Editorial: Of dads who are there, and those who aren’t

I don’t have the easiest relationship with my father. In my 20s, I thought it was because I was so completely different from him, but now, older and hopefully more aware, I realise it is because I am a lot like him. Prone to anxiety, a bit imaginative as far as worst-case scenarios go and extremely emotional. The good things about him -- his wonderful discipline, his unbreakable determination and willpower -- totally passed me by. Life’s little jokes. Anyhow, as a tumultuous youngster, we were at loggerheads with each other all the time, never really understanding each other. This, of course, ended in almost every moment of our shared space becoming unbearable.

Then I became a parent, and life threw its challenges my way. So I had to grow a little more empathic, a little less stubborn in my beliefs and create space for the realisation that even our parents are not perfect, that they are as fallible as us. This brought about another realisation: That through all my challenges, all the times I had hit rough patches, if there was one huge reason I felt confident that I would come out of it was that I knew my father had my back. That he would be there, strong, steady, really, really quiet but right there for me in real terms that mattered at that time. Whether that was a home to go back to when I didn’t have one or an offer of money to help me out of a tight spot.

I was reading a letter from a stay-at-home father to his three girls. There was none of that saccharine sweetness that fathers who are distant most of a child’s lives imbue into their communication in an emotional moment. This father brought his children up hands on and he knew exactly who each of his daughters was. He understood them and accepted them for who they were. The daughters, in turn, flourished. By all accounts, they were emotionally, intellectually, mentally and financially well off. I started to think about how all of that happens to come together in one person, let alone raising three daughters like that. And it struck me that, as important as the mother is, the father is equally important in children’s lives. From my observation, this is especially true where confidence and self-esteem is concerned. I realised it in my own life a few years ago, that if I have, at every stage in my life, marched to my own beat, it was because I had the experience of growing up with a father who was always there, however quiet.

In a paper by Robby D Harris  (New York University) where he collates the results of studies done over the last 40 years, when psychologists and scientists started to realise that fathers were just as important as mothers in the lives of children, Harris says, “Fathers help their children to develop positive self-concept, self-esteem, social competence, empathetic abilities, self-confidence, and emotion regulation (Amato, 1994; Biller, 1993; Culp, Schadle, Robinson, & Culp, 2000; Downer & Mendez, 2005; Fagan & Iglesias, 2000).” Another report quotes a study as saying:

Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections.

Children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes. The influence of a father's involvement extends into adolescence and young adulthood. Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents.

Knowing how one of the largest elements of childhood is play, and now knowing that fathers are usually the “fun parent” (most mothers have far too many regular chores on their hands in order to be anything more than functional, or maybe pleasant at best, to be a fun parent), it is highly essential that we get fathers more involved in the lives of children. Providing a home and bringing home a salary is all well and good, and mothers can do that too. But to be emotionally available to our kids, to carve out precious time, is something fathers must absolutely do.  

As I write this, I worry for my own kids. My kids don’t see their father often enough, and I’ve made relative peace with that, being kids of a broken marriage. But every time I think of how it affects my kids, especially now that they are older and have started to ask all kinds of questions about why they don’t see him more often, I have no answers. And I have all the fears. Lord knows I am not the best parent there is. Some days, I am barely a decent version of myself, let alone a good parent. But the fact of the matter is that I try; we all try. And we all make a home that we enjoy coming back to. At least, that’s my impression of our lives. When my kids do get to see their father, they come back full of love and confidence, bursting with self-assured joy that only kids who have been held, hugged, loved and treated tenderly radiate.

Tenderness makes me think of this beautiful tiny thing that popped up on my Twitter: Yuvraj Singh posting a picture of his mum doing a plank. His tweet gave her inner strength all the credit for his recovery and for who he was. This sweet, sweet devotion to his mum that he makes so obvious every single time never fails to tug at my heartstrings. We posted it here. The other thing I urge you to read this week and be very, very angry at is this: the male hormonal contraceptive has been in existence forever but not being used because men couldn’t handle the side effects. The side effects include palpitation, acne, sweaty palms and weight gain among other things. In short, all the symptoms that women have been living with ever since hormonal contraceptive was prescribed to them. What makes me even angrier is that contraceptive pills are deeply linked to depression in women, one of the side effects that have been brutally and systematically suppressed in any kind of literature. If you’ve been the one using any kind of birth control in your life and want your partner to share the responsibility, read our piece on vasectomies and why it should be a more popular family planning option.

For those of you looking for a lighter read, may I recommend the immense discomfort women face when we head out to buy bras only to be assisted by a man behind the counter. You’re all er, ah, um, and he? Well, for all he cared he could be selling vegetables, he’s that nonchalant. This sort of thing brings me back time and time again to the need for safe spaces for women, where we feel comfortable with what we are doing. And finally, a little how-to on habits that will help you keep your toddler’s digestive system healthy through the year.

Before I go, if you’re a mother, get your partner to read this: encourage his involvement with your child. And if you’re a dad, put this down and go play with your kid.

Until next week.