“My house is a laboratory for my work and my work is an expression of my personal life”

A Portrait of Wessel van den Berg, MenCare Officer at Equimundo

Wessel at his home office in Cape Town, South Africa

Tell us a bit about who you are.

My name is Wessel Van Den Berg and I am a father. I’m a husband. I’m a brother. I’m actually an uncle also. And I’m not yet a grandfather. I live in South Africa. And I live in a town in the wine country close to Cape Town. I love running or hiking in the mountains around where I live. And the mountains have got a nice connection because my name, Van den Berg, actually means “from the mountain.” I’m currently working as the MenCare Officer at Equimundo.

When did you start doing this work and what drew you to it?

Thinking about my own engagement in care work, I think one moment that was important was when I worked as a kindergarten teacher for three years with a playgroup for kids. It was then that I started wondering about how gender roles were constructed around care. I think I also just really enjoyed and naturally felt at home in the caring context. It really felt like a wonderful privilege to be doing care work on a daily basis as a job. 

I grew up in a very loving, caring family with both parents working in caring professions so the focus feels natural to me. 

What motivates you to keep working on fatherhood/male caregiving?

When I was doing my PhD, I did it on men’s engagement in an ethic of care. And at the time, I was also involved in coordinating MenCare. We adopted my son during that period, and my daughter was three years old. So I had this triple layer of engaging in fatherhood –being a new father – thinking theoretically about what that meant in terms of my research, but also working in my day job and motivating others to do that. It was a very intensive experience because I really picked up how important my personal behavior is to my professional work, and how when you say “the personal is political,” or “the political is personal,” just how very real that is in terms of care work and parenting in the household. My house is like a laboratory for my work and my work is like an expression of my personal life and [between] the two there’s this reciprocal relationship –– that is something that I really enjoy, and that really motivates me to keep on doing this type of work.

What’s the most rewarding part about working within MenCare?

I’m starting to see results of our work that were previously invisible to me, that I didn’t know about. One example is from one of our MenCare partners’ council members, MÄN in Sweden. Adam, who works there, was part of a MenCare meeting that we hosted in Uganda seven years agoHe’s now working at MÄN, a member of the Partners’ Council, and working on fatherhood because he had attended that three-day meeting, and it had inspired him to explore this work as a career.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale is when the programmatic work that we offer actually gets taken up by an organization and implemented after we have done the training of trainers. In my experience, I’ve often done training of trainers workshops and then, that’s kind of the end of it and participants mostly apply the knowledge in their own work. But then a few times over the years that I would hear from an organization that  kept on doing Program P and are still doing it. World Vision is the most recent example of that. Our colleagues Jane Kato-Wallace and Kate Doyle did a few MenCare and Program P training events with World Vision in several countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. I discovered recently at CSW, when I was on a panel with World Vision, that those workshops then inspired WorldVision to adapt and implement the intervention. They’ve rolled it out to several countries, and they’ve reached thousands of people with MenCare / Program P without our direct involvement as Equimundo. It’s this wonderful domino effect of the consequences of our work in the world. It really keeps me going. I enjoy hearing about that, and then getting involved again, but it’s also really cool that the stuff happens independent of us. It’s much more sustainable like that.

How has your own caregiving been affected by working in this space?

I want to unpack a little bit “the personal is political, the political is personal.” Reading about something is very different from doing it, or even writing about it. So, the irony I often face is that I would be neglecting the care work that I can do in my household with my children to write about men having to do care work, or to travel to another country to motivate other men to get involved in care work. My partner and I are very aware of this, and we try to mitigate it. I’ve tried to cut down on travel and I’m  conscious of how I manage my time outside of paid work so that I can contribute to getting to a point  where care work is equitable.

The other thing is just a visceral experience of asking myself why I don’t see the things that my wife sees. If I’ve been on a trip for a week and I come back, I’ve got no idea what my kids’ lunchbox preference is – it changes in a week. And I’ve had to check with my wife sometimes about which school shirt is my daughter’s shirt, which is my son’s shirt. By now I know, but it’s because I’ve done this work. I have really, really become sensitive to slipping into the mode of asking my partner to do the mental labor on my behalf and to instruct me about the various care work items. We’ve reached a compromise because I do have to be away sometimes and then I lose touch. So, what I’ve learned about myself is that it’s constant and a good starting point is actually seeing what’s going on, and the best way to do that is to be left responsible for doing that. It’s much easier for me to track how much peanut butter is left in the peanut butter jar if I’m on my own and alone with the kids for a weekend. When I’m with my partner, it’s subliminal. It’s unconscious. It easily slips into “somebody else’s doing it; I don’t really need to engage with it.” Domestic examples sound mundane, but they really accrue to mental fatigue and to physical fatigue. [Doing this work] carries wonderful benefits but it is hard work.

Wessel has been working with Equimundo as the MenCare Officer since September 2022. This first feature is part of a series spotlighting the work of and persons within MenCare. Stay tuned to upcoming features. Explore our site to find out more about the MenCare campaign, its partners, and its initiatives.