Supporting single dads

Us Together Summer BBQ 2014Single dads face the same barriers and problems as single mums, but tend to be more isolated. For our first “Focus on Fatherswork” blog, we find out about the ground-breaking support work of Us Together, a dads’ service run by One Parent Families Scotland.

There are days when being a modern dad can bring hope and discouragement almost side by side.

Neil McIntosh remembers just such a day: he was going to join dads and kids in a healthy cooking class earlier this summer when a notice caught his eye.

“Next door to the school where we were holding the class was a church with a signpost up advertising mothers and toddlers groups,” says McIntosh, manager of the children and fathers service for One Parent Families Scotland. “My heart sank and I thought: are we really still in a situation where we’re excluding dads from a playgroup?”

When he pointed out the effect of the sign to the playgroup leaders they were apologetic. It wasn’t an intentional exclusion, but it illustrated just how important it is for men to have support as they take on a more equal share of parenting their children.

With 150 staff across the country, One Parent Families Scotland celebrated its 70th birthday this year by formally honouring its flagship fathers service, Us Together, funded by the Third Sector Early Intervention Fund and now including five different projects in Dundee, Edinburgh, Falkirk and North Lanarkshire. (…continued below…)

“Traditionally the organisation was always for mothers, but 12 years ago we started doing work with fathers,” explains McIntosh, pointing out that dads now make up eight per cent or 13,000 of the estimated 163,000 lone parents in Scotland. “It’s not about dads, this is about improving things for the children… Research shows that if a child has access to both parents the outcomes are more positive. But we know that single fathers are generally more isolated and a lot of services are very mum focused.”

One of the volunteers in the Us Together service can vouch for that. Neil McDowall from Motherwell first came along as a service user with his daughter Abigail when she was a toddler, following the break-up of his relationship.

“I just needed a bit of direction in my life,” recalls McDowall (32). “We did go out and do things, like book clubs at the library, but I was struggling… in a room full of 20 women when you’re the only dad, it can be quite a daunting thing at first. You’re kind of looked at differently. There are the questions, the whispers why is the child with the dad?”

Things quickly changed for him when he received help, mentoring and advice from Us Together – so much so that he is now training as a volunteer with the service. “Maybe six months, eight months ago I would never have taken my daughter to any of these things, which she was missing out on. But now, particularly after being a service user with OPFS, and now being able to volunteer with them, my confidence and my abilities have changed. I don’t look at it now as whether I feel uncomfortable, I look at it as what’s in the best interests of my daughter!”

Sadly, there is evidence that inbuilt prejudice against fathers’ parenting abilities is impacting many children in much more serious ways than imbalanced playgroups.

“We’ve had stories of fathers being refused access to antenatal services with their partners,” says Neil McIntosh. “We see horrendous situations where a child is put in care because of a mum’s addiction issues, but they haven’t even considered placing them with dad. We need to work with social work to change that perception.”

One of the proudest achievements of Us Together in its first year has been to support 11 fathers to take their children out of care and to take responsibility of looking after them on their own. “That in monetary terms saves the local authority £50,000 per year per child,” points out McIntosh.

And the benefit to each family is of course beyond anything that can be measured in monetary terms. “One dad said that before he met our children and fathers worker, he wouldn’t have said boo to a goose, he wouldn’t have come out with other people, he didn’t have the confidence to talk to anybody! He said his life began when he met our organisation!”

In an ideal world, perhaps dads wouldn’t need their own groups, and services would be equally open to both mother and father. “But single fathers face additional barriers to single mothers in that they can become very isolated and they need opportunities to meet with other men in a similar situation,” says McIntosh. “So part of the work that we do at Us Together is to build up the confidence and self-esteem within the father to be able to access these services. That may mean that one of our team accompanies a dad to a service for the first few times until he’s confident to do it himself.”

It’s certainly worked for Neil McDowall. Asked what the best thing is about being a dad, he is spoilt for choice: “I get to spend the time with Abigail and see her go through stages that a lot of dads don’t get to see!” he grins. “To be there when she’s saying her first words, or taking her first steps… Personally I always want to be there for my daughter, it doesn’t matter whether she’s two and a half, or turned sixteen or eighteen or forty. You love your child all the same, whether you’re a mum or a dad!”

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON US TOGETHER see www.opfs.org.uk