Obituary: Carolyn Douglas

CAROLYN DOUGLAS was the founding director of Exploring Parenthood (EP), a voluntary organisation set up to work with parents. She believed that all parents should have access to professionally based support systems. Through her work at EP, she was one of the key individuals instrumental in changing society's perception of the needs and role of parents, and the importance of parenting. The establishment of the National Parenting Institute earlier this year with funding from the Home Office was a culmination of Douglas's and EP's work.

She was born Carolyn Williamson in Abercynon in the Taff Valley in 1940, an only child. Educated at Mountain Ash Grammar School, she was the school's first pupil to leave Wales for higher education. She read Psychology and Social Administration at Nottingham University, where she met her husband, Stuart Douglas, and went on to do a postgraduate Diploma in Mental Health at the London School of Economics. She became a Psychiatric Social Worker at the Institute of Psychology, and in 1970 joined the Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy. It was here that she started to train in family therapy.

Increasing disillusion with traditional approaches led Douglas, along with her colleague Ruth Schmitt-Neven, to set up a new independent organisation that was committed to working in partnership with parents.

I first met Douglas in the autumn of 1983, shortly after the birth of my first child. She had recently started Exploring Parenthood and was its Co- Director. I attended a workshop for fathers run by her and Schmitt-Neven (who later moved to Australia). I was attracted by the name "Exploring Parenthood"; I wanted to think about and discuss what being a parent meant and involved beyond the initial concerns of physical care.

I had learnt how to change nappies and be the main carer. The workshop was able to articulate other concerns - how having a baby affected the relationship between the parents, how parents and especially men tried to balance work and family life; and how parents could get information and continued support in their roles. All these issues were covered. Thus started my long involvement with Carolyn Douglas and EP.

The organisation devised a way of working with parents based on respect for them and understanding their needs. A series of workshops encouraged parents to arrive at answers for themselves in a supportive environment with other parents and the help of a skilled facilitator. The workshops were held in comfortable venues with an excellent lunch. Parents were valued and felt valued. This approach arose from Douglas's ability to engage in psychodynamic thinking that was based in a practical reality.

At this time in the early Eighties EP was one of the few organisations offering support of this kind to all parents irrespective of whether they had an identified problem. Douglas and the people she attracted to work with her brought professional skills as social workers, family therapists or other disciplines. The workshops required them to make a significant mind shift in order to see parents in their totality and not as people who created problems in their children or who were inadequate in their role as parents.

In these early days Exploring Parenthood was criticised for being an organisation that served the middle classes. There was some truth in this, which troubled Douglas who had a strong sense of social justice. She understood that the social realities of people's lives had a significant effect on their ability as parents and maintained that all parents could understand and benefit from the knowledge of professionals in the childcare and mental health fields.

Her response to the criticism was to make changes so that EP could reach parents from all sectors of society. One example was the establishment of the Moyenda, a project for and run by black people, as part of EP. Other initiatives set up by Douglas included a project for parents whose children were involved in crime, a parents' advice line, projects with homeless families and support for parents at work.

In 1992, ten years after Exploring Parenthood was established, a multi- disciplinary conference was held in Westminster. One of its aims was to stimulate politicians into taking the needs of parents seriously. This was successful in that an All Party Parliamentary Group on Parenting was established with EP acting as its clerk. Douglas stopped being Director of EP in 1997 but continued to be involved in its activities. She was planning the next cycle of training courses when she died.

In many ways, Carolyn Douglas was Exploring Parenthood, its vision was her vision. She had the great skill of getting across difficult concepts in a way that parents could understand. She herself was vibrant, stylish and outspoken, an inspirational speaker in spite of her innate shyness. She was moreover almost singlehandedly responsible for changing society's understanding of the role and needs of parenting.

Steve Goode

Carolyn Maynard Williamson, family therapist: born Abercynon, Glamorgan 4 April 1940; married 1964 Stuart Douglas (one son, two daughters); died 3 September 1998.