What Does It Mean to Be A Father Today?
I’m getting ahead of myself. Father’s Day is still next Sunday. But after the Executive Editor of LeVogue, LEADERSHIP’s Fashion and Lifestyle magazine, Nikki Odu-Khiran, asked me if I could write a piece to mark the day, it got me thinking.
If my father, who passed on May 28, 2000, ever had to write on Father’s Day, what would he have written? Of course, he wouldn’t have written anything. A pensioner who worked as a storekeeper at the Apapa (Lagos) Quays of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) before he retired in 1996, Robert could barely write.
But my, oh, my, he could hold a crowd with his speech. And if you wanted to get him going, then talk politics, especially about Nigeria’s Civil War.
I can imagine what he would have said about Father’s Day back then. Being a father in his time is different from being a father today. And if my children have to write about Father’s Day two and a half decades from now, they’ll probably be using the same lens of wistful contemplation. Every generation thinks its burden is the heaviest.
My father would not be surprised, for example, that I didn’t know his real age and never once asked him until he passed. Of course, I wrote 84 in his obit because I had to write something. I got that from asking several sources I thought would know. Not from him. For the over four decades that he lived and as far back as I can remember, I never could ask him his age.
What it meant to be a father was for the son to stay in his place. Father’s authority was final, unquestionable. Mucking about asking him about his age would have been crossing a line.
Fast forward 2023. My children not only ask me to “surrender” my PIN number and God-knows-what-else, my four-year-old granddaughter asks me my name, my mother’s name, and once teased her own mother to call my wife by name. And that, of course, is woke.
I’m not sure my father would have thought so. Perhaps if he had lived to see his great-granddaughter, he would have half-jokingly, half-embarrassingly dismissed such precociousness as a regrettable consequence of the new-age bug.
If my father wanted me to become anything other than a journalist, I’m not sure there was much I could have done about it. You studied what you were told, which was often either law, medicine or engineering. Being a father at the time meant laying down the rules about virtually everything from your child’s hairstyle to their course of study. And being a son meant one thing: obedience.
Fortunately, my father wasn’t really interested in my career choice. All he wanted was for me to be the best in any career I wanted, a concession which I still find hard to explain, given his dominance in my life.
My father believed that staying away from booze, parties and girls was the beginning of wisdom and kept a long cane to enforce it. You really couldn’t blame him. Ajegunle, where I grew up, was one of the most congested slums of Lagos at the time. Booze was cheap, parties rampant, and girls plenty.
Of course, boys being boys (and occasionally with the connivance of my mother), I sneaked off to parties a few times, stayed out late and swigged a few bottles of beer. I even wrote frothy love letters with lines from James Hadley Chase.
However, when I crossed the line like when I went off on my own to see a football match at the National Stadium where dozens died in the post-game stampede, my mother gave me the full measure of a fan belt hung on the door lintel until I was covered in welts and near passing out, while my father turned a blind eye.
Of my many transgressions growing up, bringing a girl home, even when I was over 21, would have been considered a cardinal sin. It didn’t matter that I was out of secondary school and in higher school for my HSC, my father often warned, sternly, that hanging out with a girl when he was still responsible for me meant that I was in a hurry to relieve him of any further fatherly responsibility. His favourite phrase was, “If you get any girl pregnant, you’re done for!”
I’m sort of stuck in that groove. Tried as I have to be a modern-day dad, my children — all in their adult years — still know I felt a bit awkward, especially in the very early stages of their relationships. I think psychologists call it conditioning.
It’s futile, isn’t it? I mean for a father, these days, to worry too much about the social life of their grown-up children? You worry as they grow up, hoping they will pass every stage of growth when they should. Then you worry when they start making friends, hoping they will survive peer pressure.
Then you worry when they start going out, hoping they will keep the right company; you worry when they start going to school hoping that for all the huge bills you pay (and for their own sake) they will make good grades and turn out well.
Then when they finish, you also worry about how they will get a good job; how they would marry and who they would marry; and perhaps when they would have children. And when the grandchildren come, the worry cycle starts again.
I guess my father had all these worries, too, maybe less so in many ways than my mother had them. Yet, in a way, he had far more control of things than I could ever hope to have over my own children. If he didn’t want me to go out to a party, to see Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me or any of Amitabh Bachchan’s hit movies, for example, which I rarely did, he only needed to say the word and, very often, that was that.
As a father today, however, if I don’t want my child to go to a party, he could bring the party home by phone. And if I don’t want him to go to the movie, he could watch Netflix on a speed dial.
If I told him that too many bananas and sweets could unleash the village masquerades on him, which was what my mother told me obviously for my own good, he could simply ask Google. And I’ve just been told that if I give my son a timeout, thanks to the next big thing, Apple’s Vision Pro, he could simply recreate his own new world indoors.
I wasn’t a sheltered kid. Back in the day, my father was happy to put my school “chop money” into my hand every school day and off I went, either alone or with other students, covering a distance of at least 25 kilometres to and from school through shortcuts and winding street corners on foot. We didn’t have to worry about kidnappers.
It’s a different world today. Being a father when my children were much younger also meant being their driver for school runs, popping up on Open Day and fretting about what age they should get a phone, things my father would have considered helicopter parenting.
Sometimes, being a modern-day father can feel like the Chartterjees in the legal drama Mrs. Chartterjee Vs Norway, only in the domestic sense, where your own grown-up children take the place of the Norwegian authorities.
Today’s children have a completely different code of how they want their own children raised, nurtured and treated, different from what your mother or father taught you!
And increasingly, a number of them relate to you differently. On this Father’s Day, for example, if you’re nice, your son might even offer you a bottle of beer! The mere thought of it would make my father turn in his grave. I can almost hear him say, “this generation is done for!” Is it?
Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP