OPINION: The value of a father’s role
Father's Day provides us with much to celebrate, commiserate and ponder. Fatherhood is a real job. There are key performance areas and indicators. Ask any child, four or forty years old, and they will tell you clearly how that looks and feels. Of course, there are many fathers getting high scorecards, and there are many getting it wrong. The ones getting it right are the ones who are not perfect and try every day to be good at it. They put their children in their top three priorities.
Being the eldest of four daughters is a not a walk in the park. It is a responsibility and growing up I had to account for a lot. Since my father passed, I realise the privilege of being treated as someone with responsibility. It gave me a sense of authority, being trusted and being able.
I always thought the way we grew up was traditional. Our dad went out to work and our mum worked at home, looking after us and cleaning the house before our housekeeper came over... to clean the house. It never did make sense but it was in her purpose.
Our parents had general roles, rather than gender roles. Our mom knew how to change the plugs on appliances, she would mount framed photographs into the walls of our old home which had walls as thick as dungeons. My uncle who worked on a construction site had calloused, grey hands. He'd tease my father that he did 'girl's work', that's why his hands were soft and pink. I remember the comfort of those long soft hands holding my little hands from birth, to walking down the aisle at my wedding. My reference was never the girl's work, but that one worked with his hands as a builder and the other worked in an office, talked into a Dictaphone and made notes into the night on yellow exam pads.
My first experience of chivalry was when a boy in my grade 5 class offered to take his and my cuts when our teacher was punishing the whole class. He was gallant and brave, I felt protected, though I wasn't. He stepped in and said, "Okay ma'am, but can she go and wash her face when it's over?" She agreed and proceeded to strike my knuckles four times with unprecedented force and the side of an aluminium ruler. The crack of my knuckles and the tight blink of his eyes were timed as he stood at the open classroom door to ease my exit.
It was unforgettable and new, my dad never opened doors for my mom, and I guess I never noticed. He did treat her with love or acceptance or friendship or anger or impatience, depending on what was happening for them. He did pretend to choose our side while winking his eye at her or us, depending on whose side he really was on. He was the peacekeeper dad.
I never felt through my father that my mom was in a less important role, this was a conscientious effort on his part as I now gratefully realise. However, as I grew familiar with the thing called "independent woman" (my teenage version anyway), I did doubt my mum. I compared her to other moms and thought she should have been less available to our dad and to us. Only once I was obliged to pursue a career to care for my own children did I find the value of our stay-at-home mom. Our father provided this opportunity for us. They taught us that we had what we needed, not what we wanted, because of a choice they made to be "our kind of traditional". They unknowingly defined it differently. Looking back these were important lessons. Our parents taught us that they and we were enough as we were, and as we weren't. This was our exposure.
When we were young our father did not ever, not once, not even when asked and teased, object to having four daughters. He treated all of us like jewels in the crown of his life. When asked, all of us will say, "I was his favourite!" He never needed us to play soccer or cricket, his favourite sports. He cheered us at swimming galas and softball matches.
Our mother and he were a team (against us sometimes) and when they were out with each other, we were generally in better books, with some more leeway than usual. Those were fun times!
In the 1970s, we were enrolled at an all-girls multiracial convent school. As coloured girls from the Cape Flats we crossed the threshold to what was possible in South Africa in spite of apartheid. As young girls we were surefooted and held by our father. The benefit of single-sex schools for girls was that we could compete as equals. The doctor or the nurse could be your career choice early on. Stereotypes were still around, but not alive when you were in an all-girls environment and came from a family where you were valued, respected and guided by an active father. I know divorced fathers who still offer this peace of mind to their children, it is a noticeable commitment. There is truth to the assertion that more children would rather come from a broken home, than live in one. Parents have the responsibility to raise adults who do not have to recover from traumatic childhoods.
Without a dad like ours our mum would have raised us to the best of her ability. With him, we benefitted getting to know how to be in a world where boys are valued higher than girls and where girls have to sometimes audition to be noticed. Times are changing and more dads are tuning in.
The value of a father's role in the life of a child, in my opinion, is make or break. I have seen many young ladies looking for fatherly love in unsafe and unguarded territories. I have seen young men thrust into roles as the head of the house, while their moms work really hard to keep them comfortable. I have seen fathers alone in sickness, health and loneliness because of broken promises to their children. Some neglect their responsibility, renege on their parental role and somewhere there is a consequence, seen or unseen.
I commend fathers who take their children as seriously as they do their careers, their friendships and their hobbies.
In a busy world, marriages break down, family structures splinter, parents damage their children's self-image, their security and their confidence. The children mostly survive the damage by submitting to the rejection, some set about a life of self-sufficiency, some to dependency on substances, others or things. It is rare that the actions or inactions of fathers do not have a direct impact on their children.
Human beings at the end of their lives see clearly and feel deeply. There is good sense in making an effort, while you can, to do the right things by your children. Let them miss you when you're gone for good, but let them be glad you were here.
Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn