makchic’s publisher, Laych Koh shares her thoughts on culture, changes and current events in her new monthly column, The Dilated Pupil.
I was recently listening to my husband and his best friend Ben talk about the joys of looking after their babies. One comment struck me in particular – Ben said he sometimes had to “fight the nanny” to bathe his youngest. What did he mean by that? Ben, who has changed diapers and bathed all of his children, said that his current helper was so efficient and speedy that this meant he often missed out on this chance to bond with his littlest sweet daughter. He just loves these little moments with his children, he said.
This is not surprising for Ben and my husband. They are very hands-on fathers, and it is a thrill to learn that many in their peer group are similarly inclined – modern dads who may have had a different experience with their own fathers, and are keen to be extremely involved with their children.
While I know many fathers in my own peer groups in London who can do almost everything their partners do in the household, I wondered about the situation in Malaysia, where domestic and familial help is more readily available. And so I asked several male friends some questions about fatherhood. Do they take care of their children as much as possible, and out of the sheer enjoyment of doing so? Even the mundane, rough, messy, tough parts?
Finding beauty in the mess
Ben, a willing and able hand at baby duties, said those messy baby chores were actually more enjoyable and less taxing than other parenting tasks. He is able to look after all of his three children on his own, although he concedes that he has not done so for long periods of time. And as his children grow older, being truly present for them can be a bit difficult. “Physically I’m there, but sometimes my mind is elsewhere. It’s easier with baby chores, where you just need to be there to get things done, without much thinking.”
My other friends also expressed pride that they could look after their babies on their own. Wawa said he looked after a baby when he was a teenager, and so when his own daughter arrived, changing her diapers and bathing her was “easy peasy.” The only difficulty was when the baby looked for her mother for breastfeeding, especially in the night.
New father Kubhaer also said he looked forward to looking after his own baby and changing his diapers, as it was a way to bond with his son and give his wife a break.
“It’s so silly that society finds this to be some kind of extraordinary achievement,” he said, adding that one of his favourite parts of fatherhood was getting his baby to laugh, and being able to put him to sleep.
Reimagining the Asian father
Another friend who declined to be named said he felt Asian fathers were no longer chained to traditional notions of masculinity, with many embracing multiple roles and happy to play masak-masak, or letting their daughters put makeup on their faces or nail polish on their fingernails. However, he also agreed that in Asia, many fathers still saw themselves as the main breadwinner, and that came with its own set of stresses.
“So the father definitely struggles with having to be committed to work, to ensure that there’s a stable income for the family, while also being conflicted about not being able to be home enough to spend time with the child and family. It’s a real issue and a constant struggle,” he said.
My other friends were more divided on the issue of fatherhood and the traditional, macho, less involved father. Wawa said he knew of fathers who only participated in the easier or ‘happy times’ of fatherhood, and left the more challenging parts of parenting to their partners.
“I think maybe it is their ego, that they still think the women should do everything and that they only provide financially. But I really feel it is their loss. You want to have a child, but you don’t want to experience all those moments with your child? What is the point?”
He said he really relished the times he spent with his daughter during the pandemic, and with busy work commitments back in the mix, he now misses those precious days.
Kubhaer said he saw Asian fathers participating in a much bigger way than they used to, but there was still an obvious disparity.
“There is still a huge gap between what mothers are expected to do, and the blue ribbons that fathers seem to get just for showing up. Asian fathers have come a long way, but much more needs to be done,” he said.
Malaysian fathers are actually very blessed, Ben said. “The support system here is so good, many people have a live-in house maid or helper, and parents and parents-in-law to help out. I honestly don’t think we can have it any better.”
Sharing the load of parenthood, together
I wonder how many modern fathers are actually not as dissimilar to their own fathers as they think they are. A good majority of fathers from previous generations left the bulk of parenting to the women, thinking that their role was mainly in bringing the money home. With the exception of some family travels, home repairs, sporty activities or events, the day-to-day rigmarole of parenthood was primarily the domain of mothers.
With many mothers now bringing in some of the income, or trying hard to supplement the family’s finances (side hustle mums, I see you), have fathers stepped up with sharing the physical and mental load of parenthood?
This cannot only be about whether a father can handle poonamis or playing rubber duckies at bath time, as wonderful as those might be. What about helping the children with homework, or keeping up with their learning? Are they as invested in their children’s nutrition, sleeping habits, potty training? What about those little mental health check-ins about their children’s friendships, interests or fears?
Most importantly, do fathers view their partners as absolute equals, and human beings who need a real break once in a while? How many husbands plan and set aside time for their wives for a weekend or holiday away from the children, saying ‘I got this’?
Perhaps, when the involvement of both parents becomes more balanced, both mothers and fathers will find the whole parenthood journey becoming easier. May we then find more opportunities to truly enjoy all that is mundane and challenging, all the little and big moments of our children’s lives.
As my friend Wawa asked, isn’t this why we wanted to have children in the first place?