Prior to the 1960s, fathers were seen to be superfluous to family life
Recently, narratives on fatherhood are slowly and surely becoming more present in the media as well as in everyday conversations on parenting. There has always been a strong emphasis on mother-child relationships, which culminated in a myriad of book collections, mom blogs, promotions and gendered advertising.
Brian Gesko, a stay at home dad and writer, notes that while there exist so-called “memoirs”, this genre does not yet exist for dads. Prior to the 1960s, fathers were seen to be superfluous to family life. Modern behavioural scientists, however, emphasise the importance of fathers for a child’s psychological development and well-being. Dr. David Popenoe, a noted sociologist, is one of the pioneers of the relatively young field of research into fathers and fatherhood. “Fathers are far more than just ‘second adults’ in the home,” he says.
The growing trajectory of fatherhood is reflected in the evolution of the concept of father, from the strictly distant and patriarchal figure, to one that is a friendly playmate and friend and eventually to one who is a co-parent. Underlying these paradigm shifts is the undeniable importance of the role of fathers in a child’s life, from shaping a child’s initial understanding of masculinity to now helping them perceive parenting as a shared responsibility.
Although the notion of a stay-at-home dad is slowly becoming more accepted, these men still find themselves the target of criticism and judgement. There are many misconceptions that stay-at-home dads have to deal with that are rife with gender stereotypes. The U.S Census Data dating back to the 1970’s shows that very few men list their occupation as a full-time parent. Today, after four decades of struggle for gender equality, it is still a relatively uncommon occurrence.
Misconceptions surrounding stay-at-home fathers
This article aims to bust the misconceptions surrounding stay-at-home fathers and advocates for the sharing of parental responsibilities, which ultimately improve the well-being of families. This article also addresses the fact that there is still a lot that needs to be done to form a society where co-parenting is not an anomaly but a norm.
In light of the changing nature of fatherhood, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) spoke with three stay-at-home dads, Mr Eugene Tan, Mr Edmund Lim and Mr Tajuddin to hear their views on tackling gender norms and the general role that fathers play in the lives of their children.
Interviews have been edited for brevity
When did you become a stay-at-home dad and why was that the best decision for you and your family?
Mr Lim: Initially, my time with my family was constrained due to my work commitments. Coupled with the fact that my son was only given a year or two to live after his diagnosis of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), we decided that the model of a working dad and a stay-at-home mum could not sustain us as a family and did not reflect our values as individuals. Therefore, we decided that I would work from home as both my wife and I needed space for our professional and personal interests. I had also wanted more time with my kids.
Mr Tajuddin: The year my first daughter was born, I was unemployed. Although my wife had secured employment, it was not sufficient to afford a good day-care or a domestic helper. Hence, we decided that I would stay home and take care of the children until we could afford otherwise.
Mr Tan: Both of us are firm believers of equality. My wife sacrificed her career to be a stay-at-home mom and raise our first child. I felt that as a husband, I should reciprocate this gesture when the next child comes along. I have always enjoyed doing house chores, especially cooking, so it was an easy decision to make when the time came.
Did you find that your decision was stigmatised or supported by those around you?
Mr Lim: I personally feel that there is a mix of stigmatisation and support. I would like to think that those who had reservations about our decision were doing it out of a place of concern and care, especially with regards to my career development and financial stability. There is support out there, whether expressed or not and that is encouraging. Whether they can relate to and fully appreciate our decision is something that does not bother me.
Mr Tajuddin: I was looked at very queerly as people wondered how a man could stay at home and take care of the children while the wife goes to work. It was the parents at school that looked quizzingly at me for not being at work during the day.
Mr Tan: There was some initial concern but I feel it was more towards people being surprised as opposed to them stigmatising my choice. My outlook is how can one be wronged or stigmatised for wanting to spend quality time with their kids?
What has your experience of full-time child-rearing been like?
Mr Lim: My wife and I share full time care-giving responsibilities, in that some days and nights I do it full time, while she takes over other days. The split is not 50/50 though as she does take on more care-giving responsibilities. The transition for me was about leveraging what I’m comfortable with and what I feel I am good at. Some of the challenges of being a stay-at-home dad is the social distancing that comes from being out of the commercial workforce. My kids, especially my older son, would see a difference with other dads who worked “typical” jobs and wondered why I was at home much more compared to other dads.
Mr Tajuddin: The transition from working full-time to full-time child-rearing was initially difficult. Subsequently I realised that this is more than a full-time job, it is a 24-hour job. It turned out to be very enjoyable. I was able to do things with them that I never got the opportunity to when I was growing up. As a stay-at-home dad, it is the interaction with my children that is my favourite part of the job. One of the challenges I faced was that my girls felt uneasy as they wondered why I was not working like friends’ fathers. Trying to get them to understand that was a big challenge.
Mr Tan: The transition from working to full-time child-rearing was as easy as a snap of your fingers. One only gets one chance to see their kid growing up and to be a part of it. So if it is possible, try and not miss it.
Did you find that people held you to a lower standard when it came to parenting? Or alternatively, did you find that your spouse was held to a higher standard when it came to parenting in general?
Mr Lim: Stereotypes do exist especially surrounding this topic which is hard to break because it’s ingrained in Asian culture. Each parent has different strengths, so it is about discovering what they are, and matching parenting demands with each parent’s capabilities and interests.
Mr Tajuddin: What matters is one’s confidence and your capabilities. If we want women and men to walk shoulder to shoulder, then why can’t men take care of their children? It was not to show anyone is better than the other, but to share responsibility.
Mr Tan: We respect each other’s methodology and support and encourage one another when it comes to raising our kids. We do not put each other down.
How has being a stay-at-home dad benefited you with regards to your relationship with your children?
Mr Lim: I personally don’t think being a stay-at-home dad should be called a job. It has helped me build a stronger and more personal relationship with my kids, getting to know them better, and believing that I am making a difference in helping them to discover their unique personalities.
Mr Tajuddin: This has certainly brought the family closer to each other. Now that they are teenagers, I have earned their respect and the respect of my wife too. Even today we consult each other and make collective decisions. My girls know that I am always available when they need me.
Mr Tan: The one thing I am always very proud of is the relationship I have managed to build with my children. They will always greet me with a “I love you Daddy” first thing in the morning and before they go to bed at night.
Based on the interviews, it can be seen that all three fathers have had their own positive experience of being stay-at-home dads. Despite facing certain trials and tribulations with regards to parenting and gender stereotypes, these fathers have managed to redefine their role as a parent in the backdrop of a culture which does not necessarily encourage shared parenting.
Ultimately, what makes men fathers are not the finger-wagging or tough love tropes commonly assumed. Instead, it is about showing up, nurturing your children and playing an active role in their development. Shared parenting benefits families, as both parents are involved in building relationships with their children, making parenting a collaborative effort between both parents, which ultimately promotes healthy child development.
Recognising the importance of shared parenting, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) is currently championing a seven-day paternity leave for fathers in the private sector. Currently, fathers in the private sector are not legally entitled to any paternity leave, while fathers in the public sector have seven days of paid paternity leave.
Introducing paternity leave in the private sector will no doubt send across the message that parenting is a shared responsibility. It also encourages increased father engagement and bonding in the early years of a child’s life.
You can support our call for paternity leave by signing our petition here.
Ankita Saigal and Kavina Rajendran, Volunteers at WAO