SA’s men striving to be more effective fathers than their own, research shows
Three studies provide evidence that South African men are taking up ideas and practices of fatherhood which include close involvement in their children’s lives.
This is one of the research papers contained in the "State of South Africa’s Fathers" 2021 report released on Thursday.
The research highlights fathers’ accounts of wanting to be responsible fathers who are closely involved in their children’s lives by “being there” and providing both material and emotional care.
Though the men in these studies continued to prioritise their responsibility to provide material care, they also talked about emotional care for their children — using language in which notions of closeness, joy, and vulnerability featured.
Furthermore, they referred to using different activities to engage with their children such as play, physical affection, recreational walks, advising, and teaching.
“These findings are encouraging as they indicate discursive shifts in how men talk about fatherhood.
“Such discourses about fatherhood that prioritise fatherhood roles beyond those of provider, protector and disciplinarian play an important role in contesting limiting father ideas and seeding expanded roles for fathers in practice,” the researchers said.
They are Elmien Lesch, Lesley Gittings, Shanaaz Dunn, Pranitha Maharaj, Helenard Louw, Athena-Maria Enderstein, Erika Nell, Razia Nordien-Lagardien and Blanche Pretorius.
The three studies were presented in sequence, from young prospective fathers wanting to do better than their own fathers, to current fathers doing better than their fathers and, “being there” as fathers.
Breaking the generational curse
The first study investigated how 36 black isiXhosa-speaking adolescent boys and young men aged between 13-24 in the Eastern Cape talked about being fathers.
These young men framed their fatherhood aspirations and their desires to be present, supportive fathers, in contrast to their own experiences as children. Most had deceased or uninvolved fathers.
Besides their desires to be present and loving fathers, material provision was foregrounded in participants’ talk about fatherhood.
In the second study, 20 fathers aged 21—28 from various racial backgrounds in Durban were interviewed.
Fathers moved away from the 'absent father' stereotype while proactively and reflexively negotiating alternative patterns and practices of fatherhood based on emotional engagement.
Participants felt that transitioning into the role of a father required “sacrifice” that they were willing to make. For one participant, the sacrifice “was worth it”.
The researchers said the men also spoke of the pressure of their new responsibilities and how these changed their lives.
“You realise what you have to do in life. You have more priorities now. I have to pay for school fees. So there is a lot that I have to do. I have grown up more than I would have liked. I was out partying all the time, but now I am focused on my children’s future,” another participant said.
Researchers said the desire to remain engaged, involved, and present in the lives of their children was also echoed in the third research that explored the fatherhood accounts of 10 working-class fathers aged 21 to 45 from the Cape Flats.
Their narratives revealed themes of “breaking the generational curse”, “being there”, and processes of re-signifying fatherhood.
Moving away from emotional emptiness
In breaking the generational curse, researchers said the fathers moved away from the “absent father” stereotype, while proactively and reflexively negotiating alternative patterns and practices of fatherhood based on emotional engagement.
When asked: “What does it mean to be a father?”, the statement “to be there for my child” was echoed among the fathers.
“They did not want their children to endure the same sense of emptiness that they experienced due to their biological fathers’ absence and this strengthened their desire to be connected with their children.”
Researchers said these studies are in line with existing research that refers to “intergenerational flow of fathering”, that men duplicate good fathering ideas and practices that they themselves encountered in their own fathers, as well as improve upon the deficiencies of fathering that they themselves experienced.
“In this process, they become more effective fathers than their own.”
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