The idea for the group came about after 39 year old Alan gave up work to look after his eldest son, Joshua, and found himself excluded from the usual avenues open to new mothers. Having swapped roles with his wife, Gwen, so that she could pursue her career as a teacher, it quickly became apparent exactly what he had taken on. Alan says: ‘The practical side of caring for Joshua was no problem, but society is not geared towards fathers who look after their children and I felt socially isolated. I also wanted to provide Joshua with the opportunity to mix with other children.’
Alan’s experience at a local mother and toddler group didn’t really meet his and Joshua’s needs. He comments: ‘It was extremely intimidating to walk into a room full of women, many of whom had already established friendships, and introduce myself as a house-husband. They thought that I was a little odd as, like it or not, many people still see childcare as a strictly female domain.’ Realising that there might be men in the same position, but he had no way of meeting them, Alan came up with the idea of starting a group for male child carers.
After asking around, Alan was offered the use of a room at Oasis The Coffee House a child-friendly cafe run by Leigh Road Baptist Church. He advertised the group in local schools, libraries and other public places.
Mild-mannered and softly spoken, Alan doesn’t immediately strike you as a natural leader, but he soon found himself facing a room full of dads and their children. Alan comments: ‘I had no real idea of what I was going to do, but the fact that men had bothered to come along showed me that there was merit in the idea.’
In the event, things fell into place very easily. Alan provided toys for the children, a safe place for them to play, and refreshments for the dads, together with a sympathetic ear and an opportunity to meet with others in the same situation.
Alan’s open and approachable manner helped to make the Dads’ Group an immediate hit. He says: ‘I must admit that I was surprised by the response. It was the only group of its kind at the time and obviously filled a need for the growing numbers of men who found themselves looking after their children for one reason or another.’
Following on from his early success, Alan also began to hold meetings in the informal setting of a local pub to encourage men to get together. ‘Men face many challenges when they take on the day-to-day responsibility for their
children,’ Alan points out, ‘from practical things like where to change a nappy, to the more psychological. It can be hard for men to overcome the stigma imposed by society on male carers. Many people simply do not understand why a man would want to stay at home to look after children.’
When Gwen gave birth to their second child, Matthew and later to twins, Luke and Ruth, Alan really had his hands full, but was determined to carry on with the Dads’ Group. With the backing of area health visitors, Alan found himself welcoming new members from much further afield. ‘It was difficult to fit everything in at times,’ says Alan ‘but I felt that the group provided a
much needed lifeline for male carers and my faith gave me the strength to see it through.’
The group has now been running for an incredible nine years celebrating its anniversary this January. Dads have come and gone as their children have grown and started school, but Alan still keeps in touch with many of them through the LRBC Men’s group which meets socially.
‘I have made a lot of friends,’ says Alan, ‘and the social side has extended to weekends and evenings for games of football, chill out evenings, beer festivals, paintball trips, breakfast and other activities around twelve times a year, many of which the wives and partners join us at. Looking after my children has been a beneficial and enriching time and I hope that I have helped other men to have a similar positive experience.’
Alan adds, ‘I am sure that in future we will continue to see fathers taking over responsibility for the care of their children as more women return to work, but there is still a long way to go before society accepts that men are up to the task.’
The Dads Group in recent times has developed to meeting twice a week during term time. They still have the drop in space on Tuesdays at Oasis The Coffee House, 189 Leigh Road, Leigh from 10.30-12 noon, but have also added Fridays 1-2.30pm in the LRBC Church Hall on Marguerite Drive. Here larger toys are brought out for the children enabling male carers to play with their children in a more active way. This session also has opportunities for the men to learn new skills. An example would be the recent Digital Camera Workshop where Southend Adult Community College visited Dads and showed them ways to use the camera creatively in documenting their children’s development and creating stories with their kids.
Alan adds, ‘It is exciting to see the trust that has built up among the guys that come along to both Dads and Men’s Group. Some have moved into active involvement in Church life and others have wanted to explore the Christian faith further by attending our Alpha Course.’
For advice on setting up a Dads’ Group, Alan Cook can be contacted by email by using the link at the top of the right hand column of this page.
Article by Kim Kimber (Ed. David Elcock)