wanted three, she said she wanted seven. She was an only child and was lonely growing up," he says. "I was a very hands-on dad right from the start. I bathed them, fed them, put them to bed and cut their nails."

Although money was tight, those were blissful years, he says.

"We led a simple life and there was a lot of family warmth. She was a good and devoted mother who spent a lot of time with the children. In fact, she wanted to homeschool them."

That led him to become a teacher. "I wanted to understand the education system before we jumped into homeschooling," says Mr Toh, who spent two years at the National Institute of Education before being posted to Choa Chu Kang Primary as a teacher.

If there was a sign of stress, it was his wife's post-natal blues after she had their third child, and recovery took a long time.

He had started toying with the idea of starting a business teaching photography to children.

"I studied the market for two years and looked at how vendors provided different services to schools. I wanted to conduct enrichment courses and teach photography because it has many benefits for children," he says.

He roped in his children's godparents as partners and set up Jot N Tittle. It was a leap of faith which paid off when Nanyang Primary School got him on board to conduct his programme for 28 classes. But just two weeks after he started operations, his wife upped and left.

It was a bewildering and confusing time. "I didn't know how to manage. So many things were happening. Other schools were asking me to conduct courses; even National Geographic asked me to conduct a workshop for children at its outlet in VivoCity," he says. "I just couldn't let this thing fail."

His attempts to get his wife to go for counselling failed.

Long-time family friend Eric Kua recalls that time: "Wayne was devastated but hopeful and tried all ways to reconcile."

His wife just wanted out.

The children were grief-stricken and often cried out for their mother. Seth ran away from home twice.

Mr Toh was an emotional wreck. "Every day I would cry, sometimes hysterically. When I looked out the window, I felt like jumping down," he recalls.

But one morning, six months later, his youngest child Elliot bounded into his room and handed him a package from Dads For Life, the national movement promoting active fatherhood.

"It just spoke to me. It was true, I'm their dad for life. So I told myself I must not do silly things. From that day on, I told myself I could not entertain negative thoughts."

The couple divorced in 2011. His ex-wife did not contest custody of the children, and agreed to transfer ownership of their home to him. The Sunday Times got in touch with Mr Toh's ex-wife but she declined to be interviewed.

Being a single parent, he says, is challenging.

"Even though I'm a hands-on daddy, it is still a struggle. It can be very emotionally draining and physically tiring because I have to handle everything," he says, admitting that he has sometimes lashed out at his kids.

"My biggest challenge is meeting their individual wants and needs. I'm not a perfect father. In their eyes, I'm probably at times very unreasonable," says Mr Toh, who was featured as a Singaporean Of The Day - a video project created by a group of friends - last year.

But there is no doubting he is proud of his kids.

"Seth is very talented, especially in theatre. Last year, he appeared with Sebastian Tan in his show at The Esplanade," he says, referring to the comedian-actor-singer best known as Broadway Beng. "And two weeks ago, he played the lead in a production of Grease held at The Coliseum in Resorts World Sentosa."

Mr Kua, now in Vancouver pursuing his Master of Arts degree, describes his old pal as an inspiration.

"He is sacrificial, dedicated, loving and firm as a father. He would try to spend individual time with each of his children despite his busy schedule. He is always preparing healthy, home-cooked and creative meals for them and never fails to plan road trips to Malaysia during school breaks and create memories with his kids," he says.

Indeed, Elliot endorses his father's cooking.

He adds: "Sometimes when I'm sad and think of Mama, I'll go and lie on my pillow. But my daddy will do a lot of things to make me feel better."

To reach out to single parents, Mr Toh has founded two support groups - Hapi Parents, Hapi Kids and WEEE (Wholeheartedly Embracing our Euphoric Existence). He is no longer active in the first but regularly has sharing sessions with members of the latter.

Currently dating a divorcee with a son, Mr Toh hopes to channel his energies into revitalising his photography business D Picture Room.

"I'm still learning to be a better dad. I still raise my voice," he says with a sigh.

Hearing this, Tertius quips: "Ya, several times a day."

Then he adds: "But he's an awesome dad."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg