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Out with the old: Exploring fatherhood in a brave new world

 A man bonds with his son. [istockphoto]

Daniel Kanja remembers the 14 hours he spent at a top Nairobi hospital when his wife was in labour with their first child. Overcome by bouts of raw emotions during the period, Kanja shed more than one tear for his wife. But the moment he put his arms around the little bundle of joy, a baby girl, he was a changed man.

“Fatherhood is sweet,” he says. “To be called a dad and have the responsibility of bringing a child to the world and care for it must rank as one of the best privileges any man can have.”

But Kanja had not always had such dear feelings for fatherhood. He grew up under what some term as “old-school fatherhood” where the typical, stoic African father came across as indifferent and whose duties hardly went beyond providing for the family.

But times are changing. Up until the late 1990s, researchers say parenting has largely focused on the deep emotions of mothers who more often than not were literally at the beck and call of their children.

More recently though, the role of fathers has come under sharp scrutiny as they take on more roles as caregivers.

Like Kanja, many young men who are now fathers grew up under the ‘stiff’ dad who hardly exhibited raw emotions and who perhaps cringes when he sees his son carry a baby on a carrier or baby sling. And would that old-school father be found in the delivery room? Perhaps.

A number of men interviewed had different views as to how much their fathers were involved in the ‘small matters’ in their formative stages.

While some did not want to use their real names for fear of upsetting current family relations, some can hardly recall their fathers being there for things like hospital visits, school recitals, or church ceremonies.

Interestingly, even the latter say they never lacked the necessities, had school fees paid on time, and received needed discipline when necessary.

For others their fathers were the personification of the true north, without whom they would have struggled to find their rightful place in the big circle of life.

Duncan Mwathi* hardly remembers his father attending any school meetings regardless of the summons from the primary school headteacher. And Mwathi says it was just as well that he did not visit the school, located a 30-minute walk from their home.

“He liked to quarrel and would have made it worse for us [children],” says Mwathi who also cannot recall ever sitting on a hospital bench with his father. “Hiyo ilikuwa ni kazi ya mama.”

The only big assignment Mwathi’s father accomplished on his behalf was taking the young man to face the circumciser's knife.

Present in the labour ward

On the other hand, Mwathi strived to be there for his two children from the moment they began their life in the world. Like many modern fathers, he was not afraid of visiting the labour ward or taking them on numerous visits to the hospital thereafter.

“When they were very young, we would go to the hospital with my wife,” says Mwathi. “But after they got a bit older, I am the one who has been taking them to hospital and school meetings besides dropping and picking them up from school.”

Similarly Duncan Ochieng*, a father of two who grew up in Kisumu County recalls his father’s interest in the young man’s schooling but never once did he set foot in his junior school.

He was never late in coming home in the evening, as Ochieng recalls, neither did he tolerate laziness or any cases of boyish recklessness.

Still, his father kept away from all other ‘mundane’ things. “Hospital or school visits? Never!” says Ochieng who says the only time his father came near his ‘school’ was during his university graduation.

Yet he too, like Mwathi and Kanja, cherishes the role of fatherhood stating he would not trade it for anything.

On the other end of the spectrum are young fathers who felt the real presence of their fathers during their formative years.

They include David Macharia, a commercial photographer who recalls the numerous visits his father made to his school and made sure the young lad was deeply involved in church activities.

There is Kyle Wambua* whose father taught him how to read and write Kikamba in the same manner that he came to comprehend English and Kiswahili. Sadly, the father was not available for much of Wambua’s teenage years due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Research by Fatherhood Institute indicates that fathers who are deeply involved in a child’s early development help to inculcate positive outcomes for the child later in life.

Such outcomes include “better peer relationships; fewer behaviour problems; lower criminality and substance abuse; higher educational (and) occupational mobility; capacity for empathy; more satisfying adult sexual partnerships; and higher self-esteem and life satisfaction”.

Why some struggle

However, the research shows that some fathers could have a “confidence deficit” and may lack the emotional spark needed to nurture a child.

“Fathers may doubt their value in the therapeutic process and feel they have little to contribute,” the report says.

It adds: “They are also less likely to have been socialised to perceive themselves as nurturing individuals. This does not mean that they are less nurturing – simply that they do not so easily believe themselves to be.”

Robert Burale, an image consultant and founder of The Naked Truth says in the highly secularised world, there is a growing tendency to view the father figure in terms of monetary contribution while overlooking the emotional bond that should be created between father and child.

He says the true definition of fatherhood goes beyond providing money but a chance to reaffirm “your love to the child or they will find such love elsewhere.”

“My dad took me to school and attended some of the functions and this made me feel appreciated. When the male figure is present, it helps the child feel accepted. If the child feels rejected, it will affect him in the long run,” says Burale.

He sums up true fatherhood thus: “It is being available in the school dramas and practising the same with the child, making the child have confidence. Fatherhood is taking time to be there, letting the child see you. Imagine the child seeing the father in the audience during a school performance. Nobody out there will ever make that child feel rejected.”

Fatherhood is a delicate and crucial task that plays a major role on how the child develops and interacts with others.

The Pediatrics Association of Franklin writes about this on its website, saying:  “Fathers, like mothers, are pillars in the development of a child’s emotional well-being. Children look to their fathers to lay down the rules and enforce them. They also look to their fathers to provide a feeling of security, both physical and emotional.”

The report also notes that the relationship of a child and his/her father sets a precedence for other relationships.

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