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Friday, June 19, 2009

Unsung Heroes

Today’s dads are no longer removed from their children’s upbringing – they actually seek happiness in fatherhood.

Are fathers, through no fault of their own, sometimes made to feel inferior next to mothers? The notion that mothers are natural caregivers, to the extent of being biologically-engineered for it, continues to prevail much to the chagrin of fathers.

Certainly the ability to give birth (and lactate!) is an unparalleled feat, but when fathers are demoted as secondary parents due to biological shortcomings, you have to wonder if all the flak they receive is justified.

Admittedly, from the time a baby is born, fathers are relegated to the sidelines, where they can only watch and fret. It is this paternal detachment, which supposedly continues throughout the developmental process of children, that is frequently used against fathers to question the degree of their involvement in families.

Dr Goh Chee Leong

These are not random rumblings of discontent either; in fact, early psychology theorists like Sigmund Freud and John Bowlby laid much of the groundwork for the dad-bashing that we have now become accustomed to.

In the United States, Father’s Day has increasingly become a no-holds-barred assault on fathers, with talk of the deadbeat dad – he who abandons his family and shirks all responsibility – dominating the headlines.

With so much resentment and negativity surrounding the issue, harsh remarks have been made about fathers and the role they play; last year, a prominent US magazine went so far as to ask if fathers, as a collective, have done enough to deserve a Father’s Day at all.

Ironically enough, Mother’s Day is often celebrated in less punishing terms, with past sins and wrongdoings more readily set aside. At the end of the day, mums emerge unscathed as saint-like creatures that can do no wrong.

“While mothers are often seen as nurturers who play a pivotal role in the healthy development of their children, the role of fathers is often reduced to mere breadwinner,” said Lee Wee Min, executive director of Focus on the Family Malaysia, with noticeable regret.

“In certain cultures, fathers are seldom encouraged to spend time with their children and are often perceived as cold disciplinarians,” he says.

Nevertheless, the decline of a classically patriarchal system, as well as emerging gender benders have contributed to a changed landscape for fatherhood over the years.

Where once a father was looked upon as the authoritative head of the family who had responsibilities and obligations to fulfil, the modern-day dad is far more approachable and involved in the lives of his children; he seeks actual happiness in fatherhood.

Counselling psychologist Johana Johari, who runs her own private practice in Kuala Lumpur, is firm in her beliefs about paternal involvement in Malaysian families.

“Our traditional definitions of how fathers should behave have certainly changed; we are increasingly exposed and educated as parents now. But our parenting styles must adapt to new belief systems so that we can break the vicious cycle of fathers doing unto their children what their fathers did unto them.”

Johana Johari

The 43-year-old principal of MY Confidential, a nationwide network of private counsellors in Malaysia, spoke at length about the roles of fathers that are often discounted. “Fathers are instrumental role models for their children, especially sons, who need a male adult to emulate. A daughter, on the other hand, learns how to communicate and establish healthy relationships with men as a result of the interactions with her father,” she explains.

“Fathers can do many things for their children that mothers cannot, and vice versa. Both parents are definitely essential in complementing each other.”

Director of HELP University College’s Centre for Psychology Dr Goh Chee Leong echoed her sentiments. “There is enough research in developmental psychology to suggest that fathers contribute significantly to the emotional wellbeing of a child and the development of their character, their ambitions, their sense of morals and their perception of responsibility,” he says.

“The bottom line is this: for a child to develop in a balanced and healthy manner, they need a home environment that is secure, happy, stimulating and loving. Fathers have an equal responsibility in shaping this environment. With more practice, there is no reason to believe that fathers have a lower capacity for love, care and nurturing,” he explains.

Even science has come to the defence of fathers recently; a study on the effects of hormonal changes during newfound fatherhood by Psychology Today, a respected US journal on clinical psychology, has shown that men may be a lot more similar to women after all, as fathers were found to have high levels of prolactin (a hormone associated with lactating mothers) towards the end of a partner’s pregnancy.

In a redefined understanding of masculinity and fatherhood, it was also established that fathers experience testosterone reduction and elevated levels of estrogen 30 days before birth, a condition that continues to last up to 12 weeks. The study offers pioneering evidence that to nurture is part of man’s nature after all.

So all is fine and well then?

Not quite, the roles of fathers in separated families or in the aftermath of a divorce are still sketchy at best.

US statistics claiming that more than half of divorced fathers lose contact with their kids within a few years are alarming, but Johana is quick to point out that in her line of work, parents usually make an effort to maintain normalcy and lessen the impact of divorce on their children.

“From my observations, it is the mother that usually plays an important role in determining the father’s involvement after divorce; but the bond cannot be completely erased regardless of whether the split is an amicable one or not. You can be an ex-husband, but never an ex-father,” she says succinctly.

Considering that there is a prevalent bias in society for maternal custody of children after divorce, Johana argues that credit should be given where credit is due. “I have worked with many single fathers who continue to fight for custody of their children without remarrying, but you don’t hear about these stories very often,” she says.

We may not have an existing movement to champion fathers’ rights in Malaysia, such as that of the controversial superhero protesters known as Fathers 4 Justice in Britain, but lest we forget, all fathers will be regarded as heroes in their own right this Father’s Day.

Dr Goh offers one last piece of advice: “What is important is that we focus on the kind of fathers we know we should be, rather than the type of fathers society thinks we are.”

Tuesday June 10, 2008

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