/ 23 April 2024

Why men choose to be absent fathers

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South Africa has a high rate of absent fathers, with roughly half of the country’s children not having regular interaction with them on a daily basis.

Only 31.7% of black children live with their biological fathers, compared with 51.3% of coloured children, 86.1% of Indian or Asian children and 80.2% of white children, according to Statistics South Africa. But physical presence alone does not translate to responsible and involved fathers, who do their share of parenting work besides being “ATM machines”.

The absence of fathers affects the development of children and has had detrimental consequences for families and for society as a whole. Among other things, it may have emotional and psychological effects on children, lead to financial hardships and children not having positive male role models. Although it can be argued that the disengagement of fathers is not pathological, negligent or disinterest, because of broader systematic and historical contexts which shape their actions, it is important to interrogate personal responsibility.

As a result of social and economic developments in South Africa, “modern” fathers — those born since the late 1970s — have been exposed to the hardships of not having present fathers and they, now that they are fathers, have the opportunity to rectify this. But the statistics indicate otherwise and they avoid responsibility. So, why are men choosing to be absent fathers? Here are five key reasons provided by men.

  1. Strained relationship between parents. When parents have a strained relationship (either because of a divorce, separation or break-up), it can lead to absent fatherhood. Fathers justify their absence due to emotional disconnection causing them to withdraw, conflict avoidance leading to physical absence, breakdowns in communication making coordination difficult, role confusion causing frustration and disengagement and stress and mental health issues affecting their involvement. The fathers neglect the children on the basis of their relationship with the mother. But the mothers or caregivers may also prevent men from seeing their children because of the strained relationship.
  1. Materialist constructions of fatherhood and masculinity. In South Africa, a father is how much money he can provide at the end of the month because we emphasise provider roles and financial success as primary measures of a father’s worth. Fathers may feel under pressure to focus solely on earning money, leading to long work hours and limited time for parenting. Not meeting the financial expectations makes them feel unworthy of being fathers and sometimes makes them feel as if they are not allowed to be fathers if they don’t have money. The societal expectation for men to be breadwinners and display traditional notions of masculinity, such as toughness and emotional stoicism, can also discourage emotional expression and nurturing behaviour, creating barriers to forming strong bonds with their children and being active parents. Additionally, materialist values often prioritise possessions and career achievements, further marginalising the importance of emotional presence and active involvement in fatherhood. These constructions perpetuate a cycle of absenteeism as fathers struggle to balance work demands with meaningful involvement in their children’s lives, resulting in a lack of emotional connection and support within the family.
  1. Socio-economic factors such as poverty and unemployment. South Africa has a high unemployment rate. Unemployment can lead to feelings of inadequacy and depression, affecting parental involvement and emotional connection. Moreover, poverty can restrict access to resources such as childcare and education, further affecting a father’s ability to fulfil their parenting roles effectively. These socio-economic problems create barriers to active fatherhood, resulting in absenteeism and reduced support within the family structure.
  1. Cultural factors. The financial implications of customary practices such as lobolo (bride price) and inhlawulo (damages) can contribute significantly to absent fatherhood by creating economic burdens that strain family dynamics. Lobolo and inhlawulo place a substantial financial obligation on men, often leading to financial stress and pressure to prioritise providing for these cultural practices over active involvement in parenting. These cultural practices, while important in preserving traditions, make fathers feel unworthy of their children because they did not do right by the family of the mother.
  2. Evade responsibility because it is an “option”. The wide scale absence of fathers has normalised absent fathers, making it an “option” and not a responsibility. Fathers choose to be absent because they perceive parenting as a role with optional responsibilities, allowing them to “tap out” and reenter the parenting dynamic as they want to. 

This perception is also often rooted in societal norms and expectations that prioritise mothers as the primary caregivers, leading some fathers to believe that their involvement is not essential or that they can opt ou. 

Additionally, cultural and legal frameworks in some contexts may provide avenues for fathers to disengage from parental responsibilities more easily, such as through limited custody arrangements or lack of enforceable child support mechanisms. 

One interesting piece of advice from a man was that women need to stop giving “unworthy men” children on the basis of love, financial status and short-term sexual engagements. The decision to have a child with someone should not be taken lightly.

Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner who focuses on human rights protection, international trade and investment and peace and security.