The 12-year-old girl sitting across me at the fast-food restaurant grins – she is about to reveal what she intends to be when she grows up.
“I want to be a writer,” says Genecia as she unwraps her burger. Her mother, seated beside her, smiles approvingly, then helps her with the burger, showing her how she should hold it without messing her fingers.
Genecia’s young mother had, a week before, apprised me of her daughter’s fondness for writing and had asked me how that interest could be developed. It is somewhat surprising, though, that Genecia was already considering writing as a career.
“Why?” I ask.
Genecia looks at me as if annoyed that I am too dense to grasp the obvious before declaring: “Because it is so easy.”
I almost choke on my hot chocolate. Whereas the young aspiring writers I’ve met have said they wanted to write because they love it, none have said they wanted to do so because it is easy.
I’m not going to argue with Genecia. I just want to know why Genecia thinks so.
“You just add words,” she says, and notices my raised brow. “Yes, it is very easy, it’s only words. You just add words, and you keep adding words,” she reiterates, explaining so eloquently the basic process of writing.
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It is much more than stringing words together, of course. A writer uses words to explain a process, to tell a story, to argue a point, or to make one, I explain.
“It’s like your burger,” I tell her. “A writer is like a chef and words are her ingredients. The words you use are for you to tell your story, and your story is like a burger. If you choose your ingredients – your words – well, you can make people very happy, just like a tasty burger would. And if you added the wrong ingredients, or used the wrong words, you could make people very unhappy.”
Genecia looks at me thoughtfully, grins, and sinks her teeth into her burger.
She would at least know now that writing goes beyond just adding words, because some words can be really hurtful.
In a recent article published in The Straits Times about the struggles of a young woman who had two abortions by the time she was 16, a commenter wrote on the newspaper’s Facebook page: “Maybe she wouldn’t need to have abortions if she stopped giving ‘easy access’.” The comment, which implies that the blame should rest entirely on the teenage girl, received close to 600 positive reactions.
Another said: “How about you don’t let losers unload in you…how about making better choices? How about having a sense of responsibility?” This comment, which suggests that the guy isn’t in any way responsible, received about 250 reactions. There seemed to be hardly any consideration that the girl – who was then only 15 years old – could have been incapable of making better choices.
That girl, Michelle Lim, is now 23, a mother of a three-year-old boy, and runs her own business. She lives in a one-room rental flat and says she would not have had the two abortions had she not felt so alone or been aware of the support available to her.
Without an iota of sympathy for Ms Lim’s plight, yet another commenter said: “She is being irresponsible to begin with, you don’t go sleep around when you are unmarried, get pregnant and ask for welfare and help from Govt. If everything has good support, there are going to be many kids with no fathers.”
Seriously? Does this guy believe that Ms Lim deliberately slept around so she could get pregnant? And is he suggesting that teenage girls would deliberately get themselves pregnant in order to become single parents if welfare and support were available?
I wonder what kind of words Genecia would add to this story.
Not because she would become a teenager this year, but because her mother, who just moments earlier had so tenderly showed her how to unwrap a burger, was only 16 when she gave birth to Genecia and her minute-older twin sister.
Now 28, she is a property consultant and takes a very keen interest in the growth and mental development of her twin daughters. She became a single mother because she backed out of her marriage at the eleventh hour, convinced the man she was about to marry – Genecia’s biological father – was a compulsive liar.
Genecia, her twin sister and their mother now live in an HDB resale flat they moved in to a couple of years ago. They appear comfortable now, but their journey was by no means an easy one. The mother was locked out of the home when she hooked up with Genecia’s father, a man five years her senior. When she decided to dump him, she moved in to her grandmother’s home.
The teen pregnancy wasn’t much fun either. The mother would not be persuaded to have an abortion. Then at 32 weeks, she was told by doctors that her amniotic fluid had severely depleted. Shortly after, they could not detect the other twin’s heartbeat. The twins were saved following an emergency cesarean operation.
The mother and her twins had to sleep on the floor of her grandmother’s tiny flat. A decade later, and after repeated appeals to HDB and numerous consultations with her Member of Parliament, the mother was given a 30-day window to purchase a flat. No built-to-order apartments, which were newer and less expensive. She had to pick one from the resale market. And no loan from the HDB: she had to obtain a bank loan, which had a higher interest rate, to finance the purchase. She was also required to make a bigger deposit upfront.
But there was never a question about the pregnancy: Genecia’s mother knew from the very start that she was going to keep her babies.
Cheerful and attractive, Genecia’s mother is a capable and resourceful woman who never married, though she is seeing someone now. And despite appearing to have surmounted the challenges facing a single teen mum, she wishes she had had more support when Genecia and her sister were younger.
So if you are against the idea, or hold the views of the commenters of Ms Lim’s story, I’d suggest you stop being daft: Providing support for unmarried teen mothers would not encourage hordes of teenage girls to dash out of the comfort of their homes to get pregnant and become single mums.
It is challenging enough being a single parent. There is the guilt experienced by the mother, the shame from the family, and of course, the travails of working and raising a child without the contribution of a male parent.
And think about the babies, too.
When Genecia was much younger, she had delays in speech and motor development. Sensing her daughter’s love for reading and writing, her mother was exploring her daughter’s options and called upon the first writer that came to her mind – yours truly.
Had I acted like the aforesaid Facebook commenters, I would have berated her for her poor life choices and left her to sort herself out because of what some may consider wasn’t the responsible thing to do – to have children out of wedlock. Yes, it sounds absolutely ridiculous to do that. So I opted to meet them instead.
I have deliberately left out Genecia’s mother’s name in this story. Genecia isn’t even her real name. I made it up so neither of them will need to face the criticism of strangers who are unaware of their struggle.
With her mother’s support and upbringing, though, I am sure Genecia is going to turn out beautifully. And she can reveal her real identity and that of her mother when she is mature enough to write it.
She did, after all, say she wants to be a writer.
If you are a pregnant teenager, or know one who needs assistance, please contact Babes, a non-profit organisation based in Singapore that provides support for teenagers going through unplanned pregnancies. Call the Babes 24-hour hotline at 8111 3535, or send them a message via their online form here.