What it means to be a hands-on dad

The notion that the fathers of yesteryear were unhelpful parents is a generalisation that demands re-examination

It is universally assumed that a millennial man with a young child must be a hands-on father.

Unlike the dads of old, young men are supposed to be more active fathers, more willing to take on the role of parenting than their fathers before them.

I use the word "young" on myself loosely, as at 34, I'm already close to a decade older than a significant number of my colleagues.

According to a Pew survey in 2011, 72 per cent of millennials believe that husbands should share household responsibilities - including parenting - with their wives.

So millennial fathers are involved parents. They're in the delivery room cutting the cord, they get up with mum when the baby needs to be fed and they change diapers in cramped aeroplane bathrooms and in the back seats of cars.

Having done all but one of the above, I hope I'm living up to these high standards.

However, this idea of millennial fathers being more active in parenting does a disservice to the fathers of the generations before mine and the work they put into raising their children.

There's this popular notion that the fathers of yesteryear were concerned primarily with bringing home the bacon, leaving the hard work of bringing up children to overworked, exasperated mothers.

I don't doubt that my mother, who juggled a career with raising two children, was overworked, as is my wife in balancing her responsibilities in raising our rambunctious three-year-old boy with the demands of her job in corporate communications.

As much as I may have loved Homer Simpson, television shows playing the stereotype for laughs have helped cement the idea in people's heads of fathers being unwilling and unhelpful parents.

It's an unkind generalisation that demands re-examination. Becoming a father myself has helped me appreciate my dad much, much more.

I can't remember if he changed my diapers or made my formula milk, but looking back, I think he did his fair share when I was growing up - never mind that I used to think that his jokes were lame and that he was out of touch.

After all, without my father, it's unlikely that I would have my job at this newspaper. The fact that I am able to write any of this at all is due to him.

Many years ago when I was in kindergarten and still unable to read, my parents were naturally worried that I wouldn't be able to cut it in primary school. So the responsibility of teaching me to read fell on my father.

I remember him coming home tired from his work in the airline industry, but still making the effort to teach me how to read using Ladybird's Peter And Jane series.

I would yawn and complain that I was tired, but he persevered until I was able to string letters into words.

From there, he taught me to thread those words into sentences, mould the sentences into paragraphs and turn those paragraphs into entire books.

And as I started reading more, he would accompany me on regular trips to Sunny Bookshop at Far East Plaza, which helped me graduate from Ladybird books to Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

It was all downhill for my parents' bank accounts from there, as I became a bookworm. I remember being enthralled by everything from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles Of Prydain series to newscaster Duncan Watt's Wallace Boys novels.

Besides going to bookshops, I remember him taking me cycling at East Coast Park and swimming at the old SIA Group Sports Club in Turnhouse Road.

With his benefits from work, he also took our family to see the world when travelling was perhaps less common among many Singaporeans than it is now, in the age of budget airlines.

I'm not sure that I'll ever repay the debt I owe my father. He wasn't perfect, but he did what he could to help raise my older brother and me to become responsible adults.

But in being a decent father to my son, I hope that I can at least pay it forward.

It hasn't been easy.

Since moving from an office-hour job as an administrative executive with a research institute into the unpredictable world of journalism, it's been hard to spend quality time with my child and it always feels like I'm strapped for family time.

My wife and I are thankfully past the days of changing diapers and late-night feeds, so quality time means that on weekends, when I would rather sleep off a long week of chasing stories, I pretend to be Batman or a Transformer instead.

Where I choose to shop depends on whether or not there's a playground in the mall. More importantly, I try to teach the values that will serve him as he grows older, such as patience, perseverance and respect for others.

And I take him to libraries and bookshops and read dinosaur books to him for the millionth time before he goes to bed because I remember being five years old and sitting in bed with my father, reading about Peter and Jane going out with their mummy and daddy and their dog Pat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'What it means to be a hands-on dad'. Print Edition | Subscribe