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I’m a respite carer, because the strength of mothers inspires me

By Clara How, May 14, 2020

The bond between a parent and child is instinctive and profound. But what of the bond between a caregiver and a child that has no biological connection?

In this second story of our Mother’s Day series, we speak with Lydia* and Keren. Lydia is a teenage mother who has been finding her footing. She turned to Sanctuary Care, a community respite care service by the charity Boys’ Town, for her two sons (aged a year and a half, and six months).

Respite care provides temporary care for children whose families are experiencing difficulties, such as a single mum, parents battling financial struggles or mental health concerns. The focus is to help the birth parents tide over their struggles, while their children are well cared for by respite carers.

On top of looking after their basic needs, carers treat the respite child as a member of their family. This could involve getting them ready for school, helping them with schoolwork, sticking to their bedtime routines and cooking their favourite meals. Respite carers are encouraged to focus on the child's emotional wellbeing, and Sanctuary Care suggests “helping the child settle in the way you would if you were caring for a friend’s child.” 

Respite carer Keren has been caring for Lydia’s children prior to the circuit breaker measures. Lydia and Keren share why they turned to respite care, and even though they may not be bound by blood, why this connection is one that both families are keen to maintain. Keren begins this story.

* * * *

Respite care is very different from fostering. I used to be a foster parent with the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and fostered two children before becoming dormant. With fostering, the children are under the Child Protection Services, typically come from more troubled backgrounds (such as being abandoned or abused), and it is also a long-term commitment — the first child that I fostered was for a year and a half. 

I became a foster mum because our family of four (consisting of my husband, son, and daughter) is so well-blessed in that we have the means to share what we have with others. I was born in India but eventually moved to Singapore, and I wanted to give back to people in Singapore who are struggling. I found my place in respite care.

With my husband, Yeshwant, and my two children, Daniel and Abia.

With my husband, Yeshwant, and my two children, Daniel and Abia.

I first heard about Sanctuary Care through Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT), an organisation that supports women in need. They explained that with respite care, it is a short term commitment (it can be as short as a weekend) and you are helping out a family who needs temporary assistance. 

It appealed to me, because one of the reasons why I left fostering was because it involved a longer and more intense commitment, which was becoming difficult given that my own kids were growing up. And depending on the circumstances, the foster children may not be reunited with their natural mothers.

But there are some mothers who need a little help without being permanently separated from their children, and we need to support them. This is where respite care comes in.

To be a respite carer, you need to have that interest in kids, and the bandwidth to care for them. I have a full-time job in sales, my husband is a trader, and we are fortunate to have a helper. Her name is Rosie, and she loves children and has been a huge help. Mentally, you should also be prepared that you’re bringing home a child that is totally dependent on you. There is no room for complaining, because you have willingly agreed to commit, and it’s something that you love to do.

Another reason why we applied to be respite carers is because my nine-year-old daughter Abia adores babies. She had been asking for a little sibling for a long time, and I thought that respite care would be an option to bring a baby into the household. During the application process (which consists of interviews, background checks, and reports), we mentioned that we would prefer a child younger than two years old, because at that age they are easier to care for. 

We became respite carers last November, and we looked after Lydia’s one and a half year old son, Timmy*, for two months. He was a delight. He is such a happy baby, and he’s so intelligent. He would sleep and eat at the same time as my daughter, and she loved taking care of him and giving him baths. My son Daniel, 11, who used to have a “do not disturb me” mentality, eventually started helping with nappy changing. Timmy brought so much joy to the family. 

I wasn’t worried about getting too attached, because in respite care, the child comes and goes during the caregiving period. For Timmy, he went home every weekend to Lydia, so the children got used to him coming and going. But they always looked forward to him coming back.

When we had to say goodbye on Timmy’s last day, my daughter and Rosie stood outside our home weeping. But I knew that this wouldn’t be the last time we saw him. I knew that if Lydia needed help again in the future, we would always be there to support her.

Lydia eventually asked Sanctuary Care if it was possible for us to be connected to her, and we exchanged phone numbers. This is an unusual circumstance, and was a private arrangement agreed on by the both of us outside the jurisdiction of Sanctuary Care. Typically, families do not have direct contact with respite carers for their privacy and safety, and would go through a case worker for communication. Ours was a lady called Christine, and she was brilliant. 

We met up, and since then we have stayed in touch. We have looked after Timmy’s six-month-old younger brother on an unofficial basis, and whenever Lydia needs advice, she will call us. She is young and had two kids in a short period of time, and she’s very pressed for time because of work and infant care. We are like an emotional lifeline that she can turn to. 

Because of the circuit breaker measures, we haven’t been able to help Lydia with caregiving, so both children are with her and her fiancé. But she still sends us photos of the babies once in a while. 

Women like Lydia amaze me. She used to work 12-hour shifts while still taking care of the household and managing the children. I would be frazzled, but she has a ‘can do’ attitude, and is truly dedicated to providing a cocoon for her children so that nothing can hurt them.

There was a time where she asked if I could look after her children, because the house that she was staying in had asked her to vacate within a couple of days. She had nowhere to go and no one else to turn to. When I asked where she would stay when her children were with me, she said she would somehow manage. All she wanted was for her kids to be safe. 

This is also why I don’t want the children whom I have cared for to see me as a maternal figure, because it would not be fair to their natural mothers. I told the older foster children whom I used to care for to call me auntie.

These brave women have gone through thick and thin for their children. They have shown me that mothers don’t abandon. I admire that courage, because I’m not sure if I have that. I look up to these women for that.

To me, this is the true meaning of Mother’s Day: to celebrate the spirit of mothers like Lydia, and the million others who sacrifice with little or no praise. 

Perhaps this isn’t a very popular opinion, but when I look at my children, I don’t see our roles as ‘mother and child’. They are independent and evolved, and they have taught me to be loving and forgiving. As adults, we start putting up all these boundaries, but children learn to live life to the fullest with what is given, rather than complain about what they don’t have. They can make even the hardest of hearts melt.

My husband Yeshwant never used to like crying children, but he mellowed after we had our own. Ever since Timmy and his brother came into the home, they showed us so much affection and now he truly enjoys taking care of them. Whenever Yeshwant put on his clothes to leave the home, Timmy would rush over to him and hug his legs. For the little that we do for these children, they shower us with love, and this is why they are such an inspiration to me.

That’s another reason why I am a respite carer, because seeing the mothers and children fighting against the odds for their children (who learn to survive in extreme conditions) is very motivating.

As for Timmy, it has been a pleasure and given us great satisfaction to watch him grow. The academic aspect of parenting has always interested me, and when he was with us, we started showing Timmy flashcards so that he can associate pictures with words. His progress was amazing. He is also very musically gifted, and can play the xylophone with great rhythm. 

Many of these families face financial struggles. Yeshwant and I believe that uplifting the children whom we care for through education and new perspectives can result in them breaking the chain of poverty. When they grow up and be successful, they can help their entire family get out of this chain. This has been no different with Lydia’s kids, and we hope to be a part of their future in whatever manner that we can. 

With our whole family involved in respite care, we feel very proud when our children tell us that when they become adults, they will also become carers. That, to me, makes all the effort worthwhile.

* * * *

Lydia, 18, is now living with her family of four (her two boys and her fiancé) during the circuit breaker measures. She and her fiancé are unable to work at this time, and are currently full-time parents. This is her story about being a teen mother, recognising that she needed help, and why she feels blessed to have another family helping her care for her sons.

* * * *

By the time I realised that I was pregnant with Timmy, it was too late to consider an abortion.

I had to leave school at that time and my fiancé was serving his National Service during my pregnancy. Because of problems with my family, I ended up moving into the Safe Place, which provides shelter and care for pregnant women who need help, for two years. They taught us how to look after our children, and I had some basic knowledge because I used to take care of my niece and nephew.

Even so, there were days when I felt like I could not cope, and battled postnatal depression. But perhaps it was a maternal instinct — when you see your baby, you think: “He’s so cute.”

Someone from Safe Place told me about Sanctuary Care, because she knew that I needed help. I was preparing for my wedding, and it was hard for me to bring my baby out when I had so many things to settle, such as taking my marriage preparation course. Initially I wasn’t open to the idea, because I thought that respite care was like fostering. I had the impression that if I didn’t meet certain criteria, like earning a certain amount, they wouldn’t return my baby to me. 

By this time, I had my second child. When I found out that I was pregnant, the baby’s heartbeat had already developed, and I decided to keep this child despite the circumstances. 

As I asked more about respite care, I found out that I was able to leave my children with a respite carer for a few days, and my fiancé and I eventually decided to give it a try. After the first time, I became a lot more open, because I saw that my baby was in good hands, and I was able to work on house hunting. 

Before my children meet the respite carer, I speak with Sanctuary Care to find out what the family is like. I prefer if the family has older children, because I know that Timmy likes to play with other kids. I feel happier knowing that there are older children giving attention to my babies. 

It was also important to me that the carers follow the guidelines that I give. For example, Timmy needs a lot of attention because he has eczema, and cream needs to be applied every few hours. He also can’t drink cow’s milk. I pack everything that he needs in a bag, and the respite carers have been very respectful. They follow my rules, and they always ask for permission if they want to try something new that might help him. 

Both my children had been with several respite carers before Keren and Yeshwant. Because Timmy was with Keren for two months, I didn’t see much of him in that time. So when he came back to me, he was very cranky. I told Sanctuary Care that my baby was missing Keren’s family, and asked if it was possible for them to see Timmy once in a while. That was when we started to meet up. 

My second child was with another caregiver when Timmy was with Keren, but once Keren and I started talking, she said she was willing to take care of both my babies once in a while if I needed help. Because I was already familiar with Keren and her family, it was a relief to have them both with her. When they were with her, I noticed how chubby they became. 

I didn’t feel jealous that my children became close to Keren’s family, because I knew that it was better for them. I feel blessed that they took such good care of Timmy that he grew so much in weight, in his sleeping habits, and his intelligence.

I’m not good in English, whereas Keren always speaks in English to the children, so I was happy that when Timmy came home, he could say words like “goodbye”. I’m proud of my children, and I feel thankful that Keren and her family have done so much for my babies. I’m always busy with work and trying to find a place for us to stay, but with her, at least they get to eat well, and have that attention.

That was the biggest benefit of respite care: knowing that my children are in safe hands and growing well. It comforted me.

Right now, because of COVID-19, both the children are with me. My fiancé and I were both working in essential services, but with the closure of infant care and not being able to go between households, we had no choice but to quit our jobs to look after our sons. It was not an easy decision, but we decided that since the babies are so young and we do not have family support, this would be a short term arrangement. 

In the meantime, we are relying on our savings, and I've been trying to earn a bit of cash by doing some online reselling on Facebook groups, but it has been hard.

We are currently living in a home that was provided for us by Safe Place, but only for three months (which is the maximum amount of time). We will need to find another place to stay, and it’s been quite stressful because we were meant to save up for rent. I have been searching for homes everyday, but it has been hard to find a place that suits our budget, or have a landlord who is open to a couple with babies. 

My long-term goal is to save enough so that we can have our own three-room flat. I hope to get a driving license, and eventually save up to get a family car. Unfortunately, our intended wedding did not take place because of circumstances with my family, but hopefully, we can get married one day.

Before I became a mother, I was a normal teenager who liked to play and have fun. But since I had my kids, what motivates me is being able to go to work. People have asked if I want to go back to school, but I would rather go to work and focus on getting a nice place for my babies. I want them to grow up happy, and in a good environment. 

I do know that I have made some mistakes in the past, and I know that I should have waited for Timmy to be older before having a second child. But I can’t turn back the time. What I need to do now is to do my best for both of them, move forward, and plan for our future.

If there are any young mothers who are going through motherhood alone, my advice would be: when you feel like giving up, look at your babies. Tell yourself that your babies need you, and you need to stay strong.

* * * *

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of Lydia’s family. 

Keren and Yeshwant would like to emphasise on the ease of being a respite carer, and believe that it is a service that not many people are aware of. “There are so many children waiting for respite care. We would like to share that a lot of families can definitely be respite carers. You can be caregivers for a few days, weeks or months, depending on your circumstances.”

“It can be a mental block for some people, because being a respite carer pushes you out of your comfort zone,” Yeshwant says. Admitting that he initially wasn’t too keen on taking care of young children, he’s now become the ‘baby burper’ of the household. “Once the child makes his way into the household and your hearts, the benefits are tremendous. Over time, I’ve become more patient.”

On top of providing case management support to respite carers and keeping natural families connected to their children during the duration of placement, Sanctuary Care also provides essentials (such as clothes, milk powder, diapers and even a pram) to spare the respite carers additional expense. All other costs are voluntarily borne by the respite carer’s family. 

Sanctuary Care runs entirely on donations from the public, and there are many people in Lydia’s position who can benefit from this support. Please donate to https://www.boystown.org.sg/get-involved/donate/ if you would like to help in supporting other families in need. 

For more information on respite care, visit https://www.sanctuarycare.org/

Photos were provided by Keren. Stay tuned to part three of our Mother’s Day series, which will be released on May 18. 

The first story in the series about a mother of 14 can be read here: https://dayre.me/story/4c061ce288

Writer’s Note: 

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about being an only child, grieving the loss of a parent, and how I realised that I truly am my mother’s daughter. 

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