The new generation of Pakistani dads is redefining fatherhood and parenting

The fathers of today are trying to break the cycle by being available dads, ones who express interest in their children and are supporters rather than just disciplinarians.
18 Jun, 2023

The year is 2012. In our small lounge, I, along with my father and youngest brother, am watching Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol. The film questions patriarchal norms, especially the urge to have a son. The lead character, Zainub Khan (Humaima Mallick) engages in a discussion around the number of children produced and how two children should suffice. My father loudly agrees. I look at him and ask if my brother and I were mistakes of sorts.

He gasps and looks at me in absolute shock and I remind him that we are four siblings, and he had both a daughter and a son in the start so that makes both of us errors. He begins fumbling sheepishly but remains dumbfounded. 

Many people may see this interaction as rude or badtameez when in reality I raised a perfectly logical question. But the way this interaction is approached is precisely the point I wish to address — the absolute lack of communication between fathers and their children. I realised this much later in life, when I met people who had opposite experiences. For me, I could speak my mind in front of my father, be witty, and even troll him because I knew we had a relationship where he would make a face, or try to come up with a response but fail.

I thought all fathers were like that. Fathers who wouldn’t miss parent teacher meetings, celebrated birthdays and good results by cooking food, or who’d would give me an idea to make a slide on AAA (Allah, Army, America) when giving a presentation on the dictatorship of Ayub Khan at the University of Karachi. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have shortcomings — he had many — but it took me a while to realise that I couldn’t complain too much because I had a present, available father.

The idea behind an absent father is not that they are physically unavailable, or God forbid, have walked away from their families or died. Rather, it alludes to the reality of fathers maintaining a certain distance from their children, stepping in only to teach them a lesson, reminding their kids they are nothing without the financial assistance and sustenance provided to them. It’s not an alien concept to hear of mothers threatening children that they will tell the father and for that father to be raised to the position of a tyrant. Such fathers are absent from the lives of their children emotionally and exist as a figure who is to be respected at all times, who cannot be questioned or joked with, and whose word will always be the last word.

The relationship thus becomes an understanding of fear and resentment instead of love and trust. This also cements gender roles, where the father is regarded as a hard-working individual who sacrifices his needs for his children only to be reduced to an ‘ATM machine’. The reality is quite different because the father figure makes a barter. A barter where he believes that he no longer is responsible for the emotional wellbeing of the children because each month he pays various sums to get his “freedom”, and that his wife needs to ensure that the children do not come running to him with their tales — read: bother him — when he returns from work.

However, this is thankfully changing now. Our generation is understanding the importance of fatherhood and is actively trying to be involved in their children’s lives.

The traditional father

Kumail Raza is in his late 30s and has embraced fatherhood, being a dad to two boys of eight and two.

“While I do understand the premise to grasp traditional fatherhood, I feel it is an unfair comparison due to the generation gap between us and our fathers or even grandfathers for that matter,” he explained. “I think in the last two and a half decades, lives have evolved drastically due to expansion in media, technology, conversations around mental health, among other aspects. Children have a tendency to look towards an elder figure. My son would do that quite a lot when he was younger, and would agree with me and seek my validation. I think that was because he didn’t have an elder sibling so I was his role model. So knowing that, I felt I had to be careful about the kind of behaviour I would display around him, knowing he would mirror me,” he shared.

Raza’s own father was traditional in some aspects and their relationship was about immense respectability.

“I didn’t think he was very approachable when it came to my issues. Rather, in my youth, if I ever landed into trouble, my first fear was that if my father found out, I would be dead meat. I would hope that in the case of my kids, their Baba is the first person to be called if they are ever in trouble. I would want my number on their speed dial instead of me being the last person to know of something because of fear of me. I couldn’t always have a heart-to-heart with my father so I don’t want any communication gaps with my children,” he said.

Raza added that his father was obviously a very different man because he belonged to a different time altogether. “Did my father usually approach matters differently than me? Yes, but I will not hold it against him because I like to think it is natural. Some features will help me a lot in raising my sons, but my sons may realise years down the line that I could have done things differently too. Like my parents, I too belong to a time when our elders took life-altering decisions for us like career or marriage. But I would like to take a different approach with my children.”

Suleman*, a 40-year-old writer and researcher, described his relationship with his father as violent and believed that the ‘traditional’ definition of fatherhood his elders’ generation ascribed to was a complete failure. 

“My father has played an important role in shaping my emotional and mental health. I think I owe half of my life’s trauma to him. However, I don’t think it was a conscious decision to raise my children in a certain way. I just loved them with all my being. It’s weird that this is such a difficult concept for older generations of parents to realise, but you just have to love your kids, laugh with them, cry with them, be emotionally available to them,” he said.  

“I think I see my children not so much as equals but so far above me that it’s difficult for me to accept some times. They are everything that I should have been, and sometimes I wonder if I could be better for them as a father. I don’t even know if celebrating my children is the foremost thing rather I just think it’s important to love them. Everything else comes after and falls neatly into place.”

Ali*, 30, who is an analyst and is still thinking about whether he wants to have children or not, defines traditional fatherhood as  fathers being distant and emotionally absent.

“There is a term we often use in memes for women about how they have ‘daddy issues’ when in reality it is the men who have those same issues. We imitate our fathers as much as we can and seek their validation. My father, despite making sure that our financial needs were taken care of, was never there for me emotionally. We hardly talked about our lives and would skirt around topics like sports and politics. He made me feel like I was never enough and ensured that I was punished for the choices I would make, even as an adult,” he said.

Ali added that the trauma only increases with time because he sees other people whose fathers actually treat them as equals.

“I couldn’t imagine joking with him and yet I see him do it with strangers over social media and I wonder why couldn’t he cultivate a loving relationship with me. He was a workaholic and would always be on his phone. I realised I became the same when it hit me recently after going to therapy that I took up work to avoid any emotional confrontation, just like him.”

It is not unheard of that children and even adults often walk on eggshells when it comes to their fathers. They beat about the bush and wait for the ‘right’ time to talk to them about something significant. A clinical psychologist who has been associated with an Emotional Health Programme and works with adolescents, adults and the elderly, Nayab Iqbal, shared that a certain kind of behaviour was expected of men, where they were not to be involved with their family and just be provincial providers.

“The impact of emotionally distant or absent fathers is indeed long-lasting. Children model parents’ behaviour and in this case, a certain kind of communication style is conveyed to them. In most cases, it is expected of children to gauge what the father wants or needs without the father telling or sharing those needs. It is assumed by the child from the beginning. We have seen this in many households that the children know about the consequences of a ‘ruined mood’ of their father and would do everything to avoid it,” she explained.

Breaking the cycle

Raza shared something intriguing — despite knowing that his son is eight, he takes his opinions on different matters.

“I started taking my son’s opinion when he turned four or five. I would ask him for ideas and suggestions. I didn’t necessarily have to always stick to his advice or opinion [but] I would never shoot it down. Instead, I would say maybe we can do it differently, and I saw with time that his suggestions also improved,” he said.

“To quote an incident, I was leaving for my further education, and we went to Lucky One Mall to buy clothes. I asked his opinion about shirts, and he picked one excitedly saying that it would suit me. I wasn’t too keen on buying that, but guess what? I bought the shirt. I still have it. I bought it to give him this sense of confidence and value. And as he grows further, I will not just restrict his judgment to clothes or restaurants, instead I will ask him to share his opinion on important matters as well,” Raza said.

“Our lives are changing every day, and in the future I may not possess the capabilities to grasp some realities. But my sons would because they are growing up in that time so I need to build a relationship where they are able to support me instead of thinking that I would not understand them because it would just make us closed-off from the rest of the world.”

Raza is an ardent proponent of showing affection to children, even more so in public. His own father wasn’t very affectionate physically because he belonged to a different era but he is the opposite. “I try to hug my sons every day. I engage with them in public. But it is not just for the sake of affection — I feel when children are in public and a parent showers them with affection, it creates a boundary for others, especially predators and bullies,” he explained.

“One major reason why so many children are assaulted is the lack of fondness, both physical and emotional, at home. Children yearn for love, so if God forbid, a stranger gives it to them even with a malicious intent, they would go towards them. Similarly, when bullies see that the child is accompanied by a parent who is laughing and talking to them, they realise that if they mess with them, they can get reported.”

Commenting on the gender roles that go hand-in-hand with fatherhood, he felt that the duties of parenthood were strictly demarcated — changing diapers and feeding have been for mothers while maintaining strict discipline and taking executive decisions are left to fathers.

“Our fathers have been like a jalaad. I was occasionally hit by my mother. My father didn’t raise his hand but the fear of that hand lived in me for a long while. I would like to think times are changing but I also know of men who were lounging away while their wives went into labour, who were okay with a phone call. I remember when my second son was born, the nurse came to another expectant father and congratulated him on the birth of his child. The man lifted his gaze from the phone, thanked the nurse and started scrolling again. She told him that he could meet his wife but he nodded and didn’t get up. The nurse ultimately left, so yes even now there are such fathers who are indifferent and alienated from fatherhood, and perhaps it is due to the cycle that has been going on for years.”

Suleman added that his father never felt uncomfortable around him and his siblings — it was the other way round and his presence made all of them uneasy.  “We never did anything together, so I try to do everything with my children. From talking to them, playing with them on their PlayStation, whatever they get joy from, I encourage them to do and partake too,” he said. 

Psychologist Iqbal pointed out that the children certainly understand the dynamics of the relationship — kids, mostly boys, figure out that there is a way to live in a house where one person’s likes and dislikes take precedence over everyone else’s.

“This impacts sons more. Men who are emotionally in tune with themselves are called effeminate, and this message is reiterated by other family members as well. Distant fathers lead to emotionally unavailable sons. Growing up, children want immediate gratification, and they slowly learn that it is not always possible, but during this journey they tend to get hurt, angry and sad but instead of an elder sitting with them as they comprehend this, they are left alone. When they realise this, they also stop sitting with their emotions because it is normal for them. Later, in their adulthood, they build barriers to hold back intense emotions like grief.

“The sadness starts manifesting as anger and it is common to see anger being very prevalent among men, because they are not expected to be sad, yet it is acceptable for them to be angry. All men are taught to be comfortable with anger and they have implicit permission to express their anger from a young age.”

Iqbal has also learnt that emotional suppression as a result of an absent father leads to emotional suppression where sons do not know how to communicate in different segments of their life be it work, friendship or a romantic relationship. Such people have difficulty in extending empathy because their inability to sit with their own vulnerability makes it harder to do the same for others.

“Such men do not know how to be vulnerable and they feel a sense of discomfort because they are not in sync with their feelings, which ultimately impacts their quality of life. They are then required to unlearn communication distance, which has been their normal for a good 20 to 25 years. They learn alternate coping mechanisms and attain a deeper awareness of thought processes, which helps them understand their own shortcomings,” she described. 

Wise words

Raza believes that communication is everything in every relationship so father-child one is no different — “Your children should never hesitate, no matter what it is. The father should be the confidante instead of this terrifying persona assigned to them by society. I would reiterate the importance of say physical affection, and lastly, I feel we have really made forgiveness very difficult. Parents also make blunders, and I feel we need to extend apologies to everyone, ourselves, our elders and even our children instead of humiliating them.”

“Don’t be a bully to your children. Don’t be responsible for them having fear and sadness in their hearts. Respect their boundaries. Don’t try to mould them into a version of yourself. Just let them be,” stressed Suleman.

Ali felt that if he ever decided to have children, he would consider them his equals because they are independent human beings.

“I do have nephews and nieces and I try to engage with them on a personal level. I listen to them, play with their toys when they come to me, and am affectionate instead of being distant and far away. I would want to do so many things with my children, play with them, go shopping, visit parks and make sure that they can come to me if they need help,” he said.

“I would also make sure that I do not lash out at them, and be patient with them. Lastly, I hope I live up to what I say, if I have them of course, that I am able to respect their choices and support them wholeheartedly,” he shared, adding that more fathers need to show affection in public because there is a dearth of love in our society. 

My own father passed away a month or two after the interaction I mentioned at the beginning of this article, but never once have I wished that I changed my response, because if he ever decided to come back, I would do everything to pull his leg again.

In a few years, the time I spent with my father will be less than the time I have spent without him, but that won’t ever change the fact that I owe so much to him. As part of an assignment, I got a letter on the most random topic published in Dawn. My father was over the moon. He did not wait a few years to see my first byline and the many more after that, but his participation in our lives made me understand that having active parents can shape us in so many ways.

To all the fathers who are not scared of loving their children, your kids will thank you despite your many flaws, and to those who are scared of showing affection, it’s never too late to love them. Happy Father’s Day!

Some names have been changed to protect anonymity