Sacrifices, Emotional Moments, and Family Drama: 3 Dads Reflect on their Biggest Lessons

A pro MMA fighter, the CEO of Dads for Life, and a Brazilian martial arts instructor talk about the most important lessons they've learnt as dads.
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Illustration by Adelynn Wong.

On learning from their own dads

For most Singaporeans, the archetype of a father is that of a stoic breadwinner — someone that will provide for his family fiscally; less so emotionally. 

Amir Khan's late father was nothing like that. Before Khan began training and competing professionally in muay thai, he started out by "sparring" with his friends at void decks. His father happened to see him at one of these bouts; he watched his son wrestle for a few minutes, then continued on to the coffee shop for his dinner.

Later that night, Khan's father sat him down for a talk. "He asked me, 'Why are you learning to fight with people like that? If you're interested, you should learn in a proper gym."

Khan's father then helped him sign up for his first muay thai class. And when Khan made the "impulsive" decision to quit studying — months away from completing his O Level examinations — to become a professional muay thai fighter, it was his father that bought him a ticket to the USA so he could train in a professional gym.

"I think the majority of older Asian parents would think about what they want, instead of what their kids want," says Khan, who now trains with the Evolve fight team and competes professionally in the ONE Championship. "I was fortunate enough that my father put himself in my shoes, and he let me decide my own path — all while guiding me along."

Amir Khan says being a father has made him focus more on improving himself, so he can set a more positive example for his son, Leonel. (Image: Evolve MMA)

Bryan Tan — the CEO of Centre for Fathering and Dads for Life — hopes that his work with his organisation will help to change things moving forward.

"Most of us grew up seeing our grandfathers and fathers as protectors, as providers for the family at the time — because it was a single income home," he says. "My own dad was too busy — he spent most of his time overseas, working hard providing for our family. But he wasn't there for me physically and emotionally. So I grew up to be a rather insecure man, because I didn't know what was expected of me."

Things were slightly different between Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu champ Valdir Rodrigues and his father: He says that the emotional support he received was the most valuable thing his father could give him. "My daddy couldn't give me the money to go to the gym," recalls Rodrigues, 34. "But one thing I'll always remember is what he used to say to me. He used to say: 'Son, I'm sorry I can't give you money, but I will always be here, always, to help you.'"

That support was a crucial part in Rodrigues' formative years; when faced with familial pressure to give up BJJ and "get money, go to college, start a family", his father stood by his dream and continued to fuel his dreams; today, Rodrigues is a world champion martial artist with numerous accolades to his name.

Valdir Rodrigues and his 8-year-old daughter, Alice. (Image: Evolve MMA)

On being a good dad to their kids

Fatherhood came as a surprise to Khan; a year into his relationship with his then-girlfriend — who is now his wife — the couple discovered they were going to be parents. At 24, Khan says he was thrilled, but nervous, about being a father.

"Being a father forces me to be more disciplined," reflects Khan, who is now finishing his diploma at the PSB Academy. "It forces me to be more disciplined about my personal development, because I need to set a good example for my 2-year-old son."

Brazilian national Rodrigues says that growing up in a big family was enjoyable, though tough when it came to resources. "My daddy didn't have enough money to pay the gym, to buy gear for me, because it was so expensive," says Rodrigues. "So I started working at 12, 13, just so I could buy my own gi, and go to the gym. And when there were tournaments, I had to pay to go myself."

Today, Rodrigues has a 8-year-old daughter, Alice. The two are virtually joined at the hip; Alice is a keen practitioner of BJJ, and often attends Rodrigues' youth classes at Evolve MMA, where Rodrigues is an instructor.

For Rodrigues, being able to provide for his daughter and be there for her is one of the greatest joys in his life. But he says he is always sure to emphasise to Alice that money is far from the most important thing. "I always tell her: 'Alice, you have to do what you love. You don't need to earn good money, but the most important thing is that you need to do what you love — and also to be honest, and have good character.'"

Bryan Tan with his family; not pictured is his 4th child, who is now 3 months old.

Centre for Fathering CEO Tan is a father of four children; he says that this entails wearing many different hats.

"I need to be the arbitrator, the judge, the disciplinarian, and the counsellor," he jokes.

Gone are the days where fathers would be the strict disciplinarian and mothers would be the source of emotional comfort, says Tan. "Now, dads have to take on all these roles — not just for the children, but also to share the responsibilities with mothers."

On being a good husband and partner

Being a good father isn't limited to how one treats their children — it also encompasses being a good partner and co-parent.

"I think being a partner to our wives is really the most important role," says Tan. "We need to make sure to invest in our marriage, because mothers can't be neglected just because of the kids; it's a two-way street."

Khan, his son Leonel, and his wife Cristina. (Image: Evolve MMA)

It's a touching sentiment, one echoed by all three fathers: But one that is admittedly hard to put into practice, as Khan shares — though it hasn't stopped him from trying.

"In the initial stages after we had our son, it was tough," admits Khan. "I'll just be brutally honest. We went through quarrels, disagreements — but I think that after getting through it, we understood each other more. We got a little stronger each time. And I feel like it's a normal process — marriage and fatherhood is always a work in process."



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