It Changed My Life

Former wild child finds faith and new purpose

Last year, Mrs Jennifer Heng founded Dayspring New Life Centre, a shelter for young girls and women going through unplanned pregnancy. It also provides counselling and other practical services for the women.
Last year, Mrs Jennifer Heng founded Dayspring New Life Centre, a shelter for young girls and women going through unplanned pregnancy. It also provides counselling and other practical services for the women.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
In her teens, Mrs Heng put up a brave happy front, so not many friends knew the turmoil she was going through.
In her teens, Mrs Heng put up a brave happy front, so not many friends knew the turmoil she was going through. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JENNIFER HENG

Jennifer Heng helps other women deal with unwanted pregnancies

Four years ago, when Jennifer Heng became pregnant after nearly 10 years of marriage, some friends asked her if she was going to have an epidural to take away the pain of labour.

The 40-year-old told them no; she wanted to "savour" the process of natural birth.

"A couple of them were mothers and said, 'You cannot imagine the pain.' But I was thinking to myself, 'Yes, I can and I want to handle the pain.' "

It was not the first time she was with child. In her teens, she was involved in several unhealthy relationships, got pregnant twice and aborted both babies.

Because she was already 22 weeks pregnant when she had her first abortion at 17, she had to go through induced labour, which lasted eight hours.


Determined to help others avoid the same mistakes, she wrote a book. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JENNIFER HENG

"So yes, I know what the pain is like," says Mrs Heng, who got rid of her second baby when she was six weeks pregnant, at the age of 19.

Until her faith helped her to forgive herself over what she did, she was trapped for years in a cocoon of guilt and shame.

Determined that she should help others avoid the same mistakes, she started sharing her story and wrote a book, Walking Out Of Secret Shame, in 2012.

Last year, she founded Dayspring New Life Centre, a shelter for young girls and women going through unplanned pregnancy.

Besides being a refuge, the place provides counselling and other practical services for these women.

Her work, she says, is very "liberating and gratifying". "There is no pay cheque but there is purpose," says the volunteer director.

Attractive, witty and well-spoken, Mrs Heng radiates confidence, strength of conviction and a soothing serenity, qualities often seen in many a reformed wild child.

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The eldest of three daughters, she had a privileged if troubled childhood.

Her father used to own a chain of shoe stores; her mother helped out in the business. "We lived quite well when I was growing up: condos in Bukit Timah, two big Mercedes (cars) and a maid," she says.

All, however, was not well at home.

Her parents fought often, over money and accusations of infidelity.

"The circumstances made me very precocious and I developed a very strong survival instinct, but deep down, I was just a frightened little child with a lot of of fears and insecurities," she says.

She betrayed no hint of what she was going through at CHIJ Toa Payoh (Primary).

"I was a prefect, very driven and a high achiever," says Mrs Heng, who continued her studies at Nanyang Girls Secondary and later, Temasek Junior College.

Things began unravelling when she hit her early teens.

Her father's penchant for gambling got his business into trouble and led him to attempt suicide. Not long after, her parents divorced and were both declared bankrupt.

Her father fled the country to escape his problems.

"My poor mother had to shoulder the problems. I went to dig around the drawers and found letters from the bank. She owed so much money; the figure was too large and complicated for me to grasp."

Almost overnight, they had to move out of their Bukit Timah condo into a rented terrace house in the East.

"It was dilapidated and looked like a haunted house, with a big tree out front with bats. It was not what we were used to. We didn't have proper beds, slept on mattresses and lived out of boxes," she recalls.

She started becoming rebellious.

"I started experimenting with boundaries and one of the ways I rebelled was by having boyfriends, which drove my mother absolutely nuts. She saw me walking in her footsteps."

She went out with many boys, from nice ones she met at church to rowdy types she met outside.

"There was a series of relationships, one after another, sometimes two at a time. With the good ones, I felt I was not good enough for them and with the bad ones, I felt I was too good for them, so cannot win lah," she says, momentarily lapsing into Singlish.

When she was in junior college, she met a boy who was to mess up her life in a big way.

"He was a smoker, drinker, gambler and hung out with gangs in Far East Plaza," she says.

He got her pregnant. She was already 22 weeks along when a doctor confirmed it.

"Someone said that the fact that I only found out at five months showed that I was not very aware of my body. But I was totally aware I missed my periods and what that could mean. But my sense of denial was much stronger. I told myself, 'It could not happen to me; it is not happening to me.' "

A remark by a friend in church finally jolted her into seeing a doctor.

"She jokingly said that I looked pregnant. Something hit me, and I realised that gosh, I could not hide any more," she says.

Her boyfriend, when told, said he would support her whatever she decided. However, he did not offer any help when she wanted an abortion.

The first doctor she was referred to refused to terminate her pregnancy because she was too far on. Under Singapore law, abortions are prohibited after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The next doctor she went to explained that the dilation and curretage method - a procedure to remove tissue from the uterus - would not work and that she would have to go through induced labour.

The abortion took place the next day and cost her $1,400, which she paid for with money her godfather gave her for her studies.

The experience was nightmarish. In labour for eight hours, she was left alone, at one point, in the clinic when the doctor and nurse went out for lunch.

The pain was so searing that she howled for more painkillers but the doctor told her she already had too much.

The doctor asked her if she wanted to see her baby - a boy - and when she declined, wrapped the foetus in newspapers.

"Three days later, I was back in school. I was very happy because I thought, 'Oh, problem solved. I made the right decision.' "

She broke up with her boyfriend not long after, and also made the decision to leave junior college after her first year to pursue a diploma in design in Temasek Polytechnic.

To earn her keep, she started working part-time selling flowers and waiting tables in several nightspots.

The gigs introduced her to a slew of unsavoury characters.

"I was this worldly girl and thought I could handle all these men, many of whom were several years older," she says grimly.

But serial dating left her hollow.

'The feeling when the sun rose in the morning was the worst in the world. I'd tell myself, 'You cannot make it lah, Jen. You are so dirty and degraded.' "

Another hellish time followed when she got into a relationship with a pub owner, 12 years older, who proved to be an abusive green-eyed monster with an anger management issue.

Once, incensed that she talked to another guy, he hollered at her, shook her and violently threw her against a wall at Raffles Place MRT station on a busy Friday night.

The unthinkable happened, and she got pregnant again when she was 19.

She did not know who the father was as she was intimate with several men but told the pub owner it was his because he was her official boyfriend.

Again, she decided to abort it. Because she was only six weeks pregnant, the abortion was not as complicated as her first one.

Not long after, she decided to break up with her boyfriend, who was so enraged that he went to her home and rained punches on her.

After finishing her diploma, she became a radio deejay, first with classical music station Symphony and then Class 95. She also freelanced as a designer and copywriter with several agencies.

Life became calmer but she was often dogged by guilt and a debilitating sense of emptiness. After a couple of years, she decided to pursue a degree in advertising at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, with help from her godfather.

Melbourne did her a world of good. She rediscovered her faith, which helped to relieve some of her pain.

She landed a job handling communications with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra when she returned. One night, while rushing out a press release in her office, she was struck by a realisation.

"The press release I was working on was not going to change anyone's life. I wanted to do something which had eternal value," she says.

And so she quit and found another job handling communications for a church, later taking on pastoral duties.

By then, she had attended many religious workshops. One, conducted by an Australian, moved her so much that her dam finally broke.

"It was like the therapy session I never had. It was catharsis. I was crying for a whole week; my eyes were all puffed up. After that, I felt peace."

She started sharing her story and counselling women who were facing the same situation. "The more I spoke to these women, the more revived and purposeful I got."

It prompted her to write her book, which has sold 7,000 copies. More parties sought her out to counsel girls in difficult situations.

In the early 2000s, she met her husband, a project manager who is also a part-time musician.

He proposed to her after four months, although they did not get married until 18 months later. When the subject of becoming a couple was broached, she decided to bare her past.

"I told him, 'If you are not ready to accept this, there is no judgment and you can walk away and it is completely fine with me,' " she says. "He absolutely had no qualms about me. He embraced my past."

They tied the knot in 2002, but their daughter came along only four years ago.

"I already decided I didn't want to have children. He did, but he knew I was struggling. I don't know how it happened," she says with a laugh.

The enthusiastic response from friends and family floored the couple. "My first two pregnancies were shrouded in fear and death but this was joyous and was what pregnancy should be. There was a lot of redemption."

Meanwhile, the idea to set up a home for women with unwanted pregnancies had been percolating in her head for more than a decade. She had the blueprint mapped out clearly in her head and, over the years, would refine it.

Two years ago, a friend helped her turn it into a proposal. Member of Parliament Chris de Souza asked to meet her and after he did, linked her with Dayspring, which started in 2011 as a residential centre to help abused teenage girls.

In November last year, Dayspring New Life Centre began operations in a picturesque house - offered to them at a very nominal rate - in Turf Club Road.

It is, she says, a secular outfit. The idea is to let women facing a pregnancy crisis know that there are options other than abortion.

"Over the years, women who had abortions would tell me the same thing over and over again. 'I wish I had known this.'

"I tell them what they finally do is their choice but I'm here to present them with all the options. We engage with whoever they want us to engage with and help them make the best decision out of the circumstances," she says.

Since it started, the refuge - which has four full-time staff and is run with privately raised funds - has already helped 26 women.

Her loved ones are very supportive of what she is doing. In fact, her daughter is often at the centre and knows all the mothers and babies.

Mrs Heng says: "I have an advantage. My own story helps to break the barriers.

"I tell them, 'I have been through this, and made some bad choices. But we don't have to let bad choices define us for the rest of our lives.' "

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Former wild child finds faith and new purpose'. Print Edition | Subscribe