The “dad for life” who didn’t give up despite raising 4 kids single-handedly for 12 years
WARNING: This story contains mention of suicide ideation that some may find distressing.
by Janice Tai // March 18, 2022, 6:10 pm
Wayne with his four children: Seth,22, Ethel, 20, Tertius,18 and Elliot, 16. All photos courtesy of Wayne Toh.
They were the picture-perfect family and the envy of many, even in church.
Wayne Toh and his then wife were loving parents of four beautiful children.
His wife was such a dedicated mother that she had joined mothers’ support groups and was seriously considering homeschooling her children.
Wayne was equally involved as a parent and decided to become a teacher to familiarise himself with the education system, so that their children would be more likely to get a holistic education should they homeschool them.
But the stresses of life got in the way of their human plans.
“After we had our third and fourth child, she had a bit of depression. When I came back from work, she was often in a daze, just staring at the computer,” said Wayne, now 47.
Life was already not easy then for him as he had to return home to care for four children and do the housework after a long day at work. All social activities had to be curtailed and his life was a never-ending cycle of work, home, work, home, on repeat.
So to come home and see his wife in such a state put him in even more despair that he often fantasised of stepping out of onto the road to be hit by a bus.
Walking by faith
During this time, Wayne was also brainstorming of a possible career transition. Seeing his wife in such a disillusioned state, he felt he needed to continually improve himself as the breadwinner of the family.
As a teacher, he often noticed external vendors coming in to conduct various classes for the students. Having had some background in graphic design and being passionate about photography, he toyed with the idea of offering students photography enrichment classes.
“God reassured me that He would lay down the foundation, and that I only needed to go in and build the house.”
“I was really convinced that photography can play a vital role in moulding children’s character and development,” he said.
Yet it was a big risk for him to give up a stable job and take the plunge into starting a business he had no experience in. So, he also submitted his application to transfer to teach in another school for a change as another option.
Having seen how God had answered his prayers in the past, Wayne committed the matter to God in prayer.
“During my devotion time, I felt God speaking to me about taking a step of faith and not living by sight but by faith,” he said.
Having heard no news about his application for a school transfer, Wayne decided to heed God’s instructions and quit his job.
The irony was that two or three days after he tendered his resignation, he received multiple calls from various schools wanting to take him in.
“During my devotion time, I felt God speaking to me about taking a step of faith and not living by sight but by faith.”
He rejected them all, believing that God would provide for Him as he took a step of faith.
Though he had already resigned, his principal insisted on meeting him.
“In the morning before I was about to go to the school, God reassured me that He would lay down the foundation, and that I only needed to go in and build the house,” said Wayne.
During the meeting with the principal, whom he had not met before, she asked him why he wanted to quit when so many others were clamouring to apply to the school.
She was curious about why he was leaving.
He explained to her his ideas regarding photography and using it as a tool for child development. He spoke with such passion that she told him to send her a proposal, as she could easily give him 14 classes – or one level of Primary school students – to kickstart his photography idea.
He crafted and submitted the proposal, but two months went by with no news and no income for him.
“God went over and beyond in providing for me, even before I realised what I needed.”
When the principal finally replied his email, she said she had left the matter to her Art subject head teacher to decide. Another month went by and still, there was no news.
In December, he suddenly received a call from the teacher, who asked to meet him.
“When we met, she told me she ordinarily would have not paid much attention to such proposals but my name somehow kept coming to her mind so she decided she had to meet me,” said Wayne.
When she heard his pitch, she was keen on his programme. There was a tender process, and Wayne eventually won the bid for conducting photography classes for both Primary 4 and 6 classes – 28 classes – the following year.
“I cried and realised that was why the Lord said He would lay the foundation for me. Friends suddenly called me up to say they are closing down their offices and ask whether I needed chairs or files. God went over and beyond in providing for me, even before I realised what I needed,” Wayne added.
When the photography lessons started, they went into full swing and Wayne would find himself teaching up to four classes back-to-back every morning. His then business partner and wife assisted him by helping to prepare the materials and equipment needed for each class.
It was during this time that Wayne noticed changes in his wife’s behaviour.
“She began eating out with friends for dinner, and coming back later and later. If she was around during mealtimes, instead of feeding the children like she used to, she ended up scolding them instead. Then, one day, she didn’t come back to sleep at all. She would not tell me where she went,” said Wayne.
He knew something was wrong but he did not know what to do. He knew he still needed to hold himself together to run his first major photography workshop.
“I told myself I cannot fail. I had just started this company and my children need me to succeed. Even though my wife wasn’t coming home or coming to school to help me, I had to continue putting up a strong front,” said Wayne, who could not eat or sleep much in those days.
“The funny thing is I remember there was once when, of all the photos they could choose to edit, one student chose a picture of my wife to edit in the computer lab. After that class, I just went to the toilet to cry,” he added.
Two weeks after he first began teaching photography, his wife left the house.
“Let me go, just let me go,” she pleaded with him.
She would not explain further and left, returning occasionally to pack up more of her things or to meet them outside to celebrate the children’s birthdays.
His hectic work was a welcome distraction for him, though he often found himself breaking down in front of the children when they asked him where Mummy was.
“Don’t cry, Daddy. Jesus loves you and will bring Mummy back,” they comforted him.
One day, his wife returned to their home and brought along divorce papers for him to sign.
He refused but did not know what to do. There was an impasse.
“As a husband, I could not let her go without knowing what was going on in her life. I was also responsible for her welfare. God gave me the wisdom to ask for a three-year separation instead,” said Wayne.
If she still wanted the divorce after three years, he would assent then, he told her.
“I did not question or blame God but felt like Jacob who needed to wrestle with Him.”
Shortly after, a courier appeared at his doorstep, asking him to sign for a package.
He asked the delivery guy what package it was, but was told to just sign for it.
“The moment I signed it, he turned to run off, and threw me the remaining stack of papers which I realised were the divorce papers,” said Wayne.
To cope, he busied himself with work and caring for his four young children – then five to 11 years old.
When Friday night came, he hid in his room.
“I felt so drained and so empty. Friends were asking me, ‘If there is a God, why did all these happen to you?’” recounted Wayne.
“I did not question or blame God but felt like Jacob who needed to wrestle with Him. I had followed Him and taken a step of faith to start a new career, yet this happened to my marriage. I kept asking Him, ‘God, if you have something more in store for me through all of these, what is it? What do I do now?”
He continued to plough on with his work. His new career had just begun and finances were tight.
Apart from cancelling all of the children’s tuition and enrichment classes, he also learnt to cook in a bid to cut down household expenses.
“My wife used to do the cooking so I didn’t know how to estimate how much food was enough for the children. Sometimes, they ended up still hungry and I will leave my portion for them. It’s okay because I realised after preparing the food and cooking it, I was so tired that I didn’t have much appetite,” said Wayne.
“God, I don’t have the strength to fight all these suicidal thoughts anymore. I can’t take it, please help me.”
His sleep was also affected. When he found himself tossing and turning in bed in the wee hours of the morning, he would take long solo drives up to Malaysia, blasting Christian music all the way.
“Once I crossed the customs and hit the highway, the tears would burst out. I needed time alone,” said Wayne.
The suicidal thoughts that he used to have came back with a vengeance.
Whenever he was driving, a voice would whisper to him: “Speed up and bang the car in front.”
If he was putting the kids to bed, the voice suggested: “Go to the kitchen and turn on the gas.”
Whenever he stood by the window, the voice went: “Jump and end this, and everything would be fine.”
When he was in his room, thoughts of cutting himself also came.
“The urge to kill myself was very strong. Each time the voice or thought came, it came stronger than the previous one. It was hard to resist,” said Wayne.
One Friday night, the exhausted and dejected father knelt down and cried out: “God, I don’t have the strength to fight all these suicidal thoughts anymore. I can’t take it, please help me.”
A dad for life
The next morning, his young son came into his room at 7am and said to him: “Daddy, the school gave this to us and the teacher asked me to give it to you.”
“The Lord always reminded me that it was He who provided for my children, not me.”
His father, still physically depleted and low in spirits, did not get up. His son left the item on his bedside table.
When Wayne finally got up at close to noon, he saw the package and the words “Dads for Life” jumped up at him.
He started crying.
“I knew God had heard me and was telling me that to be a father is for life. I could not give up,” he said.
He attached the Dads for Life pins on his collar and bag, and pasted the sticker on his car. From now onwards, he told himself, I will not entertain any more suicidal thoughts. He knew God was with him.
Doors were opened for him and he was offered a job as an “artist in residence” at Nanyang Primary, instead of being just an external vendor.
That meant he now had a stable income as he was employed by the school, and his three children could be transferred to attend the same school.
Otherwise, they would be in different morning and afternoon sessions at another school, and it was virtually impossible for their father to take them to and from school. His youngest child also found a spot at a nearby nursery.
Whenever he worked late, his colleagues would help supervise his children – alongside their own – in doing their homework. If they had to stay back late for other activities, he would in turn wait for them before all of them made their way back home together.
“It was amazing. Everyone was trying to get their kids into this school but God made a path for me and my kids to be in the same school so that I could cope with both working and looking after them,” said Wayne.
The Lord also opened other doors for him. Other top primary and secondary schools came knocking to engage him for photography workshops. He was asked to be the resident judge of a kids photography programme on television. National Geographic also approached him to run photography masterclasses.
“God provided all these opportunities to build up my credibility. In later years when I left the school, I remember being very stressed every year-end, worrying about whether there would be enough projects to tide me over the next year,” said Wayne.
“But the Lord always reminded me that it was He who provided for my children, not me,” he added.
For instance, a parent who heard about his situation volunteered to sponsor half a year of Math tuition for one of his children who was taking the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) that year.
When the Australian Tourism Board chanced upon his story online, they offered him and his family a fully sponsored 13-day trip to Australia for a family holiday.
“Don’t you want a perfect family of two parents and two kids for your marketing materials instead?” a wary Wayne asked them. He had often lamented to God about having a ‘broken’ family.
“You and your kids are still a family. We welcome all sorts of family,” came the reply.
He still felt the burden of being both father and mother to his children.
“I was no longer the fun father who would play with the kids. Along the way, I lost that and just felt I needed to get things done and clean the house. I kept scolding them and saying ‘no’ to everything,” he said.
“I told God I didn’t know how to love them. Sometimes seeing them reminded me of my ex-wife and I had to deal with the bitterness and unforgiveness. God told me to love my children with His unfailing love instead of Man’s limited love. He also spoke to me about not raising my kids with the mentality of responsibility only but to remember to raise them with love,” he added.
Having singlehandedly raised up four children in the last 12 years, Wayne has shared his experience with others by founding two single parent support groups and speaking up in media interviews.
“Single parents face quite a bit of discrimination. I wanted to walk out of the shadow of shame and encourage other single parents not to look down on ourselves,” said Wayne.
“When we share our stories, it is not to put down the other party. My wife was a good mother and wife. She had her own reasons for doing what she did then. I will do what I need to do to bring my kids up,” he added.
His children are almost grown up, with his youngest son in Secondary 4 and his oldest son in his final year at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA).
“They are my greatest success. Now, I can spend more time on myself,” said Wayne, whose photography business took a hit during the Covid pandemic.
He is currently teaching photography in a school and intends to take up a social work degree programme in a few months. He hopes to work with youth-at-risk and families in future.
At home, the mundane routines of housework – never-ending piles of laundry to wash and iron, and food to cook for hungry teenagers – still beckons.
But God renews his joy by helping him see anew the beauty of His design, even in the most ordinary of moments.
“When I cook and I cut the vegetables, I notice they make a beautiful pattern and I take a picture. He is a creative God and He is always there with me.”
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