By Lyn Chan
SINGAPORE — Cliff Tam said he never intended on becoming a stay-at-home father although the 42-year-old was hands-on from the time his first daughter was born.
“I took care of her in the US when my wife pursued her Master of Public Health degree,” said Tam, a Canadian on a Long-Term Visit Pass. Upon returning to Singapore to serve her government bond in 2019 with another baby on the way, the couple flipped the vision of the Singapore family comprising the breadwinner father and the homemaker mother, and joined the nation’s sliver of stay-at-home dads.
They had made the calculation that millions of mothers had previously made: “We could both work, and I could send both of my girls to daycare but I’d spend a great deal of my income on that. And instead of having strangers look after my children, it made sense for me to look after them while I myself pursued my master’s degree online.”
Theirs was a conscious choice, both economically and for family life, at a time when swapping the traditional roles in a family was only just becoming more common in Singapore. The number of men not working because of family responsibilities in 2021 was 14,000, double the number a decade earlier, according to the Manpower Ministry.
Still, the switch in roles hasn’t been entirely easy.
“Singapore’s culture was a challenge. I told my wife that I sometimes felt like a zoo exhibit when I went out," Tam, a former pastor said. He added people stared at him "as if he was from Mars" with one daughter in a carrier and another in his arm, and on top of that he was carrying groceries.
His learning curve, too, was steep. Back then, taking both girls to the mall and back unscathed was a noteworthy feat. Efficiently packing the right items for a day out and homing in on the diaper-changing spots soon became part of his skills repertoire, together with adroitly managing toddler tantrums in public.
Tam shared that he struggled with the emotional dips that occasionally swallowed him.
“Because work is a strong identity for me, there were times when I felt lost. Some days, I felt like I was wasting my time, and asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ At times, I also wished I was in the office instead of looking after my girls," he said.
He added: “Part of this sense of loss might be because I wonder about my value in society. How much we make or the work we do is tied so intrinsically to our self-worth. Any job that felt menial, like looking after children, initially made me feel depressed.”
While the world may not yet fully embrace the concept of stay-at-home dads, Tam understands the rewards his role brings about in his world.
He says, “Anyone can replace me at work. No one at home can replace me as a father. The funny thing is: Before I use to dread being a stay-at-home dad. But now, I wake up and look forward to spending time with my family. What’s even weirder is that even though I spend almost all of my time with them, I still want to spend more time with them."
Re-entering the workforce is on the table after the girls settle into the school structure. Tam sees himself working in a Christian non-governmental organisation that can utilise his information technology background.
Till then, he will continue to bask in the joy derived from the time spent with his girls. Tam, who is an Ironman triathlete, shares with Yahoo Finance Singapore some thoughts on being a stay-at-home dad.
How has your arrangement impacted your investment strategy?
I am not against working. We need to work to pay bills. Working is healthy. The problem I have is when parents earn more than enough to take care of the home yet continue to work long hours at the expense of their kids’ development. How does this impact children? Every child is different but for many of these young adults I counselled, many of them struggle with mental illnesses contributed by absent parental figures in their early lives.
We are investing our time in my children such that when they grow up, they will be resilient from mental health conditions, low-esteem and depression. I can’t fix my children’s mental health issues even if I have all the money in the world.
We live simply — my wife has scaled back on work and we are surviving on one part-time income — and believe in inculcating in our children values of hard work and generosity. We are happy.
My wife and I have invested in mutual funds for our kids’ education. I wouldn't call myself an active investor because I don't spend a lot of time on research. But I started buying equities the last few months. The change arose because both my children are now in pre-school. This frees me more time to do my own thing, which includes looking at investments. Previously, my investment strategy was put on hold.
Right now, the market is not doing so well due to the impending recession. This is a great time to consider investing into companies that are solid and have good value. I am not interested in being a day trader, whether in stocks, currencies or commodities. My investment approach is to look at companies with good value and invest in them long-term. This is why mutual funds are very attractive to me. Sure, I may lose a few commission percentages, but I have someone who can invest for me in the long run.
I find day trading to be like gambling. Also, it requires me to spend a lot of time and attention in front of the computer every day, which is not feasible since I watch over our kids.
What are the most fulfilling aspects of being a stay-at-home dad?
I had a liver transplant when I was 10. I am now 42 and the idea that, one day, my liver might expire on me is becoming more real.
If tomorrow were my last day, what would I do? Will I be more joyful going to work or spending time with my children? Of course, the latter. I must make the best of the time I have right now — and that is spending time with my family.
What advice would you give to other men and/or couples considering such a move?
Spousal support is very important. I can’t do this without my wife! She is my partner in our Team Tam tag-team!
If I have to do this all over again, I would have tried to learn a few things on child development. This would have helped me tremendously to enjoy my children’s developmental stages more.
I would say to these men that their identity is not based on their work or how much money they bring home. Money is important but it is not the end all and be all. Relationships, whether between husband and wife or parents and children, require investment. You’ll be making the most worthwhile investment you can by spending time with your children.
We all want our children to grow and prosper in their own way, and know that their parents love and support them in whatever they are going to do.