Words by CHARISIA ONG
As a child, time is dictated by your parents.
“15 more minutes and it’s lights out.” “Curfew is 11pm. Be home by then or you’re grounded.”
When you become an adult, Netflix all night and the only bedtime imposed on you is the one that you yourself choose. And then, you become a parent, and as if in a bit of humorous karma, your time gets dictated by a child; the cycle has come full circle.
In Autumn 2020, within the span of two weeks, I matriculated both into graduate school and into maternity. I still remember the waves of pain that accompanied me as I tried to contort my body into different positions that might afford some respite, hoping in vain that the next contraction would be kinder than the previous one, all while participating in a seminar discussing Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. Four hours after the seminar ended, I had graduated from pregnancy and entered the school of motherhood.
“What do you work as?” “Oh, actually... I am a graduate student now.” “Wow, that must be nice, you get to spend so much time with your newborn!”
Well, there is that, and more.
My undergraduate days had indeed been some of the best days of my life because of the unparalleled liberty that we were afforded. As long as you met the attendance requirements and sat for exams, what you did with the rest of your time could be judiciously indulged in or haplessly squandered away.
But now, I suddenly found myself on-call every 3 hours, where my newborn would signal her pangs of hunger with cries and screams, and it did not take long for me to come to master an optimal position such that I could hold her securely with one arm to nurse her, while using my other hand to expertly navigate the recesses of my laptop as I obediently attended seemingly endless core module classes and seminars.
While most mums would just take the first post-delivery month to focus on healing and allowing their bodies regenerate to the best possible state, for me, any break time from lessons or nursing was spent writing response papers, churning out presentations, and trawling through readings with my post-partum, beleaguered mind. There was a forever countdown time ticking no matter what I was doing, where any semblance of free time that I had was inescapably going to get cut short, entirely dependent on when my newborn next decided to cry. By the end of the first post-delivery month, I had fallen ill, waking up every day to dizziness, headaches and a sickening weariness that threatened to throw my postpartum recovery dangerously off-track. Weekends used to signal the opportunity to take a momentary breather from the gloom of the weekdays. But as a mum, it just means that there is no childcare, and my baby will be with me 24/7. When she was younger, the problem was coming up with a trillion and one ways to play with her as she lay there staring at me. As she grows, becoming both more active and more able to move around, it has evolved into having to use my physical self to set physical boundaries for her so that she does not get into harm’s way. There is always a new challenge at every stage. When the Japanese border restrictions lifted temporarily after the Oct 2021 elections, my now one-year old daughter and I made the move from Singapore to Tokyo to start a life with just the two of us.
At home in Singapore, I had auxiliary forces to tap on in the form of my husband and my parents and siblings, whereas in Tokyo, it was just me, her, and us. Some days, especially the kind of days that call themselves deadlines and particularly when they decide to clump together in stretches, can get very rough, and it feels like I might lose my sanity. But at the same time, it is when I look at her and she flashes that cheeky grin at me, or lets out such an infectious and adorable giggle, that I realise how much she is the one who is also keeping me sane, and giving me something palpable to live for, and wake up for. When I hug her in the morning before tumbling out of bed, and I snuggle my nose into her hair and I get a whiff of that baby-scented shampoo-ed tiny bobbling head, I am always overwhelmed and inundated by how much reason there is to continue living, no matter how difficult the day, or week, or month, or forever, is going to be.
On the days where I doubt if I have made the correct decision – to be embarked on these parallel adventures of being both a graduate student and a first-time mum simultaneously – my mum-self always wins the student-self because of this inner strength that my tiny human so magically bestows upon me in waves after waves of abundance.
When I graduate this Autumn 2022, while the degree certificate that awaits me is an affirmation that this crazy adventure that I have been through counts for something, it is ultimately just a formality, because I see clearly that I already have the bigger, more important and ever-enduring prize, right here with me.
Charisia Ong is a postgraduate student in the Information, Technology, and Society in Asia (ITASIA) program.
THE KOMABA TIMES ISSUE 11, APRIL 2022