New Times, New Fathers
by Betsy Mann
August 7, 1996
Times have changed: fathers push strollers, carry the diaper bag to the park, pick out toddlers' books at the library, bring cakes to the school bake sale. Men are no longer limiting their fathering role to paying the bills. How are family resource programs responding as men move into new roles? Do fathers need different services than mothers?
Guy Lacasse is a father-at-home, a home day care provider and president of the Board of Coopérative Carrousel in Ottawa. When he first came to this resource centre's drop-in three years ago, he was a bit intimidated by such an overwhelmingly female world. But he soon found that he had the same needs as mothers at home with children: to make contact with other adults and to give his children a place to try new toys and play with other kids. He notes, "There are a few other fathers who come to Carrousel, but I feel comfortable there now and the women accept me."
Ross Imrie was new to the city as well as to being at home with his children when he started using the Parent Resource Centre. "I had to learn how to cope with a three-year-old in an Ottawa winter! I wanted to become as well-informed as possible about my new job and the drop-in coordinator was understanding and compassionate. People were friendly and we talked about kids. The toy library was useful and I lapped up all the books."
These comments sound similar to what women say about family resource centres. If Ross and Guy represented the norm of fathers, we could say that no special programming is required for men. But of course they are exceptions: they define looking after children as their primary occupation. Most men who look after their children also work part-time elsewhere or are "filling in" while they are unemployed or between contracts.
In Ottawa, drop-in coordinator Mary Gallagher observes that men rarely join the women chatting on the sidelines as their children explore the play area. "Men come to me to ask for information or referrals rather than connecting with the network of other parents and caregivers. They're down there on the floor, involved with their kids the whole time. Or they bring in their newspaper and read." Three thousand kilometres away on the West Coast at Burnaby Family Place, Val Mayne sees the same thing: men come looking for a well equipped place to play with their children or for a break; their needs for adult contact are filled elsewhere.
Benoit LeBlond looks after his children two days a week. His wife Monique often brings their children to a drop-in on her days at home, but he did come to the centre's Hallowe'en party. He appreciated the staff taking the trouble to make him feel at ease, but he was also glad to see other men there. At the evening parenting courses he and Monique are taking at the centre, the group includes three other couples. "I'm coming so I can get the information first hand and draw my own conclusions. I want to learn what my own style of parenting is."
Getting babysitting for eight weeks so that both parents can take a parenting course is an expensive proposition. Burnaby Family Place has found that one-night workshops on a particular theme are more popular. A group that meets over time builds a more solid network of support, but if people can only manage the workshop format, it is better than no parenting education at all. In Burnaby, about a quarter of the participants are men, usually in a couple. Val Mayne observes that men don't participate as much if they come with their wife, the prime caregiver. They seem to defer to her authority.
According to Colette Thibaudeau, a social worker writing in a recent issue of a Le Magazine Enfants Québec, "Men want to make a place for themselves with their children starting from where they are now. They insist on defining for themselves the role they want to play. They need to talk among themselves about 'how' they want to be fathers."
Benoit LeBlond would agree. "The parenting course is useful, but we need to get together as men to recognize our own abilities. We have things to give too, and we can build on our experiences as fathers." The challenge is to develop a new definition of what a father is and does, now that the role of sole breadwinner is fading. This new generation often cannot look to its own fathers for role models. As Benoit says, "My father understands that I'm spending more time with my children. He misses having been able to do that himself. But from the point of view of his generation, he has mixed feelings about my decision to work on contract in order to spend more time with my family."
Somehow, talking about these things with women around is intimidating. There is an assumption that women just know about children, so their judgement must be better. (Is this like: men just know about cars so they are bound to know what is causing the rattle in the engine?)
A number of family resource centres are recognizing the need to provide opportunities for men to get together as fathers. In Weyburn, Saskatchewan, the newly opened Family Place reserves two hours every second or third Saturday morning for a program called "Just Me and My Dad". In fact, all parents and caregivers are welcome, but it has been mostly fathers who have been attending, and they use the program room differently from the women. Like Mary Gallagher in Ottawa, Diane Farney has found that the men come to play with their kids: "They use the gross motor skill equipment for some rough and tumble play." Many researchers have noticed that men play more physically than women, right from the time their children are infants. When they are in a group of fathers, men are more comfortable letting that preference come out.
"We need to get together as men to recognize our own abilities."
Many men who are trying to redefine their role are looking for opportunities to share the search with other men in the same position. A Saturday morning "Dad and me" program can lead to contacts which continue outside the centre, like the east Vancouver dads who started meeting for pub nights. A centre can also provide meeting space for a group formed outside. In Burnaby, the Family Place rents meeting space for a nominal fee to the Men's Evolvement Network, a men's support group. The same centre supplies space to a group of men who meet to deal with their common issues of custody and access.
Glenn Cheriton is an Ottawa consultant on men's and fathers' issues who firmly believes that men need other men to teach them about being fathers. It follows that the typical female-dominated family resource centre setting is not suitable to accomplish this goal. He points out that parenting issues become most pressing for men when they face losing contact with their children through divorce. They may not feel that a group of women can really be sympathetic to their concerns at this time.
Most fathers are approaching parenthood with different cultural role expectations than most mothers. They do want to be involved in their children's lives, and family resource centres can play a role in helping them define how they will do it. The challenge is to design programs that answer their particular needs.
Dr. John Hunsley of the University of Ottawa offers this list of Internet resources.
Parenting and Fathering Indexes
Fathering and Parenthood Sites
Conference: The Role of Men in Children's Lives
World Wide Web Vitual Library: Fatherhood and Fatherlessness
Promoting Responsible Fatherhood
Fathers' Resource Center
American Fathers Coalition
Ottawa Men's Centre (613) 482-1112 Email OttawaMensCentre@hotmail.com