Understanding Dad: A personal and local government journey

Chris Miezitis, programme lead for Understanding Dad trainings at the charity Fathers Network Scotland and seconded from Fife Council where he initiated and led the Improving Fathers’ Engagement Partnership, blogs on his personal and professional experiences improving local services for dads.

In 2010, utterly consumed in the hour-by-hour experience of parenting twins, I remember accepting any support from local services without question.

Three years later I had opportunity to think back and realised that some of the ways I had been treated as a father didn’t sit quite right with me. I had become involved in a project in my role at Fife Council called the Family Nurture Approach, aimed to make changes across Fife’s early year’s provision that would improve outcomes for children and families in the longer term.

Some colleagues and I focused our attentions on perennial complaint by services that it was a struggle to engage dads in what they offered. But in fact, a little digging highlighted that while services were geared towards mums, there was no clear or consistent policy or approach as to what services might have to offer dads as parents in their own right.

So we came up with a workshop aimed to give front line practitioners the chance to think about some fundamental questions: why is engaging dads important? How do I do it? What is my responsibility? What does the evidence tell us?

It was researching the last question with my colleagues that really turned my head. I realised that some of the attitudes that had raised my eyebrows during the antenatal period were in fact systemic, common throughout early years and often for the remainder of childhood. Often implicit as much as spoken, they could be summarised as follows:

  • dads aren’t as important as mums
  • mums are the main carer
  • ‘parent’ often means ‘mum’
  • dads can be a nuisance
  • I don’t know how to talk to a dad
  • dads aren’t interested.

I realised that by taking it for granted that ‘this is how things are’ as a dad, I was only doing what most dads have always done and so the status quo remained. I didn’t expect to make this personal link with my work, but once I did I suddenly found myself driven with a professional conviction tied to my own experiences.

Progressing this work across Fife with my colleagues was at times met with unmasked annoyance, dismissive feedback and even active pushback. If I had a Farley’s Rusk for each time a seemingly experienced and seasoned professional began a response to the work with: “This is all very well but I’m a feminist and…”, or “ fine, but what about gay dads, or disabled dads, or same sex parents, or ethnic minorities…”, or ,“Why ‘Year of the Dad’? Why not ‘Year of The Mum’?”…well, I’d have a lot of Farley’s Rusks!

In fact our work was, admittedly unwittingly at first, a sound example of feminist principles in action. Dads are neither a minority group nor indeed any single thing. Dads are as important as mums and come in all guises – adoptive, biological, gay or straight, or father-figures such as grandfathers, uncles, foster- and step fathers. We weren’t seeking to talk about dads instead of mums, or trying to displace the mother-focused work that is central to much service delivery. Ultimately this wasn’t about father’s rights, or even how mums could be better supported by dads being more involved: ultimately it was about the rights of the child, of putting the interests of children at the very centre of all of our work across the myriad children and family support services. For me, the clear realisation that improving the life chances for children mandated and made it necessary to push the work.

With the support of enough of the right people in Fife we rolled out the training and were all taken by surprise at just how well received it was. Indeed, some of the initial nay-sayers became converts to the cause and are now strong advocates of the need for services to change, for father inclusion to become embedded in service delivery.

Key to the success in Fife was the support at a strategic level- initially from Fife’s multi-agency Early Years Strategy Group. My colleagues and I hosted a seminar on the subject matter that targeted an audience of key influencers and decision makers from across Fife’s children and family services. Consequently attendance at the seminar resulted in two elected members passing a motion at Fife’s Executive Committee to support the work and to recognise Year of The Dad (a national campaign highlighting the importance of fathers backed by Scottish Government) that was unanimously passed.

Our work in Fife was recognised by Scottish Government and Fathers Network Scotland and the training programme, renamed Understanding Dad, is now being rolled out across Scotland.  My own experience has been as a part of Fife Council’s journey toward becoming a Father friendly Local Authority, which is explored in a bit more depth in the LGIU Briefing Understanding Dad: A Personal & Local Government Journey.

We’d love to hear your own experiences of father-inclusive work. Please find out more at www.fathersnetwork.org.uk and/or email me at chris@fathersnetworkscotland.org.uk.