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June 18, 2011

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Even dads get the blues

THE joys of fatherhood are celebrated tomorrow, but in high-stress urban China paternity means more than bliss - there's a lot of stress involved in being the man of the family. Wang Jie talks to dads.

The Chinese saying ci mu yan fu means "caring mother, stern father" and it has described families in China for thousands of years.

Of course, Chinese family roles today are not as iron-clad as in the past, though mom is generally in charge of the household, the expenses and children's education.

The caring moms today may in fact be the domineering "tiger moms," "helicopter moms" and stern disciplinarians. Dads may be the gentler calming influence in a household, the one who reassures and comforts the child. In other words, ci fu yan mu, or caring father, stern mother.

Still, becoming a father really does mean becoming a man and shouldering more responsibility, whether he's stern dad, caring dad or a bit of both.

Quite a few young fathers, many of them reared as sheltered single children in a high-stress society, don't seem to be up to it and they're under a lot of pressure.

New fathers who are older, say in their 40s, also face problems.

And men who have been fathers for some years definitely don't have it easy as worry about their child's future and financing their education never ends.

Here are three fathers, two brand-new fathers and one well-seasoned.

'I still feel like a little boy'

"Frankly, I'm not fully prepared to be a father at all. Sometimes I feel I am still a little boy myself," says Jay Wu, a 28-year-old salesman who has a 3-month-old son.

"When I first held my son in my arms, my heart suddenly sank. I'm not sure I can afford the burden on my shoulders," he adds.

The couple's flat (a prerequisite for marriage) was bought by their parents who still financially support them in raising the baby.

"It's unfair to my mom and dad," Wu says, with a sigh.

"But my wife and I together earn less than 10,000 yuan (US$1,515) a month. The cost of living is so high in Shanghai. It costs around 2,000 yuan for imported milk powder and diapers every month. And around 1,500 yuan for the car, gas and parking.

"Without our parents' support, our life's quality would drop sharply due to the baby."

The grandparents are also largely responsible for rearing the child, which is common in China, but it's stressful on parents.

"When both of us are so exhausted when we get home from work, it would be a nightmare to deal with a crying baby."

The baby lives with Wu's parents. Every weekend the couple goes to their house to play with their son and give grandparents a break.

"Sometimes I think my parents are more like parents to my own son that we are," says Wu. Now he must work harder and longer.

"I can't use all the money from my parents' savings. My wife and I often work overtime to keep our jobs and position ourselves for promotion. We give up time with our son."

'Not as much energy'

Financial stress is more of a problem for younger fathers, but older dads have their own special blues.

Jason Ma, a 40-something businessman who owns a real estate company, still recalls the moment when he first heard his infant daughter cry. "She is my little princess and the whole meaning of my life," says Ma. His daughter is 8 months old.

At first he aimed to be "the dearest feeding daddy," since his parents are too elderly to help and he didn't want an ayi, or nanny.

"A stranger couldn't do better than I," he said. "Most ayis are not so trustworthy."

But Ma overestimated his physical reserves. For a couple in their 40s, babies are tough.

"She wakes up and cries every two hours at night to be fed, which is a torture for us," Ma says. "Of course, my love for her is boundless, but my body has its limits. I am not as energetic as I used to be. Though I intended to rear her all by myself, I admit that I failed."

He's discouraged. Now he needs an ayi.

"Money is not a problem, but finding a professional ayi with a caring heart is hard. I already fired nearly a dozen ayis, which nearly drove my wife crazy since she has to train each ayi."

The birth also affects the marriage bonds.

"My wife is a full-time housewife, and she complains I'm picky," says Ma. "She also thinks her place in my heart is now lower than my daughter's. But is there anything wrong for a father to love his daughter?"

They disagree about child-rearing.

"I want to give her all the best, including food, clothes and toys," Ma says, "but my wife insists she should not get special privileges."

Ma is now seeing a psychologist.

'It never ends'

Wei Guangqing is stressed over his 26-year-old son.

"I should be very relaxed since my son is a financial accountant at a big company," says the 58-year-old dad. "But I have to think of buying an apartment for him, since he and his girlfriend will marry soon."

In China, an apartment is a prerequisite of marriage and the bridegroom's family usually helps buy it.

"The price of a downtown apartment is daunting, but I have to drain all my savings for him. Sometimes I really envy Western parents. They just raise their kids to 18, and after that, the child lives on their own.

"However, here, Chinese parents want to give everything to their kids. This can't be changed, it is something in our blood."

What a psychologist says

In Chinese tradition, the father communicates less with children than the mother. He is considered the backbone of the family and is supposed to retain a position of authority. He does the "big things," such as earning money and making major decisions.

"But that doesn't mean father's love is less than mother's love," says Feng Yalan, a psychologist at East China Normal University. "Usually, the love of a father is reserved and profound."

But Feng also says that many fathers today are misguided in expressing love for their children through material things.

"It seems that the more the father earns for the family, the more he expresses his love by building a financially secure environment and a bright future for his child," Feng says. Because he's busy earning money, dad may be absent a lot and emotionally remote.

"We all understand that money can't solve all problems," says the psychologist. "The absence of a father figure at the infant stage and formative years may lead to serious character and emotional problems of a child."

In China, the father is sort of the "icon" in the family and interaction between child and father is supposed to give child self-confidence and power.

Feng says she has recently seen teen patients brought in by their parents to help with "teen problems." "My starting point is that small kids don't have psychological problems, he or she just mirrors the psychological problems of their parents or their relations.

"I strongly suggest every father and mother spend more time with their children. It's true that fathers are under daunting pressures, but many times an expensive toy is not as cherished by a child as an hour of hide-and-seek with dad."


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