When one sees men talking over midafternoon drinks at a hotel bar, one commonly assumes they are confining their conversation to business topics such as money, products and schedules.
However, sitting at the Interconti
nental Hotel in Pudong last week were three men between 35 and 50 discussing children, school fees, and kitchen repairs. These men are trailing spouses whose roles in Shanghai concern the domestic rather than the occupational.
When a couple moves overseas, the assumption is generally that the husband has received a transfer, and that his wife has followed him. However, there is a growing number of males who choose to take extended leave from their professional lives in the West to follow their partners.
Meet the dads
The presence of male trailing spouses has reached such critical mass, the term "guytai" – an inter-lingual portmanteau word combining "guy" with "taitai," the Chinese word for "housewife" – was coined a short while ago, and forms the basis for the website www.guytai.net.
Founded by Kevin Sanders, a male trailing spouse from Denmark, the site offers a platform for Sanders and other guytais to form a community. Because of their wives' high-profile positions the names of these trailing spouses have been changed.
Sanders, who relocated to China in 2004, is a stay-at-home dad whose wife, in his words, is "a heavy-hitter in the media industry." Formerly an employee of DELL, Sanders now divides his time between cooking, part-time IT consulting and largely taking care of his young son who is still in preschool.
Dave Nolan, an electrical engineer from the UK, came to Shanghai in 2006 with his wife, a managing director for a recruitment firm, and son, now aged 7.
Although he initially explored opportunities for continuing his engineering career, he has settled on playing the lead role in caring for his son while acting as a part-time IT consultant for his wife's firm.
A somewhat recent addition to the guytai fraternity – though the website itself was only launched in November 2010 – is Chris Turner, who arrived in August 2010 after his wife was transferred within General Motors.
Like Nolan and Sanders, Turner spends the majority of his time tending to his 11-year-old daughter, though he is also involved in an entrepreneurial side project.
Upon being asked how they feel about their situation, the men's answers were overwhelmingly positive. "We've been given a blessing," said Turner. Nolan agreed, stating that he finds his domestic role to be "a great advantage," especially concerning his relationship with his son.
Ironically, very few male trailing spouses expressed ecstasy over the increased amount of leisure time. As Sanders said, "The first two or three days of not working and staying home with nothing to do are pretty cool – but then reality kicks in."
Most of the members of guytais, like Turner, Sanders, and Nolan, have been intent on maintaining a connection to the world of work, albeit on a part-time basis.
This is a way of keeping professionally active, but also, on a social level, a way of combating the loneliness that can be induced by a domestic lifestyle in a foreign land.
"I don't miss working full-time, but I do miss the social aspects of working in an office," said Sanders. "One of the main reasons for the guytai group was to provide this 'community' feeling that we miss about an office atmosphere."
Psychologists in the city cite both positive and negative cases involving male trailing spouses. Carrie Jones, counseling coordinator at Community Center Shanghai, elaborated instances of both.
A foreign boy who was suffering from anxiety issues was brought in by his father who thrived on being a stay-at-home dad. His positivity was radiant: he sat on the board of a number of community organizations and expressed a very strong interest in his son's education and extracurricular activities to the point of chronicling his son's progress through assessment charts and setting very high standards.
Through counseling sessions, Jones deduced that the father's diligent parenting was actually partly responsible for the son's condition. "The son felt smothered, as he had to achieve 100 percent on all forms of evaluation," said Jones. The father was praised for his enthusiasm but told to tone it down. Overall, however, this case shows a house husband with a passion.
A more negative case involving a stay-at-home male spouse entailed a couple who both came to China to work, though only the wife received a relocation package.
The husband endeavored to set up a business in Shanghai, though found it futile after two years and stopped. It was here that he began a downward spiral.
"Work had always been his identity," said Jones. "When this was taken away from him, it left him bored while also intensifying several other issues."
The patient had been a long-term alcoholic, a condition which was exacerbated by having long hours of little to do; he had been against coming to China, so he felt depressed; and, being 50 years old and with a sports injury, he was not able to pursue outdoor pastimes he had previously enjoyed.
Further complications involved raising two teenage daughters, largely without the presence of his wife, who was often on business trips.
"He became very defeatist and had a feeling of inadequacy," said Jones. His counseling initially focused on the alcohol issues, and while some progress was being made, one of the daughters was diagnosed with bulimia.
Rather than making the father feel more desperate, this instead motivated him to take a deeper interest in his home life.
Among the guytais there are ambivalent feelings towards whether Shanghai is actually a good place to raise kids. "Overall, Shanghai is a nice place to raise children, as there are many things to do. But also, the medical system here needs to be improved.
And this is not helped by the pollution, which I feel is a big problem. My son, for example, has had a bad cough for six months," Sanders said.
Nolan agreed, "It's a great city, but in regard to healthcare, improvements are certainly needed," he said. "I also miss the easy access to nature that you find in many Western cities."
Turner took a more long-term view, and stated, "Yes, it's a good city for children, as life is about learning lessons. And this city offers a wealth of experience to be gained." Turner and his wife made attempts to make their daughter as comfortable as possible with the idea of moving to China before arriving in the city, which have succeeded.
Nevertheless, he added philosophically, "Children her age are high and low no matter where you live."
The presence of children also allows these parents to socialize with other parents, primarily mothers. However, whereas women often become friends through the friendships established by their children in school, this has proven to be more arduous for the males.
"It's different for a dad to make friends with other kids' mothers. It's hard to mix in with them, and even though we may get along well, there is a natural exclusiveness when women are planning an activity," said Nolan.
Turner, however, asserted that there is also the presence of school mothers who exhibit a friendliness towards male trailing spouses, fascinated by the latter taking a traditionally maternal interest in their children.
Other challenges that one may expect of males of their status, for example feeling deprived of the sense of authority given by a job, or the social awkwardness of having to admit that the wife is the breadwinner, were gently dismissed.
"For me, there haven't really been any distinct challenges. Many of us have been working hard for so many years that it's nice to have time to do other things," Sanders said.
Activities organized by the guytai club so far have included visits to several corporate plants, including GM, and other recreational outings, most notably a Christmastime go-carting event. Turner stated that a "Daddy-daughter Day" is in the process of being arranged.
On the subject of possible discomfort in having to explain that the wife is the bread-winning partner, "The reaction is generally one of jealousy," Turner told the Global Times.
As the conversation slowly drifted into China's role in international affairs, there were interspersed topics such as the difficulty of finding a good nanny, the search for a professional cook, and enjoyable day trips, before it was past four o'clock.
Rising with genuine smiles, the guytais said that school was out and it was time to pick up the kids. Returning to his earlier point, Turner stated, "We've really been given a gift – being able to spend so much quality time with our children."