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.

 

 

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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.