For many fathers, financial provision for their children has never been an issue. Even if they can’t always be there, they find comfort in the fact that they’re able to pay for their children’s school fees, buy them clothes and contribute to their overall financial well-being.
But what about the fathers who can’t provide financially, especially in these tough economic times. How do they navigate the relationship they have with their children?
Mbuyiselo Botha, gender activist at NGO Sonke Gender Justice, says society has painted the role of the father with just one brush: that all dads are providers.
“Our society is quick to get on to the notion that fathers are just ATMs,” Botha says. “Fathers have been socialised to believe that their only role is one of material provision – and this is a universal phenomenon that isn’t limited only to South Africa.” He adds that fathers aren’t often considered to be emotional providers because emotions tend to be the domain of women.
But it’s time for fathers to realise the emotional role they can play.
Botha says that in the eyes of the community, when a man is unemployed and has no source of income, he’s seen as “useless” because he can’t put food on the table, that he’s a complete failure. This has led to feelings of inadequacy among many men in this predicament and the belief that there’s nothing they can offer their children.
“As a result, most men who are unemployed or going through financial turmoil feel discouraged to have any sort of conduct or communication with their child,” Botha explains. “Over and above that, families also discourage them to do so. They’d say things like, “What type of father are you with no job?” or “What do you think that child is going to eat and going to wear?”
This is when it becomes important for us to ask about other ways, besides financial provision, in which a father can be active and present in a child’s life. Botha says the issue of emotional connectivity and emotional presence needs to come to the fore and needs to be featured in the conversation about the role of a father in his child’s life.
“A father shouldn’t be counted as important only because he’s able to provide financially for his child – children don’t survive only on money. It’s time for fathers to realise the emotional role they can play. As a father, I can read for to kids, take a walk with them, bathe them, clothe them. These are ways you can invest in your child’s life so your child can one day say, ‘He didn’t bring bacon to the table but he’s brought me emotional well-being.’”
Thabang Machete*, father of two, relates to Botha’s sentiment and says the problem of money goes far beyond just providing for the child.
“As a dad who doesn’t live with his children, not having money starts to affect even your access to them, before one even takes the conversation to material provision,” he says.
But Machete highlights the benefit of living in the time we’re living in, a time of so much change, especially around gender roles and the expectations of what a man is. He also notes how social media has helped him become more present emotionally.
“Things such as Skype and WhatsApp have created an interesting development in access – access is no longer just being there physically,” says Machete. “I keep in constant communication with my children, thanks to these [mediums]. My son, for example, talks to me every day about the things he’s going through, about who said what to him at school today. I’m able to be there for him emotionally, 24/7.”
Machete says one way he’s been able to rid himself of much of the guilt he experiences for not being able to always provide financially for his children has been by creating an environment of open communication with them and not pretending to be Super Dad all the time.
“I’ve created a very open relationship with the kids so they know the situation and can control their expectations as well,” he says. “This has also become a way of guiding them on how to become better adults in terms of understanding situations they may come across one day. Sometimes they’ll even joke and say, ‘I know you’re broke, Dad, but can I have R5,’” Machete says with a laugh.
He’s careful to note though that trust is an important part of that open communication. So when he has better days, he spoils his children. If they know you’re generous when you do have money, they’ll believe you when you say you don’t, he believes.
Siyabonga Buthelezi* says that during times of financial turmoil, not having money makes it very difficult for him to navigate his role as a father.
“When you don’t have money, your child doesn’t understand why, and this can sometimes be very discouraging because you don’t always have an explanation for them and are unable to meet their expectations,” he says.
Buthelezi says his situation has been made even more complicated by the fact that he has a child that he stays with and other children that don’t stay with him. He says trying to maintain a balance and fairness in the way that he stretches his money and his time among his kids has been tough.
“Sometimes you tell the child that’s away that you don’t have money. The only reason you don’t is because you’ve had to provide something for the one you stay with. This gives you a sense of guilt and sometimes creates conflict with the mother that stays with your child,” he says.
Buthelezi goes on to describe this as emotionally draining, and adds that this can have a negative impact on the way you interact with your child, especially if the mother forces the financial issue. Reiterating the point made by Machete, Buthelezi says when he does have money, he always makes sure his kids are at the top of his list of financial obligations.
“I always make sure that I do something nice for my kids when I do have money,” Buthelezi says. “I think that’s very important. As much as I can be there for them emotionally, it’s still important to me that I provide for them every single time I am able to.”
*Names have been changed