ActivismParenting Styles

Men at Work, or The Dads that Do

I grew up in a single parent household; my dad having left my mom and their year-old son when she was six weeks pregnant with me. Growing up, I barely knew my dad. My mom did everything for us and was an amazing parent. I never, ever felt like I was missing out.

About seven years into our relationship, my partner and I (he’s requested to be called Master of the Universe, so we’ll call him Mou, like Lou but with an M) signed up for couple’s counseling to help us work out whether to have biological children or to adopt. The therapist absolutely could not get past the fact that I grew up without a father, and could not believe that I didn’t have deep-seated resentment towards my dad. We eventually had to leave therapy as a result, but it got me thinking.

It wasn’t until we had our first child (biological, not adopted in the end) that I started to understand what a father was, what a father could be.

Mou is an amazing father. His commitment to fatherhood is absolute and his involvement in every part of our children’s lives is a given; from changing nappies, to cooking and cleaning, to attending school events, and most importantly to playing, teaching and encouraging (while holding down a full-time job, supporting and loving me, and exercising regularly). This is what it should be like. Unfortunately, for many children, fathers simply aren’t there. In South Africa, for example, research shows that fully two-thirds of children grow up with an absent father.

For three years, I worked for a non-profit that specifically engages men and boys to promote gender transformation. As part of this, I was involved in the MenCare initiative, a global campaign to promote involved fatherhood. In our work with fathers (and children) it constantly surprised me how detached some fathers are from their kids, and how much kids appreciate even the slightest involvement from their dads.

But it’s not just that kids enjoy having their dads around. There has been tonnes of research done into the importance of involved fathers in the lives of their kids. Children with involved fathers are less likely to have substance abuse issues or be imprisoned, and are more likely to have later sexual debut, better school results, and fewer psychosocial problems. The list goes on and on. It turns out that dads are really, really important.

Obviously, there are constraints here. Some fathers are better kept at arms length; the less they have to do with their kids the better (as is true of some mothers). And the father need not be the biological father; step-fathers and other male role models can fill the gap admirably.

As a feminist, this whole body of research has always bothered me in terms of what people might think it implies about mothers. Are the researchers saying dads are more important than moms? Are they saying that as the product of a single parent family I am bound to be messed up? No, of course they aren’t. They’re talking about the difference between a mom only household and a two parent upbringing.

My own view is that it is probably not necessary for the father to be a man at all, but rather a second parent. I haven’t yet seen any evidence (but full disclosure: I haven’t done a thorough check recently) to support this hypothesis as unfortunately the majority of research has focused on heterosexual families. With more same-sex families emerging, hopefully we’ll see more studies along these lines in the near future.

Personally, the difference that is most obvious to me between my single-parent upbringing and my daughters’ dual-parent upbringing, is perspective, particularly in relation to values. I swallowed my mothers’ views and values hook, line and sinker. It was only in my mid-twenties that I really started to question some of these and evolve my own subtler morality. My kids, however, are confronted daily with slightly different views on the world, and will be much better able to determine what they believe, rather than what their mother or father believes. Their critical thinking skills are getting a boost from day one as they are required to evaluate the differences between their parents’ views and determine for themselves what to think and believe.

My daughters are lucky I guess. And I am very grateful to have such a great father for them. One who also has taught me that real fathers do exist and are extremely valuable. So let’s hear it for the dads who do.

Image by the author


The mother of two girls (Rose, 6, and Fynn, 11 months), Mombot is a feminist and human rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a fairly laid back approach to parenting if you ignore the regular rants about the proliferation of the colour pink, the lack of diversity amongst "girls' " toys, the scarcity of good role models for girls in the media etc etc etc.

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  1. Yay for involved fathers.
    Unfortunately, my husband is away during the week and only comes home on Friday evenings. Still he’s so much more involved in his children’s lives than my own father ever was or many of my kids’ friends’ fathers are, even though they are there all week (and sometimes all day long). It still means I’m doing the bulk of the parenting work (I always say I’m a part-time single mum), but I know there’s that second VIP in their lives.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head “two involved parents” is much more important than rather one is a man. And a strong family (even adopted family made of friends) can also fill that void. The important thing is that the kid doesn’t feel abandoned. Obviously not having a dad didn’t affect you all that much, because that support was likely there. Sorry for the ramble, but I always feel icky when people espouse on the importance of fathers, and I think this is why.

  3. I was wondering wether the argument could be made for the benefits of bringing up children with more than 2 guardians. Some communities raise their children collectively and the children are effectively raised by several people including the mom and dad. We seem to assume the magic number is two (for obvious practical reasons) but do children who have more than 2 guardians grow up to be better adults?

    1. Good question, I don’t know of any research into this, though surely there must be since there are so many “traditional” communities where the “village” raises the child.

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