Unconditional love “is a big thing”: Social worker reflects on the role of father figures in his life
Salt&Light wishes all fathers a Happy Father's Day!
Gracia Yap // June 16, 2022, 5:36 pm
Benjamin Yeo strives to love his daughter Gracelyn in the same way his father figures have loved him. All photos courtesy of Benjamin Yeo.
“I didn’t know what it was like to have a father in the family” is a familiar refrain to Benjamin Yeo. As a senior social worker at Fei Yue Community Services, he hears versions of it often on the job.
It’s also his personal experience: Benjamin’s parents divorced when he was just four years old.
The memory of his classmates’ taunt: “You don’t have a father” makes him extra careful in adulthood, now that he has a family of his own.
The 35-year-old makes conscious efforts to build relationship with his daughter, Gracelyn, 5, mindful always that the world in which she is growing is shaking up the very institution of family.
While there were slightly more than 3,600 divorce cases some three decades ago, this number almost doubled to nearly 7,000 cases in 2005, according to the State of the Family in Singapore 2006 report by the National Family Council.
Data published last November by the Ministry of Social and Family Development listed at 6,296 the number of divorce applications filed in the year between Oct 2020 and Sep 2021.
His parents’ divorce meant Benjamin had little interaction with his father in his preschool days. His mother raised him and his brother on her own.
“My mum would actually share that no matter what, our dad was still our dad.”
Nonetheless, “she never complained or made any negative remarks in front of me and my brother regarding our dad”, he told Salt&Light.
“I didn’t have a negative impression of my dad because of my mum. In fact, she would actually share that no matter what, our dad was still our dad.
“That’s why I don’t remember growing up with any bitter feelings towards my dad.”
When he was in Primary One, she even agreed to let his father take him and his brother out occasionally. They often went fishing together and, to this day, Benjamin still goes fishing with his father as a result of that early interaction.
Breaking out into a wide smile, he shared that in contrast, his own daughter has very different interests. “As my wife and I prayed, we thank God that we found two exotic interests of hers.”
He and his wife, Dora Lau, 36, were with Gracelyn at Pasir Ris Park when they passed by a stable and asked if she wanted to try horse-riding. It was meant to be a joke, as Gracelyn had many fears.
To their surprise, she agreed, and two years on, she has regular horse-riding sessions.
Another time, they were at a shopping mall with a rock-climbing wall. They recalled that Gracelyn enjoyed rock-climbing at a playground and allowed her to have a go.
“Never did we know that she’s pretty good at it,” said Benjamin.
“I’ve learnt that it is important for me as a father to be present in my child’s life,” he said. “My daughter is definitely a gift from God and also a lesson for me and my wife.”
A different childhood
In his own childhood, Benjamin was far from the confident person his daughter is. He cried a lot and was very insecure.
Deep within, he had a fear of being abandoned.
It was not uncommon for him to wonder: “How come my parents cannot spend more time with me?”
He would stand at the window when his mother left for work early in the morning and tear for a long time as he waited for her to come home.
Deep within, he had a fear of being abandoned.
“I felt that one of the more challenging parts of me growing up without a father was not only that my father wasn’t around but also, because of my absent father, my mum had to work extra hard and she couldn’t spend more time with us.”
Filling the gap
God would, however, place various father figures in his life over the years, and Benjamin soon found himself receiving the love of the Father through them.
“I felt the love. That built my self-esteem and self-worth.”
One of these men was his maternal grandfather, a taxi driver. He put a “busy” sign on his taxi and drove him and his brother around while waiting for his mother to come home from work.
He took them sightseeing, as well as to the playground and to have supper together. “My brother and I treated him like a father figure,” Benjamin said.
“Very importantly for me, I felt the love. That built my self-esteem and self-worth.”
His grandfather also took him and his brother cycling at a park every other night. He bought them a bicycle and the brothers learned to cycle with an extra pair of training wheels before these could eventually be removed.
“He would hold the bicycle and run with us,” said Benjamin, who could cycle by the time he was five or six. “It was a very fun, happy memory and that’s why I can still remember until now.”
Other father figures gave him a firm foundation in his faith.
Growing up as a Christian, he used to attend and serve in Agape Christian Centre (ACC). He recently joined St Andrew’s Cathedral with his family after his wife was baptised there.
“God created me unique. I’m not an accident and I am special in His eyes.”
Benjamin reflected: “One very important role that a father plays in a child’s life is imparting not just skills and knowledge but also values.”
His ACC Sunday School teacher and church leaders nurtured his identity as a child of God, for which he is grateful: “One thing significant that I held on to in my childhood and adolescence is that God loves me.
“He created me unique. I’m not an accident and I am special in His eyes.
“I think that was especially meaningful for me, growing up in a single-parent family.”
Moreover, Benjamin’s cell group leader of six years from his secondary school to junior college days demonstrated God’s love through his words and actions.
Stress around the time of his O-level examinations caused Benjamin to suffer from insomnia for a month. There were also times when Benjamin faced relationship problems.
His cell group leader not only took steps to address these issues by being there for him, he also ensured Benjamin had the assurance that he was not alone in his struggles.
His cell group leader ensured Benjamin had the assurance that he was not alone in his struggles.
The leader invited Benjamin to his house on more than one occasion for an overnight stay so that Benjamin had the space to share what he was going through.
“He spent time overnight just to talk to me and counsel me,” Benjamin said. “This gesture helped me to know that I was not alone going through adolescence and he was someone I could talk to.”
One particular incident remains vivid in his memory. Two members of a cult had approached him and invited him to their organisation. Benjamin, being young and adventurous, decided that there was no harm in trying.
He texted his cell group leader about his decision but never expected that it would elicit an immediate reaction from him. “My cell group leader quickly took a taxi down just to fetch me and rescue me from them.
“Looking back, I was very thankful.”
Benjamin’s cell group leader also gave him opportunities to be involved in the worship ministry where he played the guitar and trained him to be a mentor to younger youth, encouraging and affirming him along the way.
These father figures helped to give Benjamin a sense of identity and security, as well as modelling the significance of a father’s presence in a child’s life.
“Especially for people like myself coming from an incomplete family, love is a big thing.”
More importantly, they pointed Benjamin to God, his Heavenly Father, whose character they reflected in their kindness towards him.
He said: “A simple gesture where my youth leader immediately took off from his work and rushed down to fetch me so I wouldn’t visit a cult, and the time my mentors spent talking to me made me feel that unconditional love from God.
“Especially for people like myself coming from an incomplete family, love is a big thing.
“Love communicates worth and self-esteem,” he added. “I can imagine that without this, I would be on a very different path.”
Not only did his father figures’ deliberate acts of concern reflect God’s unconditional love, they also reminded Benjamin of his life verse – Matthew 6:32-33.
“God will provide and that’s how He is love.”
Just as his heavenly Father provides for His children, Benjamin realised that another way to show love as a father or father figure is to provide for those under his care.
He said: “Since young, I had this understanding that this God is always here to listen. He will take note of every small detail. He will provide and that’s how He is love.”
With all the support Benjamin received, it was not difficult for him to identify with God as his heavenly Father.
In fact, having experienced the presence of his father figures when he needed them has motivated him to be there for youths who are not receiving the love they need.
Working with youths
As a social worker for more than a decade now, Benjamin has come across many marginalised or detached youth — those who are on the streets and detached from their family and schools.
Being on the streets makes them vulnerable to delinquency and joining gangs.
Two cases in particular come to Benjamin’s mind. One was a 13-year-old gangster who had left school and was hanging out on the streets.
Despite Benjamin spending six months building trust and rapport with him, challenges abounded. Once, the youth ran away from home after a quarrel with his family. Thankfully, Benjamin happened to see him on the streets at night. He accompanied the youth into the wee hours of the morning before finally convincing him to go home.
The youth returned to school in Secondary Two but had to withdraw due to issues with the school.
Benjamin found him another school and worked with the youth’s vice-principal and probation officer to help him. The youth eventually graduated as one of the top scorers for his ‘N’ level examinations!
“One of the challenges for youth in adolescence is to form a positive identity and get the right recognition and affirmation.”
Another was one he worked with for about three years and would occasionally go fishing with. At one meeting, the youth shared that he had been remanded at the police station the previous weekend and had prayed a desperate prayer for a reprieve — only to be told by a police officer that he would be allowed out on bail!
He asked Benjamin about his faith and wanted Benjamin to say the sinner’s prayer with him.
“I just feel so fulfilled that my life can be used as a channel for God’s unconditional love to reach the neediest, hungriest, most marginalised youth who are looking for affirmation, for love.”
Noting that many male youth at risk did not have the presence of a father figure in their lives, Benjamin added: “One of the challenges for youth in adolescence is to form a positive identity and get the right recognition and affirmation.
“I think there’s this magical impact on youth when there’s an older man speaking to them, telling them what they are good at and giving them direction to help them in the formation of their identity,” Benjamin said.
A crucial lesson Benjamin has come to appreciate is intentionally expressing love for his daughter. Despite his busy schedule, he spends about an hour playing with Gracelyn every day.
Sometimes, he reads Bible stories to her. At other times, he sings Christian songs with her in his car like ‘This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me’.
“One thing I’ve learnt is really spending time and giving encouragement and affirmation to my daughter.”
Benjamin also makes an effort to show love to his daughter through his words: “One thing I’ve learnt is really spending time and giving encouragement and affirmation to my daughter.
“I ask her about her day, look for things she is good at and give her affirmation, because these are the things I received from my grandfather and church leaders.”
While Benjamin worries that he is not doing enough for Gracelyn, he trusts that God is looking out for her. “I believe that God will provide for my daughter, that she will meet the right people who can fill in the gaps that I might not be able to.”
It seems clear his daughter has clearly understood that God is a father who cares for her unconditionally. She tells Benjamin: “I want to pray to Jesus because He loves me.”
And that, in part, is because she has come to know her earthly father’s love for her.
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