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Sunday June 19, 2005 VIEWPOINT
Fatherhood over the years
by Fr Roger Pascall, Parish priest of South Oropouche

Fr Roger PascallAs another Father's day was approaching I thought it would be interesting to poll the fathers of my district, in an informal way, to get some sort of idea of where fatherhood stands at the moment in our country.

I wanted to compare their responses to my own experience growing up in Maraval, to discover whether the perception of fatherhood had changed over the past thirty or forty years or so.

I have been noticing some changes myself – men holding their babies and walking them on mornings. A friend of mine from Dominica told me that a man would not be caught dead doing this in his country – but I wanted to be sure. I don't remember men in Maraval doing this when I was young either.

I still felt somehow, based on my experience as a teacher at a Catholic secondary school, that the notion of fatherhood especially among African males was a confused and troublesome area. Many of the boys at my school have difficult relationships with their fathers.

Kirk (not his real name) a young African male in his twenties, who is living in a common-law relationship, told me that becoming a father saved him from a life of recklessness and carelessness. (Did God create fatherhood to protect the male species?) His life was no longer his own, he “was responsible for someone”.

Talking to him I gathered that it was a combination of the practical demands of parenthood in terms of childcare and earning a living - he is not permanently employed – but also the emotional impact his child made upon him.

Of course in the vast majority of cases, mothers continue by all accounts to provide the greater quantity of childcare on a daily basis. But there is one area in which parenthood seems likely to impact on fathers to a far greater degree, the more so the more actively those fathers engage with their children.

This is the area of gender identity, in particular, our ideas of masculinity and who we are as men. For I believe that the more men engage with parenthood, accepting responsibility for their children and becoming actively involved in their lives, then the more likely it is that our ideas of men and masculinity will be challenged and ultimately changed.

Daniel (again not his real name) told me that his experience, taking responsibility for his children's welfare, physically and emotionally, challenged and questioned his identity as a man and his ideas of masculinity in a way that nothing and no-one else has ever done.

In his case, having someone dependent on him challenged his selfishness and the independence he had cultivated as a man. “I had to take my child's needs into consideration and also her mother's.” “They were totally dependent on me.”

Both Kirk and Daniel along with several others shared on the challenges of fatherhood for them as men and how hard it was at first. James, a father of two, felt that it was also hard on his spouse and children as they had to put up with his shortcomings as he came to terms with parenthood.

The general feeling was that most men had cultivated attitudes of self- gratification and personal ambition based on cultural expectations and the way they had been nurtured. Fatherhood on the other hand demanded sacrifice, compromise and collaboration, attitudes which are not easily acquired by the African male.

My experience of my own father growing up in Maraval – I hope he does not read this – was very much part of this evaluation. From Monday to Friday he went to work, leaving the house early in the morning and returning in the evening after we had all eaten and not long before we children went to bed.

On Saturdays he had village council and PNM meetings and on Sundays we went to church with him. Though the “with” really meant he ended up in the church with us, not that we travelled together with him. In Maraval the church was within walking distance from our house.

Each child left when he or she was ready. What church meant to him he never really shared with us, it seemed to be simply an act of duty to attend rather than a spiritual experience of depth or meaning.

So whatever else being a father meant at that time, it did not seem to me to have too much to do with children! This was not peculiar to my father, everyone's father in Maraval seemed to me to be the same.

They did not walk their babies in the morning! As a writer once put it “Fathers were defined more by their absence than their presence.” They were there in the family as occasional helpers but their role beyond providing money and transport did not seem terribly important.

Above all, there was the apparent emotional detachment with which fathers conducted their lives with their children of our time. In our family it did not seem to me that our presence made too much of an impact on him, except when we got into trouble, then retribution was swift and effective.

I have no doubt that we did affect him but the emotional effect was never apparent to me as a child, it remained below the surface.

At school the role of fathers was ignored. The assumption was that becoming a father was not worth knowing about unlike history, geography, math etc. School focused on the public world and the skills needed to function as a paid employee.

Gainful employment was the purpose of a man's life and the earning of money was the most important aspiration to fulfill. Maybe today we are reaping the “rewards” of this one-dimensional life for the male.

What comes out of all this is how empty the role of being a father means in terms of direct involvement with children.

This is not to suggest that fathers of our time did not feel anything for their children, or that they considered their children unimportant to them. But such feelings and meaning that they had remained private and hidden. To be a man, to be a father meant being detached, independent, unemotional, rational, controlling and when necessary authoritarian and punishing.

Talking to the men of my district this limited view of fatherhood seems to be changing. The last twenty years has seen a gradual shift in the way fatherhood is seen and practised.

Taking responsibility for a significant amount of childcare, being nurturing and loving on a material and emotional level, collaborating as parental partners with mothers, all these are increasingly seen as part of a father's responsibility.

Basil – his real name, he does not mind – told me how rewarding it is for him to return home after work dead tired, wanting only to throw himself on the bed, only to have his daughter shriek and run out to him at the front gate of their home as she hears his approaching car.

“The tiredness immediately goes away,” he told me, as he takes his two year old with him to play on the couch.

Despite my own fascination with this same two year old she pays me no mind whatsoever whenever the family visits the presbytery, walking right past me on her way to my fridge in search of her two favourite fridge items - apple and juice.

Basil's attachment to her is most apparent and he does not hesitate to relate the latest episode in her linguistic and behavioural development whenever we meet. He enjoys feeding her, her “bottie” and very often she prefers his company to her mother's.

Fatherhood has definitely become more visible and meaningful, although this still remains essentially a cultural phenomenon, one that has not been reflected in the public sphere. We speak a lot these days about sustainable development, that development must wear a human face, but when you come down to the brass tacks it is really only about economic growth based on productivity and mass consumption.

If women and especially men now value their families then why are their working hours so long and inflexible? Why is parenting excluded from the school curriculum? In effect our fathers are discouraged from being active parents. They are still viewed as cogs in the economic wheel.

Another side to all this is the issue of young fathers, particularly young African fathers. This is a group that tends to be either invisible or represented by the media in a negative way usually as uncaring and irresponsible.

Mothers be warned, there are young African males out for your daughter!

Those who are not in jail care only for the latest “brands”, they want to look “bling” and attend all the “events”. Sounds familiar? Carlon, who does not live with his children, told me of the prejudice and mistrust he encounters as a young African father. He knows that his situation is not ideal but he does try to be a good father in the face of much opposition.

The Church condemns him and others in his situation but then does nothing to help young fathers become more effective and resourceful parents. He has been branded as an “absent” father a term which carries the added descriptive of irresponsible. It is assumed that the absent father has little or no interest in his children.

Young men can too easily take on these assumptions and accept the simplistic “absent” role which has been so clearly defined for them. This is often reinforced by the fact that 95% of the time when a relationship breaks up the courts tend to award custody to mothers.

So on all sides a young father can easily find himself marginalised and alienated which can be a constant source of frustration and disappointment, and can lead to feelings of failure and inadequacy.

This is not to say that many men have not given into the cultural forces and stereotyping so common in the Afro-Trinidadian community. The thug image of gangster rap and the portrayal of women as “hoes and bitches” is a constant script which runs through the lyrics of most rap songs and is often mimicked in some reggae and calypso music.

50 cent, one of the best-known rappers refers to women as “bitches” who he can have “stripping in the street” and if they put down the other women in his life would get their a-- beat and relates “The last n---- she was with put stitches in her head.”

This demeaning of women and portrayal of the male as violent and controlling is an attractive image and one which has echoes in popular culture.

I am reminded particularly of the old Clint Eastwood cowboy movies ( For a Few Dollars More , High Plains Drifter , The Good, Bad and Ugl y) where the rugged, self-sufficient, loner who depends on no one and has no ties, family or otherwise drifts into town, does what he has to do and then leaves when it suits him. Women are to be mastered and abandoned, even scorned. The “real' man isn't answerable to anybody. He's not weighed down by attachments that sap his energy and his strength. I suspect at the back of most people's mind is this image of the young black male, a stereotype which is often unfair and unreal.

Many men I have discovered have had to fight this image on all fronts. Typically, the local media (especially in their Father's Day supplement) portray the ideal father as a slightly graying, well-established, not too dark-skinned, mixed-race person with his mixed-race wife and children and his condo and Peugeot 307 in the background.

As though a young African male cannot possibly be a responsible father concerned about his children and intimate with his spouse.

As another Father's day approaches there is need to support our fathers to cope with the varied demands of parenting and to nurture our adolescent boys in the values of responsibility and authority, self-sacrifice and collaboration, and knowing the inter-relationship and interdependency of family life.

Selwyn Whitechurch in an article entitled “Bringing father back Home” writes that our young boys today:

“… need to learn to tolerate disappointment and frustration without resorting to blame and punishment, neither to themselves or others.”

This has become vitally important in our society focused as it is on the middle class values of status, personal profit and exploitation. It is no wonder our males today are as violent as they are.

We need a new fatherhood and a different masculine identity, one which encourages our young men, in Whitechurch's words “to value intimacy and their personal vulnerability.”

Against great cultural and political odds, many of our young fathers seem to be taking up this challenge today. Happy Father's Day!

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