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Working Parents: My life as a full-time dad: a fish out of water

Most primary carers are women. So how does a man fit in? By Sarah Jewell
Giles Davies, 37, felt very much an outsider when he first started looking after his children three years ago. He wanted to make a career change - he has recently qualified as an acupuncturist. He and his wife, a head-hunter in the City, had decided they needed to give up their nanny, and Giles initially found it a huge shock becoming the primary child- carer.

"I felt like a fish out of water. Our nanny left a long list of instructions about what food the children liked to eat, how to cook it, where to go and what to do, but I felt overwhelmed." He diligently did everything he was told, but the new life was exhausting.

"Previously I was self-employed, and I was always in control of where I was and what I was doing. Suddenly I was employed by my children. It was a huge change."

During the mornings while the children were at nursery, Giles studied his acupuncture. In the afternoons he tried taking them to some of the local toddler groups, but he found it difficult meeting the mothers of the other children. Often he felt "too shy to talk to the other women"; at other times he felt excluded. "As soon as I tried to strike up a conversation the women would go quiet, because they were happily settled in an all- female group of friends and I disturbed the chemistry."

But as time went by and Giles became more experienced at looking after the children he did find it easier to mix. "As the children get older you become more secure, especially as the conversation no longer revolves around breast-feeding, and we discuss much easier subjects, such as school."

Adrianne Burgess, author of Fatherhood Reclaimed, says it is common for fathers to find it difficult to integrate into mother and toddler groups. One of the strategies she has seen adopted to overcome this is for "men to become the leader of the playgroup or the chair of a committee, so that they then have a reason to talk to the mothers". The key issue to acceptance is the strength of a father's social skills. As Adrianne Burgess says, "some of the fathers are very shy, but it is not a hopeless situation and gradually individual social skills will help carry them through." She cites the case of one father, a heavily-tattooed Australian docker, who on taking over the care of his daughter, put L-plates on the buggy. "He had no problems of isolation because he had exceptional social skills, and people would keep wanting to talk to him."

Giles has now built up a support network of mothers and other friends, and is popular with his children's friends who come to play. "They usually love being looked after by a dad, but they do often make funny comments, and behave differently to how they would behave if they were looked after by a mum." Some of the little girls may get upset and suddenly start crying. "They are used to cuddles and high voices, and all of a sudden there is this father who keeps bellowing at the dog to stop barking, and tries to entertain the children by making the living-room into a theatre."

Giles has not met any other fathers in the same situation. Adrianne Burgess says that few men are the primary carers, and "the chance of coming across a dad who you like and your kids get on with is very rare."

Seth Gillman decided to tackle this problem, and a year ago set up Househusbands Link, a network of support groups for househusbands and single fathers, to try to overcome "the isolation and negative feelings experienced by men with primary parental responsibility". He also started a newsletter, "Him Indoors" which aims to establish social contact between fathers.

Seth Gillman, PO Box 636, Thornton Heath, CR7 8TQ.