In his final blog as FNS Head of Communications, NICK THORPE reflects on four and a half years of cultural change and collaboration.
IN my freelance work as a coach, I am privileged to hear the thoughts and struggles of many fathers.
Almost without exception, they are seeking help in negotiating a transition from the life they thought they were supposed to live, to a newer more congruent fit with who they really are - which usually involves enjoying more quality time with their children.
It’s both moving and fascinating to hear their stories, hopes and dreams of a more balanced life, giving extra insight in the campaigning and policy work I’ve done as part of the Fathers Network Scotland team for the past four and a half years. And I’m convinced we are approaching a tipping point.
On the one hand, many dads I meet were taught, if not explicitly then by tacit example, that their expected role was to work hard, provide for families they may see only at weekends, and “man up” when their emotions threaten to overflow.
We still occasionally hear this woefully outdated prescription repeating like a scratched gramophone record, in conversation, media columns or radio phone-ins - sometimes in response to the UK's modest Shared Parental Leave policy, introduced in 2015.
Sometimes the defence of the status quo is bolstered with economic fears – for example the small business owner who worries that men as well as women taking parental leave will make working rotas unworkable.
Sometimes it is dads themselves, wondering with some justification what might happen to their career prospects if they ask for flexible working or parental leave.
Sometimes, as our FNS friend and MP Jo Swinson has pointed out, it is women who fear the encroachment of men on a domestic sphere in which they have traditionally held sway – and it’s true that under UK shared parental leave, men can only gain those all-important weeks of contact with their babies if their partner is willing to subtract them from her maternity leave.
But it only takes a closer look at the growing research to see that women ultimately have as much as men to gain from a rebalancing of work-life roles. Our Nordic neighbours have clearly shown that when men are positively involved in our children's lives from the outset, it triggers a cascade of gender equality bonuses and attainment outcomes.
And hearteningly, the dads I meet and coach are increasingly realising this life is within their grasp.
One dad, informed by his HR boss that most men were grateful for a week off around their children's birth, argued instead for the five weeks he had already requested and then voted with his feet to join a more dad-friendly company.
Another sought a job share - becoming one of the first men in his organisation to do so - enabling him to pursue his career ambition AND bond with his kids three days a week.
And only recently a coaching client told me he had decided his young son was more important than going back to his job in the oil industry, deciding to live off savings and his partner's income to allow him to be a stay-at-home dad.
"I'll only get one chance to be there in these early years," he told me. "And now that I've tried it, I've discovered I'm quite good at it."
I remember my own lightbulb moment here – about a year after I’d joined FNS, and six years after becoming a dad myself - was reading research showing that a father’s close contact with his baby triggers many of the same care-promoting hormones as in mum.
I was already sharing 50:50 care of our son with my partner, thanks to FNS’s family-friendly flexible working policies – but only at that moment did it fully sink in that the love of a father (genetic or otherwise) for his child is as primal as a mother’s.
To put it another way, the fierce nurturing love I felt for my young son was not new or revolutionary, but a physiological truth hard-wired deep in my ancient origins. Wow!
A TRANSFORMING TRUTH
Once you’ve seen that truth you can’t unsee it – shared parenting is natural and good for everybody! And I’ve been privileged to see it wherever I look for the past four and a half years.
I’ve seen it in the excited faces and voices of children singing about their fathers in our Year of the Dad song with Fischy Music; in the cascade of organisations who joined us to celebrate fatherhood, and continue to partner with us to push things forward; in the stories from FNS associates and my own clients about the highs and lows of fatherhood.
And of course, I saw it in the short, powerful life of the man who first dreamed this organisation into being.
It was my friend David Drysdale who founded Fathers Network Scotland with a group of associates back in 2010, because he passionately wanted to see fathers welcomed as the nurturing carers they were born to be.
YEAR OF THE DAD
Initially a volunteer, he soon won over the Scottish government with the latest research around children’s wellbeing – enabling me to join him as his first fellow staff member in 2014. Others soon followed, and by the time we had brought David’s dream into being with 2016’s Year of the Dad, there were ten or 12 of us working either staff or freelance.
It was a rollercoaster year in which a huge raft of organisations joined us to celebrate the difference a great dad can make. It was also the year in which, unthinkably, David succumbed to cancer. He died before before the year was out. I still miss his warmth, humour and mentorship both in professional life, and the way he modelled fatherhood to his two children right till the end.
But it was far from the end for his beloved start-up. If you don’t know what we’ve been up to in the years since David's untimely death, take a scroll through this blog. We’ve joined forces with schools, prisons, theatre companies, service providers, employers and of course parents as we help make Scotland a dad-friendly country.
This week, as we sat down to my final team-meeting in this award-winning organisation, I couldn’t help thinking how delighted David would be to see what's grown from the seed he planted and nurtured.
Huddled round a table in an Edinburgh coffee shop, six of us “checked in” just as we have since he introduced the practice: a bit about how we were feeling, what was going on for us personally - an act of authenticity and belonging before moving on to the business of the day.
What I saw in that subsequent reporting back was a collaborative, outward-facing organisation poised to ride a wave of change:
Chris Miezitis, our tireless “Understanding Dad” trainer, has been pushing at an open door when it comes to training midwives, health visitors, and health boards in how to be more father-inclusive.
Kirsty Nicholls, award-winning BBC documentary maker, former editor of Edinburgh for Under 5s, and now our new head of Digital Content, is getting lots of interest from media wanting to report the growing trend for father-inclusion and perinatal mental health.
Caroline Libberton is working on some great fundraising leads to secure our long-term sustainability;
Cathy Sexton is at the heart of things, holding it all together with her bubbly ninja organisational skills and uncanny yen for names and relationships across our expanding network.
Our new director Dave Devenney – a stereotype-busting former Royal Marines Commando-turned-Minister-turned-gender equality campaigner - has been in enthusiastic talks with senior schools and prisons to continue touring our workshops and “Being a Dad” play, developed through our friends at Strangetown Theatre Company.
And with Dave's predecessor Sam Pringle consolidating her role as Head of Research, it’s great to see that the organisation sometimes wrongly assumed to be a “men’s rights” organisation is actually majority female – and that’s significant in itself.
Because our Nordic neighbours changed to father-friendly parental leave crucially when women and men joined forces to push for it – and we’re getting encouraging anecdotal signs that this is convergence of vision is happening increasingly in Scotland when it comes to shared parenting.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Interestingly, one of my coaching clients recently reminded me that we’re in a much better place in this respect than we were five years ago.
Unlike the traditional male “high-achievers” I sometimes come across - who can reach the top of the ladder only to find it was propped against the wrong wall, separated from their children and families by long hours or toxic work culture - this man was a full-time "stay-at-home" dad seeking help with a different transition.
He was loving the deep contact with his son, but realising that the status for a nurturing role was still perceived as much lower than the superficial rankings of corporate life or salary - a fact that generations of women know only too well!
Once most men are aware of this, and both genders join forces to change that narrative in favour of the sane and balanced family lives we all need, there may no longer be a need for Fathers Network Scotland.
But that's still some way off - and in the meantime, I’ll miss this friendly, flexible, nurturing team. I'm proud of what we’ve all achieved in collaboration with all our friends and partner organisations, and excited about what might lie ahead.
Meanwhile, have a wonderful Christmas, and a father-friendly new year!
Nick can now be contacted through his website at www.nickthorpe.co.uk.