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Most men can be good fathers, but not everyone becomes a great dad

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Mr Daniel K. Kalinaki

At the weekend, on Father’s Day no less, I heard a story that left me thinking a lot about fatherhood and parenting. This eminent Ugandan spent more than two decades climbing the greasy career pole and made it to the top with plenty of cash to spare.

Through it all, he made sure he was a good father to his kids: food on the table, the best schools money could buy, holidays to see the world. If money could buy it, he done gone bought it. But the kids ended up yoyoing between rehabilitation centres, trapped in the spiderweb of addiction. It is so bad, I was told, that Mr Eminent Ugandan says he is willing to trade all his fame and fortune just to get his kids back to whatever normal would look like. This is not an isolated story. I have heard of many like it, and I am sure there are many more that I have not yet heard.

Most of the thinking that has followed is of the worrying variety; about what it takes to be a great dad. Great dad, I say, not a good father, because it is now clear that there is a fine but important distinction between the two. If you are lucky and work hard enough, a good starting point is to be able to provide materially. This is a necessary and often thankless task, for which there is much spilling of blood sweat and tears but the race to find money and be good fathers often leaves us without much time to spend with our kids and become great dads.

None of them will admit it during people, but this is one of the greatest dilemmas that lives rent-free in the heads of most men that I know. To get off the hamster wheel of capitalism is to fall back on one’s material duties; to stay on and keep chasing one’s tail is to fall back on one’s pastoral duties.

The zero-sum nature of this dilemma is exacerbated by the absence of a social safety net in the form of decent public schools, transport and health facilities. The absence of the state in demographic spatial evolution also means that an increasing number of people live in areas that are far removed from their workplaces, or from the schools they need to take their children to.

So we set forth at dawn, return after dusk, and with any luck, catch a glimpse of the children on a good Sunday. Some find it easier to just pack the rascals off to boarding school for 75 percent of the year. Others simply drop the microphone and disappear into the distance, deadbeats running from the drumbeat of responsibility.

These things have long-term social implications. I will not bore you with the data or details, but there is enough research to show that the absence of fathers from the lives of their children negatively affects their education, social-emotional adjustments, as well as mental health, including as adults. That adult you see acting selfishly and stupidly is probably a child who just didn’t receive love. They need a hug, not a slap!

So what are we to do? Your columnist struggles with this as much as the next guy – and that is before you get to his inherent suspicion of motivational speakers. So, instead of offering bad advice, how about some random musings?

As hard as it is for people who are one generation removed from abject poverty to consider, some joy might be found not in loving our kids less, but in loving them better. Those who can, should trade opportunities to make even more money for time with them. Those who find only a limited amount of time available should make it count by being present and intentional in the moment.

Buying them a soda and sending them off to the play centre so that you can watch football on television is not spending time with them, neither is handing them your mobile phone set to game mode so you can have some peace and quiet. And if you have a child and are playing no role in their life, consider changing your ways and reaching out, even if you have no money. You might be broke, but your child is broken.

There are enough anecdotal examples to prove to us that children who inherit wealth can burn it all up in half a lifetime of bad decisions or terrible addictions. By all means, provide for them. In fact, spoil them when you can. However, what will matter in the end is what you leave in them, not what you leave for them. To all those fathers doing their best to be great dads, cheers to you!

Mr Kalinaki, a poor man’s freedom fighter, promised to write something warm and mushy this week. There. Now stop crying and hug your kids.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.

[email protected]; @Kalinaki