Fathers around the world feel theirs is a job that comes with no quick manual. Many find themselves thrust into the deep end of fatherhood, trying not only to stay afloat but prove their prowess in keeping the entire family afloat too — and in the words of the late politician, John Michuki, to do so while “juggling the liver.”
Sinking is never an option and may bring instant condemnation. Still, swimming ashore safely invites commendation too. Yet, different generations of fathers have approached their duties through the shifting sands of societal expectations.
“I wish fatherhood came with an instruction manual!” says Dr Sam Thenya, founder and director of strategy at The Nairobi Women’s Hospital.
“Nobody prepared me for fatherhood. For my firstborn child, it was parenting through trial and error. However, changing diapers and feeding the baby was not a big challenge due to my background as a doctor.”
Thenya, in his early 50s, grew up in a period when children were to be seen, not heard.
Fatherhood, on the other hand, has made him do things that those in his father’s time would not be caught doing including getting on the floor and playing with toys, riding bikes in city gardens, or taking a hike on forest trails. He even had to create time to attend their school functions, a rare feat for fathers in the 1970s.
But his main challenge lay in disciplining the children as he could not rely on the methods employed by his father. He says his father’s generation grew up during colonialism, with their parenting styles leaning towards autocracy and strict obedience to orders. His father, says Thenya, ruled the home by decree, and his word was final irrespective of how old the ‘child’ was.
“The cane was never far away since (caning) was the principal method of discipline he employed. However, when I became a father, I realised that such a method could not work. I have to be democratic and listen to their opinions, reason together and even let them challenge my decisions,” he says.
Still, the doctor says his father was also loving and wanted the best for the children. “He did what he knew was best and it surely worked since we all turned out well,” says Thenya. “Were our parents better than us? Time will tell.”
It is not just the fatherhood styles that are different. The arrival of a baby changes a man’s priorities and outlook on life. For Thenya, for example, it was thinking about the children’s future and being more deliberate in the choices he made. For example, he gave more attention to his health “since no child wants a sick father.” Financial planning and investment options took more centre stage.
For John Kagwi, a new father who just turned 30, his new role presents both opportunities and challenges. He belongs to the new generation of fathers that has no qualms attending a social event with a baby on a carrier, often called ‘babywearing’.
He says: “It is about creating a friendship that some of us did not experience while growing up. It is also about assisting my partner in child-rearing, contrary to our parent’s time when the work was left to our mothers alone.”
He adds that fatherhood has helped him put the needs of his family ahead of his own by significantly reducing the time spent away from his family. It has helped him improve his budgeting skills by prioritising the needs of his wife and child. The moments he gets to spend with his daughter are priceless.
“Being a father has brought out my inner child. I have to become a child so to speak so that I can understand my daughter better and develop a strong, unbreakable bond of friendship. My daughter is my friend as well,” he says.
Fatherhood, in Kagwi’s eyes, has been a journey of self-discovery as he did not know, for example, that “it is possible to function with only two hours of sleep or to multi-task.” In addition, he says while there are tonnes of information on best practices in child support and care, one has to be careful since a lot of things are marketed as if they are necessary for the growth of the child though they may not be.
What, then, does he see as key differences between today’s parenting and that of his father’s generation? “Fatherhood demands your presence. A father has to be there physically to help the mother and not just a mere case of providing what is needed physically but he is nowhere to be seen. For example, during the vaccination of the child nowadays, I have seen fathers accompany their partners to the clinics. This was not the case many years ago,” says Kagwi.
David Ng’eno, a father of a four-year-old daughter, says today’s fatherhood requires certain skills that may not have been taken keenly by past generations. With the advent of the digital revolution, the 40-year-old father says technology has made it easier to learn from shared fatherhood experiences from across the globe as “there is comfort in knowing that the struggles and fears of fatherhood are shared.”
For men, 60 years and younger, fatherhood presents an exciting phase of child development, where no single day is the same, where all one hears is how hard it is to be a father instead of mentioning how happy one can be. “Fatherhood gives a man a purpose and a compass. It is up to you to follow it,” says Thenya.