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There's more to fatherhood than a name

Dr. Catherine Syengo Mutisya consultant psychiatrist taken on 23rd July 2014. PHOTO: WILBERFORCE OKWIRI

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare

The recent ruling by High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi on inclusion of fathers’ names in the birth certificates of their children has elicited interesting public debate. The ruling is definitely a win for the mother and child who made the application in 2014. It is victory for single mothers thrust into similar circumstances by evasive fathers.

Are there mothers who may not wish to include the father’s name in their child’s birth certificate even after this ruling? Perhaps there will be. But here is the million dollar question: Is there anyone – child or adult – who would not want to know his/her father; whether or not the mother elects to include his name in the certificate? Certainly not.

As we debate this ruling, we should bear in mind that whenever a court is making a decision that affects a child, it must ensure that verdict is in the best interest of the child. And that is why I congratulate Justice Ngugi.

In my psychiatry practice, every time an adolescent or a young adult presents to me in psychological distress or struggling with alcohol or substance use disorder, as part of assessment, I have to find a way of establishing the relationship with both parents. Don’t get me wrong, as a psychiatrist I cannot afford to be judgmental. I only look for information which is useful in the treatment process.

Apparently, some parents are uncomfortable with my line of questioning. Some have argued that the presence or absence of the other parent was not an issue. But thanks to “Dr Google”, many parents are well informed and are comfortable with questions about “the other parent”.

Of course if the child or adolescent doesn’t know the name of the father, he or she is unlikely to have had a relationship with him. It is distressing to hear a child or teen in distress confessing that he/she does not know or have never met the father even in cases where the father is alive. Having a strong identity in adolescence partly depends on having had a strong sense of trust at infancy, autonomy in toddler-hood and a successful childhood period.

All these factors can easily be achieved when both parents are available and employing the right parenting skills. Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world and sometimes a child doesn’t even know the name of his/her father.

Ultimately, parenthood is challenging under the best of conditions. With single parenthood, the challenges are multiplied.  The single parent is overloaded with responsibilities which range from having to make all the decisions and provide for all of the family needs, including being available to meet their own and their children’s emotional needs. Put together, these stressors could result in problems for the single parent and the child including loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Of course, having a father’s name on a birth certificate doesn’t make him available and responsible. There is need for more formal and informal morality lessons and deliberate efforts towards attitude change to make fathers take up their roles. We might definitely see an upsurge of maintenance cases and more fights for custody.

But cheers Justice Mumbi Ngugi for your ruling. You might not be on the right side of all parents, but you are definitely on the right side of every child.

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