Caveat: bit of a controversial post. Consider yourself warned.
Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there. To all those who miss their dads; all those who never knew them; all those for whom ill health, distance, or social norms have made relationships difficult. Basically all the same things I say on Mothering Sunday. All parents matter.
Today I have been thinking about the ‘bitter single mums’ trope which is particularly active on social media on Father’s Day (seriously – why do you have the time? Shouldn’t you actually be hanging out with your kids?) and about a series of conversations I’ve had on toxic masculinity and how men are so undervalued by society that their only possible reaction is violence and disrespect. I am not a psychologist or a social scientist so I am perhaps even less qualified than usual to write this blog, but these are things on my mind so I share them with you, with these caveats in place.
The FIRE movement has a lot of great parenting role models. On a personal level I find the amount of people who reach FIRE based on spending one partner’s income tedious and irrelevant, but I get that for many folk it’s a new way of thinking about family spending. Lots of FIRE people got on this path in order to spend more time with their kids, and to be better parents, and that is something to celebrate. Mr Money Mustache has a lot to say on parenting his son, including since he and his wife divorced. Brad and Jonathan in Choose FI are always talking about their kids and how their FIRE pathway has focused on being with their children, and on leaving a legacy.
In fact there are lots of brilliant dads out there, of course there are. My own father, and the father of my children, don’t fall into this category but I don’t hate them for it – my children have never heard a bad word from my mouth about their father. The issue is that I have to make up for it, financially, emotionally, in terms of time spent and choices made and so on. And that’s not ideal but it’s ok. I am very lucky though in that I have an amazing step-father, fathers of friends (two of whom I have been really close to and sadly passed away this year), uncles and all. And I have friends, family and colleagues where I have so much respect for the way the father shows up, that it really inspires me on a daily basis. So I salute all those fabulous men: we see you. You’re doing great.
There is, though, an increase in the number of women having to parent alone. There is plenty of blame around this, and there are multiple sides to every story, but the truth is that men are now allowed to absent themselves in a way that society permits. In my personal experience, this lack of involvement doesn’t stop them loudly complaining about how their ex will not facilitate the kind of contact they want with their children. The kind of people who complain in this way are, again in my experience, the same who want contact on a whim, when it’s convenient for them, and will change those times at the drop of a bar bill.
In Kenya, the outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta has even made the issue of single parents as one of his key concerns. Globally Kenya is one of the countries where women are most likely to become a single parent, with almost 60% of women likely to be single by the time they are 45, whether or not they have children. Kenyatta’s concern was with the rise in the percentage of single parent households from 25% in 2009 to 38% today. I am not Kenyan but I lived there for a long time and intend to return for the RE aspect of FIRE (watch this space for posts on that thought process, white privilege and colonialist mindset – I’m here for self critique and growth as well, of course). It is one of the places where I find being a single parent the hardest, since even though there are so many of us, it is seen through a lens of shame and ‘burdenhood’ which basically makes me a social pariah. This kind of nonsense article, which paints women as insatiably greedy and self-centred, character developing then abandoning poor, defenceless Kenyan guys, just fills me with rage.
It’s also ironic when – look, I’m just going to say this and take the flack – Kenyan men are seemingly happy to pay for a whole lot of whatever when it comes to relationships. And I mean prepared to pay rent/transport/salon for your side chick (girlfriend) for years, but you think that I, as someone who earns 10 times more than you, is going to be a financial burden? Kthxbye.
There is also a growing narrative around the issues of toxic masulinity, and how men feeling undervalued, undermined and unable to navigate the changes in society mean that they are struggling to find ways to act as men, husbands and fathers in this brave new world. Masculinity itself isn’t toxic, that much should be obvious. So challenges men are facing are absolutely something which we need as a society to deal with in order to create a world that works for everyone. But at the same time this cannot be an excuse for gender-based violence or refusing to look after your own children. And it will bleed into the next generation. If you as a man are struggling with masculinity and shifts in social expectations, it should be obvious that if you have children – and not just sons – they will need you are a role model to work through those challenges with.
In short, we could all do better. This world is not binary: most parents are both good and bad depending on the day. I might be doing it alone but it doesn’t mean I am any good at it, just that I don’t have the luxury of deciding to step out for years at a time.
And I am all for putting in the work to create a world where men feel appreciated, valued and heard. Where they can grow into their power in a way which doesn’t involve crushing (either physically, emotionally or financially) the women and children in their lives. That’s something that we can all believe in. Happy Father’s Day.