Parenting matters: Involving fathers

Being a parent can be tough, but there are ways to take the stress out of raising kids. Diana Hinds looks at the problem areas and meets three families who have found some answers

To see a father out pushing his child in a buggy is no longer an unusual sight. Ninety per cent of fathers now attend the birth of their child. Compared with 1970, when 40 per cent of UK fathers of very young children came home to a sleeping child during the week and 11 per cent were not there at weekends, today only 25 per cent of employed fathers are not home by 7pm, and young children are staying up later, especially when their mothers work. These signs of a greater involvement of fathers with their children may lead us to assume that men and women are finding better ways of sharing the care of their families.

But Adrienne Burgess, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, who leads a workshop on fatherhood at today's Barnardo's conference, argues in a book highly sympathetic to modern fathers, Fatherhood Reclaimed (Vermilion), that our society still sets up too many barriers to men's involvement with their children.

The process often begins with their partner's pregnancy, and sets in in earnest when the child is born. In most new families, fathers typically spend almost no time alone with their (awake) babies, while mothers spend more than 60 hours per week alone with them. Right from the start, therefore, the mother becomes the "expert", with the father cast in the role of helper and unable to develop an autonomous relationship with the child.

A vicious circle often develops where the more skilled and competent the mother, the more uncertain and lacking in confidence the father becomes, often prompting him to withdraw. While Burgess isn't suggesting that mothers should deliberately reduce their competency, if both parents are aware of this tendency it may well help to prevent lasting damage.

Health visitors and midwives often fail to involve fathers, she argues: "The father's view of himself as an irrelevance is often reinforced by professionals such as health visitors, who even if the father is present, can quite unashamedly direct all comments to the mother, or tend to patronise fathers when they turn up at the clinic in charge of their babies."

We see few, if any, public images of men's intimacy with their children. Books for fathers all too often adopt a jokey or patronising tone, as if doubting the interest or commitment of their readers.

"We need to raise the profile of fatherhood," says Burgess. Certainly, when it comes to parent education, fathers need a great deal more coaxing to join in than their partners, and it comes as no surprise to learn that parent services are used largely by women.

"Men may now be able to say, 'I'm off to my computer/language/tai chi class,' but to say to their mates, 'I'm off to my parenting group,' is still not acceptable to many of them," says Sheila Munro, training manager at Parent Network, part of whose mission it is to involve more fathers.

The charity is hoping to obtain funding for an Internet project aimed at fathers, including "taster sessions" which might draw fathers into parent education courses, and interactive material which they can use at home.

Help directed exclusively at fathers may be more enticing to them than mixed groups. With government funding, Adrienne Burgess is involved in the setting up of a new national resource centre called Fathers Direct, with a website and helpline, which will be launched next spring.

A FATHER'S PERSPECTIVE

Darren Pritchett has six children (two from his first marriage, four from his second), ranging in age from 14 to two-year-old twins. They live in Birmingham.

"Being a father is rewarding, but it's also hard work: the aggro and arguments, the teenage tantrums, having to separate your kids when they're fighting.

"I went on a Caring Start course run by Barnardo's, and my partner was going to a women's group. I thought that was a bit sexist, so last September a friend and I set up a fathers' group called 'Dads Do It Too'. We do have a problem sometimes getting fathers to come. They'll say to you, 'I'm not coming to that, it's for poofs', or 'I'm a perfect father'. But you learn things by bouncing ideas off each other.

"About six of us meet on Saturday mornings for two hours, and we provide a creche. We play football first so that people get to know each other, and that creates quite a harmonious chat afterwards; we talk about the football first, and then go on to what we've set out for that week.

"We do a 10-week course. The main problem people say they have is with discipline. One father came because he knew he had a big problem with it and was lashing out at his children. He doesn't hit them any more. He talks to them, or takes something away that they want.

"I think it's hard for fathers, with mothers saying, wait till your dad comes home and he hears. When you come home, you don't want to give your children punishments, you want a bit of love and care. My partner and I share the discipline between us: if there's a problem, she deals with it there and then."

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