I recently travelled to Indonesia with UNICEF, to Semarang in the Central Java Province to see the work of my 7 Fund for UNICEF, which is helping the most vulnerable children get the best start in life, by empowering them to speak out, providing them with support, and protecting them from violence so they can unlock their incredible potential.
While I was in Semarang I met with a group of dads and their young children. We sat together, discussing the realities of fatherhood. And this notion of love and fear that takes over when we have kids, rang true in every one of them. This Early Childhood Development center in the community is run so that parents and their young children have a place to spend time together and have a safe place to read and play together so I joined in one afternoon.
There is one dad in particular that I won’t forget. Imam, a 31-year-old father of a little boy called Vincent. Imam spent the first year of his son’s life working long days to try and make ends meet. He missed many precious early moments – the moments that often stay in our minds forever. His first laugh, his first words, his first steps, Imam missed all of these to put food on the table. Focusing on being the main breadwinner was a tough ‘decision’ for him to make and one that left him full of fear. In the brief moments they would spend together, his son didn’t want to be near him. Imam feared that he’d missed his chance to build a special bond with Vincent. He feared his child would grow up thinking his father didn’t love him, when actually his love is what pushed him to do his best to earn enough to give his child all the things he could ever need.
On the day I met this father and son – whose story I imagine resonates with millions of dads across the world – you’d never guess that there was a day where Vincent didn’t want to be near his dad. He was clambering all over him, pulling at his face, laughing in response to the shapes he was making with dad’s cheeks. Imam made the hard decision to change and to risk the income he really needed to support his family. He managed to get a new job, and as a result he was able to work less hours and spend more time with his son.
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Imam now takes on a much bigger role in parenting – preparing his food, picking out his clothes, getting him bathed and dressed. But the biggest change he tells me about is the fact he now has time to play – one of the most important ways of building a child into who they will become.
In the fathers’ group I also met Ary, a father of two girls whose youngest is the same age as my daughter Harper. He told me about how he copes with his daily frustrations and anxiety. To cope, Ary told me that when he felt stressed, he would go on a fast bike ride to burn off some steam and to focus his thoughts. Even just a short bike ride would mean that when he arrived back home he would be able to be present and in the right state of mind to spend quality time with his kids.
It really helped me to talk to the group of dads in this way, and I’d encourage more dads to talk and share their experiences. Imam and Ary reminded me of when my kids were small; I didn’t want to miss a second, but of course there were times that I couldn’t be there. I feared they would do something for the first time and I wouldn’t be there to see it. Just like Imam, I knew that spending as much quality time with my kids as I could, especially when they were young, was the most important thing in the world. And like Ary, I also realized pretty quickly, that there are never enough hours in the day to do all the things we want to do with our kids so as long as we make whatever the time available to us quality time, where we are present, as dads we’re winning.
All the fathers that I met spoke of their dreams and aspirations for their children. Every generation wants the next to be better, to have more opportunities and achieve their full potential. But we need to start from the very beginning to make this possible.
I’m still learning new things about fatherhood every day. You never stop learning. I was 24 when I had Brooklyn. Four kids now and nearly 20 years of experience as a father, and you never stop learning.