OPINION | Fatherhood is worth the long walk

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"Fatherhood is a life-affirming gift worth the often-difficult journey of being a present and engaged dad."
"Fatherhood is a life-affirming gift worth the often-difficult journey of being a present and engaged dad."

Fatherhood is a life-affirming gift worth the often-difficult journey of being a present and engaged dad. Let us reaffirm the value and importance of fatherhood this Father's Day with a message of positive reinforcement rather than the usual negative narrative around men.

Fathers are rising to the challenge in growing numbers, and ours is to honour what these dads are doing right and cultivate it in others.

When my daughter was only three years old, we were told that she would need surgery to repair a small hole in her heart. I asked if I could be in the theatre when they put her under anaesthesia and again in the recovery room when she wakes up.

I wanted to minimise the trauma of her surgery as best as possible by being there at every waking moment, reassuring her that she wasn't alone.

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A few weeks after the operation, during a family braai, I overheard my daughter telling some relatives, "My heart was broken, but my dad fixed it."

I choked up with emotion as I realised how much I meant to her as her father. That day, she gave me the great gift of seeing myself through her eyes. I was her hero, the man who could do anything, fix anything, and it became my inspiration to be and become the man she needed me to be.

Several years later, we moved down to the coast. My family travelled two weeks ahead of me because I had some loose ends to tie up.

A week into our two-week separation, while talking to my daughter on the phone, then aged 7, I said to her, "isn't life beautiful by the sea?" her reply surprised me "If this is going to be my life here, then I don't want it".

"Why, my precious?" I asked, and her words made me tear up again, "because you're not here, daddy".

What started as a light-hearted exchange between father and daughter brought to me again the importance of fathers in their children's lives. I realised the two most essential words in a father's lexicon are the words "be there."

As I reflect on the state of families in South Africa, I am painfully aware of my position as a minority in a sea of fathers who are, by choice or not, absent from their children's everyday lives and cannot provide the irreplaceable nurturing and protection that fathers are naturally wired to provide.

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Social ills dating back to political events in our collective past have left generational wounds in the modern South African family.

These wounds have dramatically affected how we view father figures in a society where boys are so often raised without the love, validation, discipline and teaching of a father or father figure.

The resultant emotional void and lack of understanding of healthy, positive masculinity often result in a toxic mix of passivity and aggression. Violence takes the place of love and self-belief.

During the apartheid era, the phenomenon of migrant workers leaving rural towns and villages to work in the growing urban landscapes and the remote mines of early SA gave way to single-mother-led homes as the new norm.

Other factors like unemployment, teenage pregnancies and unmarried couples bearing children have resulted in most women being left to raise children. When it is not the mother, it is often the grandmother or another female relative.

Today upwards of 60% of children in SA aged 17 years and under don't have a father present in their lives. But there is hope that this picture is changing.

More fathers are stepping up. As evidenced in the courts, thousands of fathers are fighting for joint custody or are in mediation for access to their children.

Most importantly, we see the positive results in children's development and mental health where both parents have been present in their upbringing.



Changing the narrative

The remedy for broken South African families and the devastating effect this has on society is the healing, restoration and equipping of men to be good fathers, mentors and role models. When men step up as the protectors and nurturers they were made to be, families, communities and ultimately the nation will find healing.

In addition to holding men accountable for any form of abuse or neglect, we need to, as a society, passionately and intentionally honour, validate, recognise, promote, teach and model positive, healthy masculinity.

Boys who grow up hearing that men are trash are unlikely to be good, muscular men. Men raised in a society where positive, healthy masculinity is taught and modelled to them by older men will more often than not grow up to be good men who use their strength to love, serve, protect and provide to the best of them their ability.

In this spirit, the fathers, uncles, brothers and grandfathers who have stepped up should be honoured this Father's Day.

Single fathers, stepfathers and co-parenting fathers show how we can make fatherhood work even in the most challenging circumstances.

Must see: Nurturing dads raise emotionally intelligent kids – helping make society more respectful and equitable

It takes a village to raise a true father

It may seem counter-intuitive to focus on the positive contributions of men in society when so much violence and pain has been documented in the news at the hands of men. Still, redress begins with focusing on what is being done correctly and how to cultivate this in all men and boys.

More and more men are getting involved in fighting gender-based violence (GBV) and teaching boys and men the values of manhood. These men need to be celebrated and encouraged.

The message that true masculinity is a powerful force for good and teaching about what that means needs to be driven home at all levels of society – in homes, communities, and the workplace.

Businesses also need to play their part, driving education, awareness, and support for staff who return home as fathers, brothers and sons.

We have seen the positive impact of this work with partners such as Bettabets, whose staff and other stakeholders participate in our two online courses aimed at helping men stand against GBV and learn about responsible fatherhood, masculinity and manhood.

These courses, 'No excuse for abuse' and 'The 6 Pack of masculine virtues', are available to any organisation or individual. It takes serious intent and consistent action to be a father. This doesn't just happen when the baby is born.

It takes deliberate action and a daily decision for as long as your child lives. It may take a village to raise a child, but a town with no fathers is weak.

There is great potential that can be unlocked in the children who will one day run this country if they are blessed with the foundational nurturing of fatherhood.

Craig Wilkinson is the founder & CEO of Father a Nation, an NPO whose mission is to restore and equip men to be great fathers, mentors and role models.

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