Highs and lows of stay-at-home fathers in Korea

Highs and lows of stay-at-home fathers in Korea

It put an end to daily quarrels. After months of an agonizing search for an alternative, a 38-year-old father of 1-year-old twins made an "unthinkable" decision to become a stay-at-home dad for the next year.

Lee Dong-hoon joined the pioneering 4.4 per cent of fathers in the country that spurned conventional thinking and took a leave of absence.

The day he became the "mom," he saw his wife ― who felt guilty about leaving her children behind, but excited to get back to "real world" ― return to work after a yearlong spell of maternity leave.

As he turned around, two sets of twinkling eyes stared back at him, as if to say, "So what can you do for us?"

A month has passed, and he is sure he is now quite good at it. Sometimes better than his wife.

Jeong Min-seong, a father on paternity leave since last June for his 19-month-old son, also says he is quite confident now, as he feeds his boy, bathes him, takes him to day care, and does pretty much what all mothers do.

"Although I've got the hang of it now, I do worry whether I fail to give him the delicate care that his mom could provide."

What helped him was a gathering of other fathers on paternity leave. "Although we have nothing else in common, sharing tips helped prevent the so-called 'child care solitude,'" he said.

For Lee, the day goes by unbelievably quickly, yet ironically slowly. Half the time he is feeding and cleaning after babies with astonishingly large stomachs and clumsy fingers. Sometimes the children's grandmother or the aunt stops by, which he says is like finding an oasis at a desert.

"I won't say it's not hard. But I also cannot say which is harder, going to work or taking care of the babies. ... It's a different kind of hard," he said.

What was more difficult was the process of making the decision to switch roles.

His friends told him he must be crazy, while his parents and in-laws remained in fraught silence.

It meant he was putting an abrupt halt to his 11-year-long career, a frightful scenario for the older generation.

The decision, however, was inevitable. "The only other option was to have the kids stay at the day care centre for 12 straight hours every day, which still would have required us to hire help and juggle schedules among the grandparents."

His colleagues at work were surprisingly supportive, as they knew, many from personal experience, how hard it is to balance work and raising children. For many of them, he was a source of envy as they relied on their parents to take care of their own kids, like the 64.5 per cent of dual-income households nationwide, according to Statistics Korea figures from 2014.

A 40-year-old father of two surnamed Park, agrees the atmosphere has changed slowly yet significantly since he took his paternity leave three years ago.

"Back then, it was hard even to broach the subject. Now, I see more of my male subordinates discuss it openly and the company being more understanding, thanks to outpouring media reports on dads' new roles and expanding government support for paternal child care," Park said.

The government has been pushing to urge more fathers to take paternity leave, largely as part of the efforts to fight the country's low birthrate. A company that refuses to grant paternity leave would face a penalty of up to 5 million won. Last year, a total of 3,421 fathers took paternity leave, compared to 2,293 a year before. While still small, it marked a 49 per cent year-on-year increase.

"I don't think my case represents the changing role between a man and a woman, but rather, the changing priorities in life. Earning money for the family is no longer the biggest contribution to the family, but to be more family-oriented," Lee said.

The reality, however, is still at a baby's step. Of the fathers on paternity leave nationwide, 53 per cent of them are employed at large companies with at least 300 employees according to statistics from the Employment Ministry, meaning workers at smaller workplaces are still neglected by the system.

Asked whether they would recommend other dads to take the leave, all three said, "definitely."

"You get to see a world that you could not see. It's the best decision I made," Park said.

As the minority man in the still overwhelmingly feminine world of child care, Lee does still have to fight small battles each day.

As he proudly takes a walk with one of the twins in a stroller and another on his back, people watch him with looks of half-pity and half-curiosity. He is the only man in the daily child care class that his toddlers attend, and it is near impossible to find a men's restroom with a diaper changer.

"It doesn't faze me though. If I let it bother me, I wouldn't have made the decision in the first place."

Already his "sacrifice" is paying off. His wife, who had nagged at him for most of the past year, has turned noticeably affectionate.

His children learned to say "appa" (daddy) before "eomma" (mommy). He gloats as he watches his wife prod the twins to say "eomma." Finally, peace has arrived.

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