by Patricia Siswandjo on

By 19, she had gone through two abortions.

She had a difficult childhood. When she was 14, her father left, leaving her mother to provide for her family.

Frustrated that her life was falling apart, she would lash out and that led to a fractured relationship with her mother.

She dealt with it seeking solace in a string of unhealthy relationships.

But that soon came with its own set of problems: She got pregnant — twice.

She was alone, scared, and unsure of what to do, which led to her fateful decisions.

Speaking to The Pride, Jennifer Heng, now 44, recalled: “As a teen, I didn’t really know how to process the feelings I had towards what was happening at home.”

As a teenager, an unhappy domestic life prompted Heng to seek solace elsewhere. She became involved in unhealthy relationships that led to two abortions by the age of 19. Image Source: Jennifer Heng

She was 17 when she had her first abortion. As the unborn baby was already 22 weeks old, Heng underwent induced labour. She spent eight excruciating hours giving birth to a still-born boy.

During her induced labour, Heng called out in desperation for help, but no one was in the clinic to hear her. The medical staff had gone for lunch and Heng did not have anyone with her for emotional support.

She thought she would never have to go through that trauma again.

But barely two years later, at 19, Heng aborted her second baby, who was six weeks old.

She wanted to move on, but was haunted by her memories

Heng felt relieved at the end of each abortion, thinking her problems were solved.

Those feelings lasted only for a while.

She explained: “Initially, I felt a great sense of relief, and thought I could move on. But that soon turned into a nagging guilt and fear that I was not a good person.”

Heng added that she was often plagued by dark thoughts. She grew to fear children, and hated being around them. She was easily irritated by conversations about pregnancy or childbirth. She also feared what her future partner would think of her.

Image Source: Shutterstock / kitzcorner

She added: “I felt that the abortions created new fears and worries in my life.”

For about five years after her second abortion, Heng felt lost and unsure of what to do with her life.

Everything changed for the better when, in her mid-20s, she attended a Christian course.

There, she found the will to accept her ‘second chance’ and not be trapped in her past.

Instead of seeing herself as a bad person, Heng realised she could learn from her past, and use her experiences to do good. For the first time in a long while, said Heng, she began to feel hopeful again.

That experience brought her to a new revelation, said Heng.

“I had the privilege of having this chance to make good of my life. But what about others? What about other girls and women? Surely I’m not the only one who has gone through these difficult circumstances? Surely I’m not the only one who has felt this fear and desperation? I had this very precious opportunity to turn (my life) around, but what about others?

“From that point, the direction of my life began to change,” said Heng. “I found a new sense of hope, and took little steps in that direction,” she said. “It was a long process of ups and downs.”

She found faith and new purpose

Armed with a new purpose, Heng was determined to help others avoid her mistakes. She started by writing a book, Walking Out of Secret Shame. Published in 2012, the book chronicled her abortion experience with the intention of helping those in a similar situation.

Her book was a hit. Bolstered by the real-life stories of women she helped, Heng wanted to do even more.

In Aug 2012, Heng launched her book ‘Walking Out of Secret Shame’. Image Source: Jennifer Heng

In 2014, she founded Dayspring New Life Centre, where women and families with unsupported pregnancies could be empowered to make life-giving choices.

After Dayspring New Life Centre closed in 2016, Heng started Safe Place under Lakeside Family Services two years later. Today, the married mother-of-one is the director of this initiative.

Because Heng knows first-hand just how overwhelming an unwanted pregnancy can be, she designed Safe Place to be a one-stop place for women with unsupported pregnancies.

Heng giving a talk at FamChamps, a values-driven student initiative to promote the holistic message of family. Image Source: Jennifer Heng

Safe Place provides counselling services, temporary housing, antenatal and postnatal training, emotional management, and relationship mediation.

Heng said: “Feeling alone, faced with a time crunch, without adequate partner and family support, and a lack of finances and safe places, pregnant women may be led to consider abortion.

“And in a highly distressing situation, it’s so difficult to be objective and look for solutions. Abortion seems to be the best and fastest way to ‘solve the problem’.”

“But,” she added, “I have experienced first-hand that abortion is not going to solve your problems. It may provide temporary relief, but the ongoing problems continue, and may even increase. If a woman is given resources, encouragement and empowered to know her options, and have people committed to walk alongside her, will she decide differently?”

Not just another shelter

“Many people think we are ‘just’ a shelter for mothers, or that we help only teenage mums,. But we are much, much more than that,” Heng said.

Heng explained that the job came with a huge emotional toll.

Image Source: Shutterstock / Wor Sang Jun

“The work is very intense because the women who come to us are usually in very dire situations, and their emotional states are very volatile,” she said. “So the work demands emotional strength from the social workers, staff and volunteers.”

Safe Place also works closely with different resource providers, government and non-government agencies and volunteers to provide adequate and wholesome care for the women.

Heng added: “Most importantly, we stand with every woman, assuring them that they are not alone.”

Safe Place staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries come together for a gathering. Some faces have been blurred for privacy. Image Source: Jennifer Heng

In the two years since Safe Place was started, 95 women have benefited from Heng’s offer of love, understanding and shelter.

To mums with unwanted pregnancies, it’s the little things that matter

And beyond providing women with care and counselling, Heng also makes it a point to provide them with seemingly small, but just as important, things.

Heng told The Pride about an incident that touched her, during a Christmas party two years ago.

She said: “The volunteers prepared a sumptuous meal, set up a big Christmas tree, decorated the house and prepared presents.”

But they were surprised when one of the mums burst into tears. Those, however, turned out to be tears of joy.

“She said she had never celebrated Christmas like that before, and that she had never seen a Christmas tree so beautiful. It was very moving,” Heng recalled.

Knowing how such a gathering could bring so much joy, Safe Place also provides cash for each mum to throw a first birthday party for their child.

“The mums really enjoy preparing and planning, and they are grateful that they can create this significant memory,” said Heng. “It is meaningful, too – we celebrate a child who was potentially never even going to be born.”

They hope to nurture even more ‘safe places’

While Heng has achieved a lot thus far, she remains humble.

Safe Place staff bond over a pottery session. Image Source: Jennifer Heng

“None of this can be attributed to me alone. It was a team, a community, a collective effort. I just played a part in it,” she said.

What’s more, Heng isn’t one to rest on her laurels. The ambitious woman said: “I hope that through Safe Place, we can create more “safe places” – in communities and in society in general.”

“Instead of judging, condemning, scoffing or avoiding, sometimes simply being gentle in our words, and tangible in our help, can go a really long way.”