Culture Street

Joseph Wakim is a widowed father of three daughters. From psychologist to social worker, he founded the Streetwork Project in Adelaide, the Australian Arabic Council, produced TV documentary Zero to Zenith: Arab Contributions Down Under, wrote four satirical comedies that were staged in Melbourne, founded Australia's first Arabic Festival (Mahrajan), was appointed Victoria's youngest Multicultural Affairs Commissioner, and composed music for his band The Heartbeats. He was granted the Violence Prevention Award by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1996 and the Order of Australia Medal for public campaigns to redress the roots of racism in 2001. He has had over 600 opinion pieces published in all major Australian newspapers and was finalist at the United Nations Australia Association - Media Award 2014 for creating a 'voice for the voiceless'.

By Joseph Wakim

Without a word spoken, mothers effortlessly read a room, gauging its temperature, scanning their children’s faces and measuring their heartbeats.

This is the language of love, a language that should not be the monopoly of mothers. It is a language that lies dormant within men, waiting to be awoken. I was sure that whoever gave mothers this gift would not have bypassed fathers, in case they ended up like me.

Twelve years ago, cancer claimed the life of my wife when we were both aged forty and our three daughters were all in primary school. As her candle flickered, a flame was ignited within me.

I grappled with grief and guilt: why was my life spared when my daughters surely needed their mother?
Men suggested that I reach out for a new woman, for single parenting manuals, for beginner’s cookbooks, for dating websites, for hired help, even for sleeping tablets.

Women offered to baby-sit my children if ever I felt like flying away, but I felt instinctively protective and spread my wings over our precious brood who had already been robbed of their mum.

Instead of outsourcing, I searched for my in-tuition. If women have the capacity to raise well-adapted children alone, where is it written that men cannot do the same?

I began my emancipation by unblocking the valves of my heart which raised my antennas to read different wavelengths and rhythms. I used be minister of foreign affairs (garden, garbage, garage). Now my portfolio expanded to home affairs, ironically sometimes ‘foreign’ to me.

No, I did not find my feminine self or become ‘Mr Mum’ because this implied that the nurturer was intrinsically a woman’s domain. I had found my inner self and opened the flood gates to a wellspring within.

Once we unblock our valves, we discover that we are perfectly capable of telling bed-time stories, consoling them after nightmares, nursing them when they feel sick, helping with school assignments and reading their faces like a book.

In many cultures, the stereotype of a strong man is often associated with a clenched fist. Strength is equated with stubbornness, having the last word, never saying sorry and never having our word broken. But these are often the cracks of fear, not love and definitely not strength. They show insecurity about losing control over one’s ‘kingdom’ as the one who wears the pants.

True strength is the capacity to flex rather than break in the face of a cyclone like cancer.
True strength is the capacity to speak and listen to the many languages of silence, of touch, of faces.
True strength is the capacity to express emotions rather than suppress them in fear of being unmanly.

My book What my daughters taught me is a testimony that masculinity is not hard-wired by nature, but soft-wired by nurture. As men, we cannot hide behind these traditional excuses that we are incapable of being primary carers and nurturers. In my book, I swing a sledgehammer at these rusty shackles of gender stereotypes as I realise that they are a prison, not a prism.

My daughters not only taught me to write a story about the emancipation of my heart, but also taught me to read their language of the heart.

whatmydaughterstaughtmeJoseph Wakim is the author of WHAT MY DAUGHTERS TAUGHT ME, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99. You can buy the book here.

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