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 Believing the nuclear family to be the only complete family form is not only idealistic, but also irrelevant, outdated, heterosexist and culturally prejudicial as a mode of thinking on existing types of family.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.