A Father’s Legacy of Care that Keeps on Giving
Guest Post by Gary Barker
My father, Robert “Bob” Barker, passed away this summer after a six-year battle with dementia. For all the years of that battle, he was cared for at home by my mother, other family members, and many others in his community – in large part because he lived a legacy of care. He modeled for all who knew him what it is to be a caring man. A caring human.
My father was a social worker, a profession that back then and still is mostly female. After a short-lived career as a varsity football player in college, he took his first job as a caseworker with California’s child welfare system, making home visits and supporting low-income households with young children. He recalled having to chase down some non-residential fathers who were not making child support payments, and being asked by one of them: “Why don’t you get a real man’s job?”
He laughed that off. Perhaps because he had the muscular build of a star football player. But mostly because for my father, being an advocate for the well-being of children was a man’s job, and it was his calling, his vocation, and lifelong passion.
After having one child (me), they adopted my brother and sister. My father advocated that every child needed a home, not an institution, and he spent every working hour making that a reality during his career. He also lived it at home. In addition to my adopted siblings, our house was always open to foster children, some who stayed for a few months and others a few years.
I had the chance to travel with my father over the years, within Texas where he lived for many years, and elsewhere in the US and internationally where he spoke and advocated for the simple right of every child to have a family. I remember watching his compassion toward children living on the streets or in orphanages in Romania and I remember his persuasive arguments to policymakers on the need for increased funding for children to have homes and families. One of those policymakers, a former senior official in the Texas child welfare system told me: “If he disagreed with us in the state office, he shared his thoughts…but he never showed anger. He’d give us supporting information and we almost always came to a compromise that we all could live with and that would result in better care for children.”
My father never really talked about child welfare as something men should do, or spoke specifically about the role of fathers or male caregivers. He simply lived the example that men can and should care for children, as a cause and as a daily practice. My career and my cause, inspired by my father, have been focused on men’s caregiving and men being part of the global gender equality agenda.
I moved to Brazil and co-founded an organization, Promundo, that works to engage men and boys in gender equality, and I co-led the creation of the global platform MenCare to promote men’s involvement as hands-on caregivers and to create a political platform to achieve equality in our homes by bringing men into that question. We encourage men’s caregiving and involvement in the lives of children and we call for men to be allies in the global gender equality agenda, including achieving equality in who does the care in our homes. In all that work, I continue to be inspired by my father’s legacy.
In 1967, a friend, inspired by my father’s actions for children, gave him a copy of the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”. My father particularly liked one poem in that book, one that is called simply “On Children.” I heard him read this many times in the talks that he gave. As a young teenager going with him to some of those events, I had heard it so often that I began to tune it out. When he passed away this summer, I found his copy of the book, and the dog-eared page turned to this:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls.
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
My father kept the same copy of that book for more than five decades and read from it dozens of times to fellow social workers, fellow child advocates, to city leaders whom he was enjoining to support children’s services, and at the christening ceremony for my daughter.
As I read it again after his passing, I could see in the poem my father’s absolute belief and certainty of the dignity and humanity of every child. I could see him calling me to a deep humility in service to others, to children, and to social justice – to remember that we are not and never can be the center of our service and our care.
This ultimately is what my father’s legacy is: Men care about children. Men care. Men father at home and they father in the world when they center the lives of others. Men care in the context of their own children, but true care and social justice, my father showed, goes far beyond our homes. Men’s care must be part of a global call for equality between women and men, and the care for all.
In re-reading that poem I saw my father’s final message: we are passing servants to a greater cause. It is the well-being of others, and true social justice for others, all the others who will carry on after we pass, who are the cause, and the end goal of our service.
Gary Barker is CEO of Promundo-US and co-founder of Instituto Promundo, Brazil. Starting in low-income areas of Rio de Janeiro, he has worked for 25 years in more than 40 countries to engage men and boys in achieving gender equality and ending violence against women and girls. He is co-founder of MenCare, a global campaign working in more than 50 countries to promote men’s involvement as equitable, non-violent caregivers, and co-founder and board member of MenEngage, a global network of NGOs working in male allyship for gender equality. He is co-author of the State of the World’s Fathers reports and leads the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, the largest ever survey of men’s attitudes and behaviors related to gender equality. He is an Ashoka Fellow, a former Open Society Fellow, and received the Voices of Solidarity Award from Vital Voices for his work to engage men as allies for gender justice.
In 2018 and 2019 Gary was named by Apolitical as one of the “most influential people in gender policy around the world.” He has a PhD in developmental psychology and holds a Research Affiliate position with the University of Coimbra in Portugal. He is also an author and has used his experiences working with men and women affected by violence to write critically recognized fiction. His latest novel, The Museum of Lost Love, released by the literary publisher World Editions, tells stories of characters affected by violence and displacement. Gary lived for nearly 20 years in Latin America and currently resides in Washington, DC, with his bi-national family.