Commentary: Dads are critical in carrying equal weight of caregiving
The White Paper arising from a year-long conversation surfaced 25 action plans to better look after the interests of women. Centre for Fathering’s Bryan Tan says men should play a much bigger role.
SINGAPORE: Almost 6,000 participants took part in the nation-wide conversation leading up to the White Paper on Women’s Development released on Monday (Mar 28). Only 20 per cent of those were men.
That they were part of the conversation was a good start. It cannot fall on women alone to find a way to thrive and achieve their aspirations. Men, especially fathers, need to pitch in and in a greater way than we have been doing so far.
But this can feel new for many dads today. I come from a generation where we were raised - sometimes single-handedly - by our mothers. Even mothers who worked still took up the bulk of child-minding responsibilities.
My mother sacrificed much to ensure that my brother and I had a better life than hers because my dad travelled frequently and often lived abroad for work. She took on less work and gave up her aspirations, to cater time for our growing needs at home and in school. Without hesitation, she would dip into earnings and retirement savings to allow my brother and I to pursue our aspirations, especially after Dad left our family.
But it would be too easy to fall into the tired trope of noble maternal sacrifice - as a father and husband, I don’t wish to see my wife take on the same disproportionate burden my mum did in raising us.
THEY AREN’T JUST THE MOTHER’S CHILDREN
My wife and I have four children aged one to 12 years old. Both of us have careers and my wife runs several businesses. You can imagine how challenging it is to manage work and the diverse needs of young children.
It seemed like the children are always drawn to my wife, especially when they fall ill. This somehow led to my assumption that she was better in dealing with the younger kids, so I started leaving the toddlers to her entirely and focused more on the older ones.
When teachers called, my wife would always handle these academic matters promptly, which led them to call her more than me. Over time, the default became for her to take time off work to tend to almost all of the children’s matters.
Soon, this disparity made her feel her work was less important than mine. I had neither affirmed her for managing all of this on top of her demanding work obligations, nor pitched in to take some load off her.
This mental burden is the “hidden load” that women carry. Research has shown that even if couples split chores, it is women who end up worrying about scheduling appointments, finding tutors, trying to get more vegetables in a meal or fixing a broken but beloved shoe. And this kind of work is hard to measure.
Of course, every family is different. Families where men work longer hours than their wives would find it sensible if mothers picked the kids up from childcare. The parent who wants to be hands-on can choose to do more.
But this should be borne out of mutual agreement, not assumptions. So after discussion, our arrangement is for her to handle school and the children’s other activities until she asks me to take over when work becomes hectic. I also make sure to check if she needs help from time to time.
Fathers are not “substitute mothers”. Our marriage is an equal partnership- we support each other in raising our family. We just need to find the right compromise.
THE ROLE EMPLOYERS PLAY
One area where we needed no discussion however, was paternity leave. With all my children, I took the full allotment to help my wife cope in the initial weeks.
Yet, many fathers in Singapore do not utilise their paternity leave. In 2019, the take-up rate was 55 per cent.
In my conversations, the most common reason that comes up is that men are worried taking long stretches of leave will affect their prospects at work. Some also say they don’t need to be actively involved as their wives have help, such as family members or domestic help.
Sure, these are real concerns for men. But hasn’t this been a concern for women too? The mindset that men can or should continue working through the arrival of a new child needs to change.
It can help when leaders themselves show they want their staff to take time off.
At the social service agency I run, seven of our 20 staff, all women and some in management positions, are employed on a part-time basis, so they can fulfil both work and home responsibilities.
These part-time work arrangements allowed us to bring in more people with the relevant skillsets and experiences to expand our capabilities, without incurring additional manpower costs.
But since the pandemic, everyone has taken on flexible work arrangements. Our team has developed a productive routine working from home and the organisation continues to thrive.
And if this is a win-win situation, why not continue such flexi-work indefinitely? Even with the relaxation of workplaces restrictions, I don’t expect 75 per cent of my colleagues to return.
We have also set up the structure of our organisation to be more “porous”, so people can leave and re-join us again at different life stages. A worker who chooses to take time off for a season to care for a young child can return to take on any role they have the capabilities and qualifications for, with some on-the-job training to assimilate them back to the workplace.
Encouraging parental leave utilisation is also a key emphasis at our office. One thing is clear: For men to take time off for caregiving more readily (be it paternity leave, childcare leave or parental care leave), they need to have an honest conversation with their wives about how caregiving duties should be split at home.
Why should employers find it odd to have a male employee ask for time off to care for his parents or children? The crux is that employers need to support both men and women in non-work responsibilities that are part and parcel of life.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO TAKE A VILLAGE
At the heart of this is our mindset about our roles in life. Some of us are still heavily constrained by societal expectations of how men should perform at work and at home.
Maybe it’s because that’s how we were raised, maybe it’s structural, but we shouldn’t be content to stay stuck in status quo.
We need to start shifting the mindset now. We can step up now to help our wives, but we’ll need to forge the society in which our daughters can achieve all they aspire to.
When we show ourselves to be more actively involved in the care of our children, our sons will come to see it as natural to support their own partners when they settle down. And our daughters will be free to explore their opportunities at work without worrying their partners will not be there to pick up after the children.
And unlike my own mother and generations of women like her, they may not have to wait decades before they are finally free to pursue their interests and ambitions.
Bryan Tan is CEO of Dads for Life, Mums for Life and the Centre for Fathering Limited. Formerly a senior officer with the Singapore Armed Forces, he made a mid-career switch to the social service sector to serve fathers and the “fatherless” in our nation.