Mummy musings: Mothering through cancer

May 08, 2016 10.00AM |

by Brenda Tan

WHEN I became a mother 17 years ago, I left teaching to be a stay-at-home mum.

I went from teaching a classroom of 44 boys to a classroom of one baby boy.

Motherhood for me has always been about teaching – nurturing and guiding my children so that they can learn to be independent and thrive in their own life’s journey.

My curriculum is simple as there are lessons to be learnt in everything we engage in. Eating is a lesson in nutrition, culture and social behaviour. Playing is a lesson in daydreaming, exploration, collaboration, creating. Our daily routines are lessons in self-discipline, duty and responsibility.

My role as “mother-teacher” was later cemented when I had to homeschool my eldest at primary two.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to homeschool the younger kids, which allowed me to pay more attention to my professional work with my husband. Later, with home support from my in-laws, I was also able to pursue solo work assignments that required me to travel in the region to as far away as Nigeria.

Despite business success in a field that no longer resembled a classroom, I was still mother-teacher to my trio: Kor-kor (17), Ah Girl (10) and Di-di (8).

And then in February this year, I found out that I have stomach cancer.

I am honest with the kids about my health and what I will be going through because I believe it is the lack of information that will make kids worry more. However, because of my children’s ages, I’m mindful of what is appropriate to share for each of them. So, while Kor-kor visited me at the hospital soon after my gastrectomy, the younger ones were only able to visit me days later, when most of the tubes attached to monitor my post-op condition were removed. Kor-kor also visited me daily when I was warded for my first chemotherapy session as he was able to use public transport on his own, but the younger ones only accompanied me to the hospital on that first day.

Thus, my cancer journey became an object lesson in my life-long curriculum for my kids.

After all, cancer doesn’t stop me from being a mother.

I’m proud to say that my kids are real troopers. We’ve kept close to our home routines – for instance, dinner is still at 6pm, to meet the younger kids’ bedtime at 8:30pm. The kids still chill with me after homework is done, reading, playing or going online. Dinner is still noisy, with lots of chatter about school hijinks.

What’s obviously different now though, is that apart from mummy’s short hairstyle, she no longer goes out because of her low immunity. Daddy now has the privilege to keep the younger ones’ cycling adventures and reading adventures going, with participation at Car-free Sundays and regular library visits. Kor-kor the teenager doesn’t always go with them, but he’s now become my indispensable proxy to buy things that I can’t get from online grocery stores or other online shops.

But my cancer does have an impact and I miss some things I used to do, or would have done, with them as their mother:

  1. Stalking Kor-kor’s first day at Polytechnic
    I don’t even have an obligatory picture of him entering the school gates, much less being able to attend a ‘Welcome Parents’ event organised by the poly.
  2. Volunteering at Ah Girl’s school for her first Singapore Youth Festival dance presentation
    At such events, I’d be giving the make-up kit a good workout, getting the children looking their stage-best, and sharing the giggling enthusiasm of putting on a good show.
  3. Being a perpetual parent volunteer at Di-di’s school
    This I miss most, as Di-di’s school was the one I taught at 17 years ago, and never quite left as it’s so near our home. My last involvement as a parent volunteer this year was to help in a committee to prepare for the school’s Games Day, which I wasn’t able to attend.

Despite missing being involved in these milestone events in my children’s educational journey, I’m still grateful for the adults who looked out for them. In fact, I’m immensely grateful to the mother of one of Ah Girl’s friends, who had WhatsApp-ed many photos of Ah Girl’s SYF preparations and performance to me that day.

“What have you learned about mummy’s cancer?” I asked Ah Girl recently. She had donated her hair twice to make wigs for cancer patients via, and unlike her brothers, had showed more concerns about the implications of me having cancer.

“Cancer is scary because people die from it,” she said. “But sometimes you cannot choose what is going to happen. Sometimes in life, things don’t go your way. But even in these times, we can still find good things to be thankful for.”

Words that gladden a mother’s heart.


Brenda is a columnist, and a friend, of The Middle Ground. Read her first piece, in a series of occasional columns on her journey with stomach cancer, here. She is also a mother to three children and this year’s Mother’s Day is her first celebration since she was diagnosed with cancer.

This piece is a part of our Mother’s Day series of columns, showcasing the views and experiences of real mums in Singapore. Read Pam’sJean’s and Esther’s pieces, and check out our video too.


Featured image 安心 by Flickr user Toshimasa Ishibashi. (CC BY 2.0). 

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