Tuesday 25 November 2014

Leaving your kids with neighbours

Some Singaporeans do not ask neighbours to help with childcare, but mums in a group called Kampung Wives are looking out for one another
By Venessa Lee, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

Asking her neighbours for help to look after her children never crossed Ms Bliss Tan's mind - not even when her younger son suddenly had an attack of food poisoning.

"Reece was taken ill and vomitted just as I was about to take my elder son Riley to school, which was 10 minutes away by taxi. Usually, I would take the kids together but I had to leave Reece alone at home," says the 39-year-old teacher of the incident that took place last year. Riley is now eight and Reece, five.

Ms Tan adds: "When I got back, I could hear Reece crying for me in the toilet. I felt terrible but there was nothing else I could have done. I couldn't have taken him with me in the taxi waiting downstairs because he was vomiting."

She did not think of approaching a neighbour for help because "there's very little interaction" among the neighbours in her condominium block. "It doesn't feel right to burden a neighbour I don't know when a child is sick," she says.

Like her, other Singaporeans who live in close quarters would not think of approaching their neighbours for help to take care of their children.

In a year-long study reported in June, about 2,200 residents in five HDB towns ranked "exchange of greetings/small talk" as the most frequent activity with their neighbours. Displays of trust such as safekeeping of house keys, and borrowing and lending household items ranked the lowest. Analysts have said that such behaviour is common in cosmopolitan cities.

As housewife Irene Yee, who lives in the east and has three young daughters, says: "Our neighbours moved in over a year ago. They don't really talk to us. If there's no interaction, how can we trust them with our kids?"

Accountant Karen Foong, 40, may be willing to get her neighbours' help with her nine-month-old son Elijah, depending on how well they know each other.

"However, although we have been neighbours for about 10 years, most of the time we work and there's not much time to interact. We just say hi and engage in casual talk if we happen to see each other. I don't need the neighbours' help at this stage because my in-laws are caring for my child," says Ms Foong, who lives in a four-room HDB flat in Marine Parade.

Neighbour interactions tend to be "incidental and minimal", according to the study by the HDB and the National University of Singapore Centre of Sustainable Asian Cities and Sociology department.

However, not asking one's neighbours for childcare help is not necessarily due to a lack of trust.

Teacher Widya Zulkassim Barnwell, who lives in a four-room HDB flat in the central area, says: "I won't say I don't trust my neighbours because they're friendly and nice. We exchange festive goodies and all, but I won't park my two children with them if I need a babysitter. I don't want to impose my kids' nonsense on them, especially when I can't return the favour because their children are all grown up."

Mrs Barnwell, 39, is especially leery of the effect her younger son's antics will have on others. Her elder son Omar, six, knows how to behave, but three-year-old Anwar "has itchy fingers and will pick up disgusting things on the ground".

She adds: "It's very amusing and cute if you see it only once, but it gets very annoying and I don't know if that's something the neighbours want to deal with."

When she was growing up, her parents were also too "paiseh" (Hokkien for embarrassed) to ask neighbours to look after her and her four siblings.

"It wasn't due to a lack of trust. It was more that they were paiseh to send any of their kids to be looked after by other people," adds Mrs Barnwell.

However atomised the general urban living patterns are, children nonetheless often prove to be a reason for neighbours to bond.

Orthodontist Geraldine Lee and real estate agent Yeo Khim Kieng used to be neighbours in the same condominium block and had their firstborn children six weeks apart.

"We used to bump into each other, holding our babies of a similar age. We soon started play dates for my son, Marco, and Geraldine's son, Jacob, who are both four now," says Ms Yeo, 29.

When the boys were about one, the mummies started taking turns to take the kids to the park, Botanic Gardens and sometimes to McDonald's.

Ms Yeo says: "We've both moved house now, but just last week, Jacob came over for a sleepover. Now the boys are taking aikido lessons together. Our sons are best buddies."

Dr Lee, 34, says there is mutual trust because the two women have "similar parenting styles".

"We've seen each other looking after the kids. We're not over-protective. I trust her completely. If she feels my son is out of line and she needs to talk to him about it, I'm cool about it. Both boys also have matching temperaments and aren't too rowdy."

Dr Lee adds that her younger son Cameron, who is 15 months, and Ms Yeo's two-year-old daughter Kate are not close like their firstborns are as they did not grow up together; their age gap is also wider.

While some Singaporeans bemoan the loss of the closeness of the "kampung", where adults looked out for one another's children, some neighbours in the Commonwealth area are living their own version of "kampung" life.

Every weekday at 5pm, a group of mothers and their children gather at a playground near their HDB flats. As the children play, some mums chat or dart upstairs for a spot of cooking, reassured that the other mums are watching their kids, as well as other children. The older children organise games such as catching, Simon Says and hide-and-seek for the smaller ones.

When a mum is ill or running errands, she can leave her children with one of the other mums.

In April 2012, housewife Choo Pheh Fun, 41, christened the group Kampung Wives, after the name of their WhatsApp phone messaging group.

The Kampung Wives comprises nine mothers, who have 21 children between them, aged between three months and 14 years.

Ms Choo, who has four children, says: "We had already been looking out for one another for a while, so it was already like a kampung. After my naming of the group, we became more kampung-ish. We organised more events, such as playing with waterbombs. During the Mid-Autumn festival two years ago, we had 50 kids in the playground. You could see the neighbours streaming in to join us with lanterns."

Another of the "kampung wives" is pharmacist Irene Tan, 35, who is currently caring full-time for her second son, aged four months. She says: "About three months ago, my husband was locked outside our flat with our elder son, Isaac, and I was inside with the baby as the lock was stuck. Two mums took turns to babysit Isaac, who's five, while my husband fixed the lock."

The group is planning to have a Kampung Games Day next month for the children, with traditional games such as five stones, zero point and chatek.

Admitting to a heavy dollop of nostalgia, Ms Choo says she wants to give her children the "kampung" environment she herself did not experience when growing up because she and her four sisters helped out in their parents' shop selling garments and sundries, instead of playing with the neighbours.

She adds: "When my husband was a child, he played football with the neighbourhood kids and raced them downstairs. I want my children to experience such neighbourliness too."

Unlike other families who see little of their neighbours and rely on their maids for childcare, Ms Choo says: "I got a helper only in August when my fourth child was born. She's new so I trust my neighbours more."

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