By Kirsty Nicholls
“The shorter days, the cold and dark, the loneliness and uncertainty in the first weeks of our son’s life really affected our mental health. That’s why we left Scotland for Spain and the help of my wife’s parents.”
Most of us have been there, right? I remember those long nights, our minds racing with concern for our new baby; the 3am WhatsApp messages to antenatal friends; the coffee dates with fellow new parents, the pitch of our voices rising with exhausted, hysterical laughter; the cosy Bookbug sessions.
So how about those long nights, mind racing, exhaustion and crises of confidence, with no antenatal friends to message, no coffee shops and friendly faces, no classes or activities. Just the same four walls and a walk with the buggy if we’re lucky.
It really is no wonder that 37% of dads tell us their mental health is bad or very bad. It’s a significant shift even from last year, when 23% of dads told us the same. We thought this number was shocking enough, but two national lockdowns later, and the situation is even worse.
I work for Fathers Network Scotland, a national charity that supports services, educators and employers to help them to understand the needs of dads and families. We have just surveyed father-figures in Scotland about their experiences of lockdown, a repeat of the same survey last year. 69% told us that their mental health has deteriorated so far in 2021, compared to 64% during the first lockdown. Both are significant figures and that the percentage is getting greater is worrying.
Waseem’s baby son was born in October and the new dad decided to take three months’ parental leave. The family had been looking forward to trying out baby and toddler groups and his wife had planned to take part in a buggy exercise class. But none of that was possible. The social isolation and their declining mental health led the family to seek support from Wasseem’s in-laws in Spain. They are now stuck there, and Wasseem’s own parents, who have been shielding in Edinburgh, have never met their grandson.
“I’m now back at work but that and home life just blur into one,” says Wasseem. “There really are no boundaries.” As a researcher at Stirling University, he is able to work remotely, but we all know how difficult that can be for any parent who has a child at home. More than half of the dads we surveyed told us they’re finding their work/life balance challenging or very challenging.
Nevertheless, dads want to spend more time with their children. During the most recent lockdown, 44% spent more than 25 hours a week playing or homeschooling. Dads’ feedback shows they long for this to continue, with 67% saying the experience of living through the pandemic has changed the way they would like to parent in the future.
“I’m now able to do the school run everyday and feel much more involved in my children’s lives,” one dad told us. “I’ve been able to plan home schooling around my job. I very much hope there isn’t a return to “normal”.” Another dad revealed, “It’s been good to spend time helping my kids with home learning, sharing triumphs and setbacks. That’s all stuff I miss out on when the 9-5 is in full swing.” Dads want to be there for school drop-offs and pick-ups, they want to be involved in their children’s education, they want to explore flexible working arrangements, and one dad even said that he is looking for a new job to enable him to do that.
UK-wide research shows that women are still taking a higher percentage of responsibility than men for childcare and household work. An International Women’s Day Survey by The Telegraph revealed that more than 3 in 5 homeschooling mums said their partner had not changed their working hours to share the responsibility. So why is that, if dads want to do more at home?
Fathers Network Scotland recently held a virtual panel discussion about our survey results, with input from dads’ mental health campaigners, health visitors, midwives, academics, early years practitioners and advocates for flexible working. Everyone agreed that we need to challenge the structures that get in the way of dads’ ability to engage meaningfully with their children. Dads are less likely to ask for a more family-friendly working environment, because it isn’t expected of them. However, if employers better understand that both mums and dads want to take an equal parenting role, and even better, managers model that behaviour, wouldn’t we achieve better gender equity at work and at home?
Without a shadow of doubt, our survey shows that dads have had enough of the strain of being pulled in all directions. Scotland uses GIRFEC, which stands for “Getting It Right For Every Child”, putting the best interests of children at the heart of all local and national services. But our survey shows that a fifth of dads feel their relationship with their children has suffered, double the number from last year. Children’s and families’ lives are being negatively affected. We must sit up and take notice.
When I asked Wasseem why he thinks dads are struggling, he answered with passion: “My son was born six months ago and I’m still reeling. I was pretty much ignored by midwives during our antenatal appointments to the point that I felt irrelevant. It really affected my confidence. My wife was really unwell with an infection after the birth and she had to beg staff to let me see her to help with our son. I felt like a spare part, not an equal parent.” In turn, he put a question to me: If dads are treated as if they’re unimportant to their children and families from day one, how can we expect them to confidently take an equal role at home? “Our health visitor was surprised I was around for her visits,” he exclaimed. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Fathers Network Scotland trains services who engage with families to involve all parents and carers and to value motherhood and fatherhood in equal measure, and is campaigning for a clear mental health pathway of support for fathers. It is devastating that suicide is still the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 in Scotland and it is clear that dads are struggling now more than ever. Dads want to spend more time with their children, but don’t know how to make it happen. We need services and employers to work together to recognise the importance of fatherhood. When more than a third of dads are telling us they have poor mental health and a fifth have deteriorating relationships with their children, change is needed. Urgently.