Reflections on fatherhood: How absent or present should a father be?


The family is a delicate interplay between intimacy and repulsion. Everybody wants the others’ company while at the same time desiring a degree of freedom and space from the other.

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In the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns and the subsequent work-from-home arrangements, gender violence in families escalated, according to press reports.

It puzzled many people that more time together in the house was causing more friction with men increasingly being despised for “overstaying” in the house rather than improving the bond between married the couple.

Anecdotal wisdom has always sanctioned a little absence from the house by the father as healthy. But no one has ever quantified this ‘little’.

But why is a father’s absence necessary in the first place?

It is given justifications in many truisms. When in the house, men tend to question even the most minor issues such as a spoon falling in the kitchen.

An old naughty one in our custom is that women should be given room “to pass wind”. The idea is that women are a little shy and like to be discrete with their bowel movements, hence they deserve some space. A man who is always at the bosom of his wife is ridiculed by peers as the foolish one who cannot even let his wife pass wind in peace!

Traditionally, children celebrated their fathers’ absence to enjoy more playing time and less work and supervision.

Growing up in the village, nothing excited my siblings and I more than the sight of our dad putting on his signature jacket, signalling he was heading to the shopping centre, 5 km away. He would almost always come back late in the night.

Our hearts would glow with ‘good-riddance’ kind of feelings, because if he stayed at home, it would be a nightmare of endless labour. In such a case, by bedtime, we would all be exhausted from the numerous instructions, corrections, and even beatings.

Children today have more freedom than we did, but they still seem to cherish their fathers’ measured absence, perhaps so that they can watch movies and cartoons in peace and listen to music at high volumes. When I am at home, I will forever command them to “reduce the volume” or ask what movies they are watching when I see them glued to the screen.

So how much absence is good for a healthy family?

I doubt that children or their mothers would have a definite answer to this question because it varies with age and other factors.

I recall when Wanjiru, who has just finished form four, was in Standard 5 or thereabout, she was highly playful. Sometimes she would stalk me behind the door as I entered the house and jump on me, confident that I wouldn’t shake her off.

This girl who insisted on me carrying her and holding her hand everywhere we went then, now demands her space—even inside the house. If you are in the sitting room, she will conveniently have some work in the kitchen.

In my experience, beyond age 10, children silently start desiring some space. If they are girls, they are increasingly conscious of their different gender and their body growth directs them to more privacy and silence. They may still entertain some play with their father but carefully eschew body touch.

It seems as if the young ones cherish your presence while the older ones dread it!

Navigating these milestones can sometimes be a delicate balancing act for a father.

And freedom in the family is not desired only from the father. Mothers have many times lamented how their children deny them privacy in the house, while children have also sometimes wished that their mother can give them a break.

It means the family is a delicate interplay between intimacy and repulsion. Everybody wants the others’ company while at the same time desiring a degree of freedom and space from the other.

But there is no manual or scientific formula to determine how much of this is ideal.

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