Once we made it through security and claimed our bags, it was somehow Saturday afternoon and I became worried about how we’d get from the airport to our home. Singapore has a bit of a cavalier attitude about children in moving vehicles, and it doesn’t sit right with me. We had brought Harper’s bucket seat with us on the flight, checking it at the gate with the stroller, but Penny was another story. She’s three, but small, and I was not comfortable with the idea of her riding in taxi unrestrained, legal or not.
Thankfully, we were able to secure what’s known as a Grab:Family, the Singapore equivalent of Uber with the added bonus of promising to have a car seat for your small child. The girls and I traveled in this car, and Seb followed behind with the rest of the luggage. As anyone who is a parent can imagine, the twenty-five minute drive felt like nine years because Harper had simply had it and screamed the entire time. It was the first time I got to alternate between worrying about the welfare of my inconsolable child and fretting about the ability of this poor driver to concentrate despite her wails.
Our helper, Jona, was waiting for us in the lobby of our new home and assisted with getting what baggage we had inside. Since Seb had preceded us in this dwelling, we had the luxury of coming home to actual beds and some legitimate furnishings, which sure was nice after a day long journey. We investigated the apartment and then explored the condo, the whole experience feeling slightly less surreal now that there were concrete places I could picture the next two years unfolding.
My expectations for sleep were nonexistent, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the kids were exhausted enough to go to bed at a traditional bedtime and that they stayed mostly asleep for much of that first night. Jet lag is unavoidable, however, and the inadvertent napping that happened during the next 48 hours was the biggest indicator that we were all out of sorts.
When we woke up on Sunday, we were on our own, as federal domestic workers receive all Sundays and Public Holidays off. Our to-do list for the day included getting my cell phone sorted. While I know that people used to navigate unfamiliar cities without the assistance of GPS, I certainly did not feel equipped to use a paper map while dragging both girls around by myself the next day. We had discovered back home that Verizon was positively unhelpful when it came to preserving our US numbers, but AT&T offers a seldom advertised prepaid phone plan that allowed us to purchase a small block of data to use when we are home and preserve our US numbers at the same time. This meant that for my last day in the states I experienced a strange sort of dejavu when I received a notification after each SMS text sent or received that I had spent $.10 of my prepaid balance. 2007, anyone? But this allowed me to get a Singapore number on a separate Singapore SIM card without having to use an entirely new device.
We then set out to find a playground for Penny, embarking on what I would come to learn is a staple of traveling anywhere in Singapore for the first time. We were instructed by our technology to take a route that does not factor in things like sidewalk accessibility or steepness of hills. We arrived drenched after having the collapse the stroller at least twice to carry it up and down stairs to compulsory sky high overpasses and were thrilled to find a beautiful playground that made me long to be a kid again.
I have since discovered that this playground, part of what is known as Fort Canning Park, can be arrived in through two much more direct routes – a straightforward, downhill twenty minute walk down a single street, or a seven minute bus ride. This is the benefit of being able to stay in a place – the initial hapless jaunt stings less knowing that it will be the outlier in terms of overall experience as you sort out the streets that abruptly end and the hills you have no business pushing a double stroller up.
The following day, I had promised Penny we would check out the library, but I had to warn her that we’d be leaving without any books. Securing a library card as a foreigner requires you to have your official documentation, which for me, as a non-working spouse of someone on what’s known as an Employment Pass, is something called a Dependent’s Pass. Penny and Harper get the same designation. This wouldn’t be sorted out until I had my appointment at the Ministry of Manpower in a few days.
I always feel most confident on my own two feet, so I decided we’d walk to the library and trusted Apple Maps to guide me. Big mistake. I trekked up this ungodly hill only to find that I had to reroute myself to avoid darting across what felt like a minor highway with Harper sleeping against my body and Penny in the stroller. I arrived exhausted but absolutely certain that there must be a better route I could find when it was time to head back.
The National Library was equipped with a Parenting Room that set my soul at ease. While I googled and found that it was indeed legal to publicly breastfeed, I had yet to see anyone actually do it, and having a quiet space to feed your child becomes really important when they are in the developmental stage of being distracted by an errant breeze. Once I found someone to unlock the space, the respite made me feel like we could rally and endure the trip home.
Once back, we settled in to read a few stories and all of us inadvertently fell into a sleep far too deep for mid-afternoon. When we woke, evening was settling in and Seb would be home from work soon. All things considered, it was far from a momentous first day, but there was a victory in getting through it all the same.
On Tuesday, we woke up with a mission. Seb had purchased only two towels for his solo time abroad, which was simply insufficient for a family of four. So, when it was time for Harper’s first nap, I popped her in the carrier and we trekked on foot to Robinson’s department store. Though we can see its illuminated sign from our bedroom at night, it was a twenty minute walk, located in the heart of the Orchard neighborhood which has more retail establishments than I knew any singular city-sized small country could ever keep in business.
Penny picked out some bath toys, which I hoped would offset the trauma that is washing her hair next time she got in the tub. I needed a pillow that matched my sleeping style and a contraption that would allow me to blend baby food. We also picked out four more towels and an inflatable infant tub, which had to be better than the sink bath I attempted to give Harper that morning, which caused a small flood. I itemize these things so you can perhaps understand the look of incredulity that I got when I made it clear that we had no driver waiting, nor would we be taking a cab. I began to feel that my complete comfort with being a sweaty mess while resembling a pack mule would be the clearest indication that I was not a native Singaporean.
On Wednesday morning, I made my way to check out a local Crossfit and signed on the dotted line the second I finished what I was promised was a bit of an unconventional workout for them – four ten minute intervals in which to accomplish each of the following: 100 burpees, bike 3k, row 1.6k, and run 1.6k. The latent endurance athlete in me was high on endorphins and the familiarity of the Crossfit gym setting.
During my bus ride back, it began to pour, and I arrived home thoroughly drenched, wondering what exactly led me to conclude that shipping our umbrellas was a good idea. The rain here tends to be fast and furious and impossible to predict. Skies will visibly darken and nothing will fall. Weather apps will predict a storm with 80% certainty and we will plan something indoors only to see radiant skies out the window for the next few hours. In my opinion, there’s nothing too terrible about getting doused on when the weather is always eighty degrees – it feels almost refreshing and you dry quickly.
Penny, however, does not agree, so we decided to test out one of the mall playgrounds. It was small and underwhelming and filled with children, but the architects were savvy and placed it outside of several children’s stores. We left the mall with some sand toys and an inflatable raft, and these purchases shaped our plans for the rest of the surprisingly sunny day.
This seems a good place to note that the reason I was able to fully immerse myself in exploring with my kids over these early days is Jona. She prepared every meal and cleaned every room and the reality of having this full time partner in the never-ending gauntlet of what can still feel like the woman’s work was revolutionary.
One of the few television programs I indulged in while on maternity leave was The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I remember being stupefied by the fact that this woman with young children separated from her husband and then somehow had adventures as a person worth following for a sitcom. The how was abundantly clear – she had a small task force of help and never had to worry about laundry, cooking, cleaning, or even spending time with her kids unless she was in the mood to do so. It made for good television, but it felt so different from my experience as a working mother of little ones. Before kids, I was an efficient worker bee who had time to go above and beyond AND have hobbies. After children, my life was spent in perpetual tension. If I was at work, I missed my daughter. If I tried to be completely present with her, part of me inevitably felt tugged away by the things I needed to do for both my paid and unpaid labor.
Here, I am unemployed for the first time in my adult life. Here, having help in the household is such a norm that coupled people with no kids (and no dogs) still will utilize a live in support. If both parents work and the kids are not yet school aged, hiring two live-in helpers is common place. This isn’t some expat perk; it’s the norm for all Singaporeans. Essentially, Singapore was telling me that the work I had been trying to do in the states (with the assistance of a contracted daycare facility) was the full time work of three human beings.
So yes, we uprooted our children and moved them away from everything familiar, but I had the chance to offer them undivided attention from a happy mother who actually got to the gym that day. Here, someone held the baby so I could actually sit down and eat. Here, I could finally give my firstborn some individual attention, and on Wednesday afternoon, that was what I did.
We simply when down to the pool where I relished in being able to keep my eyes on her and only her. Seven straight weeks of one parent with two kids were recent enough history that we both felt how special this was. I was floored at the possibility that here, it could become almost normal.
Thursday was a bit of a rude awakening. Shortly after waking, I struggled to swallow part of my breakfast and spent the morning hours doing my best not to panic. This is something I’ve sought medical attention for in the past, but the thought of trekking to a hospital on my first week here brought me to tears and panic only exacerbates the fear that comes with not being able to swallow your own saliva. Long story short, after lots of yoga poses and deep breathing, begging my husband to stay home and run interference with the kids, it eventually dislodged itself. Seb went into work and I drank sips of water. Normalcy returned.
It did clarify how far away from home we really are. Tricky esophaguses run in my family and I felt the distance and time zones between me and those who I knew would get it. It also reminded me that life here would still be full of peaks and valleys, some certainly deeper than public tantrums and getting on the bus going the wrong way.
The unpleasantness was offset when a friend we had made at the condo pool spoiled us with a play date. Getting to be around new people (and a fully furnished home with TOYS) was energizing for me and Penny and made this whole thing feel less like a vacation and more like a resettling. We had made it to Friday, a full week from when our plane left Newark airport. The jet lag was behind us. Penny had relented and tried a new brand of yogurt. Everything was looking up.