Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

‘Pay up!’ Unmarried fathers’ experiences of fatherhood

Dr. Elmien Lesch

Research indicates that absent or uninvolved fathers have a negative impact on the psychosocial well-being of children. This is particularly important for South Africa as it has the second highest rate of father absence in Africa. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the presence of a father in itself does not necessarily benefit the child. It is the quality of the father-child relationship and the characteristics of the father that are linked to psychosocial benefits for children.

Single/unmarried fathers in South Africa are commonly believed to be largely uninvolved or disinterested in their children’s daily lives. Such a perception though, dismisses those fathers who desire to be closely involved in their children’s lives but are not allowed to do so. These fathers’ views and experiences also tend to be overlooked by researchers, the courts and law enforcers and we therefore know little about their realities and experiences. In a recent study that I supervised, some insights were obtained about these men’s views and experiences, by interviewing poor or low-income men who were not married to the biological mother of their children, wanted to be involved, but were restricted in this regard by the mother of the child and her family.

Research findings
According to these men, the dominant reason for restricted or no contact with their children was a conflictual relationship with the child/ren’s mother after the demise of the parents’ romantic relationship. The men perceived their ex-partners as vindictive and only valuing financial contributions from fathers. The men also reported that ex-partners demanded a financial contribution from fathers before they were allowed contact with children. Although the fathers questioned the mothers’ primary focus on fathers’ financial contributions, they too viewed a father’s role as primarily a material provider. They therefore did not prioritize or offer alternative father involvement such as taking physical and emotional care of their children or being involved in the daily details of their children’s lives.

The men in the study seemed despondent and distressed by the limited or lack of contact with their children. All of them said that they have given up on trying to maintain contact with their children to avoid feeling powerless and unmanly due their inability to contribute financially in order to obtain access to children. However, some of the fathers hoped for future contact with their children and that their children would seek them out when they are more independent from their mothers.

Alternative fatherhoods
Other studies have also found that most South Africans believe that a father’s main role is to provide materially for his children, whilst mothers are seen as the principal practical and emotional carers of children. Fathers tend to be viewed as teachers, protectors and disciplinarians rather than emotional nurturers and daily caretakers. Although fathers in other parts of the world have made progress in adopting alternative father roles, South African men are still socialized into the idea of “real fathers” as primarily breadwinners and protectors. Such prevalent perceptions prevent South African society from validating and supporting other kinds of paternal contributions and inhibit men from taking on more nurturing father roles. Furthermore, fathers who are unable to provide financially for their children may choose to abandon their children rather than experience the sense of failure and shame brought about by their financial situations.

Changing prevailing fatherhood ideas are particularly important given that South African men are increasingly unable to meet financial provision expectations in a dire economic climate. It therefore is critical to foster alternative fatherhood constructions in South Africa that include and value other forms of paternal caring. We should focus on how such alternative notions of fatherhood could be encouraged in the diverse fatherhood contexts in South Africa. We need to assist men to revise their ideas of fatherhood, and sensitize the various role players, e.g. mothers, families, courts and social welfare officers, that fathers could contribute importantly to children’s psychosocial well-being in various ways.

Dr. Elmien Lesch, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Stellenbosch University. Her research interest is to explore family relationships in diverse South African communities. The above contribution is based on the following academic article: Lesch, E. & Kelapile, C. (2015). “In my dreams she finds me… and she wants me just the way I am”: Unmarried fathers’ experiences of fatherhood. Men & Masculinities, 1-22. doi: 10.1177/1097184X15601476

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