At home with 'Mr Mom'

By Qiu Yijiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-24 09:42
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At home with 'Mr Mom'

Not every trailing spouse of an expat on the move is a woman. Qiu Yijiao profiles two high-flying executives whose husbands manage the home front.

It is often said, "behind every successful man lies a woman". But as more women storm traditional male bastions and scoop up top jobs, shattering the proverbial glass ceiling, it seems "behind every successful woman is a man" - taking a backseat and playing a supportive role at home.

The recent Global Relocation Trends Survey shows that 20 percent of expatriates the world over are women - an all-time high. Many of them hold key positions in multinational companies while their husbands stay at home and ensure its smooth running. No longer is man always the breadwinner and woman, the homemaker.

This shift in gender roles can, sometimes, complicate the challenges of living in a whole new environment. The findings of the survey suggest that working women faced with good career prospects abroad are often constrained in their decision to move by resistance from their spouse and the family's inability or reluctance to adjust to a new set-up.

But Singaporean Jill Lee faced no such issues when asked to assume responsibility as the first Asian CFO of Siemens in China, in 2004. Her husband Kelvin Leong felt very proud and encouraged her to accept the opportunity.

"Both of us felt that it was great to have this foreign exposure while we were young and my husband thought the overseas schooling would help our son mature faster and adapt to new challenges," says Lee.

Both Lee, who is currently chief diversity officer at Siemens' headquarters in Munich, and Leong, are convinced the decision they took in 2004 was a good one.

Janet Ang, vice-president of IBM's Global Technology Services, found herself in a similar situation when she was posted to Beijing four years ago. Her husband Anthony Cheah readily backed the idea of moving to China. The Singaporean expatriates were living in Tokyo at that time and Cheah had been playing "Mr Mom" to their four daughters ever since they left their home city in 1998.

"It was unthinkable for a man to be without a job. But Janet is doing well at work and enjoys it so much," says Cheah, who turned full-time homemaker from real estate agent. "We could live off Janet's income in Tokyo while I helped the whole family get used to the new environment."

He admits that he learned on the job. "Although it was messy and noisy sometimes, no one complained because they knew it was difficult for me," Cheah recalls.

Ang is thankful to her husband for his efforts. "Anthony knows well that I am better suited to outside work. Surprisingly, he managed to handle all the nitty-gritty within the house," says the fast-talking businesswoman.

Later, Cheah got involved in community services and school activities, a rarity for men in Japan. He remembers the shock on the faces of Japanese mothers when he told them he was a househusband.

"Anthony changed their traditional beliefs that men did not make good homemakers. The school our girls attended even renamed the Mothers' Association to Parents' Association," Ang says proudly.

"Right from the beginning, I was very open-minded about this (the different gender roles)," Leong says. "It is also great that both Jill and I share the idea that each of us plays an equally important role in the family. We are very comfortable with the different responsibilities we manage."

Once one of Lee's colleagues who had not met Leong before asked him which department he handled. "I told him I was responsible for Jill and we both had a good laugh."

Lee has no qualms about telling people that at home Leong is her CEO. The fact that she can leave all decision-making to him once she returns home after work is extremely relaxing, she says.

Like any other homemaker, Leong makes sure the needs of the family are met. When friends and relatives from Singapore pay a visit here, he is the one taking them around Beijing. Leong likes to keep himself well-informed of current news from the press and Internet, particularly of the business world and, especially, the real state sector.

Almost 10 years after relocating to a different country, Cheah feels life is much easier now. The family can afford a domestic help in Beijing, leaving Cheah more time for himself. He works as a training program coordinator in a local orphanage and an honorary teacher helping kids to improve reading skills and hangs out with other male trailing spouses.

"My skin is getting thicker now," Cheah jokes. "In a party, I am comfortable exchanging notes with mothers about where to buy fresh food and how my children perform at school, while other men usually talk about business."


At home with 'Mr Mom'

Janet Ang and Anthony Cheah with their daughters.

At home with 'Mr Mom'

Jill Lee and her husband Kelvin Leong with their son(center).

For both Ang and Lee, family is a priority. Weekends are strictly for the family, at home or outdoors. Ang, for instance, makes it a point to attend all events in which her daughters take part. She spends a lot of time with them on the phone when she is on a business trip, inflated bills notwithstanding.

"I envy Anthony's having a special bond with the girls." The girls surround their father like a flock of birds every time the couple is back home after an evening out, turning to hug her only later. "But they know they can approach each of us on different issues."

Lee's son is now doing military service back in Singapore. She and her husband make it a point to sort out their occasional differences before communicating with their son.

"It is important for a couple to feel comfortable playing their different roles and agreeing on what is important for the family," Lee says.

"I think the combination of being a home-dad and living abroad has made our family bond even stronger. I have become more open-minded, adaptable and have begun caring for small but important family needs," says Leong.

Yvonne McNulty, a researcher from Monash University, Australia, who has been following 21 male trailing spouses for the past four years says, "(the phenomenon) has little to do with Eastern or Western culture. Each family decides who goes out for work".

"I think the whole power balance in relationships is happening quicker these years, which means women assuming a breadwinner role in a relationship is probably becoming a more acceptable, and less unique, phenomenon that it used to be," says McNulty.

Her research has found that the non-traditional spouse who agrees to the reversal of roles prior to the relocation is likely to adjust better after the move. And the division of labor also helps build a strong family.