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It wasn't easy to convince myself I am ‘masculine and useful’ as a stay-home dad

When it comes to parenting, one truth remains today: Fathers are, more often than not, “second cousins” to mothers.

It wasn't easy to convince myself I am ‘masculine and useful’ as a stay-home dad

Mr Kelvin Seah, 51, with his wife Shaw Hui, 49, and their two children Caleb, 10, and Jaedon, 12, in their home.

When it comes to parenting, one truth remains today: Fathers are, more often than not, “second cousins” to mothers. 

I should know. 

I have been a father for 12 years, but it was really in the last two, when I became a stay-home dad, that this truth of a man’s “worth in the hearth” hit me.

To know what I mean, just compare the attention mothers get on Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day, to what fathers get on Father’s Day and International Men’s Day (yes, there is one, on Nov 19).

Since time immemorial, conventional wisdom dictates that mothers take care of the home, while fathers take home the bacon.

Women are generally deemed to be better at nurturing; men, providing.

It’s a different world today though. 

Women have stepped out to take on bigger roles in the workforce, while more fathers are staying home to take care of the children.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Manpower's Labour Force statistics show that there were roughly 1,500 stay-home dads in 2017, more than double the figure in 2007.

That roughly translates to four out of every 1,000 adult males.

This figure might well be higher, if more fathers in Singapore who spend at least an equal amount of time (if not more) at home and work would also identify themselves as stay-home dads.

Perhaps, the prevalent and powerful social stigma on gender roles in the home is putting a brake on more men stepping forward to be identified as stay-home dads. 

WHAT OTHER PARENTS SAY

In January last year, a published report from the Institute of Policy Studies threw up at least two interesting insights about societal perceptions of gender roles in the family. 

I could not help but be struck by how the responses from 21 stay-home dads and nine spouses who took part in the study resonated with my experience.

The writer gave up full-time work to become a full-time stay-home dad. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

One insight was how stay-home dads "learned skills and strategies over time to perform the role successfully". They did so in ways they referred to as “masculine" and "useful". 

The other insight was, despite being the parent who stays home, these fathers "continued to accept a subsidiary parenting position" relative to their breadwinning wives.

Both insights made it clear that even though more fathers like me are now prepared to stay home, traditional gender ideologies continued to persist.

My own journey bears this out, and I have both lost and gained unexpected perspectives along the way.

WHY I GAVE UP FULL-TIME WORK

When I first stepped away from full-time employment in 2018, I had my sons in mind. 

Growing up with an emotionally absent father, I wanted to reverse my heritage and be a more hands-on dad.

This was especially because my youngest was diagnosed with moderate autism the year before and needed more time and attention.

Not wanting to give up my career completely and wanting to have my cake and eat it too, I first took up a job that allowed me to work mostly from home. 

Thinking back, it certainly looked like the perfect dress rehearsal for what is now the common work-from-home phenomenon, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year after I worked from home, when it became too all-consuming, I gave it up to be a full-time stay-home dad.

This was how I came to discover the enormity of being a full-time parent.  

WHAT I LOST

That single momentous decision in 2019 to totally not work and stay home meant that I had lost out on my worldly job title and career advancements.

At the same time, I lost a constant and regular network of colleagues, friends, contacts and work-related news and idle talk. 

Oh, and did I mention the sense of emptiness I felt when my monthly pay cheque no longer showed up?

The world I was used to basically shrunk to the space that covers my home and my children’s schools and learning centres. 

And the mornings when my wife is at work, my children are in school and my mother (who lives with us) is at a dementia day care centre — these proved to be some of the loneliest moments I have ever experienced.

Though my afternoons and evenings are kept busy when they return home, it is hard to defend my self-worth and identity as a "masculine" and "useful" male.

On most days, all I had to show for a decent day’s work was a completed piece of math worksheet, done only after battling for hours with a homework-adverse pre-teen.

In contrast, my wife continues her "second shift" for the day when she is home from her work in the social sector, making all the critical domestic decisions that keep the household humming.

I, on the other hand, play the "subsidiary parenting position" to support and help with chores, being the driver doing grocery runs with the family car.

I guess you can say they are my desperate ways to prove I am "masculine" and "useful".

There were many trying moments when all I could do was lower my head resignedly, recalling what Henry David Thoreau once said about men "living lives of quiet desperation".

The writer says being a stay-home dad has allowed him to be both physically and emotionally more available to his sons. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

WHAT I GAINED

Still, without the daily demands of full-time employment, my life did slow down considerably, allowing me to smell the proverbial roses once again. 

I had time to pursue personal interests like reading and writing, even picking up new skills like blogging. 

I learned to live on less, and allow my inner introvert to breathe again. 

It's interesting, too, how things you used to value, like social status or having buddies to talk shop with, really do not matter much anymore.

Instead, books, podcasts, online courses, and the occasional annoying but necessary Zoom call, have occupied my waking hours in wonderful ways that enriched my mind, soul and spirit.

Best of all? 

I've been both physically and emotionally more available to my sons these last two years than the earlier 10 combined.

Just having an always-present parent around has made them visibly happier and emotionally more settled.

These intangible gains may not measure up to the economic and social script that defines what makes for a “masculine”, manly father. 

But now at least, when Father’s Day comes around on Sunday (June 20), I can hold my head up high and say that I have been the best father to my sons these past two years than I have ever been.

This is better than any pay cheque I could ever earn. 

It has given me a new masculine identity and a rejuvenated sense of my “worth in the hearth”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kelvin Seah Lee Nguon, 51, is a writer, stay-home father of two and adjunct lecturer. He blogs regularly on autism and parenting at www.kelvinseah.com.

Related topics

father fatherhood parenting family gender

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