A Place of Belonging for Dads

CottageDadsDiggingcrop.jpgCASE STUDY: In an update on our Cattanach Trust-funded projects, CHRIS MIEZITIS hears how green-fingered dads have found their parenting confidence growing alongside their vegetables at Kirkcaldy’s Cottage Family Centre.

NOT long after they started their Dads’ Project in 2010, workers at Kirkcaldy’s Cottage Family Centre began to notice something magic happened when men went outdoors.

Perhaps it was getting involved in earthy tasks with their children, or freedom from the eye-contact of a formal assessment – but somehow the act of planting and weeding the vegetables together opened up conversations that would have struggled to flourish indoors.

“We get more out of our dads when we’re working with them in the garden than anywhere else,” reflects Dads’ Project Worker Claire Rigby, whose post was funded by the Cattanach Trust. “I think because they’re focusing on the work they’re doing, and not sitting in a circle looking at each other – the conversation just happens more freely.”

Easy to Reach

Whether they’re playing with their children or sharing their problems, the dads who attend the project have found their confidence starting to blossom in ways that defy the sector’s gender stereotypes of “hard to reach” dads.

“We had a big discussion recently about how they felt ignored by the Health Visitor,” recalls Claire. “One dad mentioned it and then they all started talking about it. Our dads talk a lot about how they worry about their partners, especially when they’ve just had a baby.”CottageDadsPlums.jpg

“It’s quite a strain for a lot of them, but there’s no support for them. At least when they start to come here they realise they’re not alone with this, and even just talking can make such a big difference to them.”

Evolving inclusion

The Cottage Family Centre was originally developed by a group of local parents and established in 1987. Catering for the needs of families with pre-school children in Kirkcaldy, it adopts a community development approach, encouraging service users’ participation in its management and development. 

The Dads’ Project was established with that inclusive ethos in mind, following a successful environmental pilot project in 2010, which redeveloped the outdoor play area and developed a community garden.

Staff training in the Understanding Dad programme cemented the determination actively to involve fathers, and additional funding from the Cattanach Trust last year has facilitated Claire’s work with dads and children together - building relationships and play in an inclusive setting.

Green Catalyst

“When the group began there was nothing specific for dads to come to in the area,” explains senior family worker Lana Moffatt. “The Cottage Family Centre Dads’ Group initially started when we got funding to transform a piece of wasteland at the back of the centre into what it is today – a community garden.”

CottageDadsUnitedcollage.jpgThe stated aim of the project is “to involve dads from an identified area of deprivation in a meaningful initiative that will encourage them to positively improve their health, wellbeing, employment and educational opportunities”.

The garden is a crucial catalyst in meeting that goal, with different agencies getting wise to the power of nature. “For example, the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) has been working with the dads in a therapeutic context out in the garden, developing flowers beds,” says Lana.

“Dads often feel relaxed and safe enough to open up and talk through things when they’re focused on work in the garden. They’ve put in pear trees, apple trees, plum trees – and once they’re ready to be harvested, it’s the dads who do the harvesting: curly kale, carrots, broccoli… all sorts.”

Skills for Life

The fruits of their labour aren’t only of the edible variety, explains Claire, as the skills required are highly transferrable to the workplace and new hobbies. “Over the years dads have gained qualifications with the help of some of our partners in Fife such as Fife College, the Kinghorn Ecology Centre and the Centre for Stewardship in Falkland.”

Last year some dads gained paid work with the Centre for Stewardship, while others got qualifications which ultimately landed them a job in the building trade.

“So it starts with something simple – enjoying working in the garden, talking - but it has often ended up being life changing for a lot of these dads. They’re walking away with the confidence, skills and qualifications that have helped them to move forward.”

Changing Roles

One unexpected discovery has been the extent to which dads are already heavily involved in their children’s care and upbringing – contrary to increasingly outdated gender stereotypes.CottageDadsPainting.jpg

Lana says: “We’ve now got a lot of dads who are actually the main carer – they have custody of the child. That’s a change from what we used to see – about half our dads have custody of their children now, which is a big change from before. There is also a real mix of dads – younger to guys in their forties.”

Even where families have a more traditional division of roles, it’s clear that mums and children benefit from dads’ inclusion at the family centre.

“We had one dad whose partner was diagnosed with post-natal depression following on from his contact with us,” remembers Claire. “He just wanted to talk, and after a while we managed to help him get his wife to speak with a doctor and that’s what it was: she’d been suffering from PND and neither of them realised.”

Beyond the Dads' Group

While some dads arrive with their partners, other referrals come from an increasingly wide range of partners in the community, such as Criminal Justice, the Family Nurse Partnership, Social Workers and Health Visitors, seeking help for dads in bonding with their small children.

Workers can now offer 1:1 help as well as group involvement. “That’s something that wasn’t really happening before,” says Lana. “We couldn’t have done this because we didn’t have the funding and it was a support that was missed. Now, with the Cattanach funding, we have the hours to work more with dads at home. I think this is making a huge difference.”

CottageDadsVegetables.jpgThe extra funding also allows quality time for more practical support, for example in budgeting, attending meetings with services, or furnishing houses using charities such as Furniture Plus. “Because Claire goes to support them at these meetings we are now getting to see the bigger picture, which obviously means that we can give better support to the dads we see and their children. It’s a big improvement in our service overall.”

Looking Ahead

The centre has recently been trying to extend support to the Linktown and Gallatown areas of Kirkcaldy, with an aim of programming satellite events there – but for now the green space that grew from a wasteland remains a magnet for dads.

“I think they just like it here – being at the Centre and the garden. It’s like a place of belonging for them, a place where they feel welcome and safe.”

For more information about the Cottage Family Centre go to www.thecottagefamilycentre.org.uk.