A few weeks ago, I celebrated my seventh wedding anniversary.
While we could still go out for a meal this time last year to celebrate the occasion, there were no dine-ins allowed this year due to Phase Two (Heightened Alert) restrictions. But that is the least of our worries as husband and wife.
Like any average couple, we have our fair share of marital problems and disagreements. And although our seven-year marriage is nothing near significant as a silver or golden anniversary, I relish the fact that I’m not one of those women who feel less satisfied with their marriages after the circuit breaker.
Women less satisfied with their marriages after circuit breaker
In that study, Dr Tan Poh Lin, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and her co-authors from Yale University conducted a study that examined the roles men and women played in terms of childcare and housework during the pandemic last year.
The study also looked at the difference in the time men and women spent on such tasks.
It found that the mothers’ marital and life satisfaction fell significantly during and after the circuit breaker, from April 7 to June 1 last year, when all non-essential activities ground to a halt and many Singaporeans worked from home.
Before the pandemic, the mothers’ average satisfaction score was 3.9 on a five-point scale, with five being very satisfied. It fell to 3.6 during and after the circuit breaker.
Dr Tan said one reason for the slide could be that the women had to shoulder more housework.
But conflicts arising from work-from-home arrangements and tensions resulting from the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic could have also contributed to the fall in satisfaction.
The gender gap in terms of housework rose during the circuit breaker and persisted for all families, regardless of their income, the authors said.
However, there were also a couple of interesting points to note: One, for families where at least one spouse earns $4,000 or more, the gender gap on childcare actually narrowed during and after the circuit breaker. And two, the authors admitted that due to survey constraints, they did not get to interview the men and that the information on how they spent their time and other variables were obtained from their wives.
We are used to hearing about the pressures of women trying to break gender stereotypes at the workplace. But it doesn’t only apply there. Women tend to be subjected to gender stereotypes at home too. Women are often expected to clean, cook and take care of children in their marriage.
AWARE Singapore, which champions women’s rights and gender equality, believes that it is essential to negate these entrenched traditional gender roles. AWARE suggests that there should be equal parental leave for mums and dads, legislation for the right to request flexible work arrangements and the introduction of an anti-discrimination law that will prevent discrimination on the grounds of care responsibilities.
We can only wait to see what insights the governmental White Paper on women’s issues and gender equality will tell us when it is released in the second half of the year.
Gender role stereotypes cut both ways
When I read the NUS study, I empathised with those women that felt dissatisfied with their roles at home.
For a couple of years after we had our second child, my husband was busy most evenings and weekends, leaving me alone to tend to my one-year-old and a newborn, not to mention the household chores, while he was working as a private-hire driver.
In those tired, stressful moments, resentful of the situation, I would forget that his hard work and long hours on the road helped our family live a comfortable life. I certainly wouldn’t be any happier if the roles were reversed in that situation.
As sociologist Tan Ern Ser explained: “In this whole debate on housework, we need to consider a range of factors and not just who is doing more or less. Couples do need to make rational decisions on how best to respond to their family circumstances. The outcome may look unequal, but it could be the decisions of an egalitarian couple.”
In other words, don’t be too quick to judge.
Maybe what women like me need is to feel seen and appreciated for our effort, instead of having these roles plonked on us as an obligation.
And appreciation goes both ways too. While it is not my intention to diminish the genuine challenges women face, we should also not undermine the roles men play at home.
My husband is one such example.
After becoming a real estate agent, he still works on evenings and weekends; however, he has also been doing most household chores at home. My husband has been my rock during this pandemic, doing everything from cleaning toilets to doing the laundry to picking the kids up from school.
But nobody outside our household sees what he does.
Gender roles may not necessarily be about equality but rather equity. As men or women, we have to accept that in whatever role we play, there are existing societal and gender expectations that can be highly stressful. Shouldn’t we then be more empathetic to each other?
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Speaking to Channel News Asia, Mrs Constance Singam, former president of AWARE and long-time gender equality advocate, said: “When we’re talking about fundamental values, we really have to go to the roots of patriarchal values, which is our daily living, social culture… We’re talking about how control and power are imposed through a hierarchical level — the father to the household, to the mother, mother to children and so on.”
Traditional gender roles may have been rooted in our parents and grandparents’ era, but it is up to our generation to change the narrative. We can do so by teaching our sons and daughters to help one another and to give them equal responsibility for household chores.
I recently came across a post on Facebook which illustrates what an ideal situation might be: Acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of a couple as a collective whole, instead of forcing traditional gender roles on men and women. #makethenorm
Make Father’s Day as meaningful as Mother’s Day
But just as we take care to be fair to women, let’s remember to appreciate men too. One good illustration about how we sometimes tend to take men (and dads!) for granted is to compare Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.
For mums, we go all out with cakes, balloons, flowers and gifts. With dads, we would be lucky to remember the occasion, let alone buy him a pair of socks to mark the date.
There are sacrifices that some men make that we don’t always see or recognise. Even though mothers are the ones who gave birth to us, some dads can be as good (or even better) caregivers as mums.
The stigma surrounding stay-at-home fathers should change, and men are as much responsible as women in bringing up their children and taking care of the family.
It’s okay if a man prefers to be a stay-home dad.
It’s okay if a man earns less than his wife.
It’s okay if a woman prefers to go to work rather than stay at home.
As long as husband and wife are happy with their household arrangements, who are we to judge?
In honour of Father’s Day, I thank my dear husband for the sacrifices he has made for our little family. Thank you for the example you set and for your leadership in our family. Our family is so lucky to have you.