I'm a single mum, and my family is no less complete
By Hoe I Yune, May 12, 2020
This story contains mentions of depression.
On Mother’s Day, we kicked off our series with Tammy’s story on how she found herself while raising 14 kids (https://dayre.me/story/4c061ce288).
In today’s story, 38-year-old Alverna Cher shares how her daughters inspire her to strive for a better life.
Alverna is a single mum to 13-year-old Vanessa and six-year-old Valerie. Like any parent, she wants the best for her daughters and that pushed her to choose loving herself over succumbing to negative forces in her life.
Having walked out of toxic relationships with her daughters’ fathers, parenting alone hasn’t been easy, but Alverna remains strong-willed. After her ex-boyfriend was convicted for breaking the law she found herself at her lowest with only $400 in the bank and five-digit worth of debts to pay off. She turned her life around and today, she is not only debt-free but the founder behind funeral parlour City Funeral Singapore and its CARE Planner Associate Certification Programme, which enables women to earn a side income through facilitating will writing and funeral planning.
As a mum, she hopes to raise her daughters to be strong, independent women, and to leave behind a legacy for them so that they’ll be well-prepared, regardless of what the future holds.
A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter Valerie came home from school and asked, “Why don’t I have a daddy?”
My chest tightened at the sight of her wide innocent eyes. Instead of hugging her and crying, I remained composed. I reassured her that we were doing okay, even though her father is no longer in the picture.
“What do you think a father can do? Could it be someone to love you? To play with you? These are things that I can do with you. Everything that you need, mummy is taking care of it,” I explained.
I also reminded her that we have God to look up to and she has her grandfather, her uncle, and a godfather to care for her. Pointing out how we have been doing fine all these years lifted her spirits. “It’s true. I eat, I grow, I learn,” she agreed.
Emotional as I felt when she posed the question, I knew I had to control myself because I wanted to teach her to manage negative emotions too. Since becoming a mum when I was 26, I’ve learned that motherhood immediately makes you someone else’s role model. Becoming a mum was the first time I truly felt responsible for another being and over the years, my goal has been to better myself for the sake of my two girls. I want to raise them well.
My journey as a single mum began after I divorced my husband Peter*. The father of my eldest daughter Vanessa, it became apparent two months after she was born that our marriage was not sustainable. We had different expectations on how to operate as a family and frequently clashed over finances. When Vanessa cried in the middle of the night, he would shout at me to look after her myself. He refused to contribute towards our household expenses and spent money on alcohol without settling personal debts.
I received sole custody of Vanessa and he hasn’t visited us nor paid the maintenance fees ordered by the court. I learned to look after her by myself. It was frightening to raise a child on my own but I planned for the future. I applied for a HDB under Vanessa’s name and mine. In the meantime, I moved back to my parents’ home. After nine attempts over three years, I finally succeeded in applying for my own place.
Four years after my divorce, I got into a relationship with my second child Valerie’s father, Michael*, whom I continued to date for seven years. But our happiness was short-lived — soon after I gave birth to Valerie, he was sentenced to prison, leaving me with his barely a month old funeral business and a five-digit debt to pay off.
As Michael and I were unmarried, I was not eligible for the $8,000 that married mothers get under the Baby Bonus scheme. Before I could afford a helper, my mother took care of my daughters while I was preoccupied at work. She’s the kind of mother who nags but her actions always prove that she will be there for me.
I didn’t need to settle Michael’s debts; I could’ve just walked away, yet I wanted peace in my life and wanted to avoid being gossiped about. I stepped out of my comfort zone as a stay-at-home mum and convinced his creditor to accept payments in instalments, closed his business, and set up one in my own name called City Funeral Singapore.
My lack of experience and the funeral business being a man’s world gave me a rough start, however it was from dipping my toes into the trade that I found my footing as an entrepreneur. I found it very meaningful to help the deceased and their family, and it was a wake up call to never be a burden to my children.
Before this, I graduated with a diploma, then worked in the recruitment and the education sectors. After that, I spent a year as a stay-at-home mum. I was determined to make a career as an entrepreneur as I wanted a flexible career that enabled me to be present for my children. As a regular employee, I wouldn’t be entitled to more childcare leave just because I am parenting solo.
To make ends meet, I pawned off my jewellery and rented out the common room of my flat. I sunk most of my cash into running the new business. I arranged for my mortgage loan to be paid in arrears and for payment towards utility bills and insurance premiums to be deferred.
My business grew from strength to strength and I grew comfortable with being the sole breadwinner. In 2018, I received the Exemplary Young Mother Award for mothers who have shown resilience in overcoming life’s challenges, which was awarded by Jamiyah Singapore and presented by President Halimah Yacob. I always enjoyed working but to have received public recognition was a reassuring validation of how much I had achieved.
What I found more challenging to navigate were the bouts of depression. When I met Michael, I hoped that I could have a so-called complete family. His run in with the law caught me off guard and I questioned my faith in God, wondering why was I always suffering? I felt like a failure for letting this happen a second time.
The first year after Michael was taken away, I soldiered through being a mum and boss, while fighting depression. Functioning on four hours of sleep, I didn’t want to meet or talk to anyone outside of work. I felt ashamed for going through yet another breakup and his criminal offence was so disgraceful. During my darkest moments, I thought about ending my life and bringing my daughters with me. I eventually realised that wallowing in self-pity wasn’t going to improve our situation. Vanessa especially helped me to come out of the bleak period, showing me strength and encouraging me by saying that I’m the best mummy. She might not have known that I was facing depression but she knew how to love me.
Even today, there are moments when I feel so tired and just wish that there was someone to help me but over the years, my loved ones, self-reflection and self-help books keep me going.
Michael and I officially broke up three and a half years into his prison sentence. Despite his arrest, I tried to make our relationship work because him committing a crime didn’t mean that he didn’t value our relationship. I also wanted a complete family for my daughters and knew he relied on me for support. However when he got into a fight with another inmate, I realised he would never change.
Vanessa, who was 11 at the time and learned of the fight said, “Let’s give up on him.” Her words made me realise that I couldn’t be selfish and let such a person have a negative impact on my daughters’ lives.
I never relied on anyone for money but I counted on my faith in God and words from loved ones to tide me through emotionally. A girl friend once said, “Alverna, I trust you and know that any business you do would surely succeed. Don’t see yourself as a single mum indebted to your children. You have given them so much more than a regular mum would.” I hold such sayings close to my heart, and a motto that I live by is “to turn failure into fuel to keep the dream burning”.
Often when I introduce myself as a single mum, people are curious about my story and ask how it is that I can juggle a business and two daughters, but I’ve always thrived on being a hard worker and my parents and sister’s family have been incredibly supportive. With them, I celebrate the joys of parenthood, such as if my daughters do well in school or excel in extracurricular activities.
I realised that to be called a “single mum” is just a label and doesn’t define who you are as a person.
What matters is that I fulfill my responsibility as a mother and live a life with integrity and compassion.
People might think that it is hard to be both a mother and father but I don’t dwell on what could’ve been. I bond with my daughters every night by eating together, reading, and having a 15-minute “pillow talk” before bed. I am very honest with Vanessa and Valerie because we’ve always had this rule that we should have no secrets between us. I know when they’re older, they’ll naturally keep things from me, but I don’t want them to ever feel like that they can’t confide in me.
We’re very expressive as a family and sometimes, my older girl will send a text saying “I love you, mi” in the middle of the day. Anyone can provide them with food and shelter but as their mother, I want to develop their character and prepare them for the future.
Whenever I see Vanessa teaching her younger sister something that I previously taught her, it reminds me that I’m doing something right.
When you’re juggling “dual roles” as a single mum, it’s easy to neglect “self-care” but I think it’s important not to lose your sense of self and to pamper yourself occasionally. Once a week, I destress in a hydrotherapy tub, which I refer to as my “home spa”, and once in a while, I treat myself to a massage. Even though my days are packed to the brim, I seize five-minute showers as a chance to reflect on what I’ve done for the day and what I can do better.
I’ve joined a group of single mums at church for spiritual support and am a Women of Courage Asia community leader, which involves helping women to overcome adversities and fears through sharing experiences, knowledge and skills. I also started a Facebook group that supports female breadwinners and frequently features encouraging posts. But to be honest, I don’t feel very different even when chatting with other mum friends. We all encourage one another, exchanging parenting tips and cooking tips.
Another misconception is that we single mums might carry more bitterness than love in our hearts. It’s easy to fall back on grumbling how life is unfair and worrying that society doesn’t see us as a “whole family”. However I think it’s important to have compassion.
It’s because of this that I teach my daughters to give back to society through volunteer work. We’ve taken a break from this due to COVID-19, but almost every Sunday, we provide breakfast for the elderly in rental flats and help them with chores.
Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, I believe in choosing to treasure the good in life. By volunteering as a family, I help my daughters see how fortunate they are even without their biological fathers. I want them to be able to learn self-satisfaction, responsibility, and compassion.
Compassion is so important to me, because there's a belief that children of separated parents might be more disillusioned. Although my exes and I were not the right fit for each other, I don't want my daughters to be cynical about love, or think that men are untrustworthy.
Since Vanessa started getting curious about dating and romance, I’ve advised her to picture her ideal future husband and think about values such as compassion, responsibility, sense of financial planning and even filial piety. Then I explained to her what each of these values mean and how they can enrich her life. Vanessa has boys that she likes so I guess being raised by a single mum hasn’t deterred her from pursuing love!
As for me, I am not in a relationship right now and to have a life partner isn’t a must but if the right guy comes along, I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot. However my expectations are now higher than before as I would expect him to not only be a good husband but also a good father to my girls.
I’ve introduced Vanessa and Valerie to some good friends whom I’ve thought of starting a relationship with and I’ve been very honest, saying who they are, what they do, and if they have expressed interest in dating me. My girls are very perceptive and protective of me, so they would ask, “Why ah? Is he up to something?
I am clear to reassure them that even if I do have a boyfriend, my love for them won’t change and that is something that I want them to understand and trust me on.
Being a mum has changed my life. It has meant compromising on sleep and sacrificing personal freedom, but motherhood has also helped me to grow as a person. Looking back, I am proud of what we’ve accomplished as a family. I managed to make a name for myself in the funeral industry, serving many families and doing pro-bono work for babies and the needy. Besides, to love and be loved by my two girls isn’t something that I would ever change for the world. Every roadblock we hit has been a learning point and we didn’t crumble but came out stronger and wiser.
*Names have been changed.
Photos were provided by Alverna. Stay tuned to parts three and four of our Mother’s Day series, which will be released on May 14 and 18.
My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about my relationship with my parents and sister, as well as dating and planning for the future.
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