Place Aditya Gupta and his son among a group of mothers tending to their toddlers in a play area and he will fit right in.

Think of him home alone with his sick son – his wife is off on a business trip – and Aditya will be bedside, his paternal instincts firing almost as sympathetically as that of a mother.

Ask him if he would give up his job to be with his son, and he might twinkle up and recall a time some years ago, when he did just that.

Ask him if he will consider quitting his job, moving across cities and countries, so his wife can pursue her career ambitions, and he will let you know that he’s been there, done it, with several T-shirts to show for it too.

With each Father’s Day, from the peripheries of our collective consciousness to almost front and centre, we meet an evolving father figure – no longer the remote head of the family you hear more than see. As more women dare to reach for their ambitions, it means family responsibilities are no longer compartmentalized into husband and wife, male and female boxes.    

There’s something wholesome about families who build happy lives together divested of unnecessary emotional baggage, ego hassles and social expectations. Theirs are lives characterised by good-natured acceptance, a practical attitude and lots of flexibility.

So it is with Aditya Gupta, his wife Bhawna Garg and their 10-year-old son Ishan who live in The Lakes Dubai and seem on the surface like any other Indian expat family. Except that they do not conform to traditional notions of who does what in a family.

In fact, among the few traditional aspects of their lives is that like so many Indian couples, theirs was an arranged marriage, 18 years ago, with both living and working in different Indian cities.

“Ours was a weekend marriage,” says Aditya, “shuttling between Chandigarh, where I worked, and New Delhi, where Bhawna was.” Despite the assumption that Bhawna would eventually move, it was Aditya who quit. “I figured that Bhawna had better options in Delhi,” he says.    

The pattern was to continue. Bhawna, a chartered accountant and company secretary by qualification, works for a multinational company, and with each promotion came transfers between the company’s global offices. Each time, Aditya left his job to follow his wife – first to Dubai and then to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where their son Ishan was born.

Says Bhawna: “Aditya was very broad-minded right from the beginning. That, as long as together we move to a better place, it’s not like one vs the other.”

From “a weekend marriage to a monthly marriage, from an inter-city marriage to an inter-continental marriage”, the couple have experienced it all. They finally decided to settle down in Dubai with Bhawna requesting a transfer back.

In the early KL days, Aditya was apparently the primary parent. While in a full-time job, he took advantage of the fact that he was walking distance from home, allowing him to pick and drop Ishan, take him for his extracurricular activities and arrange play dates with his nursery friends. “I would often invite them over, with their mothers dropping in too; some were Japanese, some Korean. I remain friends with them even today.”

Bhawna says: “In our journey, we’ve had a year, when Aditya took up a consulting job that would give him the flexibility to be there for Ishan, while I had long hours in the office.”  

At every stage in a marital relationship being able to exercise one’s choices is the grease that oils the nuts and bolts of the bond. Bhawna exercised hers when, on the solid foundations of her academic credentials, she forged ahead with her career ambitions and Aditya exercised his when he chose to support her.

“I enjoyed it because it was a choice,” says Aditya. “I do not know how I would have felt had it been forced on me, and that happens when a spouse takes those decisions unilaterally. Eventually you resent it… it applies to either spouse.”

The idea of a man

Arguably in the evolution of the human male within the family, never have they been called upon to reach into their stores of empathy, understanding and flexibility as now, particularly as families deal with Covid and work-from-home dynamics. Not only are many of them ditching the role of being solely a breadwinner, to embrace tasks and situations that seemed the preserve of women, but they are actively rooting for their ambitious career-oriented wives.

And yet, it’s remarkable how many of them shy away from stepping forward to claim recognition. Friday reached out to many a couple, who were reluctant to be featured, possibly because of deeply entrenched social perceptions about the male and female archetypes identified inextricably with one being the provider for the family, and the other the child-bearer.

Italian clinical psychologist and family and marriage psychotherapist Dr Letizia Mugnai puts it down to the fact that it’s still “a new feeling” for men. “The role of a man is extremely rooted in all cultures, within the brain … the idea of a man – that you have to do things, step up, take control and prove your value. That’s expected of them. It’s something very, very ancient. And when males are threatened in this role, it’s extremely confusing for them; they are not used to it. A lot of them take this personally. They feel intimidated.”

However uncertain economic conditions world over, have possibly pressured men towards a greater acceptance of women as co-bread winners, and all that this entails for them as a family.

It’s no longer just about the emotional eye of the mother, but also the more rational part of the father, says Dr Letizia Mugnai

The priority today is economic stability, says Dr Letizia, adding that Covid has given us all a flavour of how unpredictable life can be. “Within the family there is a new awareness that we should help each other, despite the traditional role assigned to each [gender]. It’s not that a man can be a mum, or a dad can be a woman. It’s not about the gender. It’s about the role that allows a family to be healthy and connected with everyone benefitting from it, starting from the child – but not just the child – all relationships. So certainly, we are becoming more flexible.”

The benefits from this blurring of gender roles are many and span levels. Leave alone the economic impact, as Dr Letizia points out, it makes families more resilient and engaged with each other. “For instance, we pay more attention to children’s behaviour. This is extremely important because you can address issues early. It’s no longer just about the emotional eye of the mother, but also the more rational part of the father. Parenting is not just about roles and rules. It’s about consistency, about agreement, about presence.”

‘I enjoy taking care of the kids’

Zehra* (Names changed for privacy) is a high-flier at her Emirati company in Dubai, where she manages a team of more than 30 staff. Her husband Tom is from the US and has had a chequered career culminating in his company closing amid the pandemic.

“I never got onto a career trajectory like Zehra did,” says Tom. “And as I’ve gotten older and my kids have gotten older, I’ve found it’s not what I’m interested in. I don’t want a job like she has. I don’t want the time pressure. Whereas Zehra enjoys the challenge.”

With time on his hands now, Tom loves taking care of the couple’s children – 7 and 3.

“I felt the onus was on me to pick up the loose ends and try to contribute more… to run the kids around, to be there for them after school, to do stuff with them, chaperone their field trips, while she can focus on her work,” says Tom. “I feel this helps her, but I also enjoy doing it.”

While Zehra, who is Turkish, has always revelled in the fact that the couple have built their lives casting aside traditionally assigned roles for each gender, she admits candidly that she would feel a lot better if her husband were working. “There is a lot of pressure from me on him to work. We don’t need the money, but it’s a cultural thing. For instance, if I tell my parents back home, that he isn’t working, it’s not going to look nice. They won’t understand that he’s dealing with the kids. It doesn’t matter how much you get, but that you have a job.”

She is also concerned about the impact it will have on her son. “I don’t want my son to think that this is ok. I don’t know why. I want him to work. At school it’s ok, because with work from home, a lot more daddies are coming into school to drop off their children. But when my son comes home, he’s always seeing that mummy is working. And not daddy.” 

Tom counters with: “How different is it when kids come home, and see Daddy is not there?”

“I don’t want that either,” Zehra replies.

Tom takes Zehra’s pressure in his stride. “It doesn’t offend me because I know where she’s coming from. And she’s right because it’s not right of me to put so much pressure on her to be the only bread winner.”

He is equally pragmatic when it comes to how society might view their arrangement. “For those giving me the look … like what’s he doing with the kids… the way I take it is they’re jealous.” 

Tom recounts how he is among the “first generation of latchkey kids in the US”.

“Both my parents worked; my mom worked nights, so she was sleeping when I came home. And my dad was alcoholic; he died in my freshman year in college,” says Tom. “I feel strongly about how parents are supposed to guide children, shape them and their world view. And I want to be the father to my kids, that I didn’t have.”

Society in transition

Life coach, author and hypnotherapist Russell Hemmings believes that this socio-cultural angst being felt by both sexes is part of the transition phase society is going through. Until both genders break free of stereotypical moulds, the effects of our social conditioning will continue to roil within.

“The woman might be fighting the idea of the man having to be financially supportive of the family and so she wants him to be that way, while the man may be struggling with his conformity, or lack thereof, with what was expected of him from society and the people that brought him up,” says Russell. 

However, at the end of the day, it’s a decision that’s best based on a couple’s finances and even their temperaments and strengths– on who does what, the best.

Russell Hemmings believes that this socio-cultural angst being felt by both sexes is part of the transition phase society is going through

“It’s just a role switch,” Russell says. “And some men will not mind society’s opinion about them, because they recognise that if they judge me, I am not that judgment. Traditionalists might view them as being weak, as less of a man, whereas in effect they are actually being quite strong because they have used their emotional intelligence to do what’s best for their family.”

And after all, that’s what matters!

How to make the transition smoother

It isn’t easy to dump cultural baggage and stand up against what society perceives as right. Perhaps you as a couple are still trying to balance your roles within and outside the family. For a smoother transition, Dr Letizia Mugnai believes couples should work together to help the children understand why, for instance, their dad is at home with them, while their mom is out working, if that hasn’t been the norm so far.

“Because you are changing, and your child is facing the change, without our way of seeing things,” Dr Letizia says.

She emphasizes on the need for respect as families take “little steps to connect” adding: “Cultivate the connection, without pushing anybody away — but always integrating, with respect, talking in an easy, but understandable way, and providing answers to the child”.

Russell Hemmings believes that it’s difficult to assess how “fragments of experiences finally crystalize into an opinion and belief structure”. Regarding how children will grow up to perceive their stay-at-home dad he says: “Depending on what’s said to a child, and how often it’s said he or she can either grow up and feel it’s strange or can normalize it. And as society changes with 50 per cent dads and 50 per cent mums in a school playground, children will no longer have a problem because it’s not one dad among many anymore. It’s half and half, and it becomes normal.”

For the couple Dr Letizia advises: “It requires time to modify the expectations that a man has on himself. I start from this – the definition that he is giving to his role. Have people try to understand their representation of themselves. Try to give them a new way of seeing themselves so they can rebuild their story. This allows them to modify their behaviour.”

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