Fatherhood the key to two-child families in China

November 30, 2015 Michael Kaufman

The recent announcement that China will relax its one-child policy immediately raised the question across the country: will parents actually have a second child?

There are many reasons to want a second child, from the sheer delight of having more children to having that additional caregiver when we get old. But as every parent and grandparent knows, raising children is an expensive affair and requires a staggering amount of work.

Traditionally, around the world, most of the childrearing work has been the responsibility of women. It is mostly women who change diapers, cook meals, comfort children when they are upset, and look after their many needs. Many men have defined these tasks as women’s work which is supposedly not as important and challenging as the “real” work of earning money.

This is a big problem for women who want to continue their education, pursue careers or simply have some time to relax. Even with supportive grandparents, the decision to have a second child means that a mother is taking on a huge burden. And that’s why the greater involvement of fathers is as critical in China as it is around the world. If the day-in, day-out hard work of parenting is more equally shared, then women are more likely to decide to have a second child.

But can men do their share of parenting? The fact is there are only two parenting tasks that men can never do: getting pregnant and breastfeeding. But all the other parenting jobs, the patience and the understanding are things that men are just as capable of doing. The only problem is that many men have not learned how to do those things. Many men haven’t had models of a father, however good he was, who did the daily childrearing tasks.

During my recent visit to China, I met a number of young men who wanted to play an equal parenting role. I also met a number of women who said that having a husband who equally shared parenting jobs was a priority for them.

In other words, they were very similar to young men and women in Canada, where I live, and all over the world. If we want women to pursue education and careers, and if we want to bring out the best in men, then we need to change the traditional roles of fathers.

This will require some work, for it means we need special classes for new fathers to learn parenting skills, and activities in schools that help boys see that their future will include looking after children.

We need policies in hospitals that encourage and support men to be present at birth. Major cultural changes are taking place in many countries. And studies show men who are present at birth develop deeper bonds with their children, are more likely to participate equally in parenting and housework, are less likely to subsequently get violent with either their wives or children, are more supportive of women’s health and have greater respect for women’s strength.

We need to introduce parental leave for mothers and fathers both, and make workplace rules more flexible so that both parents are able to take care of their children’s needs.

And we need public education campaigns to encourage involved fatherhood.

A part of this is finding positive ways to engage men and boys in this process of change. The transformation of fatherhood is one such way.

This blog first appeared in “The China Daily”, November 30, 2015