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How learning to be a better father changed my life

SINGAPORE — I never wanted to be a father, as I did not know how to be one.

Centre for Fathering's CEO Bryan Tan and his family - wife Adriana, and their children, from four months old to 7 years old. Photo: Bryan Tan

Centre for Fathering's CEO Bryan Tan and his family - wife Adriana, and their children, from four months old to 7 years old. Photo: Bryan Tan

SINGAPORE — I never wanted to be a father, as I did not know how to be one.

Growing up, I failed to appreciate my father’s tough love and high expectations as being beneficial to me. I drew away from him as I got tired of constantly seeking his approval and love.

So, when I had my first child in 2010, I felt a little disoriented because I was too proud to ask for help.

Then, my next child arrived in 2014, and I was really at my wits’ end.

Fatherhood was a very lonely journey at that point. I decided then to provide materially for my family as best as I could, and mask my inadequacies by being present physically, but not emotionally, to my children.

For a while there, I even thought I was doing a great job as a father and husband.

The turning point came when I attended a “Breakfast with Dad” event with the Centre for Fathering — a charity organisation that provides support for dads through education and awareness programmes — with my eldest child, who was five years old at the time.

In one exercise at the event, the dads in the room were asked to shout, “I love you!” from around a corner — loudly enough so that our children could recognise our voices and run to us.

To my embarrassment, I had to attempt this three times before my eldest son, Michael, was able to distinguish that it was me calling out to him. It was no consolation that two other children at the event mistook my voice for their fathers’.

That episode kept me up at night for a week. Was I really being a dad, if my own son could not recognise my voice?

I decided then that I needed to get connected to the Centre’s wide network of active fathers and fathering coaches. I needed support, I decided, from other dads, and I needed to have access to the tools that would teach me how to be a more involved father.

This journey led to me leaving my job prematurely at the Singapore Armed Forces, to join the Centre for Fathering as a staff member in August last year. My personal mission statement by that point was — and still is — to help raise awareness of the importance of involved fathering, and to minimise the effects of “fatherlessness” in our nation — with reference to those who do not have fathers, as well as those whose fathers are not engaged in family life.

I want to help others to look beyond their households, to role model and father the “fatherless” within their spheres of influence.

 

RIDING THE WAVES OF CHANGE

Moving from a secure career at the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) to a charity organisation that relies on public donations was daunting at first.

While my personal mission was to help children turn their hearts towards their fathers, and assist dads in building better relationships with their kids, it was also clear that the impact of my choice was going to affect my own family. The notion of making lifestyle changes for my family was intimidating.

In the same week that I gave notice to Mindef that I would be leaving, my wife was retrenched from her job, and we discovered we were having a third child. It was a daunting situation then, but my wife’s unrelenting faith and belief in the organisation’s cause, and her unwavering support for me, gave me peace of mind.

We have since learnt to make the best of imperfect situations, and to better appreciate the many tiny miracles that happen daily, which we took for granted in the past.

While learning to negotiate new challenges and storms, we learnt to ride the turbulent waves together.

In the process, I opened up even to my children, to share my concerns and vulnerabilities with them, so they would grow up with an accurate picture of who I am, and also who they themselves are.

The shift in mindset has strengthened my marriage, too. One insight I garnered through my now-frequent interactions with the active fathering community, is how my relationship with my wife is crucial to the well-being of my children.

How I treat my wife is essentially Marriage Preparation 101 for my children. A good relationship with the mother of my children, I realised, would provide the loving and secure base for them to grow as individuals — into adolescents and adults.

I could be a hero at work, but in the past, I would return home drained by the time I got through the front door. And so, my wife had to put up with a side of me that nobody else got to see.

That had to change, I realised, because my wife and family deserve the best from me. I then strived to be accountable to her and my children for who I am as a person, not just to the people at work.

Like many other parents, we had become overly preoccupied with the issues and day-to-day tasks of raising children. But I am now learning how to “date” my wife all over again, lest we draw apart as a couple.

As a family, my wife and I want to create family values, traditions and good memories for our children, so they have blueprints for their own families subsequently.

Leaving behind a legacy of good parenting means having better relationships myself, so that this has an impact on my children, and their children thereafter.

I have committed to reconciling with my father, as I must model what a good son should be, and show my children how I honour my parents.

I will “date” my wife regularly, since loving their mother is key for my children’s development as they grow into adults.

I will provide unconditional love, grace and acceptance to my children, so they never have to earn it. Modelling what a marriage and family should be, would help them in their choice of a life partner, and pass on a legacy of good parenting to their children.

And, my wife and I are considering fostering or adopting a child someday, to do our part in fathering the fatherless.

 

Bryan Tan is the CEO of Dads for Life and the Centre for Fathering. 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. He is happily married to Adriana, an entrepreneur, and they have three wonderful children, Michael, 7; Joshua, 3; and Deborah, four months of age.

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