By Invitation

Daddy's home - looking after the kids

Men still find it tough to put caregiving over career. This Father's Day weekend is a good time to ponder how that can change.

My mother was born in those times when girls were deemed less important than boys; while her brothers received years of uninterrupted formal education, she got a few years of sporadic schooling. Married at 21, she bore five children and devoted her life to the family. As I grew older, I became more cognisant of my mother's acute intelligence and her unfulfilled yearning for learning. I remember her making her way through the Chinese daily (Sin Chew Jit Poh then) with a well-thumbed Chinese dictionary beside her. When I was a child, she traced the characters on my palm and counted the number of strokes to teach me how to look up the meanings of numerous Chinese words in the dictionary. To this day, I wonder (though I had never expressed this to her when she was alive) what she would have become had she been able to stay on in school and enjoyed the opportunities of women today.

And we have certainly progressed: now women in our egalitarian society can expect to have the same rights and entitlements as men to education, health, political and civic participation as well as the full range of occupations - though, of course, there is still gender inequity in many professions and positions.

OPTING OUT

In 2003, the journalist Lisa Belkin wrote a piece called The Opt-Out Revolution in the New York Times Magazine in which she described a small group of well-educated women who left their high-paying jobs after having children to be stay-at-home mothers.

Subsequent articles by others found a less rosy picture of women who had started on an idealistic high of devoting themselves to their children and husbands only to find themselves mired in marital grief, with disaffection and resentment creeping in. The women resented being the sole dependent homemakers while their husbands resented being the sole breadwinners of previously dual-income households. The women's self-esteem also took a battering when they found that being a housewife was not as rewarding and validating as having a high-flying career. And when they tried to return to the workforce, that particular world had moved on and left them far behind; most had difficulty with their re-entry into the workplace and had to settle for humbler and lower-salaried positions.

Years later, Ms Belkin herself admitted that in that article, she had "confused being pulled towards home with being pushed away from work… that what looked like a choice was not really what these women wanted most".

Most working married women used to have to contend with that infamous "second shift" where, after a day's work, they would move on to the mundane minutiae of housekeeping. But now, with one in five households in Singapore having a foreign domestic worker, that heavy lifting of housewifery has been assigned to these live-in helpers - thanks to the continuing policy of the Government to enable our married women and mothers to remain in the workforce by making such help largely available without breaking the bank.

ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

Still, most working mothers would find themselves in that conundrum of juggling work and their children's overscheduled schooling, extracurricular activities, tuition and enrichment classes - and all the while riven by guilt and fear that they might not be doing enough to give their children that extra edge.

If the workplace is unable to allow them that flexibility of work, they would be "pushed" to quit. And even if they could have flexible work hours, or take on a less demanding job, or work part-time, there is often a "motherhood penalty": they would be paid less; sidelined when it came to advancement and promotion; and perceived as not pulling their weight at work, particularly if a macho culture of pulling long punishing hours was equated with productivity and commitment.

It is far more common for a married woman to make such sacrifices of her career - if she had one to begin with. Childcare is still very much done by women who in all likelihood were not asked whether they would like to do it; it is assumed that they would - out of love and duty and for free. This could be because of societal pressure and expectation that men should be the breadwinner and women the caregiver - although that might not be what men want.

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre found both mothers and fathers were about equally likely to find meaning in caring for children: 63 per cent of mothers found childcare to be "very meaningful" to mothers and so did 60 per cent of fathers; but only 33 per cent of fathers said the same about their paid work. Nearly half of fathers were dissatisfied with the amount of time they spent with their children, double the number for mothers.

But that norm might be shifting with societal changes that see more women these days earning more than their husbands, holding bigger jobs with weightier responsibilities and better long-term career prospects; and there are men who are willing to be the primary caregiver spouse.

"THE ONE"

Andrew Moravcsik is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University whose wife (Anne-Marie Slaughter) is a law professor who worked for Mrs Hillary Clinton when she was US secretary of state, as her policy chief at the State Department. With his wife busy at her high-powered job in Washington, Professor Moravcsik chose to be the "lead parent" to their two sons. In an article Why I Put My Wife's Career First, published in The Atlantic, he writes of "being on the front line of everyday life" - seeing to their homework, monitoring their computer and television use, attending to their piano lessons and concerts, and being the parent who responds first to any crisis.

Despite the toll on his job and the "many days of weariness", he wrote: "I would never give up being 'the One' - the parent my child trusted to help master his first stage role, the parent who shared my child's wonder at his first musical composition, the parent my boys called for when they needed comfort in the night."

A 2013 study by the Pew Research Centre found both mothers and fathers were about equally likely to find meaning in caring for children: 63 per cent of mothers found childcare to be "very meaningful" to mothers and so did 60 per cent of fathers; but only 33 per cent of fathers said the same about their paid work. Nearly half of fathers were dissatisfied with the amount of time they spent with their children, double the number for mothers.

While there are fathers out there who want to do what Prof Moravcsik has done, few can actually do it when it comes to the crunch. Research has indicated that millennial-generation men want a marriage where they can have an equal role in child-rearing, but the moment the baby arrives, they are corralled into the traditional one-dimensional male role by a confluence of psychological, cultural and societal factors, among which could be the lack of a family-friendly work environment. But even if such pro-family arrangements are available, these fathers may refrain from opting for them, fearing discrimination and having to pay the male equivalent of a "motherhood penalty".

Stay-at-home dads also often feel lonely and stigmatised by others who don't know what to make of them; being stay-at-home is often perceived as something that is forced on these fathers because of unemployment - which reflects how we see household labour (including childcare). It is neither acknowledged as a valued service despite the contribution towards societal well-being by raising and nurturing the next generation of citizens, nor is it recognised as work with an economic value. (Such work has never been quantified and considered as part of GDP, and homemakers are often lumped into the category of "unemployed" in most official surveys.)

Prof Moravcsik wrote: "At the end of life, we know that a top regret most men have is that they did not lead the caring and connected life they wanted but rather the career-oriented life that was expected of them. I will not have that regret." Until there are the relevant attitudinal and structural changes, there would probably be many fathers who would have that regret.

I have many treasured childhood memories of my time with my mother. My father, who worked hard and long all his life to put food on the table and to have us educated, was a loving but reticent presence in my childhood. I have few fragmentary memories of time spent with him when I was a child - these are precious but, alas, few.


  • Chong Siow Ann is vice-chairman of the medical board (research) at the Institute of Mental Health.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Daddy's home - looking after the kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe