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Fatherhood in Asia
Fatherhood in Asia

Fathers all over Asia share a sense of guilt over their inability to balance work and parenthood. Dr. Sanjay Chugh, a New Delhi psychiatrist, says these harried, overburdened men stream through his consulting rooms: “Indian fathers have less and less time to spend with their children. When stress goes up for a father, it affects not only the quantity of time he spends with his children but the quality.” Some, like a 35-year-old human-resources manager in Tokyo, who asked not to be named, blame unsympathetic employers. “At my old workplace, most of the people in my department didn’t have children,” he says. “I don’t think they understood the importance. I was unable to take any holidays after the birth of my son.” Others point to the old Asian culture of networking, in which deals are done over endless cups of sake and soju. “I really thought I’d be the kind of father who spends a lot of time with his kids,” sighs Ahn Chan, an office worker in Seoul. But, come evening, he feels obliged to drink with colleagues and clients, and hardly sees his 4-year-old. “Sometimes when we run into each other, she looks very sad and starts demanding that I stay at home,” he says.

Every day, pleading overwork, millions of men cancel millions of promises made to millions of children. Dads cannot read bedtime stories or go to the park. Dads are in their offices, or on the road, or on conference calls. The effects of this physical or emotional absenteeism are actually quantifiable: numerous academic studies have shown that children with distant fathers score lower on tests of empathy, reasoning and brain development than those whose fathers are more involved. The former behave more aggressively, don’t get on as well with siblings, tend to be less popular in school and are more reluctant to take responsibility for their misbehavior. In 2002, the U.S. National Center for Policy Analysis concluded that kids with physically absent fathers were up to three times more likely to use drugs and engage in criminal behavior. Last month, an Israeli study reported that children with absent fathers were more likely to have trouble forming new relationships, whether the absences were permanent or shorter term. When children reach school age, Australian psychologist Paul Amato found, fathers are even more important to self-esteem than mothers.

Not surprisingly, the more involved the father, the smarter and better adjusted kids tend to turn out. A 1993 Harvard study showed that the amount of time a father spends with his children can actually affect their ability at math, and that children whose fathers encourage them in sports are more successful in their adult careers. Other researchers have found that children who were fathered well are more tolerant and socially responsible as adults. Precisely the same behavior is shown in the animal world: as part of his PowerPoint presentation, Wong Suen Kwong tells the story of how orphaned young male elephants in a South African game reserve began killing rhinos and threatening vehicles. When older bulls were introduced to the park, he says, the killings and delinquency stopped.

Fifty years ago, parenting was so much simpler for Asian men. As the sole breadwinner, a dad’s responsibilities typically ceased the moment he crossed the threshold of his home and flopped into his favorite chair, while mom dealt with the dinner and the children. “The father in the previous generation was more aloof, removed from the family and emotionally more detached,” says Daniel Wong, a University of Hong Kong professor of social welfare and author of a 2003 study on the stresses faced by dads. Says Benjamin Naden, a client manager at Microsoft in Singapore who sometimes snatches an hour or two from work to watch his kids in sports events: “We understood that our father was the breadwinner and had to work, but kids today have different expectations. They require more of your time.”

Yet many fathers find there’s less of it to give. Asian men are becoming fathers later in life, when they tend to have less time for their children. “Career responsibilities increase with age,” says Raphael Chan, a director of a fast-food chain in Singapore who became a first-time father at age 41. “But this was the point at which I had a child, and it was hard.” Multitasking and an accelerated workflow present other challenges for the single-task-oriented male brain. And technological advances—from vibrating Blackberries to the addictive allure of high-speed Internet access at home—have made it all the harder to detach from work. Finally, when you consider the retrenchments and economic wipeouts that have set the temper of their working lives over the past decade—the financial crisis of 1997, the dotcom implosion of 2000, the downturn in the wake of SARS in 2003—it’s easy to see why Asian men have prioritized work. “Since 1997, it’s not been possible to get a bonus,” says Wong, the Hong Kong buyer and father of four. Spurred by the fear that their incomes will dry up or their jobs will be cut, many men work longer hours in a bid to prove their indispensability.

But unlike their fathers, Asian men today face an epoch-shifting change: the entry of women into the workforce. Having two incomes has brought economic benefits to countless families, and given women rich opportunities for fulfillment, but it has left men scrambling to become the fully fledged co-parents their wives now need them to be. In fact, many men are experiencing, for the first time, the conflicting pulls of career and home that have long bedeviled working women. These overstretched fathers are still getting used to the idea that they’re no longer excused from taking on a wider family role. Increasingly, they are “sharing more housework with their spouses, such as buying groceries, picking up the kids from school, changing diapers and feeding the babies,” says Zhang Liang, a researcher on fatherhood at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Chan, the fast-food executive, is one of the legion of fathers who has had to adapt accordingly. “My wife picks our son up from playschool and brings him to her workplace, and cooks him something to eat in the pantry there,” he says. “I come and pick them up a couple of hours later and bring them home at around 9 p.m.”

And it isn’t just chauffeuring that’s required. Fathers need to stimulate their children intellectually and emotionally just as much as mothers do, whether that means helping with homework or listening to a child’s problems. In cultural terms, this is a seismic shift. Bear in mind that half a century ago, as men moved from villages to cities—or overseas—to find work, they had very little contact with their sons. Those sons, with educations paid for by their fathers’ remittances, were able to advance up the socioeconomic ladder. But the jobs they took—many of them white-collar jobs at the heart of the Asian economic boom—robbed them of a family life, too. Today, their sons—the third generation and the present crop of fathers—are the product of two previous generations of absent dads. “The pattern of fatherlessness can be passed down,” says Wong Suen Kwong, who says he started the Centre for Fathering because he was having trouble relating to his teenage daughters.

“The number of men who want to balance work and home is increasing,” says Emiko Takeishi, a human-resources expert at Tokyo’s Hosei University, “but when you take a look at figures on long working hours, or the take-up of paid leave, they’re worse than before.” A recent survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office found that while 70% of fathers wanted to balance home and career, 23% had little or no time to spend with their children on weekdays. Some are even reluctant to take time off for the birth of their kids. In South Korea, civil servants are permitted three days’ paternity leave, but the figures suggest that men either don’t want it or feel pressured not to take it. In 2005, just 208 fathers in the civil service used their entitlement, compared with 10,492 women who took maternity leave.

If there’s one person who can convince men to spend more time with their families, it’s not necessarily a child or a wife. It’s a boss who leads by example. Studies show that when CEOs and department heads try to balance their own lives, instead of merely urging subordinates to do so, then everyone benefits. “In our research we have found that any change in attitude works best when the tone at the top stipulates what the corporate culture will be,” says Karen Sumberg of the Center for Work-Life Policy in the U.S. “If taking time to go see your child play soccer is O.K., and you see that the man or woman at the top does the same thing, then the culture will start to shift in that direction.”

Cheerfully dealing with myriad commitments, being smart about your time, and accepting that being a parent means being responsible for both the material and emotional welfare of your children: this is the new way of Asian fatherhood. Gentlemen, does it remind you of anyone? But of course. “Women are doing it,” says Masahiro Endo, a 33-year-old father of two and a gas-station owner in Japan’s Niigata prefecture, “So why can’t we?”