Written by Fei Huang
‘When you hear the term stay-at-home fathers (SAHFs), what is the first image/thought that pops into your head?’ – this is one of the questions I asked in a survey that I did with all my friends on WeChat last year. Answers varied from ‘good father’ and ‘nurturing men in an apron’, to ‘go out and get a job!’.
In the following paragraphs, I analyse a common narrative about SAHFs on social media who intertwine paid work with their lives as a full-time father, which brings a new perspective on how this gender role is represented in today’s digital China. Texts for analysis were articles on WeChat subscription accounts (微信订阅号weixin dingyuehao), which I selected based on their quantifiable widespread appeal and reception (as confirmed through ratings and circulation/readership figures) and particular significance for the construction of masculinity and fatherhood (e.g., texts associating the role of SAHFs with masculinity and fatherhood, featuring experiences and insights from actual SAHFs and/or were referred by different articles in other contexts). The aim of my analysis is not to examine whether these WeChat articles accurately represent the realities of everyday SAHF life. Rather, I focus on the structures of knowledge that are represented by the statements of the articles, as they form a discourse in their correlation with each other and broader ideologies.
The term ‘digital nomad’ (数字游民 shuzi youmin) is introduced in two recent articles about SAHFs (Hu 2019; Zhang et. al., 2019) and refers to people who work remotely and online. They argue that some SAHFs have already realised this ‘nomadic’ lifestyle, which opens up the possibility of altering gender dynamics in and outside the home – the increase of job opportunities that embrace mobility and flexibility has made it possible for men to be more involved in the family without cutting off their connection to the labour market. As the author from one of the above-mentioned articles (Hu 2019) states:
The SAHF La Rou has become a start-up entrepreneur whose career focuses on family education; (another SAHF) Qi Xiansheng started his blogging career on relationships and family on Weibo…The contrast [between the traditional conception of SAHFs and these fathers’ image] helps readers to better understand this social group and leaves them some room to reflect on the social prejudices and stereotypes against this particular group of men – Do SAHFs who assume the dual identity as primary caregiver and part-time worker belong to a special social group? [After interviewing with SAHFs], my understanding and perception on SAHFs have completely changed – our society believes that men have to work outside the home in order to support the family, but in fact, full-time fathers also have their own career.
The question highlighted in the narrative above – ‘do SAHFs who assume the dual identity as a primary caregiver and a part-time worker belong to a special social group’ indicates that the lives that these SAHFs lead have challenged the assumed boundaries between work and family life for men, which are specified in two particular aspects in this article, i.e., their priorities and their choice of work.
Firstly, while working from home is arguably another form of maintaining a connection with the public sphere to preserve the sense of masculinity for SAHFs (Hanlon 2012, 208), a shift in their identities and a greater focus on the family seem to be emphasised in the social media discourse, i.e., work comes after childcare. The term ‘full-time father’ (全职爸爸 quanzhi baba) is used throughout the above-mentioned article (Hu, 2019) to denote these men’s primary identity. While acknowledging the fact that raising children needs money, the author has made it clear that the purpose of this article is to understand the role of SAHFs and condemn the stereotypical conception that ‘men have to earn money’.
The SAHF/blogger Qi’s experience mentioned in the article above (Hu, 2019) is also narrated in the second article (Zhang et. al. 2019) entitled ‘From a workaholic to a full-time father: family is my other workplace’ (从工作狂到全职爸爸：家庭是我的另一个职场 cong gongzuo kuang dao quanzhi baba: jiating shi wode lingyige zhichang). In the authors’ words, during the interval between cooking and cleaning the house, Qi wrote millions of words of stories, published four books about food and romantic relationships. The term ‘interval’ (间隙 jianxi) suggests the secondary status of Qi’s job as a writer. This article also shows another SAHF’s (Xiong Jun) daily timetable, which revolves entirely around his son and the only time for Xiong to take a break and do his own work is when his son takes a nap and/or after his son falls asleep at around 11pm. This timetable is to substantiate the point that being a SAHF is a full-day job without breaks. Similarly, the other two articles (Wu 2020; Tu 2020) compares the typical time schedules from 7AM to midnight between a working father and a full-time father, to demonstrate that the time for the father himself is normally after 10pm every day without a day off. Such narratives suggest that the priority of SAHFs’ lives is still to take care of the family, and their paid work is organised according to the rhythms of their everyday life as a full-time father.
Secondly, by giving two particular examples of SAHFs, the statement presented above signifies the fusion of childcare/marriage life and professional/work identity, in that some men tend to take inspirations from their experiences on caregiving and marriage life as a SAHF. This textual representation of the seamless integration of both intimate life and paid work by SAHFs resonates with Katariina Mäkinen’s (2020) study on how stay-at-home mom blogging has become a form of freelance work within the digital economy in Finland. Similar to Qi’s transition from a full-time advertiser to a SAHF/content producer on Weibo and WeChat, Yu Ba (Foki 2020) quit his full-time job when his son turned two and has been vlogging about/with his son on social media. He has now successfully become an influencer in childcare and parenting with 764,000 followers on Weibo. It appears that the Internet, social media in particular, has become an important medium of professionalisation and monetisation of family life for SAHFs, which enables them to combine intimate family life with the professional in a way that challenges the assumed boundaries between paid work and family life. As the SAHF La Rou (Zhang et. al. 2019) states, ‘the increase of creative job opportunities that embrace mobility and flexibility offers a new area for full-time fathers/mothers to balance family and individual career.’ These men all expressed long-term commitment to their dual identity, with being a SAHF as their primary role.
The textual representation of the dual identity of SAHFs redefines the assumed boundaries between work and life. By highlighting how busy SAHFs are with the work of the home and their part-time career, this discourse on SAHFs goes against the perception of the home as a place of passivity, laziness, and consumption (i.e., financially dependent upon their partners) (see Hays 1996; Johnstone and Swanson 2003; Merla 2008). The digital world therefore constructs new possibilities of gender performance and challenges people’s perceptions and behaviours in the real world. The dual identity of SAHFs portrayed in the analysed articles is one aspect of how the image of SAHFs is circulated on social media, which allows more people to better understand this gender identity in ways that suggest a gradual shift in traditional gender roles and values.
Fei Huang is a Chinese-English interpreter/translator and PhD candidate in Chinese and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster. Her research interests include masculinities, gender studies, and family life in contemporary China. Her current research explores stay-at-home fathers in contemporary China. Featured image shows stay-at-home father Xiao Chen with his son sitting in front of a desk. Image credit: Xiao Chen.
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