Want to know why men don’t use family services? Start with how you think about women…

While sharing tea and biscuits with a group of children’s centre staff a common and widely heard assumption raised it head again…

Them: “Men just don’t to be engaged”

Me: “what with?” (thinking they meant their services)

Them: “ Their children. They just don’t want to do it”

Me: “Do they not? How do you know this?”

Them: “because the mothers tell us, they tell us that they get in the way”.

 

And there in lies the rub. This group of professionals, desperate to make men “better”, were actually adding another dimension…they wanted fathers to be “more like mothers” (actually said, out loud, in public, no fear).

 

Well… here is the shocking thing –  MOTHERS CAN GET IT WRONG. They are trained for motherhood through their life, told to be caring, giving and selfless. They have ALL the parenting advice and information tailored for their needs, ALL the professionals attention from conception to  the babies are adults. And yet they still get it wrong. We do them a disservice by expecting them to be great, and holding them up as something for fathers to aspire to.   

Fathers get very little information, training or support and societal expectations do not match their own high expectation of themselves as fathers.

Of course, many mothers do a fabulous job. So do many fathers. More often both mothers and fathers feeling their own way through, making mistakes, learning and loving. That’s normal. What isn’t normal is the balance of focus on mothers.

 

Over the years I have heard many expectations of fathers, from risk to resource. The most commonly heard expectation now is that they will share more care of their children than their fathers did with them. Yes, that is happening. It is happening without the experts talking to them, without a decent shared leave system. It’s happening because men and women have worked it out between them.

 

One of the staff at the Childrens centre gallantly said that she “treats all men the same as she treats mothers”.

Really?  Does that really happen?

Evidence still shows services are not engaging widely with fathers, and when they do the engagement’s mainly through manly activities, father-only groups or IT / job search stuff. Do they treat women to the same narrow choice? No.

Treating fathers “the same as you treat mothers” denies their experiences, their history and their role. Fathers’ experiences of early years are different to women’s, for a start they are lucky to not be ignored or sidelined.You could try really listening to them. 

 

When shoe-horning (is that a word?) men into a service designed by women for women, we should not be surprised that it is an uncomfortable fit for all concerned. But do not let that make you think that fathers are not ‘engaged’ with their children. More likely that you just don’t know what is going on.

 

 

The team that plays on the sofa

I am not much of a team player, despite what my CV says. I find it hard to listen to other people, I shuffle on my seat waiting for  my turn to speak. I interrupt and I am occasionally rude without meaning to be. I am always waiting to leave to be on my own and do my own thing. I would much rather do something myself than delegate.

 

As a single women this was fine. After my divorce I went through a myriad of emotions, one of them was relief that I did not have to take on board another person’s emotions or feelings anymore, I could just create my own chaos without anyone being annoyed/upset/ pushed out and there were no arguments with the autopsy afterwards.

 

So, knowing this about myself, why would I foist myself and my bad manners on to someone else? Well, I fell in love. Didn’t bloody mean to, it just happened and there was nothing I could do about it. Suddenly there was nothing I wanted more than to listen, to sit and share crisps in the car on a wet afternoon, to gaze into his eyes and all the other things I used to scoff at. Bleurghhh.

 

So now I was part of a team I had to learn how to play this new game. He moved into my house and it was no longer my house. He put his clothes in my wardrobe and it was no longer my wardrobe. Everything is ours, things merge. I like it, no I really do, but I still hear myself huffing around the house because he is there. I don’t want him to be anywhere else, I like him loads but to give up my territory is so unnatural to me, so challenging and so uncomfortable. Is this normal? Well, it was  normal for me and I needed retraining. Continuing Relationship Development.

 

During the pregnancy we just had to work as a team, we both worked full time and things needed doing. As my tummy grew the list of things that I could do just shrank. The last month was so uncomfortable that the only thing I could manage was the occasional fluffing of a cushion and some homework with the older children. The physical strain of being four stone heavier meant that my mind was no longer in conflict, I just gave up hanging on to doing things, we had to become a tighter team to protect the baby and my health, my partner very naturally filled in roles as I let them go. Forced into the sofa by the weight I learned to listen to him, to understand that two people can do things differently and no one be right (or wrong), I learnt to be vulnerable and to see his vulnerability.

 

Now baby is here we are as tight as a Premiership football team, we huddled together, heads together and arms locked.

 

So what am I saying? I guess I am saying that team work is like any skill, it needs hard work, planning and a lot of self awareness. It’s not just about sharing chores or sharing baby, its about sharing space. In a board room I still might find that difficult, but within a home and within a relationship I think I am nearly there. More West Bromwich Albion than Manchester United, but nearly there. 

That shared parenting thing

We do that Shared Parenting thing. We can’t do 50/50 because one of us works so has less time with baby but we give it our best shot and have learnt a lot in the last year. Here are our top tips, they work for us and we have somehow managed to fluff our way through the first year without too many lows. You will have your own tips, advice etc. and this list is by no means an instruction book. That’s half the fun of shared parenting – you make your own rules.

 

 Five Top Tips for Shared Parenting.

 

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Seriously, don’t do it. It’s a waste of time and ultimately damages the parenting team. So what if she has put the baby in an ill matched outfit? So what if he has fed the baby the Ella’s kitchen Thai Curry when there was three bean roast in the cupboard?   Ultimately, it’s not the differences that upset babies; it’s the conflict around those differences that seriously impact on baby’s development and emotional well-being. Let things slide, see the bigger picture and just accept that you are two different people with two different life experiences with two different ways of doing things. Just talk, talk, talk. And laugh. No one is right, no one is wrong.
  2. Back away from the baby! When things get tough, as they often will, you need to move that away from the baby. If you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, forgotten or all the other things that come along with parenthood you need to ask for help, for time, for some space. There’s nothing wrong with telling the other parent that you are knackered. And if you are told that the other parent is knackered you should act on it. We call it tag-team parenting. As one gets done in, the other one steps in. It’s protective of the relationship and the baby. No matter who you are you can’t parent well when your nerves are shot. Oh, and go out sometimes. And hold hands on the sofa,
  3. Work on the important stuff. What really matters? Well, some sleep matters, safety matters, some attempt at routine matters, communication matters. Work on it together, be professional about it if you have to and work out an action plan. Agree to stick to it. Before baby 3 came along we both agreed that helping baby to sleep through the night was a skill we wanted to pass on! We agreed an action plan and stuck to it. Some nights I would be ‘caught’ breaking away from the plan and my partner would remind me with a “you aren’t really talking to the baby at 3am are you?”. Harsh maybe, but sticking to an agreed plan while understanding baby’s needs creates a safe place for us all.
  4. Helping or Hindering? Shall I just do that? Here, that’s a two man job. You do this and I will do that and that and that. Give her to me, I finish bathing her. Sounds helpful, right? Hmmmm, we aren’t so sure. A ‘helpful’ approach could also feel directive, managerial and overtime could hinder one persons confidence. Over time it could lead to one parent becoming the ‘expert’. You don’t have to do everything together all the time. The more you do one your own the more confident you will be. When I had my first child I was terrified of bathing her. Her dad did every bathtime with me as a glamorous assistant, ready with a towel.  It was only when I stepped up and did it by myself did I feel part of it. Just keep an eye on it, that’s all we are saying.
  5. Sticky Stereotypes. Be aware that they are everywhere; don’t be fooled into falling into them!  Don’t be offended when someone says “isn’t he a good dad”, they don’t mean to sound ridiculous. We have lost count of the times we have heard this in supermarkets, children’s centres, family functions. Our standard reply is “its normal innit”.  I went back to work when baby was 12 weeks old and I literally heard the gasp from both men and women, some of whom are very learned academics. The gasps were not only because I was a woman leaving a very young baby, but also because dad would be looking after a very young baby; can dad show nurturing and attachment? (meaning ‘as well as a mother can?)  can mum really separate from baby for a few hours a day? Some of these assumptions we can live with, some actually get in the way of our lives. We wade through them daily, the systematic assumptions, the blatant sexism, the mother-centric cultures within services and media, we would rather not wade through them though, and we would rather that the world reflected the changes in family lives but they don’t. Not yet. Keep pushing though. 

I’m so sorry

Hello you, I love you. 

I’m so sorry. 
You, the love of my life, the calm oasis, the funny, clever, safe and beautiful father of our beautiful baby. 
I’m so sorry for what I do to you. 
I’m sorry for trying to take the baby from you when she cries. I’m sorry for doubting your measuring skills and emptying the bottle to do it again. I’m sorry for snapping at you when you held the baby when she is asleep, I’m just jealous. I’m sorry for joining in with your mum when she clucks around you and picks on you. I’m sorry that the midwife didn’t talk to you, and I’m sorry they asked me about your ethnicity in front of you, I should have said something. I’m sorry I made that appointment with the health visitor at a time you can’t make. Im sorry that I expected you to read my mind when i was tired. I’m sorry I keep pushing the pushchair. I’m sorry I keep asking you if you want me to have her. 
You are doing nothing wrong, I am. 
I can’t imagine how much this has all hurt you,  I have seen it change your confidence with our baby and it breaks my heart that I did this. 
I am so sorry, this is not what I want. 
 
I feel conditioned. I will try harder. Put the kettle on and lets have a cuddle. I love you x 

when does equality start? lets start from the very begining…

My partner has just called me from work in tears. He can not attend the midwife appointment with me this Friday. Not even if he takes it as unpaid leave, annual leave or makes the time back. His employers say they have no legal obligation to allow him any time off for ante-natal appointments and they “might need him”. Well, I need him more than they do.
More than this, he NEEDS to be there. He is the father.

On Friday I will have to discuss, and make a decision on, the tests I may need as an older mother. I will also have to give both parents medical history. All on my own. I don’t know where to start.

Today he is close to walking out of work, hanging up his work boots and saying shove your job. But of course he can’t, the weight of looming responsibility and the costs of bringing up a baby force him to stay and shut up. He will shut up, but his feelings towards work and his employers have already changed. He no longer feels part of a team, he does not feel supported nor valued. He is refusing to work overtime to help them out as they have not helped him. He is working to rule, as are his employers.

If only the rules were different. If he were allowed time off to attend appointments he would happily make the time back. He would feel that his employers were supportive of him as a person. He would work harder. He would be more likely to stay with them and be a good ambassador. I would feel supported, less scared, less weight, more of a team. He would feel part of the pregnancy, part of his babys life before it arrived. more likely to feel more confident when the baby did arrive, more clued up about the birth, more included by health services, a better relationship with midwives. A better relationship with me. Remember, plenty of men on their death-beds regret not being a more hands-on dad…few if any wish they’d spent more time working.

Its time for real action on this now. No more ‘best practice’ no more ‘options for employers’, no more ‘goodwill’. Things need to change for families who work. I am calling on this Government to make it a legal entitlement for fathers to attend ante-natal appointments, whether through paid time off, making up the hours or even unpaid leave.
Employers should be convinced of the case for this, which is well evidenced and widely agreed. Fathers should be confident that asking for time off will not seriously damage career prospects and or be seen to indicate a lack of commitment.

The governments planned changes to maternity/paternity leave are commendable (if carried through by the next government) but how far will they go to ensure that both mothers and fathers are supported at the earliest stages of parenthood?
It’s time to lay to rest the notion that pregnancy is only a women’s issue, and focus on individualizing workplaces to support business objectives and personal goals of both mothers and fathers.

https://www.gov.uk/paternityleave/overview

http://www.worldatwork.org/waw/adimLink?id=51556

http://www.rcm.org.uk/college/policy-practice/government-policy/fathers-guide/?locale=en