Fathers now come in many different forms: divorced, non-custodial, gay, distant, present. As the family structure changes and they take on more responsibility as carers, are they getting enough support? Insights looks at what needs to happen to make the world father-inclusive.

The role of fathers in families is changing, declares a study from the Australian Fatherhood Research Network.

“Fathers, whether they are the primary caregiver, separated from the family, step-fathers or grandfathers, are increasingly playing a greater role and becoming more active in their children’s lives,” writes convenor Richard Fletcher.

“However many fathers are still reluctant to approach or utilise services because of the many and varied accessibility issues and barriers they face. As a result, organisations need to be proactive in their efforts to engage fathers, reassess the way they plan, develop and deliver their programs, and address accessibility issues to align themselves with the increased need to provide services that meet and are responsive to the needs of fathers.”

The Fatherhood Engagement Project (2009-2010) from the Government of South Australia suggests improvements in service culture and environment by intentionally seeking out male staff in child-related service providers, looking for and informing fathers of the support available to them, specifically targeted parenting activities for men and remembering fathers during the first point of contact with a family.

David Ryan, operations manager with UnitingCare Burnside in the Orana Far West Region, works with families to maintain their family structure.

“Services often target support for mothers and they can leave the fathers out,” he said. “But when fathers are engaged and both parents are involved in services then mothers and children do much better.”

Sometimes fathers need to be helped to take a more active role in parenting, especially in areas like taking kids to school, bathing and feeding them and being interested in their education.

From a service delivery perspective, Mr Ryan said some men feel they are viewed suspiciously for spending time alone with their kids.
But time alone with their child can be critical in building enough confidence to convert a father from a “helper” to a “co-manager” in a family unit.

“There’s just no good reason — beyond societal convention — for those roles to remain inflexibly old school,” writes sociologist Gillian Ranson in her book Against the Grain: Couples, Gender, and the Reframing of Parenting.

“Dads can also sign kids up for sports or stay home with a sick child. They know how to use a telephone or take advantage of a flex day.”
Other times, external factors can get in the way of being able to experience both the joys and challenges of parenthood.

The rise in divorce and children born outside of marriages means that fathers do not always get as much time with their children as they would like.

“More often than not, fathers are involuntarily relegated by family courts to the role of ‘accessory parents’, valued only for their role as financial providers rather than as active caregivers,” writes Dr Edward Kirk in Psychology Today.

“This view persists despite the fact that fathers in two-parent families, before divorce, typically share with mothers responsibility for the care of their children.”

So if dads are indeed taking on more of the caring work how come fathers groups are still such a minority in a mothers group dominated world?

Part of the problem, said Mr Ryan, is masculine reluctance to seek assistance. Another part is that services are often run by women — and some men feel uncomfortable or out-of-place in a female dominated environment. They tell him they appreciate specific events that target their interests — events where they know other men will also be present.

“Services often target support for mothers and they leave the fathers out,” said Mr Ryan.

“But when fathers are engaged and both parents are involved in services then mothers and children do much better.”
UnitingCare has been remedying this in Dubbo by way of an annual, father-specific festival, Dads for Kids, which attracts between 550 and 1,050 attendees each year.

“It encourages fathers to spend time with their children and shows different ways of doing that,” said Mr Ryan.

“We also have Dads for Kids in the evenings once a month, again with activities to help them learn how to play with their kids and spend time with them, developing relationships.

“We also have programs on the mid-north coast called ‘I’m a Dad’. This celebrates fatherhood with new fathers and men we meet through hospitals. Men are encouraged to be a dad, to think about what that means and to learn about what supports are available and what is required of you as a father.”

Mr Ryan said he did not believe the role of the father had changed — the essential need for fathers to develop a positive relationship with their children was constant — though it had always been a title interpreted differently across cultures.

Mr Ryan said that if dads are uncertain, fathers groups can be an excellent place to start asking questions.

“If you are feeling you are not sure what to do as a dad to seek support, get some fellowship with other fathers. They can just give some hints about what it is to be a dad.

“One of the things dads need to do is to see the importance of the time they are spending with their children. They are often task-focused so I would say that dads need to think: will what I am doing now matter in 20 years? So when you are thinking, I’d better go mow the lawn and your kid wants to play with you and you are thinking I’m tired, I need to mow the lawn, paint the fence. But the thing that will matter in 20 years time is the time you’ve spent with your child. The other things won’t matter at all.”

Common pitfalls in fathering

1. Seeing some of the tasks in parenting as being the “woman’s job”.
2. Seeing a daughter as a mother’s parenting responsibility.
3. The belief that financially providing for a child is enough.

Parenting tips

1. Do you know your children’s dreams and aspirations? What are the things they really want?

2. What is it about your child’s behaviour that you want them to change? Is it something in your own behaviour that you haven’t been able to change? Parents can be annoyed at a certain behaviour that they share or dislike in themselves.

3. Do their thing sometimes: They might sit down and watch television programs that drive you nuts. It may seem pointless to you but it could be important to them.

4. Start spending the time early. It’s important for parents to make little deposits early. If you don’t develop a strong relationships early it’s harder to make the big deposits later on.

5. Get involved with a parenting group. Even if you feel you can do it your own way, groups can help with basic pointers that can help guide the direction of your parenting style.

 

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