When fathers do the mothering
How Shanghai’s stay-at-home dadds cope
Arecent report in the New Weekly magazine revealed that more than 50 percent of Chinese fathers spent less than five hours a week with their children. The average time per day they spent actually talking to them was less than six minutes.
Some excused themselves by saying they were too busy at work, others said they didn’t know how to communicate with their children. Some were never closely involved with the raising of their children.
This is a picture of family life in China in 2015 and though the children might want to have more time with their fathers, this is apparently, a rare thing.
However, some Shanghai fathers have bucked tradition and become stay-at-home fathers, looking after their children while their mothers go to work. It’s not at all common yet but these dads are helping change attitudes and shaping a different family model for China.
Zhu Mingqi stayed at home taking care of his daughter for more than seven years. He was working as an architect but when his daughter was born in 2007, he quit his job.
“I was very busy at work. Sometimes I had to work for weeks without going home. But when my daughter was born, everything changed. I could have left my daughter to be cared for by my parents, but their way of raising the baby didn’t feel right. So I decided to look after her myself,” Zhu told the Global Times.
Over the past six years, Zhu’s daily routine was getting up to make breakfast, driving his wife to work, then returning home to play with his daughter outside, shopping, making lunch for his girl, cleaning the house, reading (when the child had her afternoon nap) and making dinner for the family.
Instead of going out for drinks with his friends, Zhu would more often go out with
other moms. They called him “panda” – he was a very rare species. “I felt lonely sometimes,” Zhu admitted. He couldn’t be bothered with a lot of the small talk the moms engaged in.
While Zhu looked after the child and the home, his wife was out earning money, supporting the family and paying the rent on their apartment in Shanghai. She works in sales.
Zhu did not undertake his parenting without a great deal of research and, with his practical experience, now is something of an expert with firm views on child raising. If the time is up when he and his daughter are playing he never lets her extend the game or the activity.
“For example, if we agree that we will play over there for 20 minutes I set my timer and when the alarm rings we leave there. She never wants to linger or hang around,” Zhu said proudly. “She has good discipline.”
When his daughter turned 7, Zhu went back to work but his seven years’ experience in childcare led him to a career change. He is now one of only two male teachers at a Shanghai early childhood development institution.
“She is already at primary school, so I can have some time to myself. And it’s really boring staying at home every day by myself. I want to be a good model to my girl, so I needed to get back into society,” Zhu said. It was not easy, initially, fitting in with his new career and environment but he is now very settled in his work.
At first, Zhu’s parents and in-laws did not want Zhu to be an at-home father. They wanted to help him take care of the baby, and they felt they would lose face if he was a stay-at-home dad. But his wife backed him every inch of the way and earned enough money to keep the household running smoothly. Even today she is earning a lot more than he does.
Chance of a lifetime
Hu Jingxian’s son is 13 months old. Hu used to stay at home looking after the baby and her husband, Yang Junfei, went to work. But when Hu was offered a chance of a lifetime with a new position, they decided to swap roles – she went to work and he stayed at home.
“People often say that men are in charge of the outside and women are in charge of the home. In our family, we divide the duties according to our strengths. I like going to work. I hope to work and advance myself when there are good opportunities, so I have gone to work,” Hu said. “My husband likes communicating and playing with our boy so he stays at home.”
There was a difficulty during the birth and Hu injured her back which meant that from the earliest days Yang was looking after the baby, changing him, showering him and feeding him. The little boy’s first word was “Dad” not “Mom” and he wouldn’t go to sleep unless his father tucked him in.
“I get a little jealous seeing my son so attached to his father, and a bit worried at the same time thinking about how I will look after him when my husband eventually goes to work,” Hu said. But at present the arrangement suits her and she is happy with a caring husband and a promising career.
Father Yang plans to stay at home till their son turns 2 and then he will return to work. Hu believes that parents can make a choice and it is their responsibility as parents to choose whether the mother or the father takes care of child raising.
“Even though Yang doesn’t complain, he’s not really happy. He has pressure from his parents, the in-laws and society. Everyone expects him to support the family financially. Personally, I think that Chinese stay-at-home fathers are great. They do a lot of work at home. They contribute a lot. I really respect these stay-at-home dads,” Hu said.
When Li Cheng lost his job in 2012 his small daughter got a new home carer. “It was an important experience for me to be with her for over a year, even though I didn’t plan to do this. I also discovered my shortcomings when I was looking after her. I still remember the times I lost my temper with her. Nowadays when I think about that I’m really sad and promise myself that I will never be harsh with her again. She has made me rethink the way I approach life. It was an unforgettable experience,” Li said.
Li is now back at work. He was, like most of the Chinese stay-at-home dads, forced into the role. These men stay at home after losing a job or going through a major career change. But usually they don’t stay at home for any real length of time – because of social pressures and financial stress they get back to work as soon as their children have a little independence.
“Men face more pressure than women when they lose their jobs. There can be a lot of psychological problems like depression from staying at home for long periods. However, taking care of children can have a good effect on them, and it can reduce the stress,” Ji Longmei, chief psychologist at the Soulgarden Psychology Consulting Center in Shanghai, told the Global Times. Ji believes that the fathers’ presence can help children learn to respect authority.
Research has showed that children are equally attached to mothers and fathers. “Fathers help children under 3 build their gender identities. If they are absent during that period, children may have trouble developing correctly. And as a child grows older, the father’s influence grows stronger. A father’s work, social status and vision can influence a child’s choice of career and their role in society,” explained Professor Huang Heqing from the Department of Education Science of East China Normal University.
In the past, most Chinese families had to have both the father and the moth er working to support the household. Now that society has developed and diversified parents have more options.
However, Huang does not recommend either mother or father remain at home after a child turns 3. “Everyone has his or her life. Children should get involved in society by attending kindergarten and playing with other kids. It is better for them. Parents should prepare their children to integrate into society and not be sheltered by the family,” she said.
She also advised parents against sacrificing too much for their children. “Taking care of the children should just be an important task in one period of a parent’s life, not the one and only task for the whole life.”
Huang said that if parents gave too much attention and care for the children, they could then have unreasonable expectations for them.