Family

Living the ex-pat life: Tula Goodwin on bringing up a family in Singapore

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Ever fantasised about packing up your life and moving halfway across the world? Well, Tula Goodwin, co-founder of the VogelGoodwin PR agency, did just that. Having moved from London eight years ago, she now lives in Singapore with her husband Henry and daughters Daisy (8), Agatha (nearly 6) and Margot (nearly 4). So, is it all as exciting as it sounds or are there challenges being so far away from home? From seriously luxurious hospital rooms to just jumping on a plane to head to Bali, Tula tells us all about parenting in Singapore…

Running through the jungle

Running through the jungle

When and why did you move to Singapore?

Henry and I had always talked of living abroad as we felt life held more for us than living in London. Henry – who is a lawyer was lucky enough to find a job in Singapore, which was one of our top choices. Henry moved ahead of me as I was heavily pregnant at the time with Daisy. He came back to be with me in time for her delivery, and then left 2 weeks later, so it was pretty tough. We’d also moved out of our London flat and everything was in the container bound for Singapore, so I moved in with my parents so I had a base for the birth and following weeks. Daisy and I then flew out when she was 6 weeks old to join Henry. We were initially in a rather nasty serviced apartment and Daisy had her baths in the kitchen sink!

Where do you live?

We live in a lovely old traditional ‘Kampong’ style house, which are very rare now. Most old houses are knocked down to build modern high rise apartments in their place – space is at a premium on this small island. It’s raised up on concrete ‘stilts’ so it catches the breeze – Singapore is very hot. It’s a the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, so it’s hard to imagine we in living in the middle of a city sometimes. The area where we live is called Novena, which is very close to the International School that two of the girls attend and also has an MRT station (underground) for Henry to get into work easily.

You had your first daughter in the UK and your next two children in Singapore. Did you notice any differences in how each country approaches pregnancy and birth?

I think the main difference is that in the UK most women have their children in NHS hospitals. In Singapore there is no such thing, and it makes me realise what a treasured thing the NHS is. When you start paying for your healthcare, only then do you realise what a privilege it is to have access to free healthcare! So with that in mind, the NHS system does seem understandably more chaotic. Daisy’s birth was rather complicated and the after care was pretty terrible I must admit. I felt very alone and scared. The thing that the UK has which is amazing are the healthcare visits at your home in those precarious early days when breastfeeding is alarming and you are not really sure what you are doing! Singapore was an entirely different kettle of fish – you are managed throughout your pregnancy by a consultant, with numerous scans and check ups along the way. You are really hand-held here – I kept calling my hospital room, a ‘hotel’ room by mistake as it was not dis-similar. Lovely nurses brought in cups of milo and you also have the option of eating a local diet which helps enhance breastmilk production etc, a lactation consultant visits your room – which has a TV and your own bathroom! I didn’t want to leave and face reality – whereas with Daisy, despite being a first time mother, I was desperate to leave.

Zero jet-lag and beaches like this make heading to the West coast of Australia very easy to do.

Zero jet-lag and beaches like this make heading to the West coast of Australia very easy to do.

In regards to being pregnant in Singapore, does anything like the NCT exist? Is it easy to meet other expectant mothers?

There is a large expat community here, so there are classes like that, but again they come at a price and are independently run. I joined one when I arrived with Daisy in order to meet new mothers with babies the same age where we would meet once a week. I didn’t bother with the other two.

How does Singapore culture embrace the first few months of motherhood?

Breastfeeding is hugely encouraged here and I found it a lot easier here than in the UK. As I mentioned, a lactation consultant visits you post delivery to check the baby is latching on properly etc, and you are given a hotline number to call should you experience any difficulties. Maternity leave is much shorter here – 3 months – so a lot of mothers bring their breast pump to work. The local Chinese culture believe in ‘confinement’ – where a new mother should stay in the house for the first month, eat special foods to help heal etc and not even wash their hair. In that month the mother is looked after by her own mother and the new mother is encouraged to do as little as possible. They also encourage the use of special herbal wraps and massages to help your tummy go down.

What’s the attitude to childcare? Do most ex-pats have nannies or live-in help? 

The vast majority of expats have live-in help. Most of these amazing ladies comes from the Philippines, Indonesia or Sri Lanka. Most people use nurseries – perhaps less for the child care – but more to assimilate them with other children so they can play and interact etc.

What’s a typical day in the life of an ex-pat pre-schooler in Singapore? 

Most people tend to arrange a couple of playdates a week and take it in turn at one another’s houses. No day goes by without a walk in the buggy or a bounce on the trampoline! There are many wonderful parks and green spaces to take children – it’s a very child friendly place.

How about schooling, do ex-pats ever go to local schools?

Most expat children attend international schools – this is because it is hard to attend a local school unless you hold a Permanent Resident pass, and most expats are here on a standard employment pass.

There are schools such as Tanglin Trust and Dulwich College which follow a UK curriculum, and therefore have predominantly British families attending, as well as other nationalities obviously. The same can be said for the Australian School, French Lycee and German International School etc etc. There are others, such as St Joseph’s Institution International Elementary School which my girls go to which follow the IPC (The International Primary Curriculum)  so there is more of a mix of nationalities. The Global Family Day is amazing – when you see children come to school dressed in their national dress from all over the world and it makes you realise how truly ‘International’ it is!

Have you noticed any big differences in terms of education?

My children have only been educated here to date, so I have nothing to compare it to. Friends who have moved back to the UK seem to think that there is greater emphasis on the basics like reading, writing and maths, but I am not really in a position to say. I do know that the weather makes a big difference – I think the children here are probably stronger swimmers from an early age, simply from having access to swimming pools and year round hot weather. But I do think they miss out on the seasons. Outdoor sports are a very hot and sweaty affair here!

How has your style of parenting been influenced by living in Singapore?

I am so lucky to have live-in help. That has made the hugest difference to me. It has meant that I was able to set up my own business and have greater flexibility with that. It also helps with simple things like multiple pick-ups. I don’t have to bring them all along in the car to collect one child, or take them all along for one doctor appointment etc….!

Do you find that ex-pats move on after a few years and you end up making good friends who then leave?

Despite having lived here for over 8 years, we have been relatively surprised at how few people seem to have left as expats seems to stay here for a while. However, that seems to be changing in the last year or so – and it’s very sad when a number of good friends have returned back to the UK. It’s also sad for the children who have grown up with them. I have kept in touch with them though, and we pick up where we left off when I go back, as I think we’ve all been through so much here together – raising kids on the other side of the world. At the end of every school year there are always children moving on, or back home.

What’s the best thing about raising a family in Singapore?

The year round warm weather, while being a challenge at times (it really gets very hot and humid!) means that we spend a lot of time outside. The children love swimming, and taking their scooters around the beautiful Botanic gardens. I love the fact that good friends become like family to you here, and everyone joins forces and helps out – as our families are so far away.  Our children mix with kids from all over the world, they even recognize dangerous snakes (!) and we are afforded the chance to travel to some really amazing places on our doorstep. We think nothing of jumping on a plane and popping off to Bali, or even the west coast of Australia – and the children get to see to enjoy all these other rich cultures and experiences. The children are great travellers from an early age. Even within Singapore, they love nothing more than having the local favourite ‘Chicken Rice’ at a hawker centre. When they sign the national anthem – it’s not God Save The Queen – it’s Majulah Singapora! – and I love that they are embracing living here like that.

What are the challenges about raising a family in Singapore?

Being so far away from home – old friends and family is hard. I miss my sister enormously – especially now she has children of her own and I feel sad that the cousins are missing out on growing up together. The heat as I’ve mentioned can be a challenge and another concern is the haze problem which has reared its head. The haze is caused by Indonesian farmers slashing and burning to make space for palm oil plantations. The smoke smothers the region. Last year it lasted months and we were confined to the house, schools closed etc. It makes me worry for their health. Singapore is a very expensive place to live – even a basic car costs an absolute fortune. Grocery shopping is about 3 times the price of an average UK supermarket. This means buying organic produce for example is prohibitively expensive.

Daisy and Aggie in traditional Indian dress to celebrate Deepvali at school

Daisy and Aggie in traditional Indian dress to celebrate Deepvali at school

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