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2022-03-03 09:30:46

He Jun still finds it awkward when people ask him what he does for work. After he answers, their first reaction is usually to assume he must be rich. Then, when they realize that’s not the case, the mood shifts.

“They say they admire me, but I think they start to look at me differently,” He tells Sixth Tone. “After all, society doesn’t approve of it — it’s not worth it for a man.”

The 40-year-old is one of a small, but growing number of Chinese men doing something once considered unthinkable: quitting their jobs and reinventing themselves as full-time dads.

People say they admire me, but I think they start to look at me differently when they find out.

Each morning, He gets his son ready for kindergarten while his wife heads to her office job in central Beijing. Once he’s dropped his kid off for class, he spends the day in the apartment by himself, doing housework and updating his blog, which he has titled “An Anxious Full-Time Dad.”

It’s a lifestyle that was almost unheard of in China until relatively recently. Traditional Chinese society was highly patriarchal, with men dominating all forms of public life. Even today, many families adhere to the Chinese maxim: “males rule the outside; females rule the inside.”

But attitudes are slowly starting to shift. Though China still has a large gender pay gap, more women are climbing the corporate ladder and earning higher salaries than their partners. And they’re increasingly asking why they should be the ones who sacrifice their careers after becoming parents.

Young Chinese men, meanwhile, are warming to the idea of becoming modern, hands-on dads. In a 2019 survey of young married couples by China Youth Daily, over 50% of the male respondents said they supported the idea of becoming a full-time father.

“Today’s Chinese fathers are more willing than the previous generation to be involved in caring for and establishing a closer emotional relationship with their children,” says Li Xuan, assistant professor of psychology at New York University Shanghai.

The Chinese government is actively encouraging the trend, as it seeks to ease the burden on young mothers. Chinese women currently spend over two and a half hours per day on domestic labor, twice as much as men, according to a 2020 government survey.

This huge disparity is a major reason why record numbers of Chinese women are choosing not to get married or have children. In 2020, only 8.1 million Chinese couples tied the knot — a 40% decline since 2013 — and the country recorded its lowest birth rate in four decades.

Last year, China passed several measures to make it easier for women to start a family, including regulations introducing shared parental leave. Legal experts said the policy was designed to send a message to the public: childcare is now the responsibility of both parents, not just the mother.

Yet centuries-old cultural norms die hard. Chinese men still face strong social pressure to become a traditional father figure: acting as the family’s main breadwinner and letting their wives take charge of raising the kids. Choosing to reject that role isn’t easy — as He has discovered.

E+/VCG

E+/VCG

China’s ‘kept men’

He and his wife met while they were in college during the 2000s. After graduating, they both found office jobs in Beijing, and got married in 2010. They started a family six years later.

The couple hadn’t originally planned for He to become a stay-at-home dad. After the birth, the new father took leave from work mainly to take care of his wife, who was struggling to recover from a difficult cesarean section.

Four months later, when the pair were both due to return to the office, they began discussing how they’d handle childcare in the future. For most Chinese couples, that means either a parent or grandparent becoming a full-time child-minder: the country’s work culture is intense, and good daycare centers are extremely expensive.

As He’s wife earned a far higher salary in her job at a large company, it quickly became obvious that her career should take priority. He agreed to quit his job and stay at home with his son.

“There were no arguments between us during this process,” He recalls. “It just happened naturally.”

But the couple’s families have been less understanding. He’s parents, who are from a remote village in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, had been delighted when their son was selected to study at Beijing’s prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Most people still think that people will only value you if you make money.

Now, He feels certain his parents are disappointed in him for giving up his career, though they haven’t said anything to his face. His parents-in-law don’t approve of his decision, either.

“Most people still think that people will only value you if you make money,” he says.

This way of thinking remains widespread. Last year, the question “would you like to be a full-time father?” began trending on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social platform, receiving over 170 million views. The answer from many netizens was a resounding no.

Many users said that both genders would be judged and criticized for breaking with tradition. Stay-at-home dads are often derided as “kept men” who are “incapable of supporting their families” in China, while their working wives are stereotyped as “domineering and uncaring.”

Even female users tended to be against the idea. Though many Chinese mothers say they feel like “widows” — as they effectively have to raise their children by themselves — many commenters said they wouldn’t want their husbands to become stay-at-home parents. “It generates status inequality,” one wrote. “He might have more time to cheat on me,” another added.

The only full-time dads who avoid this stigma are the wealthy ones, He says. He has a couple of friends in this situation: one quit work after making a fortune on the stock market, while the other owns several expensive properties in Beijing.

“Of course, those fathers can just stay at home all day,” he says.

Most full-time dads, however, are like him, He says. They aren’t from well-off families, they don’t have grandparents nearby to help with childcare, and they made less money than their wives. “I had no choice but to be a full-time father,” he says.

A father kisses his newborn child at a hospital in Xiangyang, Hubei province, 2016. Gong Bo/VCG

A father kisses his newborn child at a hospital in Xiangyang, Hubei province, 2016. Gong Bo/VCG

Taking control

But Chen, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad, insists that society is changing quickly. After Chen married his Shanghainese wife, a writer, in 2012, the couple made a deal: Whoever was making more money when they had kids would continue with their career, and the other would take on the childcare duties.

Chen lost the bet. His wife, surnamed Mao, wrote a string of hit romance novels and made a lot of money. It took awhile, but Chen eventually honored the agreement and resigned from his job in 2018, when their son was 5 years old. The couple’s second child, a daughter, was born two and a half years later.

“Because my wife bears the burden of maintaining the family’s finances, I try to make time for her so that she can concentrate on her work,” says Chen, who gave only his surname for privacy reasons.

From the beginning, the couple took pains to treat Chen’s new role as a serious job. In a book she later wrote about the experience — titled “Full-Time Dads” — Mao describes “hiring” Chen and agreeing to pay him a fixed salary of 20,000 yuan ($3,200) a month.

Chen embraced this approach. As a salesperson, he’d been on the road a lot and sometimes only saw his children once a month. He felt his lack of engagement as a parent was harming his kids’ development; fixing this problem became his new project.

His first big decision was to move house. Up to that point, the family had been living with Mao’s parents, so they could assist with childcare. But Chen felt it was important to put some distance between his kids and their grandparents. While grandparents often provide “massive and necessary” help to new parents in China, they often have different ideas about how to raise children, Chen says.

Most fathers can’t do this because of the realities of work and life.

“Grandparents are mainly concerned about food and clothing,” he says. “They often ignore the development of children’s personalities and behavior, so it’s necessary for parents to take care of children personally.”

In her book, Mao describes the couple’s “role-reversal experiment” as a success that brought their family closer together. Chen agrees. The negative stereotypes of stay-at-home dads — which he finds “incomprehensible” — mainly come from China’s older generations, he says. Most of his friends and former colleagues envy him, he adds.

“This may be what they want to do as well — be with their children and play with them every day,” says Chen. “But most fathers can’t achieve it because of the realities of work and life.”

A full-time father plays with his daughter at home, 2017. IC

A full-time father plays with his daughter at home, 2017. IC

A new kind of family

For Chinese parents, it remains extremely difficult to balance work and family. Remote work or part-time jobs are still rare. Those who want to be there for their kids are often forced to give up work completely, but that requires painful sacrifices.

The government is attempting to address this by promoting shared parental leave. Most Chinese regions, however, currently only guarantee new parents five to 15 paid days off per year. And some employers are reluctant even to offer that.

“Many laws are on paper, but aren’t well enforced in real life,” says Li, the NYU Shanghai researcher.

But when employers do offer generous leave policies, they prove hugely popular. Last year, the Swedish auto brand Volvo began offering 120 working days of paid leave to all its Chinese employees with children under 3 years old. Many new fathers jumped at the opportunity, including Dai Jian.

“We had an internal meeting on this policy, and many male colleagues went, and everyone looked so positive,” says Dai, who works as an automotive engineer at Volvo. “Many of them have put having a second or third child on their agenda because of it.”

The 33-year-old spent six months at home with his son in Shanghai. He says the experience was mainly “exhausting,” but he feels fortunate to have had it. 

“Compared with most fathers, I’m lucky to be able to spend the first six months with my son,” says Dai. “This time is very valuable. If you don’t have it, you just have to miss it.”

Dai feels that the parental leave brought him not only closer to his son, but also his wife. The couple had never spent every second together for such a long period before, he says.

“Putting our baby to sleep is our biggest difficulty at present,” he says. “When we face it together, we feel like we’re comrades-in-arms.”

The couple have now both returned to work, and are looking for a nanny to take care of the child. Dai’s father-in-law has moved to Shanghai from his hometown in central China’s Henan province to assist and supervise the nanny. Dai says he wishes he could quit his job and continue looking after his son himself, but the couple simply can’t afford to live on just one salary.

“If I didn’t have to worry about money, I’d like to be a stay-at-home dad,” he says. “I’ve been very happy being with my son, and I want to be more involved in his life as he grows.”

But being a full-time dad brings its own challenges. After five years at home with his son, He says he’s stuck in a rut. He feels he should be contributing more financially, and his moods are up and down. Sometimes he thinks about going back to work, but worries he’s much less employable now.

“It’s not realistic to go work at a big company, while small companies don’t pay enough,” he says.

And as his son gets older, He finds parenting harder and harder. He struggles to find the right balance between being too strict and spoiling his son, he says.

“Especially when I think that there’ll be a rebellious adolescence in the future…” he says, his voice drifting off. “Being a parent is really not easy,” he adds.

The past few years have made He realize how difficult life is for China’s mothers. Though it’s hard to be a dad, society is “very tolerant” toward full-time fathers, he says. Even if he didn’t wash his son’s clothes for several days, no one would blame him. “But if a mother doesn’t do the laundry, she’ll definitely be regarded as incompetent,” says He.

Chen echoes this point. No matter what a full-time dad does, people will praise his “admirable courage” and say he’s taken a “big and very difficult” step, he says.

“It’s really unfair to women,” Chen says. “Perhaps slowly, as dads do more, this injustice toward women in society will change.”

BJI/VCG

BJI/VCG

‘Strong and serious’

For Tang Min, a 32-year-old father who lives in Beijing, the rising number of stay-at-home dads may also have another important effect: provide China’s next generation of children with a new kind of male role model.

Like many Chinese fathers, Tang initially had little involvement in parenting his young son. After the child was born, he was surrounded by an army of nannies and grandparents. When Tang tried to help, he often felt like he was just getting in the way.

“Before my son was 2 years old, there was no participation from me,” says Tang. “Even when I was with him at home, he hardly knew me.”

But when his son became a toddler, Tang started to notice that he was “too timid.” He felt he needed a different kind of parenting style, so the father decided to quit his advertising job and become a full-time dad.

“My mom had been his main caregiver and had overprotected him,” says Tang. “I took him out to play, but he wouldn’t dare try anything new.”

It took Tang a while to adjust to his new role as caregiver. Initially, he became frustrated, feeling like his male friends were all progressing in their careers while he was at home washing cups and scrubbing the toilet. He often argued with his wife.

“I felt like I’d sacrificed myself and was in a low mood,” recalls Tang. But then, he realized something important: “When you use the word ‘sacrifice,’ it means … you think your career is more important than your family.”

The advertisements we see are telling us that only men in suits driving luxury cars can be considered successful.

This experience made Tang think about how deeply society is still influenced by traditional patriarchal values. His parents still believe that, as a man, he should be focusing on his career, he says.

“The advertisements we see are telling us that only men in suits driving luxury cars can be considered successful,” he says. “There aren’t any full-time fathers presented in a glamorous way.”

As a child, Tang remembers watching the American sitcom “Growing Pains” with his father. Although his dad enjoyed the show, he was never comfortable being vulnerable like the main character, Tang says.

“Sometimes when he had a good time with me, he would suddenly realize that — as a man and a father — he should change his attitude quickly and keep his dignity,” Tang recalls.

Men in Chinese culture are still often presented as “very strong and serious, with a low voice,” says Tang. But he feels this kind of role model can be harmful for Chinese men and their families.

“For example, men often lose their temper when they’re stressed and in a bad mood,” he says. “Even if they don’t lose their temper, their face looks gloomy, and it causes pressure at home.”

Sometimes, Tang catches himself displaying the same characteristics. But he’s determined to change for his son’s sake. He wants his child to grow up with a dad who feels like a friend, rather than an authority figure.

“I don’t want distance between me and my son,” says Tang. “I hope to create a kind of brotherhood with him.”

He, the father from Beijing, feels the same way. When they’re out in public, his son will sometimes start doing a funny dance he learned at kindergarten, waving his limbs around wildly. He’ll join in without hesitation.

“As long as he’s happy, it’s all good,” He says.

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Visual elements from nadia bormotova/iStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)