All I Want for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is coming up in two weeks.

You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t know that (though, perhaps not by your dad). It’s not exactly a deafening silence, but there is a distinct mutedness surrounding Father’s Day. The barrage of marketing and schmaltz and endless florals and pastels that accompanies the run-up to Mother’s Day is sorely lacking a paternal counterpart. It’s not so much that I wish there were as much commercial noise surrounding Father’s Day as there is with Mother’s Day. As I’ve said before, the noise only serves to drown out and obscure some much-needed social conversation about the cost of motherhood, and in particular, the cost of continuing to cast motherhood as an individual pursuit, rather than as a social function that deserves social consideration.

The lack of noise around Father’s Day is harmful because it has the exact opposite effect. Whereas the incessant advertising about motherhood casts mothers as stand-alone superhumans, capable of lifting cars off of our babies in emergencies, the lack of advertising around fatherhood hides individual fathers within a crowd of faceless men, defined by their toolboxes and craft beers. Father’s Day advertising hones in on the indistinct, general ‘dadness’ of dads. It is mostly related to the non-fatherhood related things they do: they drink beer, they earn money, they eat meat. There are, of course, many problems with this, but the main one is that in obscuring individual fathers, the silence around Father’s Day neatly avoids a difficult conversation about fathers and their individual responsibilities. Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) reveals that of the 1.1 million South African children born in 2014, only 36% had any information at all on the fathers. More recent research by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the South African Institute for Race Relations Institute (SAIRR) found that 60% of South African children do not have regular or sustained contact with their fathers, and more than 40% of South African mothers serve as single parents.

Whilst mothers are singularly considered and condemned by society, we largely accept the wholesale absence of fathers, and in the wake of these mass abdications of familial duty, we accept weak general characterisations and understandings of what constitutes present fatherhood. We see fathers as secondary parents, ‘babysitters’, incapable of even the smallest tasks of childcare. Perhaps these discursive belittlements are meant to take the sting out of the absences? More often than not, they hide very real harm that an absence of fatherhood, whether or not the father is present, can cause. Instead of talking about what it means for a father to be individually present in his child’s life, we tally the physical absences, and let those who are physically there off the hook, and out of a serious consideration of his role as co-parent. We allow fathers, present or not, the cloak of social identity, so that they are not individually considered. Individual fathers may therefore feel like they are not allowed to ask for help in the way mothers can; like they are not meant to wade into the deep, murky and complex waters of parenting. It’s easier, then, to remain in the shallow end, earning the money, and ‘babysitting’ every so often. If you experience any of the acute difficulties that come with the transition into parenthood (like, say, postpartum depression which affects 1 in 10 fathers – yes, you read that correctly!), you may not easily find understanding, let alone actual help. And, so some fathers leave. Physically, or emotionally, or both. And what is left in their wake? Dangerously narrow masculinities that are drawn in broad, uncomplicated, black-and-white, them-versus-us strokes.  As a country, we know all too well some of the more devastating effects of those masculinities.

I’m not advocating for a shallow, overly-commercialised movement around fatherhood. What I’m arguing for is for the space for fatherhood to be under the same level of intense scrutiny, discussion, debate and social handwringing as motherhood. If anything, fatherhood deserves it more.

The ball is, of course, in the court of fathers. In the same way that mothers have had to wrest conceptions of our roles and identities from the clutches of those who would reduce us to the pale pink palette society offers, fathers will need to do the same. Speak into the void left to you by the aggressive advertisers.Tell us what fatherhood has given you. Tell us what you have sacrificed. Tell us how you stay present and engaged in spite of it or because of it all. Tell it all, tell it loud, tell it clear. Fill the void with your rich, individual voices, your experiences, your fears, hopes and dreams for your children.

And have a happy father’s day.