In memory of my brother: Kevin Ikechukwu Anyoha (1954-2020)
“Hello!” I said when I entered the consultation room.
“Hello, Doctor Anyoha,” replied Azuka.
“Congratulations on your brand-new baby,” I said.
“Thanks, Doc,” Azuka replied a she glanced at her baby in the little baby carriage that she planted near her legs. Upon hearing my conversion with his mother, the baby wiggled his little feet but stayed quiet.
“Where is Dad?” I asked the mother. I didn’t really expect an honest answer, just as I don’t when I ask “How is it going?” to strangers I meet on a street corner.
“He is gone,” Azuka replied. “He only comes around every two years when it is time to make another baby, and then he disappears.”
My eyes jerked left and right, and my mind searched for a place to flee. I nervously chuckled before taking a deep breath, trying to steady myself from tipping over into the abyss.
“Really?” I asked after I had time to digest her reply and regained my professional composure.
I still was short on words to continue the conversation. What does a physician tell a woman who confesses that her children’s father only comes around when it is time to make another baby, then vanishes? Regret filled my head and spilled all over my heart. What a dumb question to ask a woman who came alone on a health visit with her new baby. If only I had used my brain, I should have anticipated her answer. My brief time spent in contemplation may have been short, but it seemed to have lasted for an eternity. Plus, I knew that Azuka was watching me throughout. Quick, witty exchanges of words have never been my strongest suite, and I regret that. What did Azuka think when I didn’t come up with a response to her answer? Maybe she assumed that as a man, my natural tendency is to support absentee fathers and the perpetuation of men’s dominion over women. Well, I knew better.
I have learned a lot since raising my children and since enrolling in the Infant and Early Childhood Program at Fielding Graduate University. I wish I had that knowledge before I got married became a father of not one, but three children. Children need their mothers as well as their fathers. Not only when the children are older and walking and talking, but from the beginning when they are born and are still breast feeding, pooping in their diapers. They need their fathers during the period when they are very vulnerable, mentally and physically. Recovering a little more from my shock, I looked at Azuka quizzically.
“Yes, really. I told him not to come back,” Azuka emphatically stated with the serious face of someone who has made up their mind. “You know, what Doctor Anyoha?” she repeated. “I told him never to come back. It took me a while, but I have caught up to his game.”
With those words, Azuka freed me from despondency to inspiration. In this dialogue, I believed, Azuka had captured the feelings many women have of men who purposefully do not partake in the care of a newborn baby. Azuka was going through a touch-and-go fathering style. This understanding made me examine both my fathering style as well as my father’s fathering style. “Was I a touch-and-go father,” I asked myself? Perhaps I was, perhaps I was not. People do not judge themselves correctly. What would my wife say of my fathering style? What would the result be if someday, my children grade my parenting style? Although my father’s time was in a different era from my time as a father, I couldn’t help but compare his fathering style with my fathering style. What was my father’s fathering style like? Was he a touch-and-go father? What did he do around the house when I was growing up? Did he babysit if my mother needed to get a break caring for ten children? To me, my fathering style and my father’s fathering style looked eerily similar in a lot of categories that go beyond the scope of this article.
The role men play and the role they should play in raising children has changed over time in some societies (Cabrera et al., 2000) but has remained set in stone in other cultures. For example, in many families in the United States, it is routine for a man and a woman to take turns babysitting a child. The man will babysit while the woman is not available (because she is working, running errands, meeting with friends, etc.) and vise versa. I doubt if such a cultural shift has reached my homeland of Nigeria or my folks, a major Nigerian tribe called the Igbos. From my recollections growing up in Nigeria in the 60s, it was okay for a man to leave work at the end of the day, stop at the beer parlor for some beer, get home at 11 P.M., and demand melon soup (ofe egusi) and pounded yams from a woman who is nursing a newborn. Cultural practices and unique family circumstances may influence men’s involvement in raising their children. Nevertheless, men’s active involvement in raising their children is very essential. When men are involved in raising their children, their children grow up with more confidence and tend to stay away from mischief (Shears et al., 2002). Men can be involved in their children’s lives in numerous ways, including feeding them, bathing and dressing them, playing with them, singing to them, hugging and kissing them, putting them to sleep, taking them to the pediatrician, etc. The experiences of pregnancy and birth naturally make some women more fearful, more worried, more hopeless, and sad and depressed (Stern, 1995). Some women constantly worry about the welfare of their newborns (Galinsky, 1981). A helpful and reliable partner and a very understanding man could make all the difference between a woman who succumbs to these health challenges and one who triumphs over them. A mother who is physically and mentally healthy provides optimum care to her newborn, while a mother who is not supported may not have the mental capacity to care for herself, let alone the newborn.
Undoubtedly, families differ in their composition, some consisting of a single mother only. Others have grandparents as primary caregivers, while others have adopted parents or gay couples (Casper, 2003). There are also instances where fathers are unavoidably absent. No matter the composition of the family, it is critical for fathers to understand the role they play in the early formation of their children’s mental and emotional health. Babies respond differently to fathers than they do to mothers, which correspond to the activation of different parts of their brains and psyche, areas that might be stunted in the absence of fathers playing their role. As such, father and child emotional and social connections should start early, preferably before birth. They should continue after birth and throughout life whenever possible. Men who do not engage with their children early in their life may miss the critical period of optimal emotional connection with them, when their brain neurons are still actively growing and are maximally ready for engagement.
If you like this article, please donate to a nonprofit organization that caters to seniors and elders in my home town. https://eldershelpinghands.org/donation/
Cabrera, N., Tamis‐LeMonda, C. S., Bradley, R. H., Hofferth, S., & Lamb, M. E. (2000). Fatherhood in the twenty‐first century. Child Development, 71(1), 127-136.
Casper, V. (2003). Very young children in lesbian and gay headed families: Moving beyond acceptance. Zero to Three, 23(3).
Galinsky, E. (1981). Between generations: The six stages of parenthood. Smithmark Pub.
Shears, J., Robinson, J., & Emde, R. N. (2002). Fathering relationships and their associations with juvenile delinquency. Infant Mental Health Journal: Official Publication of The World Association for Infant Mental Health, 23(1‐2), 79-87.
Stern, D. N. (1995). The motherhood constellation: A unified view of parent-infant psychotherapy. BasicBooks.