COVID-19 SPECIAL

Covid-19 has given fathers chance to bond with kids even as they grapple with economic uncertainty

Clarence Choo quit his job as a call centre manager to spend more time with his son, Kashton Choo.
Clarence Choo quit his job as a call centre manager to spend more time with his son, Kashton Choo.PHOTO: COURTESY OF MR CLARENCE CHOO

SINGAPORE - Four years ago, Mr Clarence Choo, 32, quit his job as a call-centre manager. He became a private-hire driver because of his six-year-old son.

Kashton had been diagnosed with Global Developmental Delay, an umbrella term to describe kids who have not met their development milestones for unknown reasons.

"I didn't want to miss out on his childhood, so I try to strike a balance between providing for the family and also to see his growth," says Mr Choo.

His flexible schedule allows him to attend Kashton's classes at Awwa Early Intervention Centre, which caters to young children with moderate to severe disabilities.

The past few months have been a trying time for the sole breadwinner as fares dwindled overnight during the circuit breaker.

Although his income has dropped by more than half, he is grateful for the extra family time the crisis has given him in return.

"Pre-Covid-19, when I spent time with Kashton, I would take him out to the mall or the beach. But since the circuit breaker, I can see what he's doing at home," he says. "So I get to understand my wife a bit more and see my son's daily activities."

Mr Choo's experience is mirrored all over the island.

While fathers have become more involved in their children's lives compared with a generation ago, the pandemic has given them an unprecedented opportunity to bond with their loved ones, especially during the circuit breaker, and cement their role as a pillar of support in the family.

At the same time, they face tremendous financial pressures at work as droves of jobs are lost in the global recession.

Mr Raphael Zhang, a family life specialist with charity Focus on the Family Singapore, notes that millennial fathers in their 20s to late 30s are discernibly more involved in their children's lives.

 
 

He points to the number of stay-at-home fathers, which has more than doubled in a decade - from about 700 in 2007 to about 1,500 in 2017 - according to the Manpower Ministry's Labour Force In Singapore report.

Dads today do not just want to be physically there for their kids, but also want to know how to be better fathers. This trend has been keeping family organisations like the Centre for Fathering, now in its 20th year, busy.

Its chief executive, Mr Bryan Tan, has seen more hands-on papas participating in the non-profit's fathering and father-child workshops.

The centre is also behind Dads for Life, a national movement that organises initiatives such as Celebrating Fathers.

"I see more dads at the playgrounds and parks with their children today than when I was growing up. Many dads make the effort to accompany their children to school in the mornings," Mr Tan says.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that fathers stepped up their game during the pandemic, judging from the findings of a Focus on the Family survey.

The study polled 2,418 fathers from May 25 to June 7, with the assistance of community self-help groups and the Centre for Fathering.

Seven in 10 fathers polled said they were more involved with their families. Out of this group, more than eight in 10 said they connected better with their kids. In addition, four in 10 said they shared childcare duties equally with their wives most of the time.

However, this last figure contrasts with a previous survey of mothers, where fewer than three in 10 mums reported that their husbands shared the caregiving load equally.

Explaining the discrepancy, Mr Zhang says the survey of mums was conducted two weeks into the circuit breaker.

Families then faced many uncertainties and had to adapt to a stay-home lifestyle without much warning.

Mothers, then, may have borne "a heavier mental load due to what they need to think about and how often they do so", in terms of keeping the kids fed and occupied, compared with fathers.

The study of dads was done at the end of the two-month stay-home period, when things had stabilised and fathers got into the groove of spending more time with their children.

The Families for Life Council, a people-sector council that champions resilient families, reports similar feedback about dads making the most of their stay-home, circuit breaker lifestyle.

Mr Ishak Ismail, the council's chairman, says: "Many fathers have shared that they have been able to enjoy bonding with their children, in ways that they may not have done before."

One example is Mr Shahid Nizami, 41, managing director of Asia-Pacific for HubSpot, which offers inbound marketing, sales and service software, who used to travel frequently for work.


Mr Shahid Nizami managing director of Asia-Pacific for HubSpot, jammed with his son, Kian Nizami. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHAHID NIZAMI

When the crisis grounded him, he had to strike a balance between working from home and supervising his son Kian's home-based learning.

It meant having the seven-year-old seated next to him in his home office, which allowed Mr Nizami to show Kian up close just what he does for a living. They also bonded by jamming together.

"This has been really special for us both," he says. "We've been having a few jam sessions and when Kian's school had a virtual talent quest, he played a drum solo while I backed him on the guitar."

Other fathers have found fulfilment in everyday routines while staying home.

Marketing manager Imran Mohamad, 36, treasures seeing his toddlers, aged two and three, through "every mood of the day".


Imran Mohamad with his daughters Talia (extreme left) and Alina. PHOTO: COURTESY OF IMRAN MOHAMMAD

"My children say they miss me even if I step out of the house to the market," says Mr Imran, adding that his wife is also happy that their family now eats and plays together.

With the country now in phase two of its gradual re-opening, Mr Ishak of the Families for Life Council hopes families will continue to strengthen their relationships.

"It is still too early to tell, but it would be wonderful if this pandemic has sparked a permanent change for the better."

Such a change towards better work-family balance would need the buy-in of employers. Some are already leading the charge, like Novartis Singapore, which launched a 16-week paid parental leave policy in January for all employees with a new baby.

The Government currently provides for fathers to have two weeks of paid paternity leave and up to four weeks of shared parental leave taken from the mother's 16-week maternity leave.

In this way, Novartis hopes to encourage a cultural shift and "encourage fathers to embrace an approach to family care that is closer to that traditionally taken by mothers", says Mr Jason Tan, its regional people and organisation business partner head.

New dad Sheik Abdul Hafidz, 30, rejoiced at the "unbelievable" perk.


Mr Sheik Abdul Hafidz bin Sheik A Hamid, his wife Ms Mashitah Binti Abdul Wahab and their daughter Ashfiya Binti Sheik Abdul Hafidz. PHOTO: SHEIK ABDUL HADFIZ BIN SHEIK A HAMID

"In manufacturing, our operations are always running and require us to be on standby, so I did not expect that we would be given such an opportunity," says the senior project engineer at Novartis' Biologics & Solids manufacturing plant.

Fridays are now reserved for daddy duties, he says.

From not knowing how to carry his newborn to becoming adept at bathing, feeding and putting nine-month-old Ashfiya to sleep, Mr Sheik revels in every milestone.

His wife, an administrative executive, now has peace of mind since he is "no longer a novice and am able to help our in-laws with childcare while she's at work".

He thinks the pandemic has shown companies that new ways of working are feasible. "This would help to raise more discussions around new possibilities of telecommuting and more flexible work arrangements for parents," he says.

Empathy from bosses is crucial in the current situation and something Mr Nizami of HubSpot believes strongly in as a key decision-maker.

His company, which has more than 400 employees working remotely globally, has even organised online activities for their kids.

"It's so important to recognise that this pandemic is affecting everyone differently. From the way we adjust to working to our home lives to the things we are now juggling - work, family, being a teacher, sharing work spaces and being there to support our teams."

However, fathers working in sectors that are struggling to stay afloat face a different set of challenges.

Lower-income dads are especially vulnerable as the economy contracts, says Ms T. Ranganayaki, deputy executive director of charity Beyond Social Services.

"The key challenge is loss of employment and, as such, loss of income. To compensate, quite a few fathers have taken on new jobs that place them in the front line. The unstable future and worry about their health causes stress for the families," she says.

Former technician Nor Iskandar Subari, 38, for instance, lost his job just after Chinese New Year because of the Covid-19 crisis.

With six children from a newborn to one age 21 to support, he has been taking up ad-hoc jobs as a mover and warehouse worker, as well as helping his wife with her small home-based business selling Malay kueh.

The hands-on dad also took care of his kids and supervised their home-based learning during the circuit breaker. His greatest worry is his children's health during the pandemic.

Still, the birth of baby Muhammad Imam Naufal last Sunday filled him with hope, he says.

Even as dads grapple with economic uncertainty, the pandemic has emboldened some fathers to re-examine routines and practices they had taken as a given.

Marketing manager Mr Imran, for example, realised that "many outside engagements and events are unnecessary", compared with spending time with his daughters.

As private-hire driver Mr Choo puts it: "Money can be earned any time. As long as I have enough to pay my bills and put food on the table, I think that extra time could be spent with my child."

PANDEMIC PARENTING FOR FATHERS

The pandemic has put fathers under tremendous financial stress, but the Covid-19 crisis also presents a unique opportunity for them to parent better. Family experts offer these tips.

BE A ROLE MODEL FOR RESILIENCE

Be mindful not to pass your stress onto your children, says Mr Bryan Tan, chief executive of the non-profit Centre for Fathering and the Dads for Life movement. Communicate how you feel and "seize every teachable moment" to show them how you deal with setbacks. This helps kids learn resilience and perseverance.

BE PRESENT FOR YOUR KIDS

Be the pillar of support your kids can lean on when they feel overwhelmed by changes around them, says Mr Ishak Ismail, chairman of the Families for Life Council, a people-sector council that champions resilient families.

Expensive outings are not necessary, says Mr Raphael Zhang, a family life specialist with charity Focus on the Family Singapore. What matters more is the "quantity of time and quality of attention" dads have with their children.

"Dads can also observe the ways their children prefer to receive love or what fills their love tank more easily," he says. For example, some kids may value spending time together, while others prefer words of affirmation.

"When they express love to their child in these ways, it would help their child to feel more connected to them and cared for by them," he adds.

STRENGTHEN YOUR MARRIAGE

A solid union makes children feel most secure, Mr Tan says. "The best gift a dad can give his children is to love their mother."

Go to these websites for more fathering resources:

Centre for Fathering: www.fathers.com.sg

Families for Life: www.familiesforlife.sg

Focus on the Family: www.family.org.sg


This article has been edited for clarity.