Why new dads feel “shut out” of parenting groups

There's something stopping dads from attending parents' groups, and we're missing out on valuable support as a result.

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Support networks are important for new parents. Hell, they’re important for old parents too, as you never really reach the point where you feel like everything’s under control.

This applies to both mothers and fathers, but the challenges are a little different because, as always, gender stereotyping has screwed us all up and then lied to us that everything is normal.

A wicked little imp, is gender stereotyping, and it needs a good smack, or would, if I believed in corporal punishment. Luckily I don’t — see how I defy gender stereotyping? You can too!

What happens when mums and dads succumb to traditional expectations of what their roles should be is that mums end up shouldering a disproportionate share of the work, and dads end up walled off from the true experience of fatherhood.

It’s because of this that support networks are so important. With people around us who understand what we’re going through, we are better able to negotiate the challenges.

Being a mother is bloody hard work, so I’m glad the world is full of mothers’ groups that can offer the support that can make all the difference.

But I’d be even gladder if the world were equally full of fathers’ groups, because when I became a father, I had questions, and there were precious few places to turn for answers apart from glib books with insulting titles like The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Fatherhood. Accurate titles maybe, but insulting nonetheless.

The reason there aren’t fathers’ groups is obvious, of course: a parenting group is all about getting together, sharing the joys and the heartbreaks of existence, and offering emotional support to friends.

Put simply, these groups operate via the horribly intimidating process of “talking about feelings”. And men … well, we don’t really swing that way, do we?

So there’s nothing earth-shattering in a recent Deakin University study revealing that fathers are being shut out from support services due to parenting groups that perpetuate gender stereotypes.

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The study found that men were staying away from mums’ groups, for starters, because they were being described as “mums’ groups”.

Even the most modern of dads is likely to feel the odd qualm about heading to a “mums’ group”: the name itself seems designed to keep us away.

If a dad does brave the gauntlet and show up, he’s probably going to be the only one there, and his fears of feeling awkward and out of place will turn out to be well-founded.

Often fathers aren’t even invited to the group: the invitation is sent to mum, and the implication is that it’s just for her.

This fits in with the general perception that all society sends to us: parenting, particularly at the early childhood stage, is for women, and the blokes best stay out of it. Which is bad news for everyone, both overwhelmed mums and isolated dads.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with mothers having support groups just for them. Sharing and bonding with other mothers can be hugely valuable when you’re taking your first faltering steps into parenthood.

If they’re not entirely enthusiastic about letting a blundering bloke into the inner circle, that’s pretty understandable. The problem is, there are very few places for a dad to go if he’s looking for the support network that he needs.

When I was a new dad, I would’ve loved a chance to get together with other new dads to chew the fat and cry on each other’s shoulders and possibly just take a few naps together because good god we are all so tired.

I didn’t, though. In fact I barely discussed my fears and doubts and exhaustion with anyone, because I saw it as simply not the done thing.

Maybe it was the same impulse that makes me break out into a cold sweat when my wife suggests calling Hire A Hubby for household repairs: a terror of failing a test of manliness.

I should not have felt this way. I should’ve made an effort to connect with other dads and share the pressure around, fostering the brotherhood of dads and venting about the uniqueness of dadhood with those who knew exactly what I was talking about.

A combination of fear and lethargy stopped me, but both of those factors would have been much reduced if the concept of a “dads’ group” had been in my mind at all.

If we normalised the idea of dads getting together to support each other, that intimidation that puts men off joining parenting groups would be greatly lessened.

If there were groups meeting regularly all over the country, the task of seeking one out and getting along to it would be made much easier.

Whether the answer is to institute new groups just for dads, or open up mums’ groups so that the default is unisex, building support networks for dads can be nothing but a boon to humankind.

It’s not just we dads who’ll benefit: the more active men are in fathering, the lighter the load on the mother. It’s win-win.

So as individual dads, how should we help ourselves? First of all, when dadhood comes screaming down that track, and you’ve found yourself tied to the rails, start from the position that there are many, many other guys who’ve been in your position, and who are in your position right now, and that you can all be useful to each other.

Moreover, resist any idea that the best way to show yourself a strong father figure is to eschew assistance from any quarter and go it alone.

If you look around and see that there’s a parenting group active in your area, give it a go.

Dads Group Inc is a not-for-profit having a real go at setting up new dads’ groups around the country, with the goal of “connecting new dads, thereby improving men’s health, preventing family violence and reducing isolation and suicide”.

Maybe it’s a “mums’ group” you end up attending, but maybe the mums are more willing than you think to welcome the odd dad. And if there are no groups around the place, consider starting one.

It doesn’t take an organisational genius: just round up a few dads, get some drinks and Doritos in, and start chatting. If you’ve been going to antenatal classes, you probably already know a few new dads — they’re likely crying out for support as much as you are.

What we’re talking about is a cultural shift, so that fathers are not the strong, silent, distant counterpoint to mothers, but are just as involved, just as active, and just as willing to reach out to make use of communal wisdom.

What we’re talking about is a recognition that in the great human game of parenthood, we’re all in this together — let’s not let dumb stereotypes stop us from acting like it.


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