Fatherhood's a struggle for the fatherless

Interacting with your children emotionally and culturally, as well providing for them, is a challenge for many men raised with distant or absent fathers. (Madelene Cronjé)

Interacting with your children emotionally and culturally, as well providing for them, is a challenge for many men raised with distant or absent fathers. (Madelene Cronjé)

Every morning, when I wake up, I write a text message to my 19-year-old daughter, Sbonganjalo, saying: "I love you nana, I miss you, I adore you, I admire you, I respect you, and you mean the world to me." I do the same to my other two kids, Rraphakisa and Latiwe, though not as often as I do to Sbonganjalo, only partly because they are a bit older (33 and 23).

Why do I send these SMSs to Sbonganjalo? There is a simple explanation. I am in my 50s, but I have never known what it means to be loved by a father. I have never experienced the impact of being hugged by a father and told: "You are a star! You are meant to succeed. The world is your oyster and you can achieve beautiful things if you put your mind to it."

I have never had the opportunity to be deeply appreciated, acknowledged and affirmed by a father figure. I aim to give them that which I was never given by my father.

I have often asked myself what it means not to be loved by a father ­figure.

Nothing can replace the voice of a father to his children, affirming them and building their self-confidence.

For example, when Rraphakisa's son, my grandson, was born, Rraphakisa called me to find out what he should do with his son's umbilical cord (inkaba in isiXhosa).

I had no idea what to do with it. There had been no father in my life to guide me in this cultural practice. This absence was so painful for me that, while on the phone, I began to weep, asking myself how I could disappoint my son, and why my father had ­abandoned me. It is on such occasions that I look back and ask this difficult ­question: What does an absent father do, intentionally or unintentionally, to his children?

It has never been easy for me, this grappling with being a father, when I have never had a template or point of reference from which to learn.

All the things I have done when it comes to my children have been developed through trial and error. In the process, I have made mistakes, to be sure, but I have learnt the joy of being present in my children's lives, not only physically, but emotionally.

My children have taught me the value of giving without expecting anything in return. They have taught me the importance of being vulnerable in front of them without feeling less of a man or less of a father. They have taught me the value of expressing my emotions openly and unapologetically.

I continue to feel the emptiness of not having had a biological father who was present in my life, but I have found love from a father figure. JR Nxumalo is the father I have adopted, at this late stage in my life. I have been able to cry on his shoulder, and open up to him about things that are hurting, confusing and painful for me.

For the first time in my life, I have a father who says to me: "I love you, I admire you, I adore you and I respect you." I now have someone that my kids look up to as their grandfather, someone who calls them as a grandfather would on their birthdays or when they have done well at ­university, someone who will never forget any memorable event in their lives.

It was this man I called on when Rraphakisa told me he was ready to get married and, for the first time, I was taught the ins and outs of lobola negotiations, something my father should have initiated me into.

I remain grateful to Baba Nxumalo for being a father figure to me. I have been able to debunk the myth that as fathers we can't be compassionate, we can't love, we can't cry with our kids. The dominant discourse that allows us to believe that fathers are good only as long as they work, provide, protect – and don't show "feminine" emotions – is problematic.

Being a father is complex. It entails more than being a provider or protector of the family. Whether one is working or not, there are myriad ways to be a father. As in the case of my approach to communicating with my children daily, it is important for men to develop relationships with their children as fathers, to bond emotionally, and to create avenues to explore life's difficulties together.

The pain of the non-provider
The Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg and Sonke Gender Justice Network published a report, So We Are ATM Fathers, this month, based on a study that sought to understand absent fathers' conceptions of fatherhood.

The fathers who participated, all from Johannesburg, predominantly conceptualised fathers as providers (and mothers as caregivers). Because almost all of the participating fathers were unemployed and unable to provide, many had retreated or had been excluded from their families. The fathers expressed the pain of being separated from their children and a sense of helplessness.

It became clear that their absence was not caused by their lack of interest, but by the rigid, narrow concepts of fatherhood in which they were socialised to believe. Download the full report from genderjustice.org.za.

Mbuyiselo Botha is the government and media relations manager of Sonke Gender Justice Network.



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