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March 19, 2017

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The role of fathers in childcare comes under scrutiny

IN the traditional cultures of China and other Asian countries, fathers are regarded as breadwinners and women as child carers. But that perception is beginning to change as China’s new “two-child policy” adds pressure and responsibilities to households with two working parents.

In China, women get 128 days of paid maternity leave, but paternity leave is patchy across the nation. In Shanghai, new fathers can take 10 days of paid leave, while those in Yunnan Province enjoy 30 days.

“If we had longer paternity leave, it would be so nice to be able to spend more time with my daughter,” said Qu Kang, head of research at a financial institution and father of a 7-month-old girl. “Even though child-caring can be quite tiring at times.”

According to a 2014 report by the International Labor Organization, paternity leave of varying lengths was provided in 79 countries in 2013, with 71 offering paid leave.

In Singapore, new fathers are entitled to two weeks of paid leave, starting this year.

Sweden tops the charts when it comes to generous parental leave. In 1974, it was the first country in the world to replace maternity leave with “parental” leave, allowing up to 480 days of paid leave for both parents to share until a child is 7 years old.

European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany now offer similar paid leave that can be shared by fathers. The concept that both parents should share in caring for newborns is beginning to redefine gender roles in China.

Social media like WeChat offer platforms for parents to exchange views on the care of young children. Although popular among new mothers, the online forums are beginning to extend to fathers, though many men are reluctant to open up publicly about their feelings.

“Most Chinese dads prefer not to talk about their experiences of taking care of babies, such as changing nappies,” said Jasmine Lin, a sales account manager and mother of a 2-year-old girl.

“They feel embarrassed talking about something that is still widely viewed as a women’s realm.”

Lisette Lindahl, consul general for Sweden in Shanghai, said as her nation believes that men and women should be equal in all things, including parental care of young children.

“Many men in Sweden actually feel embarrassed if they don’t take paternity leave after a baby is born,” she said.

“I live very close to Fuxing Park, and when I walk there on weekends, I see a lot of Chinese fathers out with their children.”

Johan Aledal, the chief executive of Johan Johan, a trading company selling Swedish brands in Shanghai, has a 3-year-old son and a 2-month-old daughter.

“My male friends in Sweden who become fathers stay home for at least six months of parental leave,” Aledal said.

“It’s important to be there, to play with your child and to be a role model.”

But the question remains: Can a similar pattern of co-parenting take hold in China? The “Dads” project is trying to promote the idea.

It is inspired by the celebrated photo exhibition entitled “Swedish Dads” by freelance photographer Johan Bävman of Malmo, Sweden.

He took parental leave when his son was born and recorded his experiences as a stay-at-home dad on film.

Among the organizers of the “Dads” campaign in China are the Consulate General of Sweden in Shanghai, the Embassy of Sweden in China, and the Swedish Institute, which last week launched a photography contest entitled “Chinese Dads” as part of the project.

The initiative aims to encourage people to rethink the traditional roles of fathers and mothers in our society, according to Lindahl.

The consulate will hold a featured exhibition in early June, displaying photos by Bävman and selected entries from the “Chinese Dads” photo contest. The event will also include drama workshops, family catwalk shows and forums.

The Småland China Support Office in Shanghai, which helps companies from the region of Småland in southern Sweden do business in China, supports the “Dads” project as well.

“It offers a new vision for Chinese dads,” said Wang Zhi, chief representative of the office and father of a 5-year-old.

“It’s not easy for many fathers to stay home due to cultural traditions.”

The Swedish child-products brand BabyBjörn features a group of young fathers in its new spring catalog collection, with a marketing campaign called #dadstories involving Chinese fathers to be launched soon.

“As a sponsor of the ‘Dads’ project, we will try to encourage more Chinese fathers to take responsibility in the caring of their children,” said Tao Wenjia, senior sales and marketing manager with BabyBjörn in China.

“It’s important to create an encouraging environment here, though it will take a long time to change attitudes.”

China is not the only country where the traditional roles of mothers and fathers still persist. In Japan, most women do not return to the workforce after having children. Even in liberal Sweden, men took only 25 percent of the total allotted leave in 2014.

Perceptions change slowly, but many men welcome the opportunity to spend time with newborns.

“I feel more responsible to the family as a husband and father,” said Wayne Miao, associate account director with a media firm in Shanghai and father of a 3-month-old boy.

“I hold my son at night, change his nappies, bottle feed him and play with him. It’s a hard job, but I enjoy every little moment with him.”

Many studies show that the presence of both parents in the formative years of children is important to healthy development. But “being there” is a years-long commitment.

“I grew up thinking that ‘quality’ time was more important than ‘quantity’ of time’,” said Lindahl.

“But that’s not necessarily true. Quantity is important, too. You have to be there to pick up children from soccer practice or swimming practice. You can’t just be there when the child is small and then disappear.”

Fredrik Uddenfeldt, deputy consul-general and head of commercial affairs, culture and education at the Swedish Consulate, took six months of parental leave when his daughter was born last year. He said it was quite an experience.

“It’s all about the small decisions that you have to make every day with regard to your child,” he said.

“To be really close to your child requires gaining their trust by spending time with them. That relationship needs to be maintained throughout their childhood and later.”


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