“David, you are the problem!” she sternly rebuked me. Up to that point I had been enjoying a refreshing adult beverage, and watching a stunning Johannesburg sunset with a platonic female friend. Sibongile pressed her point further, “you and your daughter are in love, head over heels with each other…it’s a wonderful love story…unless you are a third person trying to join in…”
Allow me to give some context through some up front disclosure: I am a divorced middle aged man, who vigorously and successfully secured legal rights to equal custody to my then two year old child. Flowing from this, one of the most profound lessons of the past couple of years of being a single parent, has been on the importance of fathers to children. Tashanta, my daughter, has been my main teacher.
At Tashanta’s creche, fathers are the overwhelming majority at kids events. We regularly constitute up to 70% of parental attendees. And despite this pre-school being racially diverse, black African fathers are disproportionately represented, engaged, and are the most active demographic. I have befriended a number of these men. Typically, when they are not in a relationship with the mother of the child, these men are the primary parent both in terms of time spent with the pre-schooler, and in financial and life provisioning.
This reality goes beyond my daughter’s pre-school. It extends to where she takes swimming lessons where the same dynamic is replicated. And it is present in a significant percentage of my male friends and colleagues who in middle age, have gone through divorce, and are navigating how to best bring up their children.
Why are the stories of these men important? In essence these men challenge a false societal narrative that is playing itself out not just in Johannesburg, but in many other parts of the world. A one sided debate, tragic and simplistic, that has dishonoured and belittled the role of fathers. Which dangerously and glibly advocates for a fatherless society. That has fed a false storyline of the fathers that we are. As men in general, and as black African men in particular..
My father and I were not close. Eight of my thirteen school years were in boarding school. I remember vividly the only soccer game he ever came and watched me play. I was 12 years old. For university, I was shipped 2 000 km from home. Yet my father, dead for 24 years, even today, looms mighty over my life. His spirit. His example. His virtues. His failures as a human being. And to him I am eternally grateful.
Children need their fathers. A father is irreplaceable. We should be recognising, actively enabling, and encouraging, the father and child relationship. And confronting firmly those who would seek to sabotage it. A father is the bedrock of identity. Of wholeness. Self-confidence, belief, pride, and hope. And importantly I have observed as a teacher, a father is a critical conduit for learning how life works.
Such acknowledgement and recognition does not seek to diminish the role of mothers (my grandmother played just as influential a role as my father). It simply asserts the critical role and importance of fathers.
There are billions of men stepping up and being great fathers. And a significant silent cohort that want to do more for their children but cannot. We must remove all impediments to men fathering their children. Because when men are not allowed to be the fathers they strive to be, the children are the victims and bear the ultimate cost. And their learning is forever compromised.