Father knows best?
SINGAPORE, July 24 — I was breastfeeding my newborn with one arm, and spoon-feeding my toddler with the other hand.
My husband sat at the table enjoying his breakfast and the morning newspaper.
Then, folding the papers, he said: “This is nice. We should do it again.”
True story — and actually quite funny if it did not sound so depressing at the same time.
Yet I believe it is a scene played out in many households: Mum shouldering more than her fair share of caring for the kids, while Dad sits there either confused, clueless, or simply nonchalant.
This is a common occurrence even if both parents are career people.
But before you think this is just another feminist rant, hear me out. According to Humanitas Global Development, a US-based international development organisation, “nowhere in the world does men’s involvement in caregiving match that of women, in spite of women comprising 40 per cent of the workforce”.
When was the last time you asked a man: “How do you do it? Knock off at 8pm, read a bedtime story, plan the meals, and take a conference call?”
This is a question women get asked frequently — by other women too. In fact, an actual movie, I Don’t Know How She Does It, was made based on that premise.
The men do get it
When my children were younger, I would take pictures and videos of their daily activities and share them with my husband. I still do, in fact. I never gave it much thought, however; because who else will coo over baby’s every babble except their dad?
Then one day, my husband sent a wistful response: “I envy you. You can witness their growth every day.”
I had assumed that he would rather leave the caregiving to me and just be a “weekend dad”. But apparently, my husband is not alone in wanting to spend more time with his kids.
Data from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey show that most fathers — ranging from 61 per cent in Croatia to 77 per cent in Chile — say they would work less if it meant they could spend more time with their children.
Could it be true about raising children: That most men do get it?
There is no doubt that today, fathers are more involved in their children’s upbringing compared to just one generation ago. And slowly but surely, policies are starting to support more fathers’ involvement.
From July 2017, for example, fathers of newborn babies can get two weeks of paid paternity leave, up from one week.
Let it go
Ironically, one of the things that can stand in the way of a more equal partnership at home is the person who needs the support the most: Mummy.
Hands up all those who have ever chided your husbands for not handling or managing the kids “properly”.
From changing the diapers to feeding the kids to helping them with maths, I have lost count of the times my friends and I rolled our eyes and wrung our hands when we discuss our husbands’ “non-standard practice”.
Mummy’s way is the established way and often, the only way. This is not surprising, since mothers are the main caregivers in most families.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the book Unfinished Business, wrote about “presumed superiority” — how American women think they are better than men in the domestic realm, from kids to kitchens.
It is not because we women think we are better because we have had more practice, but we think we are better by virtue of our gender. Mother knows best, as they say.
When I get my husband to help our son with his maths homework, for example, I often feel like I need to supervise both him and my child. Are they taking it seriously? Is the discussion more about football or science?
I pop my head in the room once in a while, looking around suspiciously for any evidence of distraction.
No wonder a male friend said of his wife: “Why muscle in on her territory? Easier to let her take charge so as to avoid conflict.”
The thing is, if I do need support from my partner — which I definitely do — then should I not accept at least some of that help on his own terms?
Maths revision with Dad goes something like this: Tackle two word problems, watch one YouTube video, have an intense discussion about football player transfers.
But you know what? I have come to accept that bonding with Dad is as important as number bonds. Over time, I have learnt that when Daddy does things his way, he opens up new possibilities for me.
For example, my husband is much better at introducing new foods to the kids. I could testify under oath that the kids may loathe some dish, but the next thing I know, they are devouring that same dish with him.
So mummies, take a deep breath and sing it like Queen Elsa: Let it go.
Of course, it may not be possible, or even practical, to let it go all at once. But when we take steps to let go of our own expectations of ourselves, as well as those of our men, good things can happen.
Studies have shown that men have much to offer in the way of caregiving and nurturing, if only we “properly” let them. Is it hard? It is. Even as I write this, we have just had a vigorous exchange over the type of bread to buy — he bought the “wrong” type.
It will probably be a long time before men and women can be equal partners in caregiving at home. But men need to try harder, and women need to try harder to let go.
As a mother to two girls, I hope they will not have to juggle work and family life all on their own. As a mother to a boy, I hope he can one day realise his full potential as a father.
As they say, real change starts at home, right? — TODAY