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Giving New Fathers a Good Start

Introduction

While there has been more emphasis on the role of fathers in the upbringing of their children in research and media in the last few years, parent educators have been frustrated by fathers’ lack of attendance at parent education courses aimed specifically at them. After the fathers’ forum in Christchurch in March 1998, several social agencies set up parent education programmes for fathers, but all are struggling to continue or never got off the ground.

A small survey by the Dunedin ECDU, which asked fathers what they expect from parent education, may provide some clues as to why this is so. A large number of fathers was ignorant of the concept of parent education altogether and why it was needed, unless there were specific parenting problems. Also, when asked if a special parent education course for fathers was a good idea, only 10 said yes, but an equal number said they would find it more useful to do something together with their partners.

This latter statement makes sense, as parenting is a team effort – why train parents individually, when they are supposed to do it together, and the roles of mothers and fathers have shifted considerably. In fact, as UK social scientist Adrienne Burgess (“Fatherhood Reclaimed”) has pointed out on several occasions, the focus on only mothers is a significant factor in sidelining fathers and putting a barrier between them and their children. It may also be a factor in relationship breakups, as it turns a previously more or less equal relationship into an “expert-helper” setup.

It should also be noted that the main mechanism of acquiring parenting skills, beside actual hands-on experience as you go, is informal networking with other parents (i.e. playgroups), not formal parent education. Even though far more mothers attend parent education programmes than fathers, a much larger number never attends any programmes at all, with the exception of ante-natal classes for both, mothers and fathers.

Ante-Natal classes and post-natal support play a crucial role in determining, how the parents define their own roles and how they see each other’s contribution. The majority of expecting first-time parents, both mothers and fathers, now attends ante-natal classes, which makes them the most successful parent education programmes by far. Expecting and new parents are far more motivated to seek information and learn about their new roles than when they are a few years further down the track. All large parenting organisations, even Toy Libraries, recruit their members mainly from new parents, and the most successful recruitment tool have been ante-natal classes (ParentsCentres) or information distributed in hospitals (for example Little Treasures Baby Club).

92% of New Zealanders believe that fathers should be equal parents (1998 survey of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner), and yet very few ante-natal programmes have the father’s perspective in their programmes, try to assist parents in the role transformation from an equal relationship into (normally) quite different roles, or address practical issues such as bonding for a parent, who is away for most of the day and doesn’t have breasts.

The result is often that the father becomes distant, because neither he nor his partner have been given any indication of the importance of the father’s contribution, or how shared parenting can be realized in practice. And while most providers of ante-natal classes also offer backup support for the mothers, very few, if any, offer backup support for fathers, further information, or regular opportunities for both parents to get together with others.

Proposal

This project proposal consists of three strands. Significant groundwork on two of them has already been done with the help of a Community Trust grant in 1998. All three strands are part of an integrated concept that offers more than a one-off course or talk and is aimed to ease new fathers into their new roles as they go. They are (in order of priority):

1) Involvement in Ante-Natal Classes

The Father & Child Trust has been running Fatherhood / Relationship modules on a regular basis for the ante-natal programmes at Avonlea birthing centre and the Homebirth Society for more than a year. During this time the module has been refined and we have produced a resource Dads in Ante-Natal Classes drawing on these experiences and the research on the issue.

We’d like to extend this module to other providers, or at least add a half-hour talk to their existing programmes. Cooperation with Christchurch Women’s Hospital already exists with another project (Teenage Dads Pilot Project), and since May 1999 we have been providing one-hour modules for some of their ante-natal classes on an irregular basis. Response from Parents Centre to the idea has also been positive. This programme will reach at least 800 expecting parents (but more likely over 1,000) during the first year. If proven successful, funding in the long run can probably be obtained from the providers directly, or through the Health Funding Authority.

2) Post-Natal Support

Recruiting from the ante-natal classes above, we would like to start playgroups for new fathers. Once fathers are familiar and comfortable with the services of the Trust through the new fathers magazine and the work in the ante-natal classes, it should also be possible to set up more formal courses more successfully than has been done so far.

We are working on two separate programmes at the moment, a four-session course specifically for new fathers (including one joint session with the partners or, for separated/single fathers, a special session on parenting alone issues), and a four-session course for both parents, examining role expectations and realities, but with a special focus on teambuilding. Long-term support is provided through the Trust’s drop-in centre, Father & Child Magazine and informal counselling services.

While funding for wages is needed in the set-up and development phase, in the long-term both playgroups and the parenting courses can be facilitated by volunteers.

3) Special Edition of Father & Child for new fathers.

We would like to supplement the existing Bounty New Mothers Pack, currently distributed to about 90% of all new parents through hospitals, with a special edition of our magazine Father & Child, but at least partly in colour and with better print quality. This is to raise awareness for the importance of the father’s contribution, as well as practical advice for common and not-so-common issues affecting new parents.

This includes information on the father’s role in breastfeeding or when his partner is affected by Post Natal Depression, as well as stories by fathers in a wide variety of parenting situations. The aim is to paint a realistic and yet positive picture of fatherhood, instill a sense of importance in fathers and help them get on the way to an involved sharing of his life with his new baby. We hope that new fathers will be motivated through this to get in touch with the Father & Child Trust or to seek more information elsewhere.

The editorial work is near completion, however funding for distribution and printing could not yet be obtained and is included in this proposal. For future issues we are confident that we are able to attract advertising to pay for the production. September 2008: Update on New Babies Edition here.

Altogether this project is an all-round support package that attempts to involve fathers at an early stage and increase the likelihood of them to continue seeking help and support, which ties in with existing services and projects of the Trust.

Father & Child News