Written by Marie Tan ⬝ Edited by Po Lin Lim
“I got married, pregnant, had a baby, got divorced, became bankrupt, and had to be supported by my parents…!” Hartini chuckles, ticking off with her fingers as she names each of life’s turning points for her that happened in the second half of her 30s.
One couldn’t tell just by looking. Her cheerful spirit belies the curveball experiences of her life and the tough environments she has worked in.
It’s no mean feat, juggling motherhood (let alone as a single parent) and work (let alone humanitarian aid work in remote parts of the world). But Hartini reassures all other young single working moms out there, that with time and practice, this does become autopilot.
Still, Hartini makes it clear that her journey hasn’t been easy or straightforward.
Accomplished in her career - the current Country Representative and Coordinator for the medical programs of a renowned international humanitarian aid organization in Malawi - Hartini recounts tough decisions made along the way. Some have involved weighing choices that would require her to compromise her values in order to provide for herself and her child, versus walking away and starting from zero again.
She’s also encountered her fair share of workplace gender discrimination. In one example, her supervisor remarked during a performance evaluation: “You always say you prioritise your child, and because of that I question your commitment to work.” Aware such a swipe would never have been made to a man, she reported him to the ethics committee.
“Even though we are in 2020, not everybody understands or accepts the concept of a mother, especially a working mother and what more a single working mother,” Hartini states matter of factly.
“At work, you have to show that work is #1, your child is #2. But at home, you have to show your child than they are #1, and work is #2. On top of this, you must not forget to take care of yourself first, so you have to remind yourself that you are #1!”
Raising a Man
Along the journey, Hartini has found her own way to thrive. So has her son, 8 year old Hadi.
From when he was a young toddler, Hartini made a conscious effort to teach him to perform simple tasks on his own. “When you know that you are going to be alone, you prepare him to be independent,” she shares.
She makes sure that his plastic plates and cups are accessible to him at a lower level, and stores his clothes in the lower parts of the cupboard. “My goal is to raise a MAN. A responsible man! He will learn that women do not exist to serve him!” she exclaims.
How did Hartini’s life come to this point?
“Well, every [Asian] kid dreams of growing up to be a doctor,” she jokes with a laugh.
As she was graduating with her medical degree, Hartini spotted a job posting. It was for the position of a doctor at an East Timorese refugee camp in West Timor run by a United Nations agency. Application submitted, she landed her first job.
That first work experience in West Timor played a pivotal role in directing the paths she would take in life. For one, Hartini discovered her vocation for international humanitarian aid work. And secondly, she met her future husband (who just like Hartini, was also working there).
On completing her posting, she returned to Indonesia to lead a public health clinic in a very remote village in Kalimantan. Later, with an international humanitarian aid organisation, she worked in a post-conflict zone in Sulawesi to provide health care and then in Papua for malaria research.
While in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ©Hartini Sugianto
All this while she saved money to specialise in Tropical Medicine. Qualification in hand, she went on to become an international staff in Bangladesh and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And after obtaining a self-funded Masters in Public Health, she returned to Congo to head a tertiary hospital there.
Life seemed unstoppable.
So, when her boyfriend (remember that colleague from that first refugee camp in West Timor?) proposed marriage after their extended long-distance courtship, she thought to herself, “Good, now I can make my parents happy!”
But their cultural differences proved irreconcilable, and despite conceiving a child together, Hartini found herself managing her pregnancy mostly alone. She quips with a laugh “I’ve been a single mother since I was pregnant!”
She took this all in stride, telling herself “I’ve worked in conflict zones and hardship positions...this is no different, I’m strong, I’m tough, let’s go through with this.”
With the writing on the wall, the couple divorced soon after Hadi's birth.
“I didn’t have a chance to think about what it would mean to be a single mum” she shares, “I just found myself there. I didn’t think about it before and then I didn’t think about it after... it's like putting your feet in the water, what are you going to do? You're already wet!”
With the support of her family, she decided to take time off from work to care full time for her newborn.
A new chapter
When Hadi was almost three, Hartini’s savings ran out. It was time to return to the workplace.
Given her circumstances, she thought a job in Indonesia seemed like a good idea. She accepted a position in the country, but despite an attractive salary, Hartini was unhappy with the unhealthy conditions at work. “An unhappy mommy cannot raise a happy kid! A happy kid is raised by a happy mommy,” she shares.
With that, she made the decision to return to international humanitarian work even though that meant having to work abroad, away from Indonesia and her family.
In his mother’s absence
For her first posting abroad, Hartini was asked to work in South Sudan for a period of four months, in an environment volatile enough that she had to leave Hadi in Kalimantan with her family.
She explained to Hadi where she was going and together, they marked the number of nights on the calendar that Hadi would have to sleep without his mummy. As she showed Hadi pictures of children in the South Sudanese refugee camp she was going to work, he asked, “Why aren’t they wearing shoes, mummy?” “Why don’t they have forks and spoons to eat with, mummy?”
Using age-appropriate language, Hartini explained that the children in the pictures had fled from conflict and were living in dire situations, hence “Mummy needs to go help and make sure they can see the doctor and get well.”
She says, “It’s never too young to start educating them about the inequalities of the world.”
As Hartini worked among refugees in South Sudan, thousands of miles away in Kalimantan Indonesia, four year old Hadi was asked at Sunday school to draw his hero. He drew a picture of the field hospital based on photos Hartini had sent him from Sudan. With that drawing, he proudly proclaimed, “My Mummy is My Hero.”
Working as a single parent, half a world away from family
Nonetheless upon her return to Kalimantan, Hartini noticed a difference in Hadi’s behaviour towards her. “He wasn’t clingy, nor was he irritable… But he would follow me around constantly. Even when I showered or went to the toilet, he would wait outside and knock gently.”
For Hartini, those gentle knock-knocks drove home a point. Her absence had a lasting impact on Hadi. From then on, she requested for only family postings where Hadi could accompany her.
Since then there has been no looking back for this mother and son duo. In the last four years, they have called South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt and now Malawi their home away from home.
“Now I know how to pack and fit everything on one airport trolley!” she chuckles.
Initially Hartini hadn’t worried too much as to how she and young Hadi would cope on the move, living in foreign lands. Or how she would juggle full time work and single parenting, without any family support to fall back on. Perhaps it has to do with her belief that “there is no need to panic, you do what you have to do and things will work out!”
Cape Town 2017 & Egypt 2018 ©Hartini Sugianto
But Hartini makes the effort to point out that her independence and unusual life choices would not be possible without the support of her family, especially her parents. They are her source of resilience.
“When life gets too much, our family becomes our refuge for recharging,” she says. “In Asian culture, when we have problems we run away to our family.”
Even though they might not understand the challenges that she faces, their unconditional support is what has allowed her to find respite and the strength to continue on the path she has chosen to forge for herself and Hadi.
Looking back, she’s learned not to be stressed out when setbacks happen or when carefully laid plans go awry. Instead she chooses to live by her mantra of “Anything is possible, nothing is impossible.” Where she is today is testament to its truth.