School's in for dads


Steve Dow
February 12, 2008


"There was always that fear, 'What if I don't bond?' When I first became a father I feared I would not be very good at it or even ready for it - even at age 34." PAUL DOW
Photo: Steven Roe

Christopher James Dow, born 11.08am, June 1. Weight: 3.135 kilograms. Length: 49.5 centimetres. Time on arrival home before peeing on both parents and vomiting on carpet: 30 minutes.

Like most of the 70,000 births in Victoria in 2007, my nephew's arrival was highly anticipated and joyously fulfilled. But reality bit early for his first-time parents, my brother Paul and wife Kerry.

Born with a cleft soft palette, Christopher's poor suction prevents him breastfeeding; nor has he taken well to bottle-feeding. He is a poor sleeper.

He is generally a happy, gregarious, curious child. But "there was always that fear, 'What if I don't bond?'" my brother says.

"When I first became a father I feared I would not be very good at it or even ready for it - even at age 34."

So my brother enrolled himself in a fatherhood course called Pit Stop, run by his local council, the City of Casey.

Each Tuesday night for eight weeks, 30 dads gathered at the Narre Warren Bowls Club, grouped according to their child's age; thus my brother sat at the 0-12 months table.

For seven weeks, it was strictly dads only: "If the mums had been there I don't think the dads would have been relaxed to discuss issues that are bugging them," my brother explains. Some 300 dads have completed the course over three years, paying a gold coin per session.

Pit Stop is one of a mere handful of fatherhood programs run by local councils, the Australian Local Government Association says, though it cannot confirm how many.

Others include Frankston Council's six-week dads' support program and City of Stonnington's "dad's hour" group.

The City of Monash runs Dads on Deck for new fathers of children up to age three, while Port Phillip Council recently ran a workshop for fathers of boys.

The City of Casey's family services manager, Lee McIntosh, says Pit Stop, open to all fathers, has a special way of pitching its information: analogies and concepts accessible to blokes are used to explain parenting style and improve communication.

The title, for instance, is deliberately masculine, evoking the concept of a car rally break. Topics explored include the importance of spending time with kids and supporting partners.

"We want fathers to feel confident in their role as a father," McIntosh explains. "Achieving that in itself will prevent a whole range of social issues like domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and relationship breakdown."

Casey Council men's program officer Rob Koch says Pit Stop uses role plays, jokes, personal anecdotes and video clips. Men are encouraged to share what works for them; all are given "homework" of activities to share with their child. And the mood?

"Picture 30 men together, laughing one minute, choked up the next," Koch says. "Some men surprise themselves by what comes out of their mouths - some may have come reluctantly and were determined to keep their cards close, but they have this massive attitude shift."

Tony Bryan , 51, was another father at the Narre Warren Bowls Club during October and November. He was sceptical of Pit Stop at first, but then let his guard drop.

Bryan is a father of six: sons Jordan, 7, Taylor, 10, and Chad, 27, and daughters Brittany, 19, Kirsty, 24, and Anita, 31. Jordan was diagnosed with mid-range autism at four. "When my wife Sherrilee makes eye contact with him, he'll grab her around the neck and give her a kiss and cuddle, but with me, he won't," Bryan laments.

The family believes the second-youngest son, Taylor, might have attention deficit disorder: "He's very boisterous, flat-out all the time."

Bryan himself was brought up with an "iron fist" - but had to find a new way to interact with his youngest children and their special needs. A social worker suggested he go to Pit Stop following a family conflict.

"After a couple of weeks, I suddenly felt like I wasn't Robinson Crusoe," he says. "I wasn't alone. It helped me deal with the feelings of anger I had towards (Taylor) and the feelings of anger he had towards me. I've mellowed."

Meanwhile, my brother Paul, while never angry but certainly once stressed, is loving bathing his son Christopher, as well as reading stories to him.

The best advice from Pit Stop? To keep paying his partner attention. "Even after just six months of being a parent it is obvious to me how easily you and your wife can simply grow apart," he says.

"And the other important advice: There is no such thing as a perfect dad. If you can get it right 90% of the time, you're doing well."


The City of Stonnington runs a dads’ group, phone 8290 1333.

The City of Monash runs Dads on Deck for new fathers of children up to age 3, phone 9518 3555.

Port Phillip Council runs workshops for fathers of boys, phone 9209 6777.

The O’Connell Family Centre has short courses for dads, phone
8416 7600.