Fathers are more than just ATMs

2012-06-16 11:18

Society must reimagine its notion of the role of the male parent

The more time I spend with my grandson, Onesimo Ofentse, the more I reflect on my own fatherlessness.

Watching my grandson’s smiles and laughter, I can see the delight it brings him to be playing with his dad and grandfather.

Although this brings me much happiness, it causes me to think about my own childhood, in which I was unable to experience such times with my father. Watching the joy this brings my son, I can only imagine whether my father felt as though he also missed out on something, as I will never be able to ask him.

But what does it mean to be a father? In a research study conducted by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa and Sonke Gender Justice Network, absent fathers were posed this question.

These were mostly unemployed men from some of the poorest areas of Johannesburg, but when asked what it meant to be a father the majority replied: a provider.

Many fathers described the pain it causes them to be unable to provide for their children, which is understandable, as their conception of fatherhood itself is encapsulated by the idea of providing.

One father expressed the pain he feels because his son is being raised by another man: “He calls that one ‘papa’ . . . when he comes to me he says ‘Tumi’. When you say ‘I am your father’, he says ‘you are not my father, my father is

so-and-so, my father can do this and this for me’ . . . That thing is what causes me to hurt.”

There are various reasons why many men are unable to provide for their children – some of these are forces beyond their control – but this does not mean they cannot love their children, guide and care for them. One respondent emphasised that, “The only thing that we are crying for as men is to see our children, either having money or not having money”.

In South Africa today, we need a transformation of gender roles in order to allow children and fathers to know each other.

This not a slight on women, or a suggestion that mothers are not capable.

I was raised by a single mother, who was amazing. Rather, this is a call for equitable parenting and for men to be more involved in the parenting responsibilities that usually fall to women.

Of course it is essential that men always treat their partners and children with respect and never use violence.

In some situations it is better for the child to be separated from his or her father.

When parents are violent or verbally abusive this causes untold, and often long-term damage.

The welfare and rights of the child must always take precedence when decisions are made regarding custody or visitation rights.

However, if we can build a society where men are allowed to express their feelings and frustrations and reveal their vulnerability, we should be able to create a society where violence is less pervasive.

While it is imperative that men prioritise financial contributions to their children, there are further ways a man can strengthen his involvement in his child’s life and contribute to his or her development.

Sadly, service-providers, communities, mothers, and fathers themselves, often do not believe that men are capable, or that it is appropriate for them to do so.

Respondents commented that: “you can’t take care of the child the way a mother does”, “this is something even God created this way . . . women are born to do that”.

We have been socialised to believe that it is not a man’s role to care for children. As I watch my own son caring for his child, bathing him, feeding him, I am reminded how we must interrogate and reject these notions that men cannot be carers.

Onesimo Ofentse’s mother is confident of her husband’s ability to care for their child, and my son has shared how much it fulfils him to care for his son in this way.

He is not alone. Slowly we are seeing more fathers looking after their children and taking equal responsibility for household chores. Our quest is to make this the norm.

Yes, my son did have to learn some care skills but many mothers would admit that they learned such skills through being encouraged to attend antenatal classes, reading and speaking with other women.

Mothers often learn from their own mothers, sisters or aunts – but there are few role models for men to learn from in terms of fathers who take part in child care.

Two fathers said that: “we did not know our father . . . we don’t have any father idea” and “your father has never given you a bath or dressed you. If you grow up with that stereotype it becomes difficult to accept that in your adulthood you are going to do these things.”

Society has a role to play in supporting fathers to acquire such knowledge. Mothers, too, can help their sons and partners to learn the basic skills of parenting.

We continually bombard fathers with images and ideas that suggest it is not their place to care for children, when they should rather be encouraged to believe in themselves as carers.

One father demonstrated this capacity, saying: “I wake up in the morning, checking nappies . . . there is no book which says as a man you don’t have to change nappies”.

To reduce our role as fathers to mere ATMs is to deny us the pure joy of being a father.

I was denied the experience of having an involved father – let us work to ensure that fewer children will have to say the same.

» Botha and Thomson work for Sonke Gender Justice Network 

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