“You were made for this,” I remember a friend kindly saying to me about my own impending fatherhood. I offered a reassuring smile in response. Deep-down I just wasn’t convinced. I felt ill-prepared to be a father, and when my daughter was born, I admit feeling a sense of relief—it wasn’t a son. I wanted my legacy to be different to the one I inherited—to be and be remembered as a good husband, a good father, a good man. But I didn’t know where to begin.

My father drifted out of my life when I was five. Mustering the courage to meet him in a nondescript pub after decades of absence, I left angry, confused, and lost. Instead of the apology I so desperately wanted, I was met with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders. “Whatever happened, happened,” his only words. It was a curious moment. That instant, I realised my father was still, in many ways, a child.

A man—a father—surely doesn’t slowly fade from his son’s life without even a pang of regret, I thought. Perhaps deep down he felt remorse. Perhaps his absence was a blessing. Perhaps it was for the best he wasn’t around. Having a father around doesn’t magically make everything better of course, and in many cases, a cold, controlling, or violent father makes life much worse. I convinced myself that I was better off—I was never certain.

Wiremu Witana’s dad wasn’t there for him either. His “old man” was hard-working, but when he wasn’t working he was drinking; spending time with the league team instead of his son. In his absence, Wiremu was brought up by his grandfather who was strict and diligent but also loving, caring, and affectionate. He inherited aspects of both men, but decided to do manhood his own way. This led to a life marked by violence and despair.

“There’s a lot of time to think in jail,” reflects Wiremu with a sigh. “I was trying to be in control but didn’t realise I was out of control.” Having lost his then-seven children to CYFs, he was “a broken and shattered man.” Following countless stints in jail and even more protection orders, and facing the dire realisation that he had pushed away all those he loved, he tried to take his life. Twice. “I had to lose everything to realise what I had.”

Wiremu describes the masculinity he was trying to live up to as “being able to take care of yourself, not needing others to help you, and having a tough image and not showing emotions because that is a weakness.”

“Stop crying,” he was often told, “boys don’t cry.” Being a man meant having power over women. It meant “being able to provide a living,” he continued, “whatever it took.” The whatever-it-takes mentality become morality for Wiremu, justifying his actions. Theft. Drugs. Domestic violence. He wanted respect, but instead settled for instilling fear into others, especially his partner and children. It wasn’t the man he wanted to be. He wanted to change too, but didn’t know how.

How can men, with absent or unhealthy models of masculinity like mine and Wiremu’s, recover and discover whole and healthier ways of being a man?

Wiremu (41 of 42)

Kieran Madden

By day, Kieran is the Research Manager at Maxim Institute, where his research focusses on tackling poverty and restoring the social fabric of Aotearoa New Zealand. By night, he and his lovely wife Juanita settle (and re-settle) their cherished and bright-eyed baby daughter. In the rare spaces between work and family, Kieran loves hosting friends for dinner, clumsily playing the cello, and cycling through the beautiful Waitākeres.