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