June 11 The flawed father figure

Are mums more lovable than dads? It would seem so going by the response to Mother's and Father's day.

Last month, The Straits Times marked Mother's Day by launching a tribute to mothers on its website.

To get the ball rolling, we asked photographers in the newsroom to contribute photos of their mums.

The response was quick and enthusiastic. Over one weekend, more than 20 of them took snapshots of their mums or dug out old photos of them. Each picture was accompanied by a snippet, and the tales were heartwarming.

One photographer spoke about how stoical his mother has always been, but how she collapsed crying in his arms after her beloved brother died. Another said his feisty mum works in his father's signcraft shop and helps support the family.

We asked readers to send us snapshots and anecdotes about their mums, and got many similar responses.

The warmth and love for mothers was clear.

Next Sunday is Father's Day and we'll be putting up a microsite on our website - straitstimes.com - to celebrate dads. The response, though, has been more hesitant and muted.

Mothers are more fun to photograph, a colleague said, explaining why there were fewer contributions from the photo department this time around.

Fathers are more distant, another colleague - a father himself - said. And we don't care for such celebrations, he added.

For sure, Mother's and Father's day have become odes to consumerism, and they are by no means an accurate gauge of how much parents are loved.

The two days might have been started with the good intention of making parents feel appreciated, but they are, today, pretty much another way for retailers to get you to part with your money.

Perhaps, as my friend said, most dads don't buy into the day and as children, we're not going to argue with that because it also means we don't have to foot $12 for a stalk of rose.

Still, what struck me when discussing Father's Day with colleagues and friends outside the office was how fathers generate a complicated response.

The question "what's your relationship with your mother like" is almost guaranteed to give you a gushy reply about how great mum is.

But "what's your relationship with your father like" brings quite a bit of hemming and hawing and furrowed brows.

I've heard very few "oh, my dad's such a great guy" type of responses.

Are dads less lovable than mums? Are mothers better parents than fathers?

Biologically, at least, mums are one up on dads because of oxytocin, a hormone that increases during pregnancy and which helps women bond with their baby.

Most women have an innate ability to know what their children want. Traditionally, too, mums have the advantage of spending more time with the kids at home and being there for them.

Fathers, on the other hand, tend to take on the role of disciplinarian, spend longer hours at work and are less expressive.

Given all this, it's perhaps understandable why mums are more popular than dads.

That's certainly been the case for me.

While I've always been close to my mother, my relationship with my father was more complex.

He loved me and I loved him, but what I remember most about him was his unpredictable temper.

Even today, more than a decade after he died, his violent temper clouds many of my memories of him.

It's strange how, when my sister (a more forgiving person than me) and I reminisce about him, she remembers just the good stuff whereas I bring up the bad bits.

And there were many good things about him. He was generous with his money, he struck up friendships easily, was creative, enjoyed books and was curious about the world. He had many hobbies and plunged into them wholeheartedly. He learnt to fly a Cessna plane when he was in his 30s, he learnt judo, collected sports cars and went fishing in Changi armed with sprawling fishing nets he'd sewn with our old gardener.

Although he made a decent living from his landscaping business, his head was brimming with business ideas.

He concocted a heat rub balm by reading chemistry books, bottled and sold it. He made perfumes. He came up with orchid hybrids and cultivated bonsai.

When computers arrived on the scene, he had a brainwave that manual typewriters would become a collector's item. He imported more than 50 from Sri Lanka. They remained inside our storeroom for years because he couldn't find a buyer.

In the 1980s, he was convinced there was money to be made from importing prefabricated building material. We told him he was crazy.

I used to be wary and weary of his many projects - why's dad always hopping from one idea to the next, I used to think, exasperated.

I realise now I was unkind to think that. They weren't whims. He was merely looking for ways to make more money to give us a better life.

They say a woman's relationship with her father shapes her view of men, and perhaps it does.

My father didn't quite fit my idea and my ideal of what a "perfect" father was - someone with a steady nine-to-five job, who was quiet, calm, good-tempered and measured - and I've spent a large chunk of my life looking for a man who was all that.

When I finally got married, it was to a man who fitted (mostly) what I was looking for. He was also already a father.

He was divorced and had joint custody of his then five-year-old daughter, living with her on alternate weekends.

It wasn't an easy decision for him to leave her in Britain and come back to Singapore with me, but once he decided, there was no turning back and no point moping.

They Skype a few hours every Sunday. It's not an ideal or even normal father- daughter relationship, but they make do, or at least he does.

We often wonder what she thinks of him. At the back of our minds, we worry too. Is he being an adequate enough father? Can one be a good absent dad? And if no, what might the consequences be?

In any case, we're off to visit her next week. And yes, it'll be Father's Day on Sunday. Hopefully, it'll be a special one for him, and for her.


To contribute a photo or story about your dad to The Straits Times' Father's Day microsite on straitstimes.com, e-mail stdad@sph.com.sg by midnight, June 16.