File photo: Nothing can compare to the love of a father. Picture: Reuters
Marchelle Abrahams chats to three fathers who are raising daughters on their own. These are their stories...

Being a parent is hard enough. Being a single parent can be the most difficult job in the world. Too often dads get bad press for being “deadbeat” or “absent”. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, about 9 million children grow up without fathers in this country.

It's a shockingly high figure, but what about the untold stories of dads left holding babies, literally, once fate deals a wanton hand? Widowed and single fathers of daughters are the unsung heroes of society, having to navigate a world of firsts like first bra fittings, first menses and the dreaded first boyfriend.

Ex-Bafana captain Lucas Radebe lost his wife Feziwe to bowel cancer in 2008. He was left to take care of son Lucas Junior, 16, and daughter Owami, 11. Just before his wife's passing he said: “I've got to be strong. Especially for my children. They know mom is sick, but they don't realise how bad it is. Kids are kids, let them live their lives.”

Radebe’s story is indicative of our changing times. Fathers are increasingly finding themselves the primary caregiver due to death or divorce, or any other number of factors. We chat to three fathers who are raising their daughters on their own.

Johan Steyn, 35

As a dad to Cloe, 5, Johan Steyn took on a dual-parenting role when she was one year old as he and his wife parted ways after an acrimonious divorce.

He recalls the first time he had to take Cloe to the clinic for her vaccinations, saying staff refused to help him because her mother did not accompany them. When it came to nappy changing in a public area, he was forced to change her in the car because most malls have nappy changing stalls in the female toilet.

“Simple things like taking her to a public loo are a constant problem. I can’t take her to the men’s so the only other option is the disabled toilet,” he says, explaining how single dads are still marginalised. When it comes to the workplace, he says “single dads don’t get the same treatment as single mothers. If my child gets sick or hurt I can’t just leave. Sometimes it costs me my work.”

Johan Steyn with daughter Cloe, age 5.

Steyn’s dating life is also non-existent. He jokingly says Cloe was with him on every date that he’s been on. The look on a woman’s face when he arrives with baby in tow is priceless. “Some women believe if you are a single father, you are looking for a mother for your child. They have it wrong!”

It’s been a struggle for Steyn, but he wouldn’t change a thing. “Seeing my daughter growing up to be a lady, being a part of her life and the joy it brings us is priceless.

“It’s special moments like seeing her perform at sports, dancing like a princess, that make it all worth while. I can’t survive a day without her, she is part of me, she is my life.”

His advice to single fathers raising daughters? “Hang in there because it is worth every moment. You are her first love. Protect her and be her hero.”

Lance Pereira, 32

After the birth of his daughter, Lance Pereira’s life changed forever. He lost his wife in a heartbeat: nine months into her pregnancy, doctors fought to save her life in order to counter the effects of a brain tumour. Shortly after the birth of their daughter, she died.

Today Shia Faith is a happy, thriving 3-year-old. But Pereira still finds himself struggling to connect as a widowed father. “People or other parents share their opinions (without requesting it) on how things should be done and make you feel as though you’re doing it wrong or not to society’s standard,” he says.

Pereira had to figure things out on his own from day one, saying it’s difficult not being able to turn to one’s partner for advice or guidance. “I compare myself to single mothers and wondering why I don’t have certain feelings they have toward their own children.” He then adds that he ended up being extremely hard on himself.

Lance Pereira and little Shia Faith, age 3.

What gets him through tough times is “the feeling of having purpose and being loved by an innocent being.”

“Shia holds me, kisses me and says ‘I love you daddy’ without me having taught her that.”

Pereira says fathers need to raise their children as best they can: “They are young and impressionable. Be sure the impressions left on them are from their fathers.”

Oswald Jacobs, 63

Mothers carry a huge responsibility and they have a special inborn quality, having given birth to children

He recounts the challenges of taking on the arduous task of raising two girls on his own: “It was a very rude awaking – I discovered that being and trying to be a mother was unique.”

“Mothers carry a huge responsibility and they have a special inborn quality, having given birth to children, while fathers act with instinct and discipline,” he says.

But Jacobs had to find a balance in his parenting skills

“Mothers can balance the reason and react accordingly. I had to learn the hard way or lose my children.”

His honesty strikes a chord, and he makes an intuitive observation that many widowed dads can probably relate to: “I had to learn to trust my daughters’ instincts and decisions, discuss the situation and come to mutual agreements. Sometimes I still fail but we keep on working – the most important factor I learnt is that we have to give our children space and communicate as a team.”

In the years since his wife’s untimely death, Jacobs has learnt not to be so hard on himself and he advises other dads to do the same and be less confrontational. “Win each other’s trust and respect, and encourage each other. Work as a team with integrity and trust your family will survive.”

Support groups

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group is a national organisation

Widow's Club South Africa can be found on Facebook

Compassionate Friends bereavement support NGO is available in the Free State, Eastern Cape and Gauteng