It’s all in the interpretation

We are about to become grandparents. Yes, we know, we don’t look old enough.

Eldest daughter is due in a few weeks and as supportive parents we were delighted to be asked to attend the Grandparents Class at the local maternity hospital. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a child (just under three years actually) but things change fast in health and we were looking forward to hearing how we could support our child to have a child, how to support her relationship without getting in the way, how to get our paws on the baby.

There were quite a few at this evening event. Maybe ten families in different guises – expectant mothers with mothers, expectant couples with both sets of grandparents, couples with one grandparent… grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers… we were all there to ready to engage. Now, I know I am hyper-sensitive to the inequalities in parenting services. It is what I do for a living so I ask to be forgiven, but what happened should shock or at least astonish most people. At the very least you should shake your heads a bit and tut.

The evening was hosted by a midwife, who introduced the evening as a new initiative as they now know that when mums go back to work it is the grandmothers who take on the care of the baby. I whispered to my daughter “you’ve got no bloody chance love” and we sniggered up our coat sleeves. OK, so we were not going to hear about the things we wanted to know, and looking around at the other grandparents who were mainly in their forties I wondered how relevant that would be to them, but we were still up for it, eager to join in with group discussions, hear the latest advice etc.. bring this grandparent thing on!

So the first thing we learned was that mothers can give a Mom to Mom passport to a nominated female which gives them additional visiting rights on the maternity ward to support breast feeding mothers. One mum asked if this passport could be given to the dads – “no, it’s for females, could be grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, friends. They don’t have to have experience of breastfeeding, just support mum in feeding”. I looked around and the mums looked confused. So a female, any female, can have more time with baby than the father? Surely not. We sat in silent disbelief. I think I did a Scooby Doo – “hhuuuhhh??” but daughter glared.  We were then told of the other ante-natal classes, including breast feeding and a labour ward visit. Another expectant mother asked “Can dads go to these?” no, not to the breastfeeding one, although they have had some dads on the ward visit. My inner Scooby-Doo was irrepressible and my “hhuuuhhhh???” was audible.

We were then herded around the unit, hurried on a by a bell rung by the midwife, to a series of quite interesting 10 minute lectures. I say lectures because there was no space for questions to be asked or discussions. The safe sleeping one was really useful, as was the one about baby poo which can either be treacle or peanut butter. The breast feeding talk, given by a breast feeding buddy was the most interesting, and in fact the only one that mentioned fathers at all. The buddy talked about dads and skin to skin contact at birth and we all cooed. My partner shared that this was his greatest memory, looking down at his daughter’s tiny body pressed against his skin and her enormous eyes looking up at him. We were all completely engrossed and the ten minutes flew by.  My daughter explained that her partner could not attend the session but would like more information, but unfortunately “we don’t have any leaflets for dads, only mums and they aren’t relevant to dads”. By this time I was sinking in my chair. What they did not know is that my daughters partner comes from a family where everyone bottle feeds; they have told him that he won’t bond with the baby if she breast feeds, all the horror stories. He really needs something to battle this negativity back with, and a leaflet about the benefits of breastfeeding does not need translating into ‘mens talk’ for it to work. *sigh*

The evaluation forms came round (one per family) and my partner reached for it, only to be told that only grandmothers can fill it out. Well, I bet they wish he had done it because he would have been a lot kinder than I was. For the sake of clarity, I even put my comments into bullet points, which I will share with you here:

  • If you mean grandmothers, then say grandmothers. The invite said grandparents evening yet not once did anyone address a grandfather or mention them in anyway.
  • The lectures were based on baby care which is all very worthwhile and valuable, thank you. Grandparents also have a place in supporting the mothers and fathers in their new roles, the changes in their relationship, their mental health. Not all grandparents will be caring for the baby while mum goes to work, and in fact the fathers will be doing far more hand-on care of the baby than the grandmother.
  • The fact that you run a session for grandmothers but nothing for fathers says so very much more than you can imagine. Not only are they not encouraged to attend any sessions, they are actively uninvited, actively ignored.
  • Evaluating one person’s experience of the service does not give a true reflection of the session. Ignoring men’s experiences only serves to push them away from your service.
  • As a grandmother I will be important to the child, but I will not be his parent. His mother and father will do the parenting, yet I am given the information before him? In place of him?

 

I receive hundreds of evaluation forms in my work, and I read every single one of them and I take notice but I was worried that mine would be ignored so I made a call to the person responsible for the MOM TO MOM passport. It turns out that the midwife had a very different take on the purpose of the passport. The passport is for the mum to give to anyone she wants to see more of while she is on the maternity ward, this could be her father, her mother, her friend – male or female. Of course the title mom-to-mom would not state this explicitly but the midwife should have explained it clearly. Also, the passport does not give more visiting rights than dad, it gives the same rights.

It is important to state this clarification clearly. Whether or not I agree with this passport system is by-the-by, what is important is that you can have all the best ideas and policies and initiatives but what it really comes down to is the practice and the practitioners. If the practitioners do not ‘get’ why they should engage with fathers and other male carers they will continue to make their own interpretation of the work.

It is also important to state that up and down the country I speak with practitioners who do ‘get’ it and do it very well indeed, despite policies and initiatives not supporting them. Occasionally I see a perfect storm, where practitioner’s belief that fathers are important PLUS a system that supports father-engagement really does make a difference to families.

Some maternity wards have family rooms, some have 24 hour open door for fathers, some have a passport system, some ring a bell to get men to leave. Some maternity services run courses for fathers, some run courses for couples, some run courses but forget to include the fathers, some actively exclude them.   Some practitioners see fathers as individuals, some see them as a resource, some see them as a risk, some see them, others don’t see them at all. What maternity services do vary greatly from area to area, from practitioner to practitioner, yet what they do is immensely important to families and the statements they make cut deep.grandma

15 Ways the Women’s Equality Party Stands up for Fathers

wep

The Women’s Equality Party launched their policies last week and what a launch it was. There was cheering and shouting, joyous laughter and tears. I cried, I cried with relief because this was the first time I could really get behind a party that felt like it just ‘got it’.

For the purpose of clarity I have picked out 15 ways the policies directly impact on fathers. Of course, all of the policies impact on men and women alike, and that is GOOD. Equality IS better for everyone.

This policy paper changes things for fathers. They have been mentioned in policy papers before but it felt piece-meal and small compared with this. Parenting policies that continue to change things for mothers bt do not change things for fathers maintain a situation that does not reflect the experiences or expectations of mothers and fathers. The critics will say it does not go far enough, and those who are insistent that the status quo be maintained will feel it goes too far. One thing is for sure, it has taken a political party focused on the inequalities of women to identify the inequalities for men. This is despite the main parties being full of men.

  1. WE are campaigning for equal parenting and caregiving and shared responsibilities at home to give everyone equal opportunities both in family life and in the work place.
  2. Equal and paid leave for 6 weeks at 90% of wage for fathers with an additional 10 months to be shared between mothers and fathers.
  3. Fathers and same-sex partners should have paid leave to attend ante-natal scans with their partner.

(I begged for this in 2012 https://expectingtogether.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/when-does-equality-start-lets-start-from-the-very-begining/#comments )

  1. New fathers and same-sex partners are not “visitors” on a labour or post-natal ward, but new parents who should be permitted to be with their partner and new child at all times, if their partner chooses. WE will require all hospitals to adopt this approach.
  2. WE will require baby-changing facilities to be equally available to all genders in all public buildings, and work with businesses to ensure this is delivered in privately owned premises, too.
  3. Fathers, mothers and same-sex partners will both be expected to be present to register the birth of their child, with separate interviews so questions can be raised by the birth mother alone if needed.
  4. WE will review all government publications and services – and material handed out in public premises – to ensure they promote a narrative that raising children is a whole family responsibility however families are formed.
  5. WE will encourage and support men who wish to take on caring roles in work and in the home through our efforts to tackle gender stereotyping in schools (set out in the Education chapter) and our commitment to making parental leave a reality for fathers and same-sex partners.
  6. To encourage fathers to engage more closely with their children’s education, WE will promote the Fathers Reading Every Day (FRED) scheme introduced by the Fatherhood Institute in nurseries and primary schools.
  7. WE will work with campaigners, schools and experts to recruit more men into childcare and primary teaching.
  8. WE will speak out against media portrayals that stereotype gendered parenting roles, including those which demean fathers as bumbling or incompetent carers and homemakers.
  9. WE will work to provide publicly-funded relationship support which promotes child-centred shared parenting arrangements, co-parenting and financial mediation for all families going through separation.
  10. WE will conduct a full review of the benefit system to rethink the requirement that one parent is “resident” and the other “non-resident”, as this significantly limits the options for shared parenting among low income families.
  11. WE will enact legal protection for cohabiting couples who have children or have been together for more than two years, including access to mediation, advice and support. This will include protecting those married under religious law without having been married in a civil ceremony.
  12. WE will work to build a general social and legal expectation of the full involvement of both parents in the lives of their children even if the parents are not together, unless there is a pattern of violence or clear risk to either parent or child.

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