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Three men and a grown-up son: An honest look at fatherhood today

Dads can be amazing, we know that much is true. At CALM, we’re lucky to have a handful of contributing writers who give an invaluable insight into the ups and downs of fatherhood… the cheer, tears, arrears and laughter.

Sunday is Fathers’ Day and the last day of Men’s Health Week, so we wanted to both celebrate fatherhood and delve a little deeper with a frank and honest look at the challenges faced by fathers, especially those new to the gig.

Father of two Neil Renton is someone who feels blessed by fatherhood: “It’s the most powerful feeling in the world, to feel loved by a person you created.” But he also explains that being a dad is not easy: “You’ll be driven to the edge of an abyss on more than one occasion. […] Having a child is a massive change in lots of things – financial circumstances, physical and mental demands, things like that.”

Dan Freedman is a first-time dad to “a healthy dollop of divinity called Leo”, who is now two years old. Dan describes how his wife’s difficult pregnancy and traumatic labour left him under a lot of pressure to “keep everyone safe and well 24 hours a day.” This turned out to be a lonely experience. “All postnatal care is geared to taking care of mum and rightly so.  But who cares for the carers?” he asks.

Neil also pointed out a bias towards support for mums: “Some women suffer from post-natal depression but there’s no acknowledgement of men going through the same.”

CALM recently commissioned a YouGov poll to look more closely at how men and women experience parenthood. The findings suggest men are just as likely to struggle as women, with an equal proportion (3%) of mothers and fathers reporting feeling suicidal, even momentarily, in the first year of parenthood.

This is not unexpected. Research carried out by NCT last year found that one in three new fathers are concerned about their mental health.  So when the government announced a £290 million investment in specialist mental health care for new and expectant mums in January 2016, we were left wondering why similar support didn’t follow for dads. Are fathers’ struggles taken less seriously?

From CALM’s point of view, investment in and support for new mums is much needed and very welcome. But CEO Jane Powell points out that the research “makes it plain that new and expectant dads need attention too. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45, and we know that a huge number of families are losing dads way too soon.”

Working with Men is a specialist charity supporting positive male activity, engagement and involvement, focusing on the challenges and solutions in working with boys and men who are socially or economically disadvantaged, marginalised or isolated. The charity discovered a gender bias in the services available for dads. CEO Shane Ryan said: “Services believe they are gender neutral, but research and practice tell us that all too often fatherhood is seen as an add-on, while motherhood is viewed as essential. Fathers themselves see services as being for mothers.”

Dan admits being completely unaware that he was struggling, and so never asked anyone for help. Eventually though, Dan and his wife managed to turn things around and become a team. His advice to other new dads? “Your instincts will tell you to do all you can to look after your wife and child – but you can’t do that well unless you’re also taking care of yourself.”

CALM writer and single father James Nock describes masking his own struggles for the sake of his kids. “For some of us that’s a new challenge – to sideline our own internal battles.”

However, author Jack Urwin’s experience warns this can also be destructive. After his dad suffered a fatal heart attack when Jack was nine, there were a few more surprises in store. Not only did the post mortem reveal evidence of a previous heart attack, but his mum discovered over-the-counter angina tablets in a jacket pocket just weeks later.

Fourteen years on, in his highly-acclaimed new book Man Up, Jack writes that he suspects his father hid his health problems in an effort to protect the family. But refusing to admit any weakness ultimately contributed to his dad’s downfall. We asked Jack what he thinks about the expectations we have of men as parents.

“Although much progress has been made in the last few decades, we still have a tendency to view men as inferior when it comes to parenting. The bumbling buffoon of a dad like “Buhhhh how does a nappy work? My tiny brain is incapable of figuring this out, I better get my wife to do it!” is still a pretty common sight in the media and in advertising. Unfortunately I think this perpetuates the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t be a child’s primary carer, and perhaps even dissuades men from taking on more fatherly duties as a result.”

CALM’s recent research reflects a difference in how people see the importance of mums and dads. The poll revealed that 93% of the population said mothers play a “very important role” in the lives of their children, compared to 84% who said the same about fathers.

Jack continues: “On top of that, structural inequality in society is still a major barrier to getting more fathers really involved in their kids’ lives. The disparity between maternity and paternity leave, coupled with wage inequality, means in most cases it doesn’t make financial sense for fathers to be the primary carer. This is why I say [in Man Up] men need to be aware of the wage gap and fight for equality. If we want better opportunities as fathers, we have to do everything in our power to make it work. “

There are, however, signs of change. Whilst Jack’s father’s generation inherited attitudes of “silence and emotional repression” from their own war-scarred dads, the fatherly stiff upper lip may be in decline. In CALM’s 2014 Masculinity Audit, we found that the attribute rated most highly in fathers was the ability to show love.

James pays testament to this shift: “What surprises me is that giving your kids listening time and trust opens the flood gates for mutual respect and a safe place for them to run to. I’ve found that my kids actually came back to me and ask for my advice and help because they felt I listened to them and heard them.”

So here’s to our dads and father figures. And here’s to our kids, for teaching us how to be dads. As Neil says, “just because you don’t get a card with squiggly writing inside it or a pair of novelty socks doesn’t mean that every day can’t be Father’s Day.”

Read Neil’s blog | Read Dan’s blog | Read James’ blog | Read CALM’s Q&A with Jack 

Heads Together for Fathers’ Day

CALM supporter and Chaps Choir bassist David Wright and his son Sugar-Ray spoke to Prince William at a Fathers’ Day breakfast, alongside other fathers supporting the Royal Foundation’s Heads Together coalition. Watch the video:

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