Nurturing fatherhood

As long as we expect men to be breadwinners over caregivers, a generation of confused, lost boys, will raise yet another

A former colleague of mine rarely bought food at noon, preferring a "home-cooked meal" made by his retired father. It was dry slices of white bread heaped with pork floss or condensed milk and, once, a can of tuna.

This colleague ate every bite because it fed the inexhaustible hunger a child never stops feeling for his father's love and attention.

What a pity that many men respond to such hunger from their progeny only after they have achieved a certain career goal or when they have no choice but to retire.

Just as a man would, I cherish my career as much as future plans of having children and raising a family. Giving my partner equal opportunity to nurture at home seems to be the way forward.

Researchers have said for years that fathers are just as important as mothers in influencing how a child develops mentally, socially and emotionally. Studies by the University of Michigan, reported in Science Daily last July, showed father-child interactions either damage or enhance language development, problem-solving abilities and social skills. This influence is separate from the mother's and extends to children as young as two years old.

Frighteningly, though, when I consider our infrastructure, social systems continue to reinforce the idea that a woman is the primary caregiver and educator of children. A man's main job is simply to be the breadwinner.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Take our vocabulary. In a family formed by a heteronormative couple, we would speak of a "hands-on father" to describe a man who burps and feeds and changes his child, or even just engages them in play. Research shows that for many men, playtime forms the majority of their interaction with their children.

A female parent who does the same is simply called a "mother". One single word encompasses these same tasks and so many more, such as housework, budgeting, first aid and counselling a little human being.

I'm not convinced this is mandated by genetics. The design of our play areas - movie theatres, malls and parks - rarely reflects a belief that men are also parents responsible for children's needs beyond having fun. Why else does male restroom design not always include changing tables or a closed stall for dads with daughters who need to go to the potty?

In Singapore, some newer malls in heartland areas and several along Orchard Road have unisex family rooms that parents of both genders can use to care for babies and toddlers.

Yet many restrooms at MRT stations do not have similar facilities for fathers. This sends the message that stinky nappies are still very much the job of female commuters on these lines. Take this job away from women and give them a freshly diapered child instead. See how quickly they, too, would light up, relax and have fun.

At least laws in Singapore are changing to reflect a father's true importance in the family. Fathers with children born on or after Jan 1 this year get two weeks of mandatory paid paternity leave instead of the one week instituted in 2013.

New mothers get 16 weeks and, from July 1, working mothers can share up to four weeks of their paid maternity leave with their husbands. Previously, they could share only one week with their partners.

Will men make use of this time? The odds are even.

The Sunday Times reported on Jan 1 that only 38 per cent of eligible fathers made use of their one-week leave in 2014. Only 42 per cent did so last year.

This is again disturbing to me, since time not taken off by a man is very likely time his wife has to spend at home with the kids. I asked a few friends and colleagues what they would do.

"I would stay home with my babies. I'm all for gender equality," said one man, whose income is in the high six-figure range. He echoed the sentiments of several high earners I have interviewed in the past - Singapore Symphony Orchestra's music director Shui Lan just last week announced his intent to step down in two years so he can spend more time with his two sons.

"I'd love to stay home, much more than my wife would, but financial security is important," said another who is in a much lower tax bracket.

What if financial security were not a consideration? Sweden is reportedly tops in terms of gender equality and childcare leave.

According to sweden.se, the country's official website, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted. Each parent has 60 days exclusively allotted to him or her. This is non-transferable, so if a father chooses not to take paternity leave, the couple loses those days.

The Swedish government also provides a gender equality bonus if 270 days of the paid parental leave are divided evenly between mother and father.

Guess how many Swedish men take paternity leave?

A quarter of all fathers. That is right. Despite a much lower wage gap between genders, Swedish men are still hesitant to take paternity leave.

How deeply entrenched is the idea that men must provide for their families, at the expense of missing out on the baby's first steps and first intelligible words? Also likely, at the expense of supporting their harried female partners, who are trying to cope with the hormonal and physical demands of new motherhood?

It has been half a century since the women's rights movement, 35 years since studies confirming the father's importance in early childhood development, yet it seems little has changed. Whom should I blame?

Perhaps tradition. In the liberal, open-minded circle I inhabit, it is commonly accepted that men as well as women must contribute to the household in terms of housework, child-rearing as well as finances. Telecommuting and the flexible working hours of those in publishing or the arts help a more equitable division of labour.

Even then, the men my age - 38 - and older are often lost boys, mapping new trails in terms of fatherhood. Back in the day when we were being raised, most fathers were silent makers of rules and money. Mothers did what sons do nowadays: make the beds, cook breakfast and kiss their own children in public.

I hear of a man who has to do the household chores when his father is not watching. Another wants to hug his father with all the affection they did not exchange decades ago. The old man stands stiff, confused, wondering what his son sees in a retired man who has nothing left to contribute to his family.

My father gave up his job about 17 years ago to care for his mother. It confused and worried her to have a son who stayed at home and experimented with recipes, even as her daughter-in-law, my mother, went to work every day.

But before her death, she told me at the breakfast table that she was only enjoying life this much because of my father taking her to doctor's appointments and planning every family holiday around her limited mobility.

"It's a man's job to provide for his family," my father said, eyes shining.

My former colleague's father must have felt the same. After a year, the packed lunches became simple steamed dishes with rice. For years, until the older man died of cancer, he kept providing his son with the nourishment only a father could. Would that more fathers do the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Nurturing fatherhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe