Under the warm glow of low-hanging lights, on a wooden bench, lie a bunch of ingredients ripe for imaginative play: bright green play dough, uncooked penne, and colourful straws. It’s Saturday morning and at The Art of Sport, a centre for the "overall development of young girls through sport" in Delhi, a weekly “Father Toddler" class is in progress.

In attendance are a gaggle of children, aged 3-5, with fathers who have gathered for an hour of uninterrupted bonding and meaningful play, led by the founder of The Art of Sport, Richard Paiva. The session begins at 10am with a variety of games that involve balancing beams, building blocks, yoga mats turned into “magic carpets", and much squealing and cheering from the dad-toddler squad.

To wind down, Paiva leads them to the community table for the last activity of the day. Over playful negotiations between the fathers and children, the mounds of play dough begin to take shape, moulded into the likes of porcupine ice cream and pasta monsters, among other whimsical things. “I enjoy this kind of informal downtime with my daughter, with no distraction of screens and other demands of home and office," says Gaurav Iyer, an analytics professional and one of the eight fathers who is part of the programme with his four-year-old, Leela.

Over 12 sessions designed by Paiva and his wife Nupur Dhingra Paiva, a child psychotherapist, fathers are advised to unlearn the norms of autocratic parenting. “We noticed in our experience with over 60 girls who come to The Art of Sport for our programmes and therapy, that there is an absence of fathers in their children’s lives. Many wives have told me that either the kids are asleep by the time their husbands get home, or they are constantly travelling, or are glued to their screens after coming home," says Richard, a former marketing professional. It was clear to the Paivas that they needed to design something that would give prominence to the father figure.

The Father-Toddler programme was piloted in November. Based on feedback, the couple plans to make it a more prominent feature on The Art of Sport calendar in the coming months.

Not just a provider

The father figure has been a fractured presence in most Indian households. Other than the loss of an emotional bond with the child, this has held back most mothers from leading full lives. Now, in light of conversations on gender roles and the need for equal parenting, there is an effort to stress the role of the father as a nurturer rather than just a provider.

Last month, two photo exhibitions showcasing dads in Delhi and Mumbai reinforced this belief. The idea came from Swedish photographer Johan Bävman, who photographed Swedish men who chose to become stay-at-home fathers for at least six months as part of a photo-book project. “I was at home for nine months (on paternity leave) and realized that I was quite unique even in Sweden. I wanted to plant a seed in dads around the world on the benefits of being at home," says Bävman on email.

In addition to his photographs, the embassy of Sweden worked with Delhi-based photographer Srimon Chatterjee and Mumbai-based photographer Avinash Gowariker to showcase fathers in Delhi and Mumbai who take on an active parenting role. Gowariker says he shot with fathers he knows well. He took photographs of farmhouse caretaker Sharad Patil taking his children to school, film-maker Shirish Kunder cooking with his triplets, and media producer Imran Khatri buying vegetables with his child. Chatterjee, like Bävman, found himself as much a part of the theme as the subjects he captured. After the birth of his son, he decided to work from home, taking up freelance assignments while his wife went back to an office job.

Photographer Jaideep Oberoi and his daughter Samaira hiking in Khandala. Photo: Avinash Gowariker
Photographer Jaideep Oberoi and his daughter Samaira hiking in Khandala. Photo: Avinash Gowariker

There are conscious conversations and attempts to encourage progressive childcare norms in workspaces as well, and corporate India seems to be waking up to the idea that work life must be made more flexible not just for mothers, but for fathers too.

The India businesses of multinational companies such as Microsoft, Ikea and Johnson & Johnson have announced longer paternity leave. You hear of more work-from-home dads today. Last year, on Father’s Day, the Godrej Group launched an “Equal Parenting" campaign which hoped to encourage fathers working in the company to actively contribute to childcare. A Flipkart survey of 1,700 fathers across 17 cities last year concluded there is “a revolutionary change sweeping Indian society". The report found 50% wouldn’t mind being stay-at-home dads and 85% claimed they are part of their child’s daily routine activities. These fathers were crowned “do-it-all" dads.

Sid Balachandran, 35, is one of those who did it all. After relocating to Bengaluru from the UK in 2013 to be closer to family, he and his wife decided that one of them would stay home with their son in the formative years. When his wife managed to get a good role with a firm in India, they decided it would be him. Balachandran began to chronicle his days in a blog called Daddy Journals (Iwrotethose.com).

“I felt that I needed to document some of these feelings and experiences about my journey as a father, and partly, if I’m honest, because I was agitated with how the role of a stay-at-home dad was being perceived in our society, especially in India and Asia. I tried to infuse a bit of humour into it to make it sound less like a rant, and more like a conversational piece," he says.

They moved back to the UK last year and content marketer Balachandran joined the workforce a few months ago, with his son now old enough to be at school the whole day. His writing continues to garner attention on social media, especially because few fathers talk about raising children.

His staying home, he says, challenged a string of stereotypes: “That daily parenting is largely a mother’s job, that working moms are selfish and unable to balance their work and parenting, that dads are not as good as mothers as full-time carers."

Daddy must deliver

There are definitely more fathers at the playground, at school drop-offs and pick-ups, and at after-school activities these days. Increasingly, online and offline support groups are pushing for equal parenting. Families are shrinking, and, as Nupur says, we need all hands on deck to raise children. Concerns about women dropping out of the workforce due to lack of child support have reinforced the need to raise the bar for the other parent. A 2017 World Bank study, based on 2011-12 data, found that only 27% of the adult female population in India was working or actively looking for a job—down from 40% in the early 2000s—and experts suggested lack of crèches could be one reason.

It is because “fatherhood" isn’t as common a word as it should be that childbirth educationist Rakhi Kapoor, who holds antenatal classes in Chennai, found herself writing Expecting Daddy Delivers. The book, which she self-published and released in December, is meant to be a handy guide for fathers on how to be involved from Day 1.

“I wanted to push the idea that what makes the big difference to a family is the father stepping up," she says. The book has practical tips on helping your wife through pregnancy and labour, dealing with infancy, including the basics of supporting breastfeeding, baby sleep, and building a deep bond with your child.

“As a culture, we keep fathers out," says Nupur, pointing to the example of Union minister Maneka Gandhi not wanting to make paternity leave mandatory. Yet “men are fantastic caregivers, you just have to give them a chance," says Kapoor. In her experience, there is an attitude shift among the young fathers she has interacted with. “The metrosexual father is a proud caregiver," she says, chuckling at the fact that it is not unusual for social interactions between such dads to be peppered with friendly competition over who managed to make it to the labour room during delivery and who got a chance to cut the umbilical cord.

For 37-year-old Delhi dad Akash Premsen, father to Devika, 3, and Yamini, 1, it did all begin in the labour room. Watching his wife go through childbirth made him realize what a big deal it is to be a parent, though he had tried to prepare for it. “I renegotiated my work, took three weeks off, and, after going back to work, I left early on many days. Not only at home, I even prepared for the big change from a professional perspective. I lined up my projects and teams in a way that I could take my foot off the accelerator so I could spend time with my family," he says.

Where fathers tend to give up quickly if they are rejected by their children, he didn’t. It paid off. “His way of relating with the babies is playful, full of humour, roughhousing, with a lot of physicality and cuddles. They know that Akash can read their cues and pre-empts their needs, which very few adults can," says his wife Himani Dalmia. For her, having a partner who could manage mornings after sleepless nights, come home early to take their toddler to classes and take over completely on weekends meant she could fulfil work responsibilities, run personal errands, and just catch her breath.

“Akash and I worked out a rhythm between our respective work, baby, home and family commitments that allowed us to balance out our lives a little," she says. With the arrival of their second daughter, Premsen became his firstborn’s primary caregiver, managing her through the night and settling her into the new playschool over a period of three months.

A new generation of fathers would happily don a T-shirt with the millennial-friendly slogan “Dads don’t babysit"—because it’s “parenting" when you look after your own children. But the movement needs far more takers at a time when, globally, serious assessments are being made about men’s contribution to unpaid care work, such as the “State Of The World’s Fathers" reports published in 2015 and 2017 by MenCare, a fatherhood campaign that is active in 45 countries.

In my own home, I watched as my husband soothed our son to sleep with ease. He seemed instinctively tuned in to our baby’s every need while I needed to consult parenting books to feel confident. Having an equally involved co-parent freed me, mentally and physically, to step out of the house whenever I needed to.

A few weeks ago, while travelling on the Delhi Metro, an advertisement for a baby skincare product caught my eye. It featured a celebrity father—instead of the usual glowing mother—fawning over the baby. Though cosmetic, it made a solid point, a welcome addition to reworking that wonderful thing called fathering.

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