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Tue, Jun 01, 2010
The Straits Times
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Home is where my heart is
by Andy Chen

I suffered a serious case of the green eyes two weeks ago.

Although far from being unmaterialistic, I had seldom envied anyone for anything until I met an old friend, a stay-at-home father of nine years.

I toy with the idea of quitting my job after every weekend I spend with my daughters, Faith and Sarah, and especially after every extended period of leave from work.

Okay, I think about it a lot more often than that - I flirt with the thought twice a day, when I leave for work (tearing myself from Faith's chubby-armed embrace) and when I return home (sweeping her into my arms).

Sarah, just three months old, is too delicate for such vigorous physical expressions of love.

Which means I am pretty much asking myself these two questions all the time: Can I afford to be a full-time dad and will my potential employers (that is, my wife and daughters) sign me on?

The second question is quickly answered with a snort from my wife killing my hopes more efficiently than a letter that begins 'We're sorry to inform you that...'.

She harbours no illusions - I cannot hack it.

Like a badly remixed dance single on a loop, I coo every night to her after showering and tucking Faith into bed: 'Faith's so sweet, right? I missed her so much today while I was at work.'

The Wife's snappy retort: 'You don't see what happens the rest of the day.'

I don't know which would sadden me more - if I turned out to be an incompetent, short-fused full-time father who frustrated his daughters, or not having the chance to find that out for myself, since I probably cannot afford to quit my job to stay home.

In Germany, there is a new allowance which pays a stay-at-home parent 67 per cent of his income for the first year after a couple's child is born, with a cap of US$2,300 (S$3,230) a month. Possibly because of this, one in five fathers now looks after the children at home.

Alas, I live in Singapore and so I hover daily in a mild melancholia over missing my daughters, having to content myself with parenting on the margins, like so many other young working adults with children.

Every night I return home to try and piece together Faith's daily development through anecdotes of her latest precocious little tantrums that make me smile through my anger, colourful doodles that seem a little more coherent each day, a more elaborate configuration of Lego blocks left over from playtime and so on.

It is like my personal CSI, or Childcare Scene Investigation, as I would like to think of it.

When Faith does or says something that comes across as most unexpected to me, I attempt to trace the milestones that led up to it: Was it a TV show or a song she enjoyed? What does that tell me about her passions, even at this young age of three?

Feeling a distinct twinge of regret at having these gaping holes in my knowledge of her life, I thirst to hear from anyone - my wife who is currently on maternity leave, my mother-in-law, our domestic helper - who would tell me about Faith.

Recently at a parents-teachers meeting, it was her pre-nursery school teacher who told my wife and me how she showed willingness to wait her turn to play with toys and how she did not demonstrate negative behaviour such as snatching things away from other children.

With every check I made in my mental scrapbook for Faith, my heart beat a little faster with joy. More notes, fewer holes in my understanding of Faith.

One hour before work and another after is way too little to spend with my daughters. To make myself feel better about the dire situation, I often interrogate other working parents about how much time they spend with their children, hoping of course to hear that I am already doing better than most.

There are those whose work requires frequent overseas visits or even postings. Smugly, and with a smidgen of self-righteousness I am immediately ashamed of, I shake my head to my wife at these parents who would continue in these jobs rather than quit and look for another.

Of course, I am being harsh and I know it. But I am overcompensating to alleviate my own guilt.

Then there are the stories I hear of incredibly busy parents whose children have grown up to be well-behaved, level-headed and, most importantly, very close to them. These inspire me to get through a week of missing Faith and Sarah with less working blues.

Perhaps you are thinking I am beating myself up over nothing. In which case you could be right. I might be closer to Faith than I think.

Last Sunday, after I spent almost the entire day with her, my wife, who had been looking after Sarah, offered to shower her and tuck her into bed.

Faith's reply? 'I want Papa. You can bathe me when Papa is working.'

I couldn't stop grinning the rest of the night.


This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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