June 17th, 2012

May all fathers enjoy the right to a family life


This op-ed was published in Today on June 17. Read the published version here.

By Dr Teo You Yenn & Dr Vivienne Wee 

In a recent interview, a Singaporean housewife spoke poignantly of her loneliness, despite having a husband and two children. Her voice broke when she talked about her children being abnormally overjoyed to see their father on the occasional Sundays when he did not have to work.

Many have noted how important it is for fathers to care for their children, not just bring home the bacon. Professor Tommy Koh, in a recent Straits Times op-ed, suggested that male chauvinism may account for Singapore’s low fertility rate: where men are chauvinistic and refuse to participate in childrearing, women refuse to have children.

But the deeper problem may not be chauvinistic men as individuals but a gendered policy structure that deprives men of their caregiving roles as fathers.

World-wide, men do less caregiving than womenBut studies in various countries show that where they do do more, it is because they are provided more care-giving opportunities, not because they are “culturally” less chauvinistic. “Culture” is malleable. Policies, such as paternity leave, can quickly change how people think and act.

To understand why men don’t participate more in the everyday care of their children, we need to look at how work and family life are organised in Singapore.

We have high costs of living, expensive childcare, disproportionate out-of-pocket costs for health care, a punitive educational system that requires intensive tutoring and coaching at home, a lopsided leave structure that recognises only women as parents, plus inequalities in waged work with men paid more than women, even when they have similar educational qualifications.

What do these add up to? First, with 16 guaranteed weeks of maternity leave and three “recommended” days of paternity leave, women have more time than men to learn how to care for babies. The relative competence of mothers, once established, solidifies their dominance over fathers as co-parents.

Second, expensive childcare, housing, enrichment classes, etc. – seemingly gender-neutral – actually have gender-differentiated effects. Combined with gendered inequalities in wages and moral expectations of women as caregivers, the seemingly “sensible choice” for many families is for men to work as hard as possible and for women to leave the workforce to care for the children.

For those with middle to high income, “work-life balance” is now the desideratum. But while maternity leave has steadily increased over several years, nothing has happened to allow men more work-life balance. Three days of paternity leave are patently insufficient; yet fathers are not even guaranteed this.

For low-income families, work-life balance is non-existent. Here, we see that any attempt to increase the total fertility rate must grapple with gender imbalance, income inequalities and welfare. Without adequate support for childcare, education, healthcare, unemployment, and retirement, people who are just getting by live precariously. Active fatherhood is a luxury many cannot afford. Under such conditions, working as many hours as possible in paid employment is responsible fatherhood.

This Father’s Day, we should think about the many fathers who do not have the privilege of spending time with their children and building lasting bonds of trust and understanding and about the mothers with absent co-parents, who are thus compelled to live as de facto single parents. Can we, as a society, claim that the family comes first when real people do not enjoy real family lives?


Dr Teo You Yenn is an assistant professor in Sociology at the Nanyang Technological University and board member at the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Dr Vivienne Wee is an anthropologist and Research & Advocacy Director at AWARE. 

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