SINGAPORE: My father died of a heart attack when I was 13. Perhaps I was too young but I don’t remember crying when I heard the news.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t a good father – he was – he worked very hard as a trader in the day and taught taichi at night. On occasion, he took us for a McDonald’s meal and to Toys R Us.
But I hardly knew him. He didn’t hang out with my siblings or I and so we didn’t have a relationship. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I swore never to be my dad. This was back in 2009 and I was running a business.
Despite how busy I was, I was determined to spend time with my son. There was no paternity leave but because I had a flexible schedule, I could be with my newborn and support my wife who subsequently decided to be a stay-home mum. We took him everywhere – from enrichment classes to trips overseas.
When his sister arrived, she had to be warded at KK Hospital for a viral infection. I spent days and nights next to her holding her hand.
I thought I was doing well – exactly the opposite of what my dad did – and then I dropped the ball when my work situation changed.
By the time my third child arrived in 2013, dads finally got government-paid paternity leave for the first time in Singapore. It was just one week and should have allowed me to spend time with the youngest but my business was running into trouble and my wife had to return to work. We had to hire a domestic worker to help with the children.
I became completely immersed in salvaging my business. Eventually though, I decided to exit for my sanity and reclaim more time with my family.
(She went into despair each time she had to breastfeed. But Elizabeth Quek says there’s one thing that made all the difference in this difficult motherhood journey on CNA's Heart of the Matter's podcast.)
WHY THE LOW TAKE-UP RATE IN PATERNITY LEAVE
In 2018, 65 per cent of eligible fathers in Singapore did not take any paternity leave. Nearly everyone – 97 per cent – did not take any shared four weeks of parental leave dads can take, according to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).
Would increasing paternity leave really help? Last year, when MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) asked whether exclusive, non-transferable paternity leave should be increased, then-Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said take-up rates for paternity leave have increased – from 25 per cent in 2013 to 53 per cent “in recent cohorts”.
She added that increasing leave would need to be balanced against the “needs of the workplace’.’
But this is exactly the problem. In some workplaces, there is no space for the needs of a parent, much less a dad who is seen to have little or no immediate physical responsibilities of taking care of a newborn child.
I saw this upfront when I took up an offer with a Korean firm in 2016. It was almost impossible for me to leave early, let alone take a week or two off to spend time with my wife and children. There was no concept of work-life balance.
My boss was always at work and expected others to be too. He knew this took a toll on his relationships and admitted he and his son hardly talked. And to avoid conflict at home, he spent even more hours in the office.
In a corporate culture like this one, it is almost impossible for fathers to take time off to care for their children.
This is outlined in research by the University of Edinburgh where the findings suggested that whether fathers take on a more active caregiving role depended heavily on workplace culture, relationship with their line managers, how their peers behaved and gendered leave practices (for instance whether such leave is framed as parental leave rather than maternity or paternity leave).
American men said they do not take more than 10 days of paternity leave because they feel anything more might be “stigmatising” and they were afraid it may mean missing out on future opportunities.
This is not an uncommon reaction in Singapore too. I know fathers who believe it is best to leave mothers to tend to newborns since dads can’t do much in these early weeks.
A 2020 study by the Institute of Policy Studies also pointed out that measures should be taken to reduce the cultural stigma and gender norms around parenting, to support fathers in playing more active roles at home.
Research shows how vital fathers are at this stage in not just bonding with their babies, but critically, supporting their wives. This is especially true when it is a first child and that whole roster of feeding, colic and non-stop crying can leave mothers exhausted.
In sharing the burden of care in these early months of a child’s life, women are also able to go back to work too, knowing that there is someone who can help them manage childcare.
Fathers home for at least a month can lend a hand and take care of the other children while their wives slowly recuperate. That was the role I played after my business exit in 2014 - caring for the first three kids while my wife nursed the latest addition and it made a big difference to her and the children.
NO AMOUNT OF LEAVE CAN HELP
My own experience with my children shows that the spirit may be willing but the flesh was weak. With the demands of work and the pressures of making sure I kept my professional standards, there were times when I simply couldn’t afford the time out.
Just because we want it to be different, doesn’t make it go away – men do earn more than women, they do shoulder more of the “work” responsibilities while their wives take on more domestic chores.
But that can lead to one gender paying the price more with a newborn. A 2021 study by Ipsos and United Women Singapore revealed that only 45 per cent of mothers have enough personal time to look after their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Contrast that to the 67 per cent for fathers.
Perhaps COVID-19 has changed that considerably. As more fathers are forced to work from home, they can see upfront what their wives have to do to maintain both their careers and their caregiving.
And by extension, they understand that lending a hand helps everyone cope better. Bosses too, without day-to-day oversight of their staff, are also focusing their efforts on work output.
This may pave the way for their male employees to go on paternity leave without too much trouble.
But what it boils down to is this: No matter how much leave we have, or how supportive our employers are, the people who really need convincing are fathers themselves.
Once they realise that work can wait but time with their children cannot, maybe more of us will take on paternity leave willingly.
Adrian Tan is a Future of Work Strategist at the Institute for Human Resource Professionals.