Resources for professionals
Becoming More Dad-Friendly
This page considers the factors that make it is so hard for agencies to connect with fathers. A better understanding of the origins of this can lay the foundation for finding practical solutions. Being aware of what fathers find so miss-matched about themselves and support services is a useful place to start.
Helping a father to discover their natural paternal instincts (sensitivity, warmth, supportiveness, nurturing, encouraging) and supporting them to be great dads has great benefits their children. A baby with good dad is much more likely to develop a secure attachment and feel strong in themselves. And the dad will develop a strong bond to his baby that is likely to last their lifetime.
To help a man be a good dad doesn't mean setting up some parallel infrastructure of parenting services for fathers. Agencies can simply look at how they operate and consider what they do to make their services engaging to fathers. It may also be helpful to recognise that an organisation's "engagement" with fathers might look quite different to their engagement with mothers
A Fundamental Shift in Families
There has been a huge shift in attitudes towards fathers of young children over the last two decades. More and more fathers are taking hands-on, active, caring roles with their young children. Fathers are increasingly engaged with the pregnancy and birth and spend more time caring for their infants and toddlers than their fathers and grandfathers did. There has been a systemic social change and, typical of social evolution, we hardly notice it happening, and then it’s the new normal.
There are undoubtedly a variety of factors contributing to this change, but the increased number of mothers in paid work has been a major one. Whether both parents of under-two-year-olds being in paid work is a good for children is another question. But regardless of what we think about that, mothers in the workforce are common and fathers commonly major carers of young children.
What is missing is a corresponding shift in services for parents. Services that present as being for parents but that predominantly attract and cater for mothers will soon be seen as out dated to funders and irrelevant to modern family. Providing services that are primarily focused on mothers is no longer adequate.
The Myth of the Missing Man
That every child has two parents is not just a biological fact, it’s a social reality – at least at the time the child is born. In New Zealand, 94.6% of women report that they are in a couple relationship at the time of the birth of their baby. In the more recent Growing Up in New Zealand study, only 5.4% of the mothers said they were not in a relationship. With variation in ethnicities and circumstances, 81% - 93% of birthing mothers in the UK have their partner attending their child’s birth. In the UK, 85% of couples are living together when their baby is born, and this figure rises to nearly 90% cohabitation by the time the child is nine months old.
Some Tamariki Ora Well Child nurses will dispute these figures and say that most of their clients are solo mothers. And there are differences between demographic groups. But it's worth keeping in mind that women often have solid reasons for denying they are in a relationship. The Growing Up in New Zealand study also found that just 4% of women who had a partner at their initial antenatal interview did not have a partner when their baby turned 9-months. This tells us that couples seldom break-up during the perinatal period. So, whether he is seen by the agency or not - he is probably in the picture and has a role in the baby’s life. Because we have some connection with the mum, she can be a route for information to the dad.
Why Aren’t Fathers Attending?
Fathers, like mothers, want the best for their children. If that’s so, why are fathers so overwhelmingly absent from parenting support services? Are fathers too selfish to make the time? Do they perceive parenting services as being for women? Are they? Does what the agencies offer appeal to fathers? Do fathers feel comfortable and welcome?
Chances are, asking fathers what they want from a parenting support service will draw blank expressions. Men and women alike seem to be locked into a paradigm about what parenting services look like and who they are for. Both men and women (and perhaps agency staff) find it hard to imagine what is beyond what is already on offer. That fathers don't complain about this probably means that they can’t imagine a service model that would suit them, either.
Systemic Ways Fathers Are Excluded
There are social and cultural factors that lie behind the emotional distance that can occur between a father and his baby. These include:
financial reality – if he is at work and out of the house for most of the waking day
his history, family, culture, mates and how he was parented provide models that might imply that “babies are mum’s territory”
women’s competence – women appear to be so capable and knowledgeable about babies and this can result fathers stepping back and just let the experts get on with it
a mother wanting or needing to feel in control – when her life is turned as upside down (as it has with a new baby) she may want to feel she is in control of something - like her baby
the woman sees motherhood as her fundamental identity and leaves little room for her partner to be an active parent
How Parenting Services Might Perpetuate this Distancing
Because parenting services have historically been predominantly female workplaces, unconscious barriers may find fathers uncomfortable to cross. Some examples:
since men don’t come, they are not expected
mother-focused marketing or outreach material doesn’t resonate with fathers
staff believe that attachment is principally about the mother/child bond
assumptions or beliefs that mothers provide the optimal parenting model
not offering services that fathers can identify with
lack training for staff to help them feel safe and be comfortable with male clients
Including Whanau but still Missing Fathers
Contracts for parenting services commonly require services to broaden their reach to include whanau. This is an important and positive shift. But it's important to notice if whanau results in greater engagement with more fathers. If an including whanau effort brings in grandmothers and aunties while the fathers or other significant males evade them, then we are missing a critical thread of the child's social fabric.
The father is not just another whanau member. Fathers are unique to every child and have a special role in their child's life.
Resistance to Change within Agencies
Inertia is a strong force in human nature and in organisations. We tend to carry on doing what we know and feel we are ding well.
Even if the board and management of an agency agree to make changes they believe would lead to greater engagement with fathers, staff need to be on board. It is staff who are most impacted by change and therefore need to be motivated to broaden their approach beyond a familiar mother-focus. Getting the commitment of staff to take fathers seriously and to be open to changing how they work is a challenge. Their professional development is a good place to start.
Concern about Dealing with Fathers
The question has to be asked: How would staff feel if half (or even a quarter) of their clients were men? There are women who work in the sector because they prefer to work with women. Does the thought of having more dads around feel threatening or disruptive? Are parenting services up for the challenge of updating what they do in order to offer services that also engage dads?
If people in the organisation don’t understand the value and importance of being father-friendly service, the work will continue to be mother-focused. Raising children is a team effort and leaving out half the team limits the team's effectiveness.
It may be compelling to think that father-related services should be aimed at the most disengaged dads. Funders often target remedial programmes. But such targeting creates unnatural and unhelpful distinctions that label and stimatise people. Many dads-programmes are aimed target men with domestic violence or anger management. When these are all that's on offer for men, the impression may be carried forward that services for men (and by association fathers) are deficit-based.
Strength-based services, programmes and resources are provided for mothers. Mothers don't feel shamed by attending. We need fathers to feel that learning parenting skills is "just what dads do". We need to normalise dads within our parenting support sector.
Offering positive services and resources for all dads is better. Seeing "good" dads involvement with an agency may act as a catalyst for making it okay for less confident fathers to associate with parenting support services. Normalising the presence of men participating in positive parenting programmes would be a significant indication of process.