‘How do I get my child’s father to take responsibility?’

Web stats are funny things. Sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising, sometimes depressing. For three years, without fail, the number one search that gets users to the Young Mom Support site is “How do I get my child’s father to take responsibility?” Falling squarely into the “depressing” category. I do have an answer for them — but it’s not the answer they’re hoping for. (Spoiler alert: You can’t.)

Combined with this is another fairly high ranking search — “How to talk to girls on Mxit” (not sure how they find their way to us on that, but it’s not as baffling as the recurring “girls with dirty feet” search term). I’ll soon be forced to do a post on this. It will be very short. Talk to girls as if they’re humans who interest you. The End.

So, we have boys who have no idea how to talk to girls — and clearly nobody to ask — and moms struggling with irresponsible fathers. Talking to young dads and expectant dads, the connection is becoming clear. For girls, things are moving forward (one step at a time, with 117 steps back). Not always in the right way but more people are at least THINKING about it. But. Here’s the problem.

Nobody is talking to the boys. About anything much. Cos “boys are easier”, apparently? Girls need fixing, sorting, empowering (ha), protecting, teaching. Boys, however, somehow need to figure all this stuff out by themselves. Not just about sex and relationships, but their place in the world. An example: schools who want teen pregnancy workshops, but only for the girls: “Oh, it’s not necessary for the boys.”

For boys who don’t fit into the macho entitled bro culture with all that entails — this sucks. They’re left behind. They don’t have a blueprint for how to behave. Fit in or … yeah. You might think it’s easier for the boys who do fit — but at what cost to themselves and those around them? How many are acting a part? How IS that ol’ patriarchy working out for all of us? Read a newspaper lately?

Another example: I’ve asked young dads why they aren’t involved in their children’s lives. Overwhelming answer: because I can’t afford to support them financially. And mostly when they’re young, they can’t afford to. Not in a substantial way, not at first.

“That’s what a father does. He pays.”

So many seem to believe that this is all a father does. That if he can’t afford to pay, he has no place in his child’s life. So he walks away. Of course, in some cases, this is just fine by him. But in too many others, he walks away because he didn’t know it doesn’t have to be this way.

When I talk to boys about a father’s real role — emotional support, love, presence (even if you don’t live together), guidance, commitment — you can practically see the lightbulb going *PING* above his head. He’s simply never thought of a father’s role this way (as being exactly the same as a mother’s role, in fact). The measure of his fatherhood — of his maleness — has always been only in his ability to provide financially.

The young moms I speak to, while they need dad to help with money, this isn’t their main concern. “Why doesn’t he just want to SEE his child, at least?” They want baby to have a relationship with dad, and they don’t understand why he’s seemingly not interested. Everybody’s expectations are screwed up. There’s not much talking happening and when it does happen, it’s at such cross-purposes it might as well be an episode of Days of Our Lives.

Nobody’s ever told him — or shown him — what a father is really for. This applies equally to boys who have grown up WITH their own fathers, as to boys who haven’t, as well as across different cultures. Exceptions abound, naturally. But the pattern is there. Boys being told that manhood is this one thing — this one mould, and by god you better fit in that box.

Boys are hurting. We’ve woken up and realised that girls have other options than those traditionally allowed for them. ALL the options. We have not yet done this for boys. They’re still stuck.

When our sons are born, sweet chubby-cheeked boy babies — we want everything for them. Then we set the rules — maybe unconsciously — with talk of how boys will be boys, with a different set of behaviours and expectations. Be A Man™ comes from everywhere, relentlessly.

Nothing will change until we start teaching Be A Person. Our sons and daughters will continue to suffer, and so will our grandchildren.

Hug your son today. Ask yourself if you really *truly* don’t have any silly gender-defined expectations of him. Ask yourself again. Check that all your interactions with him are not defaulted to “He’s a boy”. He is a person first.

Let him BE that person first. Show him the love and comfort that he needs, in order for him to give it to others. Let his rules of engagement with the world be about who he really is and what he has to offer, rather than some nebulous concept of manhood that just screws us all over.

Please, do it soon.

Image – Two men push their children in a stroller during a race walking competition in Brno, Czech Republic, on April 7, 2013, World Health Day. (AFP)