“We should move away from using terms such as fathers are ‘helping’ a mother look after your child. You’re a father, so it’s your responsibility”
Heartlines, the Centre for Values Promotion, hosted the third webinar in a four-part series considering key issues around men, masculinities and fatherhood in South Africa on 2 September 2020.
The webinar explored how the first 1000 days of a child’s life, from conception to the age of two, provide a valuable opportunity for a father to get involved. During this formative time, the foundations are laid for emotional, intellectual, relational and physical development – and fathers have as important a role to play as mothers.
The webinar series is presented in partnership with the DSI-NRF Centre of Human Excellence and the National Research Foundation, and funded by the Oak Foundation.
“Fatherhood is good for men because when a man becomes a father, his testosterone levels reduce, he becomes more loving, caring and supportive,” said panellist Dr Tawanda Makusha of the Human Sciences Research Council. In addition, he said that upon becoming fathers, men are more likely to stop indulging in risky behaviours.
Where fathers have themselves had adverse childhood experiences, they need to realise that it could affect their parenting, said panellist Mercy Manyema from the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development. “Speak about it, normalise seeking help and do not feel ashamed”, she said. “If this has been the cycle in the past, you are in a position to change the narrative”, Manyema urged. Both Makusha and Manyema emphasised that a father’s mental health can significantly contribute to a mother’s overall well-being, which in turn, impacts the child.
Mothers need support from their partner from conception onwards as this helps regulate stress levels and encourage healthy lifestyle choices that impact the baby’s development, said Makusha.
Studies show that a bond between a caregiver and child affects the development of the region of the brain dealing with emotional expression and regulation. A healthy bond is conducive to a child who’s more secure, less anxious and able to self-regulate their emotions. Makusha added that a supportive father has shown to increase a girl child’s self-esteem later on in life and that, in general, behavioural problems are less prevalent.
Just 2% of child support grants go to men
Panellist Dr Zoheb Khan’s research focuses on men who are child support grant recipients. Only 2% of all child support grants are received by men. Many of these recipients become caregivers out of necessity, and are forced to disregard the societal norms that dictate against men caring for children. Khan’s study found that while these men initially felt judged because their roles defied societal conventions, over time this changed. As they acquired parenting skills, they proved to themselves that they were redefining, and fulfilling, the role of a man and father.
There were a lot of negative perceptions about recipients of the child support grant in general, and men accessing it in particular. Khan said that studies confirmed that the male recipients did not conform to the negative stereotypes in that the children in their care were healthy, and the grants wisely spent. Many men do not know that they may be eligible for the grant as it is promoted using a feminised narrative – and this may affect their involvement as primary caregivers.
How fathers can be more involved
“We require interventions at personal level, community level and policy level. It cannot just be about the dad,” said Manyema. “We should move away from using terms such as fathers are ‘helping’ a mother look after your child. You’re a father, so it’s your responsibility”, said Makusha. Khan and Manyema also emphasised that being involved in childcare can be learnt by fathers and encouraged mothers to teach without judging.
Manyema pointed out that childcare and childbirth have in some cases been made to be seen as inferior, and this may result in a man feeling emasculated if he gets involved. A man can provide invaluable support to his partner following childbirth by encouraging her, preparing meals and doing the housework. This frees her up to focus on her healing and the child’s needs, said Manyema.
Makusha emphasised that the traditional idea of a father as a provider, while relevant, was too limited, and that fathers should be present in other ways. Khan identified a need for supporting and equipping parents with parenting skills, which would demonstrate to fathers how to be positively present.