In retrospect, I can’t believe how casually I promised to turn my life upside down.
Six months ago, my wife and I moved to Singapore for her work.
We’d spend a full year in the little red dot, and she would be busy. So I blithely said I would take over the care of our almost two-year-old son, Tobias.
I would join the brotherhood of stay-at-home dads, a mysterious fraternity praised by both mums and sociologists, but whose membership remains stubbornly small.
This would be a sharp break from my old life.
There was a yawning gap
I’d always thought of myself as an “involved” father but the reality was that I — like many new dads — had actually spent remarkably little time with my child.
Sure, I had taken four weeks off to help care for Tobi when he was born. I’d tried hard to do my fair share around the home. And I love our son more than life itself.
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But when I actually examined the hard numbers, I realised just how much my wife’s commitment to Tobi — in time, energy and opportunities forgone — dwarfed my own.
She had taken a full year off work, devoted countless hours to breastfeeding, and spent day after day after day buried in the mind-numbing chores which dominate life as a new parent.
In contrast — and this has come into sharp focus for me only now — I had put more time and energy into my job than our small, fledgling family. When I went back to work, my wife was left holding the baby.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this of course. But there was a yawning gap between how I conceptualised our marriage — “modern, equitable, progressive!” — and the reality.
As soon as Tobi was born, economic logic and the force of habit ensured our family quickly reverted to time-honoured convention. Father: breadwinner, mother: carer.
All of a sudden, I became noticeable
In Singapore, this would change. It was my turn to be a full-time, stay-at-home parent.
And one of the strangest things was just how noticeable this suddenly made me.
Whether I was visiting a teeming wet market, a spotless train station or one of Singapore’s vast, anonymous malls, I was suddenly an object of mild fascination.
Everyone had questions when they saw me wheeling Tobi around in a pram. Everyone.
Young mothers gathering around apartment complex pools, ageing hawker market “aunties”, impeccably groomed baristas serving $9 lattes, exhausted grandparents shepherding screaming toddlers around local playgrounds; all the people who made up the daily fabric of my suburban Singaporean existence had questions. And they quickly took on a familiar ring.
“Where is Mummy? Is Daddy in charge today? Special Daddy day?! So cute! Where is helper?”
Some people were admiring, some were charmed, most were bemused.
A few were contemptuous.
Doubts and anxieties gnawed at me
There was a small coterie of Indonesian nannies who would hang out near the entrance to our apartment building. Every time I pushed Tobi past them, they would start to giggle and whisper.
Anxiety started to gnaw at me. What were they laughing at? My shorts? My sensible hat? Or was the sight of a heavily sweating 30-something white expat determinedly pushing a toddler around in the absurd heat of a Singapore morning just inherently hilarious?
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Worse was to come. A well-informed source deep in our condominium’s nanny-helper complex casually told me the Indonesian coterie found me so entertaining that they had come up with a nickname for me.
Dread immediately seized me. “What is it?!” I asked my source. She didn’t know.
“Do you think it’s a nice nickname at least?!” I asked her, a little desperately. She looked doubtful.
My source later did a bit of sleuthing, and said the nannies were laughing at me because they thought I was a bit pathetic.
Why was I at home when I could be out earning a proper salary? Why was I allowing my wife to prop me up financially while I looked after a toddler?
I felt like I had good answers to both these questions, but they still gnawed at me, largely because they were exactly the same doubts and anxieties which had been echoing around my brain ever since I stopped working.
I love praise, but this time I winced
Still, I was confident enough about my choice to eventually shrug off the mockery. In a strange way, it was actually more difficult to deal with the adulation I occasionally received.
This often happened when I meandered down to our local hawker centre, providing stall owners with a chance to run an admiring hand through Tobi’s curly golden locks and me a chance to drink an iced coffee in momentary peace.
The reality of being a stay-at-home dad
For much of the past year, I’ve looked after my toddler, Charlotte, and her three-year old brother Jack. I like to think of myself not as a stay-at-home dad, but a “professional dad”.
One day, the elderly lady who runs the coffee stand asked me why she only ever saw Tobi and me at the market.
“Where Mummy?!” she asked jovially, while rummaging underneath the counter to find yet another packet of sweet biscuits to give Tobi.
When I explained that I was spending the best part of a year looking after our son, she immediately teared up and took my arm in a surprisingly vice-like grip.
She told me what I was doing was wonderful, and I was a good father, and a good man — a very, very good man — for taking on this responsibility.
“This never happens in Singapore. Not many babies now anyway, and anyway, only mummy at home! But now your boy loves Daddy!”
I normally love praise (who doesn’t), but this time I winced.
Just because it’s a rare choice doesn’t make it heroic
It’s true, I’m a rare creature in Singapore.
Last year, about 1,220 Singaporean men told the Government they were not working because they were taking care of their young children.
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That’s a tiny sliver of people, given Singapore has 4 million citizens and permanent residents.
Australia is doing better, but the numbers are still small — in 2016 the Federal Government estimated there were 75,000 stay-at-home fathers nationwide. And that figure has barely shifted since 2001.
But just because it’s a rare choice doesn’t make it a heroic one.
Even after spending six months as a stay-at-home dad, I had still put much less time and energy than my wife into raising our son.
So when I was hit with a tsunami of praise about how I was a model of selfless contemporary masculinity, a little part of me still shrank awkwardly from the deluge while I suppressed the urge to plaintively ask: “Is the bar really that low?”
The adulation also implied that becoming a stay-at-home dad was a thankless chore, a sacrifice made, a burden to be borne. But in reality it was utterly transformative and deeply rewarding.
There were moments that took my breath away
Sure, it was monotonous at times. Sure, it could be both tiring and relentless. Sure, there were days when I felt like my brain was slowly atrophying.
You can only play Triceratops chases the balloon so many times before madness begins to take you in its grip.
But I don’t regret it for a heartbeat. I remember taking Tobi to a playground one steamy afternoon last year.
I watched my son laugh with pure glee after he finally gathered enough courage to throw himself down a huge slippery dip, then watched that glee turned to joy when he catapulted off the end of the slide and safely into my arms. I caught him, just like I’d promised.
It’s a terrible cliché, but occasionally fatherhood gives you moments of such pure and distilled happiness that they take your breath away.
And becoming a stay-at-home dad not only gave me more of those moments that would otherwise be lost, it also drew Tobi and me closer together.
After spending day after day with my son, I began to feel the full burden of parenthood, but also its limitless capacity to enlarge your heart.
And I probably didn’t need to move to Singapore to discover that.
Stephen Dziedzic is an ABC journalist, currently living in Singapore.