Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

South Africa is not a ‘fatherless’ country

By Nick Malherbe

In the lead up to Father’s Day, one is often made to think of those who are “fatherless” and the high rate of father absence as a “crisis” of fatherhood. But such thinking cannot continue. I would argue that such a “crisis” stems primarily from the narrow way in which we think of “fathering” and even “family” in this country.

Although the importance of a father within the family unit should not be discounted, the nuclear family — where the biological mother and father live with a child — has for decades been uncommon in most countries, especially in low-income communities where fathering takes on many forms. Believing the nuclear family to be the only complete family form is not only idealistic, but also irrelevant, outdated, heterosexist and culturally prejudicial as a mode of thinking on existing types of family.

Despite this, it would appear that the nuclear family, and the traditional gendered roles that come with this family structure, remain the benchmark against which families are still measured.

It is with this in mind that I pose a challenge to South Africa’s so-called fatherhood crisis.

As part of my master’s dissertation, I ran a photography project with 15 teenagers in Nomzamo outside Strand in the Western Cape. The project required they take photographs that capture their understanding and perceptions of fatherhood. Each adolescent then explained his or her photographs to me in an individual interview.

What was most striking from these interviews was not that almost all the participants did not have contact with their biological father (apparently confirming the “crisis”), but rather that none of these teenagers felt they were not being fathered. Indeed, a number of “social fathers”, or adult men in the community who perform fathering duties in a child’s life, came to fulfil a version of fathering that was highly valued by the young people.

However, despite receiving parenting from social fathers, most participants expressed a yearning for their “real”, meaning biological, father, and had wished he existed in place of an otherwise nurturing and loving social father.

And here lies the heart of the problem of idealising the nuclear family and understanding fatherhood as in crisis.

There are a number of developmental deficits noted when a child feels he or she is not being adequately fathered. Children in my study could not rationalise the “specialness” they had attached to their biological father. This unnamed and undefined specialness is directly related to a hyper-idealistic understanding of the nuclear family as an essential family form as portrayed in advertising, television drama, and films. This notion of the family allows children to feel that they are missing “something” even if they are receiving adequate, nurturing social fathering.

I am by no means excusing paternal absence. But I am arguing that the prizing of the nuclear family is allowing children, many of whom are receiving a positive form of fathering, to feel that they are missing something.

It is therefore crucial that family intervention programmes work on challenging the idea of the essentialised nuclear family as the standard family form so that various fathering forms are acknowledged and recognised. Media influence cannot be ignored in this regard. Heteronormative portrayals of the “complete” nuclear family, which dominate advertisements and film, must dramatically begin to recede in order for other family forms to be appreciated. It seems absurd that these “other family forms” are regarded as alternative when they are in fact far more prevalent. Depictions of family within media is important in changing popular perceptions of the family

The idea of motherhood and fatherhood — with their respective gendered associations — as opposed binaries must also be challenged. It is when the strict gendered understanding of “motherhood” and “fatherhood” is challenged that parenting can take on an equal, effective and nurturing form. And it is when children who are receiving positive social fathering begin to feel adequately parented that the real crisis of parenting may start being addressed.

Nick Malherbe is a research intern at the Institute of Social and Health Science at the University of South Africa and the Medical Research Council-Unisa Violence, Injury and Peace Unit. He completed his master’s degree in psychological research on fatherhood at the University of Cape Town under the supervision of associate professor Debbie Kaminer.

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    • Stephan

      Believing the nuclear family is the only complete family form is exactly balanced, guaranteed for successful and powerful results that change the world into a better place. Absence proves exactly as described that the kids have serious gaps and generate a society lost and confused, and hatred and dysfunction. Therein is the tragedy of absent role players.

    • Isabella vd Westhuizen

      Nick you are trying to square a circle
      The nuclear family is the bedrock of society
      The family needs to be strengthened not weakened

    • philosoraptor

      and you “know” this because . . . . ?
      Assuming you have a “perfect nuclear family”, can we assume that if your spouse died you’d suddenly become a deadbeat parent? Many of us run non-traditional families, and do it well. Your one-size-fits-all nonsense smacks of non-scientific dogma. Read the article again. (and beware of American religious condemnatory claptrap posing as “caring”).

    • Pieter Hugo

      What nonsense. There is clear statistical evidence and many studies that traditional nuclear families produce children that are many times less likely to end up in prison – to name just one benefit. Or maybe you want to argue that ending up in prison is actually not better than not being in prison?

    • Pieter Hugo

      ‘Heteronormative portrayals of the “complete” nuclear family, which dominate advertisements and film, must dramatically begin to recede in order for other family forms to be appreciated’. Why? Society doesnt actually need other family forms, does it? Is there something wrong with the nuclear family?

    • The Far Side

      Fartherless children longing for a real biological father figure is natural and un-tainted by your social engineering ideals. They do not have to be able to explain it to make it completely relevant and natural. Your study is also generally flawed because your sample come from a restricted group, both culturally and demographically. I strongly suspect that the same study taken from groups in Asia, South America and Russia may render results that confirms a natural longing to a biological father, disregarding the traditional structure of the group, be it paternal, maternal or neutral. You seem to have made up your mind that traditional nuclear families are to be disregarded, then force the whole thing through a fruit mixer to make the concoction look like an elixir for family problems.

    • Derek Muller

      Not sure whether a child’s rendition whether he or she experiences fatherly protection is relevant to disprove the crisis. Would be interesting to interview the same group when they are adults.

    • Frank Lee

      The best indicator of success in the future will not be education. The most succesful people in the future will live in strong family units which are so maligned today.

    • Chez

      I agree with much of what you have said here; my children grew up with no father and my sons are fine adults (with no ego problems-is there a connection?) My daughter did have issues though.
      Where I disagree is when you say that the child feels a loss but that it’s generated through media etc. I think it is largely an ingrained instinct to have both parents. My granddaughter has a father figure in the form of her uncle and their bond is extremely strong but she still misses having a daddy. Yes films etc. play a part but I believe it is more than that.

    • Rebecca Helman

      Although research on father involvement has identified a number of positive benefits for children, this research has a number of limitations. Firstly, it has been argued that much of the research which has been conducted oversimplifies the complex relationships which exist between
      father involvement and positive child outcomes. Father-absent and
      father-present households differ in various socio-demographic characteristics
      (e.g. ethnicity, socioeconomic status and family conflict) which have been shown to be associated with child well-being. Research suggests that when these factors are controlled for associations between father involvement and child well-being become much smaller, and sometimes even insignificant.

      Secondly, research on father involvement has predominantly been conducted in high-income countries, within the context of nuclear families. This is problematic in light of the fact that the nuclear family is not normative in most contexts. There have also been limited attempts to explore the experiences of alternative family structures (e.g. gay and lesbian families) and how these families are able to contribute to positive child development. The research which has been conducted with these types of families demonstrate normal social and psychological development for children.

      I would also argue that the nuclear family has a number of problematic implications, as it positions (and constrains) men and women in
      very particular ways. For example, within this family structure men are generally positioned as financial providers, while women are positioned as responsible for childcare. These prescribed roles can be seen to have important implications for both men and women. Men are likely to feel enormous pressure to provide for their families financially. However, in communities where unemployment is high, many men are unable to fulfil this prescribed role and therefore to be considered ‘good’ fathers, and perhaps more importantly ‘good’ men. Similarly, women are likely to be denied roles as providers (and heads of households) and women who do work are likely to be regarded as ‘bad’ mothers. The traditional gender norms inscribed in the notion of the nuclear family, therefore, limit the development of more equal and ‘un-gendered’ family arrangements. This is particularly problematic within the context of South Africa, where gender inequality is rampant.

      Therefore, we need to not cling so tightly to the notion of the nuclear family as ‘natural’ (as it was produced by a very specific context of western industrialisation) in order to make room for alternative and more equal families, and gender norms more generally.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      ‘Adequate’ isn’t always sufficient.

      Instinct tells us that blood is thicker than water. If there is a fire, your father will protect his genetic line before he goes next door to protect their genetic line. It is a basic animal instinct. Uncle John may be a father figure but you can pretty much guarantee that his basic instinct is to protect his own genetic immortality above the child of a friend.

      The HEALTHY nuclear family is very important. It does not necessarily have to be the traditional format but it still is important. The ability to be furious, with your partner, but still love them, is something that you learn by watching your parents. Watching how conflicts are resolved and how compromises are made, are valuable life skills for your future ability to form relationships. That is why children from abusive homes so often are abusive or seek out abusers. Children learn what they live – not what they are told

    • Craig Jacobsohn

      No, we can assume the death of a spouse is a tragedy having huge ramifications on both the remaining spouse who is suddenly hugely burdened and the children who will suffer a disadvantage when compared to children who grow up in a two spouse family.

      In the past this would have been dealt with by the extended family stepping in to fill the parental void …. these days. Not so much.

    • Craig Jacobsohn

      Do you not feel that had your children grown up with a a father they might have turned out better?

    • Craig Jacobsohn

      Heterosexist? Isn’t it lovely how new words sneak into the language. No, Don’t think the Nuclear family is “Heterosexist” in the slightest for the simple reason that families where the parents are homosexual are A. Hugely in the minority to the extent that they barely feature, and B. They have not been around long enough for us to gauge the effect that it has on children and the society as a whole. So while that little experiment is being conducted in the corner of the huge sea that is humanity let us take a look and the rest of the ocean:

      You propose that the media is to blame for the yearnings of fatherless children for that father. In fact you go as far as to say that the idea of the traditional family unit is NOT in fact normal. You even suggest, rather pejoratively, that it is “heteronamative” values are well… not normal. Could it be possible that the children feel something is missing because… something IS missing? Could it be possible that the children feel this sense of loss because they look around at their friends who DO have fathers and feel a desire to have a similar relationship with their own fathers?

      Could it in fact be possible that you have allowed your own prejudices to colour your research, and your results are not informed by what society really needs but rather as a crutch to your world view?

      Could it be that what you are suggesting is quite simply social engineering? Perhaps you should do some research on the Khmer Rouge and how they sought to bring down the traditional family. You might find well find a soul mate in their ideology. Just ignore the bits about genocide.

    • Craig Jacobsohn

      Interesting. You state that the studies that show the advantages of a two parent household are skewed with regard to race and social status. Could you tell me where you got your information?

    • Rebecca Helman

      I have read a large variety of academic literature on these issues (as this is my research area). The following sources provide important information regarding the limitations of studies which have focused on the positive benefits of the nuclear family:

      Pleck, J. H. (2010). Fatherhood and masculinity. In M. E. Lamb (Ed.), The role of the father in child development (pp. 27-57). New Jersey, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

      Silverstein, L. B., & Auerbach, C. F. (1999). Deconstructing the essential father. American Psychologist, 54, 397 -407.

      Sigle-Rushton, W., & McLanahan, S. (2004). Father absence and child wellbeing: A critical review. In D. Moynihan, T. Smeedling & L. Rainwater (Eds.), The future of the family (pp. 116-155). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

    • Craig Jacobsohn

      I Managed to take a look at some of your references as much as the internet would allow and they make for interesting reading. I note that research on the role of the father has been conducted in China and other non-western countries and they tend to agree on the importance of the role of the father that extends well beyond simply the breadwinner, so not as western, middle class as you seem to have suggested.

      I do however agree that the “nuclear family” is not the most natural of families as it places, as you quite correctly stated, too much emphasis on men to be the breadwinner. Rather, from what I have read from the references you provided, the extended family model is the most natural, and indeed the best.

      I disagree with your assertion that families should be “ungendered”. The fact is genders exist, and they exist for very specific reasons that extend beyond coitus. The “ungendering” of families is something that should be avoided as it is both socially and biologically ill-advised. Gender is not malleable, it is not a social construct, it is fixed. Each sex has a role to perform in the family. This does not disqualify women from sharing the role of breadwinner with her spouse when the child is more independent (or earlier with an extended family to support with caring), but the nurturing responsibilities of a mother, especially for young children should only be ignored at the child’s and indeed the families peril.

      After all, what could possibly be more important than assuring that the next generation is better off than the last?

    • Henri le Riche
    • Zukisani Zamela

      This article is foolish