The recent Fathers’ Day celebration filled my social media feeds with photos of happy families and various gestures of appreciation towards fathers. Childhood photos, cakes, large family meals, home-made bakes and food, cards and craft projects inundated my Facebook and Instagram pages.
While scrolling through the flurry of posts, I stumbled upon a TEDx talk by divorce attorney Marilyn York titled: “What Representing Men in Divorce Taught Me About Fatherhood”. York has dedicated her career to representing only men in divorce and custody cases. In her talk, she argued for the unique role fathers play in the lives and development of children, citing data that highlighted the negative consequences of fatherlessness in the lives of children and adolescents. Her talk brought to my mind the fathers I had met in my practice as a social worker for the past 8 years, who were embroiled in custody battles with their ex-wives. The most acrimonious, bitter cases came to mind, especially cases where mothers were actively seeking to distance their children away from their fathers, and fathers who were fighting for more precious time to spend with their children.
Three decades, ago, leading psychologist Michael E. Lamb described fathers as “the forgotten contributors of child development”. There is substantial research documenting the benefits that fathers bring to the development of their children. Positive involvement by fathers have been shown to improve aspects of children, including responsible behaviour, cognitive development, secure attachment and becoming empathic individuals. Conversely, fatherlessness has been described as an epidemic in the United States, affecting nearly 20 million children, with fatherless children disproportionately represented in the realms of poverty, crime, psychiatric hospital admissions and mental health issues (National Centre for Fathering, 2015). These data point to the fact that children need their fathers.
Locally, bodies such as the Centre for Fathering has sought to inspire, mobilise and involve fathers, and to become positive influences in their children’s lives. The call now seems more needful and urgent against the backdrop of local trends.
The divorce rate in Singapore has steadily risen throughout the decades, and has roughly doubled since the 1980s (Department of Statistics, 2018). Between 2014 and 2016, the majority of cases with sole custody granted to only one parent was granted to the mother. The overall figures were 3 to 4 times higher than cases where fathers were granted sole custody. While each case comes with its unique considerations, the overall outcome signals that the issue of fatherlessness in Singapore is something we ought to remain concerned about. That being said, the proportion of joint custody orders granted by the Courts had also seen an increase in the same time period, signalling the courts’ recognition of the need to allow fathers to remain involved in the making of major decisions for their children (Ministry of Social and Family Development, 2018).
In the face of these trends and challenges, York reminds us that each and every one of us are change-makers who should do our part to recognise the importance of fathers. She leaves us with these takeaways:
If you are a father, make an effort to do what you can to be involved in your children’s daily lives;
If you are a mother, facilitate the relationship between your children and their father, instead of trying to interfere or control it;
If you are a child, spend time with your dad – ask him questions and seek his advice;
If you are an employer, grant the fathers you employ the ability to be involved in their children’s lives, such as allowing them to be at their children’s school events.
The above advice is especially applicable to families where children are affected by the divorce of their parents and have to divide their time between two homes.
The Fathers’ Day cakes may have been cut, the meals eaten and the photos archived, but the call remains for each of us to advance the cause of active fathering in our own ways and spheres of influence. May we find every possible moment to celebrate fathering in its different forms, and to celebrate fathers for their sacrifice and efforts to remain involved in the lives of their children.