Updated: Jun 22
Unraveling the Myth of the ‘Ideal’ Father
When I was immersed in the visual and imaginative pleasure of a Hollywood movie, a friend approached me and invited me to watch a theater performance on campus. I’m not sure why, but I immediately felt excited about going (perhaps the need to escape the stuffy and cold room prompted me). Whether it was the journey to the campus or the venue of the performance, I hoped it wouldn’t be a waste of time, if you know what I mean.
I took my seat, and the show began. The play being performed was “Ayahku Pulang” by Usmar Ismail. “Hmm, this must be a portrayal of a family’s sorrow,” I murmured. The story commenced with a scene featuring an elderly mother engaged in a dialogue with her eldest son. The old mother had three children: two sons and one youngest daughter. She appeared to be making an effort to remember the sweet moments (nostalgia) of her husband, or the children’s father, being at home 20 years ago. She seemed sad, mixed with hope for her longing towards her husband and the father of her children. The only outlet for those feelings was through storytelling and sharing memories with her eldest son.
The eldest son (I forgot his name in the story) seemed determined to change the subject, as if he didn’t want to hear or discuss the issue of his father anymore. He considered it nonsense and held a personal grudge against his father—a figure who had long abandoned his family, an indifferent figure who was not responsible for the family. So, whenever the mother told stories or broached the topic, the eldest son would become angry and try to divert the conversation elsewhere because, according to him, he didn’t know his father.
In short, after being absent for over 20 years (a significant amount of time), suddenly the figure of the father, whom the old mother had always talked about, appeared in this situation. The old man looked unhealthy, neglected, and dirty, like a beggar. He appeared uncomfortable facing this situation, feeling guilty for his long-lasting mistakes—mistakes that the children had internalized since their youth. The mother surely felt it, but she tried to welcome him and release her deep longing for the husband she once loved and shared affection with.
A warm welcome? Not from the eldest son. He shouted, “What is this? Hey, old man! Suddenly coming to this house and acting as if there’s no problem, and claiming to be our father? Hah! Mother becomes a servant, I become a slave—all because of you. And let me tell you, I am the father of this family, I am the backbone of this family. Where have you been all this time? After bringing us into this world with your desires, you just threw us away. Since you left us, the figure of a father has been my enemy.” Beneath the deep anger, there was also the longing of a child for the presence of a father, a longing that had persisted for so long.
The father remained silent, tears streaming down his wrinkled cheeks.
The old man apologized for all the mistakes he had made towards his own family over the years, realizing the gravity of the situation. He felt guilty in light of one of the beliefs of the Prophet: “The husband is the guardian (leader) of the family, and he is responsible for those under his care. The wife is the guardian (leader) within her husband’s household and with regard to his children, and she is responsible for those under her care” (al-Bukhari). There are many more sayings that discuss this issue. He didn’t know what else to do in the face of this rejection.
The old man decided to leave and not disturb this family again, forever. Yes, the old man bid farewell and left. At the end of the story, it was revealed that the old man slipped on the bridge and died, and the eldest son also perished due to his longing for his father. By the end of this performance, I shed tears, supported by a touching soundtrack, along with scenes of the old man’s death and the unfortunate fate of the eldest son. The theatrical performance, in my opinion, skillfully evoked emotions in its audience.
What intrigued me in this theatrical performance was the MYTH of the male figure as the head of the household, the responsibility of being a man, and subsequently becoming a father. The burdens one bears, such as the expectations from women and the family of the “ideal man” and the figure of a “responsible father,” seem to suggest that men are the root cause of all chaos, the downfall, or the failure of a household. I doubt the myth that “men are the leaders of the household,” and we know that this myth is also used to justify polygamy. It is a form of patriarchal belief, where men act as the heads of large families. The system where a family is led by a senior male figure is called patriarchy.
The term patriarchy originates from the Greek language, combining the words πάτερ (father) and άρχων (leader, ruler, or king). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are known as the three patriarchs of the Jewish people, and the era in which they lived is called the Patriarchal Age. I recall the words of a priest on a TV show at that time. He said, “Indeed, it is not easy to have a family, to live together. There, you will try to share, unlike before when you were not yet married or in a partnership.” Another priest mentioned that if you are not capable of having a family, don’t get married.
This brings to mind the concept of “celibacy,” a life choice originating from a particular perspective or ideology that leads individuals to choose a life without marriage. Although this choice is freely made by anyone, it is mostly practiced by clergy members of the Christian faith (especially Catholicism) and the Buddhist religion. Some religious practitioners from other religions, such as Hinduism, mysticism, and Sufism, also practice celibacy.
“However, does having a family equate to happiness? In reality, many families are not happy. So, does having a family equate to suffering? This statement is also incorrect. The truth is that having a family is a struggle to build happiness. Therefore, having a family is a struggle, an effort. It is a struggle that sometimes involves shedding tears, sweat, and blood. Having a family is the struggle of a couple, holding hands together to build happiness. So, happiness doesn’t just fall from the sky; it is something that must be fought for together. Without the struggle, there is no happiness.” (I quoted from another blog, posted on July 17, 2012, in Bimbingan Kasih, Kasih Lestari)
I would add that happiness does not solely depend on the male figure, the father, or the so-called head of the household. It doesn’t come from one side alone. Happiness comes from the collective strength and unity of various aspects within the family. Choosing to have a family is a courageous choice, and above all, never be a coward!
The theatrical performance “Ayahku Pulang” served as a thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of family dynamics and societal expectations surrounding the roles of men and fathers. It challenged the myth of men as the sole leaders of households and shed light on the struggles and responsibilities faced by both men and women in building a happy family. The story highlighted the consequences of long-held grudges and the power of forgiveness, as well as the profound impact of longing for a father’s presence. It prompted me to question patriarchal beliefs and recognize the importance of collective effort, understanding, and unity in creating a fulfilling family life. Ultimately, the performance reminded me that happiness is not a given but a continuous endeavor that requires resilience, empathy, and shared responsibility.