Although gender qualities between girls and boys are minute from birth and throughout toddlerhood, Early Childhood Development research has shown that it is the period from birth till 8yrs when the foundation for who a child will become is set. This means that although children may not necessarily be aware of dynamics of gender at that age, that information is already filtering into their minds.
Becoming a father to a male child is almost akin to reworking a formula that has already been developed. As a man who was once a child, you tap into your childhood experiences, both good and bad, as a guide for navigating fatherhood. For many men, however, the arrival of a girl child comes with little to no lived experiences as to what exactly makes for a decent upbringing. For some, the first instinct is to focus on protection. In the times that we are living in, rife with gender-based violence, this is not unreasonable. Yet, the role of a father is not only to protect his little princess because, all girls have to grow up, much sooner than daddy would like.
It is a common belief that a father is the very first male relationship that a woman has. Regardless of whether the relationship is good or bad, it forms the basis on which a woman processes gender relations as well as romantic relationships. This is to say, how a father treats his daughter will form part of how she expects to be treated by men throughout her life.
In a country such as ours that has high rates of absentee fathers, a man who has had a poor or non-existent relationship with his father spends much of his adult life trying piece together what it means to be a man. When he then has a daughter, very often he has to dismantle large chunks of what he learned. Ironically, a lot of the time he has to refer back to the first relationship he ever had with a woman, his mother.
Bonginkosi Sewell, 37, says that in being the eldest of 5 boys raised by a single mother meant that he had to do a lot of what was considered “older sister” duties such as cooking and cleaning. He also says that being raised by single mother “had so much influence on how I view life in general, how I date, [my] respect for ladies, understanding their moods and treating women at home and outside”. This insight then informed how he approached being a father to his now 12yr old daughter. He still had adjustments to make, however. “I had to change my way of doing things. I have grown up since she was born and has influenced me in terms of decision making, my future plans, etc.”, he says.
Learning to be a man by filling in the space that an absent/dysfunctional father not only left in the home but in a man’s mother’s life is a treacherous undertaking. It often means one tries to be a better version of their father rather than being their authentic self. When the man has a daughter, it becomes clearer that he has to tap into more than just being a father. He has to set the tone for his daughter’s interactions with male friends, boyfriends, right up to husbands. He can only adequately do this by reflecting on how he himself was/is in those roles.