What does it mean to be a father?
Sonke Gender Justice asks what South Africans think it means to be a father and their opinion on sharing parental responsibilities.
Global report on fathers must set the tone for policy reform
By Wessel van den Berg
The first State of the World’s Fathers report has just been published at a moment when the global conversation about fathers and gender equality is gaining traction. Richard Branson recently announced that new fathers at Virgin would have a full year of paid parenting leave available to them. The report affirms the smart
reasoning behind the decision. Involved fatherhood allows women and girls to achieve their full potential. That’s right: women and girls. By supporting dads to take time to spend with their children, companies like Virgin are taking a major step towards improving women’s career opportunities. As the report points out, women’s participation in the labour force can improve GDP drastically.
The private sector is realising this ahead of governments across the world. Only 92 countries offer paid leave for new fathers, and most of them for less than three weeks. As a new father living in South Africa, I was lucky to benefit from the four weeks of paid paternity leave my employer offers. I was part of the team that proposed the idea and with the organisation being focused on gender justice, our board readily accepted it.
And then I became a parent. I have to admit I expected it to be easier. I guess all soon-to-be-parents do. Our journey to parenting was slightly more special than most though, since we adopted a child. There are moments when being a father is the hardest thing to be. In those moments the same thought always returns: "We chose this." It’s even embedded in the meaning of the word adoption. Ad-opt means to choose. We were clear from the start that we did not want to adopt a child to replace a biological child. We wanted to adopt a child because that is what we wanted to do. So much so that if we were to fall pregnant during the adoption process, we would still go ahead and adopt. Regardless of the sex or race or origin of the child.
And now I am a father, right there in that beautiful place of ugly exhaustion, with a little angel dancing on my tired body. My daughter is just over a year and a half old and she uses all of the emotional and physical resources we have, and I still feel that I should give more. The state of this father is tired. Baby wipes and more junk in the garage are complemented by midnight strolls down the dark hallway with a warm little body against my shoulder. Through the fog of fatigue my daughter and I are developing a friendship on which we increasingly depend. She reaches for me when she feels afraid, she relaxes when I lift her from her bad dreams and she loves pulling my beard. And all that started when I had the time to do the care work. Wouldn’t you trust someone who feeds you, keeps you warm and cleans your bum?
Many children in South Africa don’t have access to so much time with their fathers. Half the children in the country have biological fathers who live elsewhere. In addition, women give eight times more care work as men. Children attach to the parent who does the most care work with them, but when you’re a single mother holding down a job and doing the care work, you have less time to enjoy this valuable time of bonding. The State of the World’s Fathers report reminds us that men do want to get involved in care work, but a market that positions women as the only caregivers of children presents a significant barrier.
In South Africa most new fathers do not get any paternity leave, just three days of "family responsibility" leave. This type of leave is available in a few other African countries. It should include all of your family contingencies for the year. So that’s caring for a baby, attending funerals, or caring for sick family members. It’s the only leave available to fathers who want to get involved in care work. The definition still locates men as the only breadwinner and does not highlight the valuable caring role fathers should play to achieve gender equality. Nevertheless, other countries in Africa are way ahead and offer much more of this time: Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritania are already providing family leave for up to two weeks. Two weeks is a great start.
Paternity leave offers women the time they need, children the care they need and men the intimacy they need. During my four weeks of leave, I learned how to keep going, I learned how to relax, and I learned how to laugh again. There are moments when being a father is the best thing to be. We just need the time.
Wessel van den Berg works for Sonke Gender Justice as the co-coordinator of the MenCare global fatherhood campaign.