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The trouble with limited paternity leave

When I became a mother five years ago, I experienced acutely what I had known as a sociologist — structural conditions matter.

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When I became a mother five years ago, I experienced acutely what I had known as a sociologist — structural conditions matter.

In the first week after our baby was born, my husband and I were equally pathetic in our cluelessness; the learning curve was steep and we tried and failed together. We were on equal footing with caring for baby on most fronts.

After he went back to work and I stayed home with the baby, however, our paths on that learning curve quickly diverged. While he remained committed to playing a major role — waking up for night feeds to change the diapers before passing baby to me, and soothing the baby back to sleep afterward — I inadvertently became the more competent and more confident parent.

It is reasonable that women receive more public support when it comes to being at home with an infant; they do need the time after the birth of a child for recovery and to establish breastfeeding. However, for men to learn to be fathers in the way women have to learn to be mothers, they need comparable opportunities and support for developing competence in everyday acts of caregiving.

Anything worth doing takes practice to do well. This includes parenting. Mothers and fathers are made, not born. They are made through hands-on learning, through multiple trial and error. When we speak in glowing terms about the importance of motherhood and fatherhood, we often speak in general terms without considering the everyday caring for the young.

Particularly for the middle-class, popular culture is permeated with references to “quality time” and “involvement”, without adequate attention to the significance of everyday acts — wiping noses, sneaking vegetables into meals, nagging for the 10th time that it is time for a shower.

Paying attention to these small acts that populate a child’s day, we see that being a caregiver is not always pretty and indeed often tediously mundane. Yet, tedium and mundaneness are part of any long-term relationship and no less important than more photogenic moments.

To speak of valuing parenthood and children, then, we need to speak more often of those spaces between developmental milestones and Facebook status updates. And when we do, we see stark differences in the extent to which women and men participate in these everyday practices.


If we take a child’s perspective and see these acts as dominating their conscious lives, and if we recognise that these everyday gestures are a privilege of parenting, we see that many men — particularly those who do not have flexible work and time-off — face constraints and barriers as parents. This is something public policy reinforces and that it can and must address.

Extensive maternity leave and limited paternity leave creates a situation in which women and men, regardless of their desires, are compelled to become families where mothers play bigger roles than fathers by virtue of more opportunity to practice and learn.

To address this, paternity leave must be extended beyond the current one week. Particular attention should be paid to ensuring that all men — regardless of their socio-economic circumstances and job types — have access to this privilege to parent.

Caregiving is simultaneously hard work and privilege. Public policies have produced hard divisions of labour such that some do most of it — mothers, grandmothers, and for some portion of the middle-class, domestic workers.

In the process, those who do not partake in everyday care often fail to appreciate both its difficulties and its rewards. The work itself becomes devalued. Children become, paradoxically, a category of highly-valued persons whose care is often invisible and undervalued.

Policy makers frequently invoke the notion of “mindsets” as limiting their capacity to alter policy. Yet, sociologists have shown that for attitudes to change, conditions must exist for certain practices to become norms.

Employers will not spontaneously decide that they ought to support men in becoming particular types of fathers. In the abstract — not having had opportunity to acquire competence in childcare beyond changing some diapers — men will not spontaneously see that they can be different sorts of fathers.

Women, for that matter, will not believe that their male partners are indeed capable of doing everything they can do, as long as they are given time to practice. For so-called mindsets to change, conditions have to shift.

It has taken years for paternity leave to be introduced. We must keep the conversation going so that it does not take years to expand it so that it actually counts.

Teo You Yenn is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, board member at the Association of Women for Action and Research, and author of Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How family policies make state and society.

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