I remember the shocked questions from my family and friends when I first told them I planned to quit my job to look after my baby son. “But what do you think of your wife becoming the breadwinner?” they asked. “Do you actually know anything about parenting? Won’t this hold you back in your career?”
Almost three years after I quit my job at a state media outlet, I’ve grown accustomed to prying questions when I tell people I’m a stay-at-home dad. Back in my hometown, the country village of Dafanghe in eastern China’s Shandong province, my mother has always said how sorry she is that she couldn’t help me take care of little Ou — my son’s nickname. “Every grandmother in the village takes care of the little ones,” she said, cursing her poor health. “It’s all my fault.”
My father, meanwhile, took a more roundabout approach. He never disapproved of my decision outright, but worried whether I would be able to return to my work unit, a job that he thought added to the family’s reputation.
My parents are proud of what I’ve achieved so far. I was the only boy from my village to attend Nankai University in the nearby northern city of Tianjin, move to Europe for further study, and eventually secure a media job in Beijing. Mom and Dad had spent most of their lives in our poor, conservative hometown, and were firm believers in the idea that a wife should stay at home to raise the kids while the husband is out working. Traditionally, men who left work to their wives were thought to be good for nothing. Quietly, my parents were disappointed that I chose to play a woman’s role.
But I had my reasons for quitting. While it’s true that Chinese grandparents commonly take an active role in raising the grandchildren, many simply aren’t able to handle the stress of child care. In my neighborhood, one grandmother once furtively complained to me that she felt mistreated by her daughter-in-law, who refused to give her warm clothes or adequate food. Relationships between mothers and grandmothers are common sources of family conflict in China.
That sort of thing would never happen in my family, but neither my parents nor my wife’s were in a position to help raise Ou. My mother is in her 60s, in poor health, illiterate, and has hardly ever left Dafanghe. My paternal grandfather is still alive, but is now in his 80s and relies on Dad to care for him. In addition, my wife’s mom and dad also suffer from health issues.
“What about a live-in nanny?” asked my boss at the time, reluctant to see me leave. “I tried more than 10, and it didn’t do my son any harm.” But I just couldn’t imagine leaving Ou alone all day with a succession of unknown women. Rather than delaying my resignation, my boss’s words merely pushed me out the door more quickly.
Today, I still insist on being a stay-at-home dad because I feel emboldened to challenge a deep-seated cultural perception. Too many Chinese — including many well-educated people — take it for granted that women should be housewives and men should bring home the bacon. When you think about it, that’s a farcical attitude. My wife loves her job and feels fulfilled by her career. Why should she, or any other mother, have to give up a promising future at work for the sake of social expectations, especially having already gone through the stress of pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding?
Of course, my experience in journalism helped, too. In a good month, I can earn more from freelancing than I ever did at the office. It is an arrangement that clearly makes sense for us as a family, and yet I still have to face down the incredulous stares of those who see my life as a kind of dereliction of duty.
Not once in the past three years have I regretted my decision to become a full-time dad. Despite the frequent exhaustion, it’s been the greatest joy of my life to watch Ou learn to talk, walk, sing, dance, and play. His reactions to the world around him are so sharply different from an adult’s: An insect, a staircase, or an empty water bottle are sources of endless interest.
Playing with Ou reminds me of the limits of my own knowledge and imagination. Children love to imitate the words and actions of adults, and I have to be constantly on my guard. A few weeks back, my son overheard my wife and me complaining about a driver we had booked through a ride-hailing app who couldn’t find our apartment. After we finally sat down in the car, Ou fixed his gaze forward, grabbed the back of the driver’s seat with his little hands, and asked sternly: “Now, why did that take you so long?” Embarrassed, the driver murmured something about a faulty GPS while we made mortified apologies.
Of course, being a stay-at-home parent is a constant test. About a year after Ou was born, he fell off the bed while I was momentarily distracted. A few months later, we had to rush to the hospital in the middle of the night after he slipped off a sofa and smashed through a glass console. He was fine, but the unrelenting attention that caring for a child demands takes a physical and mental toll — one that comparatively few fathers in China appreciate, not having experienced it themselves.
While more socially conservative people have been perplexed by my decision, other parents have supported me. A former colleague of mine, a mother herself, came to tell me personally how much she admired me for staying at home. Whenever I share photos of Ou on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous social media platform, my acquaintances will post comments like “Super Daddy” underneath, and the photos themselves will invite a tsunami of likes.
I am anything but super, of course, but I am glad to be different. I hope my choices now will give my son the courage to be different, too, when he grows up. Just as importantly, I hope more young fathers will stand up to the outdated, misogynistic enforcement of traditional gender roles and embrace the joy of being stay-at-home dads.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: VCG)