A moment of desperation drove Jean Guo, 42, to make the difficult decision to leave her special needs son (both pictured) behind in Henan, China, and make the journey to Singapore all alone seven years ago.
It wasn’t to search for a better life for herself, but to give Peter, then aged three, a chance at life itself.
Brain injury at just 8 months old
Peter was born normal, but a sudden illness and fever when he was just eight months old resulted in damage to his brain. Doctors subsequently found Peter to have severe mental retardation and developmental delays.
“Doctors added that even then, chances were slim. It’s because of this that I was determined to continue his treatment,” which ranged from acupuncture to Western medicine.
The brain injury rendered Peter unable to walk and talk, and his low immunity meant frequent hospital visits to the intensive care unit. Now 11, he still only has the mental capacity of a one-year-old child.
Peter’s hospitalisations of up to weeks at a time left Jean depleted – emotionally, physically and financially.
To add to her distress, the hospital made her sign a form each time, absolving the hospital of blame should anything happen to Peter.
No support from husband
Jean’s husband at that time was unwilling to contribute to their son’s medical fees after his diagnosis and she’d exhausted all channels borrowing money from friends and relatives.
Her father-in-law also encouraged her to give up on their special needs child , hurtful words to any mother’s ears. Said Jean: “He told us that we should just adopt a girl to care for us in our old age, and not waste our money and effort in caring for Peter.”
During one of Peter’s many trips to the hospital, Jean was taking a breather outside of the hospital when she chanced upon a poster advertising for job opportunities in Singapore.
Without a second thought, Jean immediately rang the agency.
She recalled: “I was so ignorant, I just rang them up and asked, ‘Can I go overseas? I need money for my son.'”
Heading to Singapore with $200
With single-minded determination, Jean cobbled together the $7,000 agency fee, again from borrowed funds, and hopped on a plane to Singapore in 2012.
She had just 1,000 yuan (about $200) in her pocket.
From not having worked a day in China, Jean was now clocking 14-hour days cleaning toilets in offices around Singapore. She also enjoyed just two rest days a month.
For all her efforts, she was paid $1,150 a month. Whatever she had left after paying for her rent and living expenses (around $700) was remitted back to her family in China.
“You may call it exploitation, or that I was scammed, but at the time I was just focused on earning money for my son’s treatment,” said Jean.
To save on meals, she learned from colleagues to rummage through bins at the back of large supermarkets where expiring or expired food were dumped.
“Vegetables, potatoes could be a week’s meal,” said Jean. “You just have to plan ahead and eat the most perishable ones first.”
Not an expert cook, she would just throw the day’s ingredients together in a pot to be cooked with rice.
Just like that, Jean plodded on in her job as a cleaner here for two years, without seeing her special needs son.
Life was tough, but for Jean, there was no other choice.
“I just thought, medical advancement in the future might mean that my son could get better, but most importantly, he first had to survive,” she recounted tearfully.
Back home, but her son forgot who she was
With the help of some Singaporeans she’d befriended through her cleaning job, they raised funds for her son to seek medical evaluation by doctors here in 2014.
Jean was moved to tears when she saw her five-year-old son walking on his own two feet for the first time at Changi airport, even though to him, she had become a stranger.
“He was walking, not like a normal person, but at least he was walking. I was so happy, it was a wish come true to see that there’s indeed hope and that my efforts paid off.”
In 2016, Jean’s father was paralysed after suffering a stroke and she had to fly back home to take care of the family. By then, Peter had forgotten her again.
With tears in her eyes, Jean said: “He called me ‘auntie’ for the first few days. Despite that, I hugged him to sleep every night, and kept reminding him of who I was, showing him photos stored in my phone.”
“Then one morning when my mum asked, ‘Where’s your mum?’, he finally came over and tapped me on the head. I was overjoyed.”
Amazingly through all her struggles, Jean says she had never harboured the thought of divorce, partly due to the stigma in her rural community regarding the topic.
“It’s very shameful for a woman to be divorced in the countryside, it’s as if you’ve been abandoned by your husband,” said Jean. “I was naively even thinking of having another child as a companion for Peter.”
However, any hopes of a reconciliation were dashed when her husband continued to give them the cold shoulder even when she was back home. Jean eventually filed for divorce.
“He got the house while I got my son. My son is my only asset after all these years,” said Jean wistfully.
A second chance
In 2017, Jean married a Singaporean whom she got to know from work. She declined to reveal any information about him, except to say that he’s a good man who accepts her son, which is more than she could ask for.
Her life now revolves around taking care of Peter full-time at their home in Punggol. He’s also started classes at Minds special school in January this year.
“I’m not sure if my son naturally understands more now because he’s older, but I feel like he has grown up a lot since starting school.
“Once I leaned on his shoulder and told him, ‘Wow, mama finally has someone to rely on’,” said Jean, before breaking into sobs.
“Yes, my son can’t do a lot, but in my heart, he’s a treasure. He’s my only son. Even though some people can’t accept him, but seeing him improve is my best reward, regardless what others may say.”
With her son at school in the afternoons, Jean has found herself in another conundrum – how to fill the void in her life each day – the first time in more than a decade that she’s had any “me-time”.
Her only wish now is to find work to supplement the family’s income.
“I hope to find a job so I can at least earn my own keep. After all, I have responsibilities too as my mother is getting old. But at the same time, I know it’s hard for a company to employ me when I can only work for a few hours each day.
“I’d love to continue to learn English (she picked up some phrases from a Malay colleague and classes conducted by a church) or attend courses, but it’ll be a burden on the family’s finances.”
“It can only get better, it can’t get worse”
As for the future, Jean does not wish to think too much.
“My family in China have asked me, ‘What’s going to happen to you when you get older? Are you going to take care of Peter forever? And what’s going to happen to him next time?’
“I have thought about it, but what’s the point of worrying? Am I supposed to just give up on him?
“We can keep each other company as he slowly improves, I think that’s the best (situation) for now. At least he can learn to be independent, that’s my aim. It can only get better, it can’t get worse.”
Jean is one of 30 ‘Sheroes’ who will was celebrated at the ‘International Women’s Day Sheroes’ event held on on March 8 at Distrii Singapore, Republic Plaza. The event is organised by The Heart Enterprise, a social enterprise dedicated to children with autism and other special needs, and Distrii, the largest tech-driven co-working space in Singapore.
Jean may not have been dealt the best hand in life, but she doesn’t see what she’s done as particularly brave or inspirational.
“What I’m doing is what I think all mums of special-needs kids would do. But I’ve never been happier. At least the two of us are together now.
“Of course, I’m only human and there have been times I wished my life was different and I could do the things that I really want to do.
“But,” she adds with an air of acceptance, “my child has decided my life for me.”
A version of this article first appeared in Asiaone.
Photos: Jean Guo and Fintan Hong