Either by choice or due to job loss, more men are at home with the kids, but are reluctant to join parenting groups
MATTHEW BROPHY is one of a rare breed – a stay-at-home father who is heavily involved in a local parenting network. The father of three children under four, he is chairman of the Wexford branch of Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust – and the sole man in a group of mothers who meet in each others’ houses every week.
“There are times when I know to leave the room because there are conversations I have absolutely no interest in – and there are things about women I don’t need to know!” says Brophy, who is from Sydney, Australia. “I just go out and do something with the kids.”
Brophy, the father of Luke (3), David (18 months) and Eoin (17 weeks), also attends a weekly parent and toddler group and parent and child swimming sessions – both run by Cuidiú.
It all started as a bit of a joke when a woman friend said to him, “Let’s do coffee”, as she was at home too with a baby, a few months older than his first child, Luke. She invited him along to a gathering hosted by a Cuidiú member. He soon became an established member of a social circle which continues to meet, in addition to the expanded Cuidiú groups that have since transferred to Clonard Community Centre.
He and his wife Maria, a teacher, had decided one of them should stay at home after they started a family. “I am an electrician and, as there is no work for electricians at the moment, it was me.”
He does get sexist comments, such as “That is not what a man should be doing”, he says. However, “the majority of people are cool with it: they know the situation”.
Either by choice or, increasingly, due to job loss, more men are at home during the day, taking care of their children. But they are much more reluctant than mothers to avail of support or to socialise with other parents.
Although parent and toddler groups around the country report that they are seeing more fathers, it is usually two or three at most at any one gathering. This is far from the “tipping point” necessary to make more men feel at ease attending such female-dominated groups.
Paul Carr is usually the only man among up to 15 adults at the parent and toddler group in Adare, Co Limerick, which he attends every week with his son James (2).
“I consider myself shy enough, but it is no big deal,” he says. “Everybody is talking about the same things and it revolves around the children for everyone, whether it is a male or female bringing them.”
Carr was made redundant from his job as an architectural technician just as his wife was finishing her maternity leave and has been at home with James since. He would encourage other fathers to seek out such groups.
“It gets you out. If you are home all the time, you are stuck in a kid’s world,” he says, adding that it is equally, if not more, important for the child.
He knows quite a few fathers who are at home with children after being made redundant. While some go to groups, most don’t.
Carr has a structure to his week with James – including the parent-toddler group one day and a toddler session in the local library another – which he finds beneficial. “Days you don’t have to go anywhere, he gets bored and you get bored and it can be a long day.”
Jacqui Callaghan, who is involved in the running of a twice-weekly parent and toddler group in Newcastlewest, Co Limerick, says they have noticed men “creeping in” over the last six months.
“We really would try to show the importance of the social end for the children,” she explains. Even if the fathers feel it is not for them, it is great for the children to have the opportunity to mix with other children.
At any one of their sessions there would typically be about 10 women and two or three men. The men who come seem to enjoy it, she says. “They would be far more involved with their children. The mothers tend to want more of a social network.”
The men talk to the other men, “about the recession and how they lost their jobs. They don’t want to be there, they want to be back at work, but their [attitude] is they are at home and they will make the best of it with their children”.
The group also organises occasional nights out for parents, but has not yet succeeded in persuading a father to go along.
“I don’t know if parent-toddler groups will ever be full of men,” says David Caren, founder of the dad.ie website and a father-of-three who works from home in Co Cork.
“I think men are inclined to throw the kids in the back of the car and go down to the park. Women by their nature, mothers especially, are much more social and they are inclined to talk more about their children and who’s pregnant and whatnot. With men, there is a certain level they will go to in talking about their kids, but they won’t go beyond that: they will go back to talking about the new car and the soccer.”
Sarah Nestor is involved in a number of parent-and-child activities in Dundalk and noticed that, despite the increasing numbers of men at home, very few fathers were coming along – “just the odd man who was very comfortable with women”.
So she decided to set up a dads’ group, which they could attend with or without their children. “I know it is a bit hypocritical, a woman organising a meet-up for dads,” she says. “But there is a dearth of things for dads – they are their own worst enemies.”
She chose as a venue the parent-friendly Castlebellingham service station on the M1 between Dundalk and Drogheda, which has a free children’s play area. She promoted it through posters, church newsletters, local media, parenting websites and by accosting any man she saw pushing a buggy.
Nestor suffered from postnatal depression after the birth of her first child, so she had made a point of socialising with other parents after her second baby. “I could empathise with dads at home: the walls closing in and nowhere to go.”
Six men with children turned up at the inaugural meeting of Dads – All Ages All Stages a fortnight ago, just four days after the arrival of Nestor’s third baby. All but one returned last Tuesday morning.
Some men said transport to the service station was a problem, so she has organised a bus from the cathedral in Dundalk to take them there and back today.
“I am challenging them,” she says. “There is a huge reluctance in dads to get involved. They say they will come to something and then they chicken out.”
Many fathers are equally unwilling to seek advice on parenting issues, seeing it as an admission of failure or something they prefer to leave to their partner to deal with.
“The biggest obstacle men face is actually themselves,” suggests Kevin Murphy, one of just three male volunteers working on Parentline’s confidential helpline.
“If they can get over thinking they have all the solutions and [accept] that they may need to ask someone else, then they are usually on the road to finding out their answers.”
For fathers who find parents’ groups intimidating, Parentline offers another human being at the end of the line to bounce ideas off, he says. “At least there is privacy and anonymity around a phone call and a possibility that you might come up with an idea.”
When the helpline started in 1983, it received just one call from a man in its first year – and he wanted to know how he could help his wife in her parenting. Now 17 per cent of calls come from men, up from 10 per cent a decade ago.
Parentline is looking at the possibility of setting up support groups just for fathers. “They have a slightly different approach to parenting and might be more comfortable in an all-male group,” says the group’s manager, Rita O’Reilly.
Matthew Brophy would like to see fathers getting out more with their children. Through Cuidiú he has found “a whole new level of parenting support, where people pool their resources”, as well as making lots of friends.
“There are people who don’t know about the group and are struggling at home quietly, tormenting themselves. All of a sudden they find out and say, ‘Wow, this is great’.”
“I do think,” he adds, “that there has to be a change in attitude towards what a dad can do. Apart from breastfeeding, there is nothing I can’t do.”
For more information, see cuidiu-ict.ie and parentline.ie, tel: 1890-927277
MAN BITES BLOG: THE NET CAN WORK FOR DADS – BUT MOST OF THE TIME, MUM’S THE WORD
For fathers averse to networking with other parents in person, parenting websites might seem like the perfect answer. However, research indicates that online parenting communities are very much a woman’s thing too.
Men who use parenting websites do so in a different way to women, concluded Ellen Brady, a lecturer in psychology at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, who researched fathers’ experiences of accessing such websites for her Masters at UCD.
“For mothers, it is a place of solace – a real outlet and a real community for them. For fathers, it is just there: they look, get their information and then log off,” she says.
In a previous study, she discovered parents had received a huge sense of empowerment from parenting websites, which were very focused on mothers. So she decided to look at the potential of online support for fathers.
“I was expecting fathers to say something along the lines of, ‘We feel excluded, that is why we don’t participate’,” she explains.
“What I found was, it was very hard to get fathers to speak to me. Not only does there seem to be a lack of fathers accessing support, but there seems to be a lack of fathers willing to talk about accessing support.”
Men indicated that while they might access a parenting website for information, they did not see the need to chat online.
“Instinctively, you think men are not talking and they need to talk,” says Brady. “But a lot of the men were saying they don’t see as issues things their wives would see as issues.”
She studied the use of a US website aimed at stay-at-home fathers and found that only 35 per cent of the discussion threads had anything to do with parenting.
She also noted that the fathers interacted in the same way, regardless of what they were discussing.
“There were no signs that they talked more emotionally about parenting than anything else. They talked about parenting in the same way they might talk about cars.”
Mothers might want to know what 10 different women are saying about an issue, she adds, whereas fathers want to look at an article by an expert and they will be happy.
That is exactly what David Caren sees reflected in the use of the website dad.ie, which he set up two and a half years ago. Users dip into short articles, read them and go away.
“Irish men just want reassurance that whatever is happening in their family life is happening in other places,” he says. “They really don’t want to engage in conversation which shows any sign of weakness, that they are now a stay-at-home dad.”
However, he has seen a surge in traffic on dad.ie in the last six to eight months. There may not be many posts or dads engaging with each other on the forum, but the private messaging system is very busy, he says. “It is a hidden fraternity.”
As more men find themselves in “uncharted waters”, out of work and at home, there is definitely hardship and loneliness, he adds.
“But what I witness is that a lot of them get on with it. They don’t necessarily get onto parenting sites and say, ‘Woe is me’.”
Aidan* first went on to the rollercoaster.ie parenting website after the birth of his son three years ago. His wife was suffering very badly from postnatal depression and he was looking for advice.
Initially, he was disappointed that the “Just for Dads” section consisted mostly of posts by women looking for the male perspective on relationship issues, or for recommendations on cars or DIY tools.
“I thought there would be a lot more men using it. Now that I am used to it, it does not make that much of a difference.
“The fact of the matter is that women are easier to talk to. Because you don’t know them and they don’t know you, you can be as blunt as you want.”
He logs on most days, for information and to have a chat, and would “definitely” recommend it to other fathers.
“If you are looking for advice on a particular issue and you stick to the point, you will get the advice you are looking for. The anonymity of it makes it so much easier.”
As we speak, he has just one more week to go at work before being made redundant and joining the burgeoning ranks of stay-at-home fathers.
“When I got my notice, the first thing I did was go straight on to Rollercoaster to find out what websites to go to, what offices to go to, and I got all that information back, which I found extremely helpful.”
*Name has been changed