‘Worth in the Hearth’ — A New Masculine Identity?

On Fathers Day 2021, my musings on the losses and gains of being a stay home dad

{A version of this post first appeared here in a local news publication Todayonline. Also, check out a reader’s beautifully written and resonating response to my piece here.}

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 bring home the bacon.

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

But it’s a different world today. 

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

The Phenomenon of Stay Home Dads

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

According to the Pew Research Center, the share of fathers in the United States who identify themselves as stay home dads have increased from 4% of the population in 1989 to 7% in 2016. This works out to slightly more than 10 million more fathers choosing to stay home, after more than two decades. 

In my country, the Manpower Ministry’s Labour Force statistics show that there were approximately 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 here who spend at least an equal amount of time (if not more) at home and work, would also identify themselves as stay home dads.

But that’s where the prevalent and powerful social stigma on gender roles in the home, puts a brake on more men stepping forward to be identified as stay home dads. 

A pity, given the fact that most fathers are working from home now thanks to Covid!

My experience

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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. Especially when my youngest was diagnosed with moderate autism the year before, and needed more time and attention.

But I didn’t want to give up my career either. I wanted to ‘have my cake and eat it too’!

So that same year, I took up a remote 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 WFH phenomenon, thanks to Covid.

But a year later, when that remote work became too all-consuming, I gave it up to be a full-time stay home dad. Which is how I came to discover the enormity of being a full-time parent.

The Psyche of Stay Home Dads

selective focus photography of child s hand
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

In January 2020, a locally-published report by the Institute of Policy Studies threw up at least two interesting insights about societal perceptions of gender roles in the family. 

Based on what 21 stay home dads and nine spouses who took part in the study shared, I could not help but be struck by how intimately they resonated with my experience.

One insight was how stay home dads “learned skills and strategies over time to perform the role successfully.” But they did so for their families in ways they referred to as “masculine” and “useful”. 

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

Both insights made one thing crystal clear: even though more fathers like me are now prepared to stay home, traditional gender ideologies persist.

My own journey as a stay home dad bears this out. And I have both lost and gained unexpected perspectives along the way.

My losses, being a stay home dad

wide road with street lights
Photo by Alex Fu on Pexels.com

That single momentous decision in 2019, to quit and stay home, meant 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 chit-chats. 

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 had basically shrunk to the space between my home, and my kids’ schools and learning centres. 

And the mornings when my wife was at work, my kids were in school, and my elderly mother (who stays with us) was in dementia day care? They proved to be some of the loneliest I’d ever experienced!

While my afternoons and evenings were kept busy when they returned, 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” when she’s home from work, making all the critical domestic decisions that keeps the household humming. I, on the other hand, played the “subsidiary parenting position” to support and help with chores and grocery runs in the family car, harnessing physical strength and technical skills in keeping with manhood conventions. 

I guess you can say they were my desperate ways to prove I was “masculine” and “useful”.

But 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”.

My gains as a stay home dad

yellow flower
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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 a bevy of 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 stay home dad around has made them visibly happier and emotionally more settled.

A New Masculine Identity?

Photo of author by Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY (taken 14 June 2021)

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 tomorrow, 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.

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

And given me a new masculine identity, and a rejuvenated sense of my ‘worth in the hearth’!

3 thoughts on “‘Worth in the Hearth’ — A New Masculine Identity?

  1. Riveting post as always Mr Seah! Although I’m not a parent myself and do not know the difficulties of child-rearing, reading your posts on parenting have allowed me a glimpse into the world of parents and how difficult it is. Working on a parenting podcast at the moment called Hey Mama, I find that your posts help me to value-add to my work and we do need to address issues faced by stay home dads and tackle the social norms attached to mothers and fathers alike. Hang in there!

    1. Thanks for your support once again! Alw grateful for readers who have stayed with me so long. I just checked “Hey Mama” out and it certainly looks like there are lots of parental tips to be found there! Are you working full-time for Mediacorp and this podcast specifically? What’s your role? I’ve been thinking about doing a podcast in the future. Maybe I can ‘pick your brains’ then?! How do I reach you aside from replying here to your kind comments?

      1. I’m currently only an intern and working on scripting, editing and marketing on a few podcasts. Happy to hear you’re thinking of doing a podcast, I’m sure you can value-add and give new perspective as a stay home dad! Not sure if I can help out as I’m only an intern but you can reach me at my gmail “jennieleexx98@gmail.com”

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