When a father can’t provide

Does society focus too strongly on the role of the father as financial provider – has his emotional contribution been kicked to the curb?

For many fathers, financial provision for their children has never been an issue. Even if they can’t always be there, they find comfort in the fact that they’re able to pay for their children’s school fees, buy them clothes and contribute to their overall financial well-being.

But what about the fathers who can’t provide financially, especially in these tough economic times. How do they navigate the relationship they have with their children?

Mbuyiselo Botha, gender activist at NGO Sonke Gender Justice, says society has painted the role of the father with just one brush: that all dads are providers.

“Our society is quick to get on to the notion that fathers are just ATMs,” Botha says. “Fathers have been socialised to believe that their only role is one of material provision – and this is a universal phenomenon that isn’t limited only to South Africa.” He adds that fathers aren’t often considered to be emotional providers because emotions tend to be the domain of women.

But it’s time for fathers to realise the emotional role they can play.

Botha says that in the eyes of the community, when a man is unemployed and has no source of income, he’s seen as “useless” because he can’t put food on the table, that he’s a complete failure. This has led to feelings of inadequacy among many men in this predicament and the belief that there’s nothing they can offer their children.

“As a result, most men who are unemployed or going through financial turmoil feel discouraged to have any sort of conduct or communication with their child,” Botha explains. “Over and above that, families also discourage them to do so. They’d say things like, “What type of father are you with no job?” or “What do you think that child is going to eat and going to wear?”

This is when it becomes important for us to ask about other ways, besides financial provision, in which a father can be active and present in a child’s life. Botha says the issue of emotional connectivity and emotional presence needs to come to the fore and needs to be featured in the conversation about the role of a father in his child’s life.

READ MORE: South African fathers need to start showing up

“A father shouldn’t be counted as important only because he’s able to provide financially for his child – children don’t survive only on money. It’s time for fathers to realise the emotional role they can play. As a father, I can read for to kids, take a walk with them, bathe them, clothe them. These are ways you can invest in your child’s life so your child can one day say, ‘He didn’t bring bacon to the table but he’s brought me emotional well-being.'”

Thabang Machete*, father of two, relates to Botha’s sentiment and says the problem of money goes far beyond just providing for the child.