NEWPIN’s 

Fathers Support Group

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Report on
NEWPIN’s Fathers Support Group
1997-98

This report describes the process of setting up and running a Fathers’ Group at the Walworth NEWPIN from September 1997 to July 1998, assesses the impact of group membership on the fathers who attended, and considers lessons for future practice. Given the growing interest over the last few years in fatherhood and fathers’ roles, both in general and specifically in the context of families in difficulties, it is hoped that the report will be of use to practitioners and policy makers both within and beyond NEWPIN.

This report was written by David Bartlett and Barbara Plows. It benefited greatly from the insight of the fathers in the group, and it is dedicated to them and their children. A companion document, written by David Bartlett, gives a more detailed and practice-based account of how to set up and run an effective support programme for fathers in the context of family support agencies, and is available from NEWPIN. There is also a video of the group taken from ‘Carlton People’ in February 1998, also available from NEWPIN. All communications concerning NEWPIN’s work with fathers should be addressed to David Bartlett at National NEWPIN, Sutherland House, Sutherland Square, London, SE17 3EE. (E-mail: dbart@dial.pipex.com).

A. Introduction

Fatherhood seems to be big news at the moment. Books and articles are multiplying, and there has been a steady increase in interest in fathers’ work from family support agencies. A number of projects have successfully developed work with fathers, but there is still a pervasive sense that work with fathers – though desirable- is hard to get off the ground and sustain, and uncertainties remain about the aims and methods of this work. For example, how far should the work focus on the support needs of fathers, and how far on challenging oppressive or abusive behaviour? In what ways do the specific support needs of fathers differ from those of mothers?

NEWPIN was started in 1980 in Walworth, SE London as a response to the growing incidence of child abuse there, and the feelings of isolation and depression of local women with young children. Since then, it has developed into a national voluntary organisation with a network of 16 day centres. NEWPIN has an enviable reputation for helping to break the cyclical effects of destructive family behaviour by supporting adults and pre-school children who have suffered emotional and physical abuse. The overall aim is to improve the children's security, well-being and social competence by promoting lasting and healthy attachment between parents and their children, reducing social isolation and exclusion, and developing parenting skills and confidence.

However, despite a commitment that anyone who has had, or is the main carer for, a child is welcome to join NEWPIN, very few fathers have used NEWPIN's mainstream services. In the light of that, about four years ago, NEWPIN decided to attempt to offer men some of the services available to women. They recognised that the lack of support for men to develop positive, close relations with their children was a major social problem that had damaging consequences for the whole family. Research has clearly shown that fathers are emotionally significant to children, and that the quality of the relationship with the father appears to be important for children’s cognitive and emotional development.

B. Overall Aims and Target Membership of the Group

Drawing on nearly two decades of experience of working with mothers and children from families in need, and following an intensive period of consultation and development, NEWPIN extended its family support work to fathers as well as mothers in 1997. This extension was supported by funding from the Allen Lane Foundation, and, more recently, Southwark JCC has agreed funding for three years from April 1998. Within the broader aims of the organisation as a whole, NEWPIN’s Fathers’ Programme seeks to give men greater understanding of – and support in – their role as carers of children.

For this group we adopted a ‘generative’ perspective, which recognised that most fathers have the desire, capabilities and sense of obligation to care effectively for their children. We particularly repudiated the ‘deficit’ perspective which emphasises fathers’ lack of motivation and ability to care for the next generation. Our approach leads to a focus on supporting fathers to achieve their potential, whilst the deficit model defines fathers as resistant to change and responsive mainly too social pressures, coercion or didactic interventions. We accepted that being involved in and responsible for the development of the next generation is also an important and integral part of most adults’ own development, whether they are women or men. We also emphasised that the fathers should have a chance to influence the content and the structure of the programme, and the group benefited greatly from their commitment and ideas.

The goals of the group were:

  • To enhance fathers’ understanding of the developmental and emotional needs of children and to promote the acquisition of specific skills, knowledge and attitudes that foster competent and nurturant parenting;
  • To do this in a reflective and supportive framework that addresses the personal and social issues which shape parenting and family relationships.

Any man with an important role in caring for a child or children could apply to join. He could be either a lone parent or part of a couple, and either a resident or non-resident father. The only requirements were that:

  • his child or children were in need or at risk, and/or he was experiencing difficulties in parenting because of psycho-social problems including depression, low self-esteem, social isolation, relationship difficulties, or because of lack of parenting or child care skills;
  • he wanted to make some real improvements in his relationship with his child(ren), and/or gain support in his role as a father or father figure;
  • he was prepared to make a commitment to participate on a regular basis for the duration of the Group.

No charge was made on either the father or the referring agency for attending the group

C. Development and Publicity Work

  1. Developmental Stage

A successful 18-week pilot in 1995 devised by Ann Jenkins-Hansen (NEWPIN's Clinical Director) involved 90-minute-long sessions in the evenings and was attended by partners of NEWPIN women. Following that, David Bartlett was brought in on a consultancy basis from October 1996 for about a day a week to work with Barbara Plows (NEWPIN's Quality Assurance Manager) to develop the programme further. David Bartlett brought a wide range of experience in family support work in the statutory and voluntary sectors, and a history of working on issues to do with gender and masculinity. Our subsequent experience at Walworth was that it was important to appoint a male worker experienced in working with men, in groupwork and in family support work, to carry out the bulk of the development work before the group starts. This was mainly because both referrers and potential group members could more readily identify with a man as a credible provider of father-friendly services.

Both David and Barbara have skills and experience in therapeutic groupwork, and Barbara has extensive experience within NEWPIN as a user-member and co-ordinator. We developed a more intensive, running for 28 evening sessions of 2 and half-hours over 8 months. The sessions were structured into 'educational/seminar' and 'therapeutic' sections, separated by a meal.

(ii) Publicity and Relationship with Referrers

In early 1997, we carried out a large mail-out of leaflets and posters to local statutory, voluntary and community organisations. The publicity material said the group was about sharing experiences about being a dad, feeling good about the time you spend with your kids, and improving your relationships with your family. Initially, we received relatively few enquiries, and there was a point at which we were quite despondent about getting it off the ground. Most agencies expressed enthusiasm for the project, but said that they had little active involvement with fathers. Also, because working with fathers was often not high on their agenda, the project tended to slip out of workers’ minds unless we reminded them regularly!

Many agencies presented an image of fathers being unwilling to make use of services (e.g. because they might be uncomfortable about a group that involved intimacy and personal disclosure). Probation and Court Welfare had regular contact with many fathers, but made no referrals at all – they said this was because the men were often concerned about problems with contact arrangements, rather than with improving their relationships with their children; and that they would not want to make a commitment to a group for as long as 8 months. Our impression (from talking to fathers that I made contact with, and to individual referrers) was that this image of ‘unwilling’ fathers was simplistic. Many fathers are wary of services for families and do not expect them to be supportive to fathers. They also have limited experience of supportive, intimate relationships with family or friends. But fathers became motivated and committed to the group once they had met David and Barbara and built up some trust in NEWPIN.

For these reasons, successful referrals were often the result of active and sustained encouragement by the referring agency, followed up proactively by NEWPIN. We found that a crucial element in this process was a sustained effort to convey certain key messages to potential referrers:

-Who the Fathers’ Group is aimed at (e.g. not just lone fathers). It is for all men who have a significant role in caring for one or more children, and who want support in that role.

-How to identify fathers who might benefit from the group (e.g. partners of mothers who are struggling with their childcare responsibilities, or complaining about their partner’s inadequacies as a parent).

-Would fathers be motivated to join? Agencies’ assumptions about uninvolved/unwilling fathers need to be addressed directly. Just because a father has not openly acknowledged to a particular agency that he has a need for support, this does not mean that he would not consider joining a fathers group. Agencies should emphasise that the group values what fathers have to offer, and is there to offer them support and not to judge them.

-How to talk to fathers about the group. For example, it is not enough to give the mother (or even the father) a leaflet and leave it at that. Agencies need to consider how to describe the group in an open and non-threatening way, that enables the father to visualise that the group is there to meet his needs as a father, and recognises the importance of fathers in family life, and the desire of most fathers to be fully involved in their children’s lives.

-Are staff in referring agencies confident about their ability to work with fathers? Do they have anxieties about whether it will affect their working relationship with mothers?

-Fathers will rarely refer themselves. It is usually necessary for agencies to do so.

D. Referral and Assessment Process

As we continued to meet or speak to local agencies, referrals steadily grew. Personal contact was focussed on Social Services, probation, court welfare, health visitors and drug/alcohol agencies. By the time the group started in September 1997, we had received 32 referrals. The bulk of the referrals came from social services, voluntary sector agencies, word of mouth from women attending NEWPIN and solicitors. Half dropped out before we interviewed them.

Initial contact with referred fathers was made, wherever possible, by telephone. The interviewer explained a little about the group, and the process of referral, emphasising that the group was for fathers to get together to share experiences and gain support, and that the referral interview involved no commitment, and was designed to help them to decide if the group was ‘for them’. The 'fathers' were encouraged to ask questions at any time , and sent a leaflet in advance if they hadn’t already got one.

All men referred were assessed individually, at their home or at NEWPIN, by one of the Group facilitators. The assessment process focussed on establishing eligibility criteria (as detailed above) and on outlining the purpose and structure of the Programme in more detail. We emphasised that attendance was strictly voluntary and that NEWPIN insisted that there was no pressure or coercion to attend. At the first interview, fathers were told that NEWPIN operates a confidentiality policy, with the clear exception of information that leads a worker to believe a child is suffering, or at risk of significant harm. In that case, the father would be supported and encouraged to discuss the situation with the relevant social work team, but NEWPIN will disclose the information if the father does not do so

This initial meeting was also used to assess the men’s ability to benefit from the group and find out what issues they wanted to concentrate on. It involved the father discussing his own situation, and reflecting on what he hoped to gain from joining the group. The co-ordinator and the father then made a joint decision about his membership of the group.

This meeting was a crucial forum for establishing trust and maintaining the fathers’ interest in the group. We worked hard to establish trust by giving a clear message that the group would be a place where their experiences, feelings and aspirations as fathers would be taken seriously, and nearly two-thirds of those interviewed 'signed up' for the group. Nearly all those who decided not to proceed after the interview were single fathers. Availability of childcare whilst they were at the group was a real issue for most of these single fathers. During the group, we adopted a policy of financially supporting fathers in this situation if they needed to use a childminder.

10 men were accepted onto the programme altogether, and one of us met them every 4-6 weeks thereafter to provide support until the group got going. Referring agencies were told whether the father had been accepted into the group. At the next stage, all men accepted into the Group were invited for a preliminary session to negotiate ground rules and the agenda.

E. Group Membership

Of the 10 men who were 'signed up' to attend the first session, 4 were referred by Southwark SSD, 3 by voluntary sector projects (a drug rehabilitation project, Camberwell Family Service Unit, and a community worker), 2 were self referrals and one came through a solicitor. Three men dropped out in the first few weeks, so there were in the end seven regular attenders at the group - two referred by Southwark Social Services, two by voluntary sector agencies (including one drug rehabilitation project), one by a solicitor, one by word of mouth by a NEWPIN Centre, and one who attended an earlier pilot group. None of them was a partner of a NEWPIN woman.

From our assessment interviews, and a detailed pregroup questionnaire that the fathers filled in, we built up the following picture of the characteristics of the regular attenders at the point of entry into the group:

-In general, most of those joining the group had some prior experience of counselling or therapy, usually in a group setting (e.g. drug rehabilitation projects).

-No fathers living in stereotypical nuclear families (i.e. two parents with their genetic offspring) were in the group.

-There were five resident fathers, of whom two were living in ‘reconstituted’ families with both genetic and stepchildren, and the other three were lone parents.

-There was a strong thread of both parents having difficulties that made it hard for them to parent effectively. Of the six living mothers, five had patterns of chronic alcohol/drug abuse, or moderate/serious mental health problems. Nearly all the men were feeling depressed, or severely depressed, at interview, and one had a long term manic-depressive condition. Four of the men had had severe drug/alcohol problems in the past. Five of the men reported serious childhood physical abuse from their fathers, and the other two had fathers with serious alcohol problems.

-There is no clear link between employment status and interview / group attendance. About half of the group were in some form of paid work.

-The attenders were spread fairly evenly across an age range of 34 – 47 years. This is particularly striking, as over 70% of fathers have their first child before the age of 30; our group clearly failed to reach younger fathers.

-The ethnic composition of the group was also significant: four of the regular attenders were white British, one Italian, one Jewish and one Turkish Cypriot. We only interviewed two Afro-Caribbean men, and neither of them attended.

In general, the men lacked practical experience and confidence in caring for children, and felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of bringing up a child or children. Their main goals were: sharing experiences and feeling less alone; gaining confidence as a parent; exploring the impact of their upbringing on their parenting; learning to look after themselves and not have unrealistic expectations of themselves as a father; understanding their children better; learning how to control angry feelings; and getting practical advice on how to handle difficult situations. They also shared a general feeling that they did not want to repeat the poor parenting (particularly by their father) that they had experienced.

  • One man spoke of being the youngest in a violent alcoholic family. He took drugs and alcohol to "give me a personality". He couldn’t read and write for many years and was told that he was "no good". For many years he was a dictatorial father demanding a hassle free life following 16-hour working days. On one occasion he was shouting furiously at his daughter when he caught his image in the mirror….and saw his own father. The group re-opened areas of life so painful that, at one point, he decided to give it up. But his daughter told him he couldn’t because "since you’ve been going to NEWPIN you’ve stopped shouting at me so much".
  • Another father grew up terrified of his father, who would beat his older brother. His older brother would beat him and he in turn would beat his sisters. "I didn’t have a childhood". As an adult his wife was the stronger of the two and when she died he found it hard to cope with their son and argued with him a lot. But he does not want to repeat his own father’s mistakes and NEWPIN is helping him to "feel more in control of myself".

 

  • Another father found it very hard to cope with his step-children who told him: "You can’t order me about, you’re not my father!" His own father had been violent and abusive. He looked for eight years before finding this group that could support him in his efforts not to repeat his father’s behaviour.

F. Structure and Content of the Fathers’ Programme

(i) The Evening Sessions

The group was launched in September 1997 and met weekly until April 1998. The sessions ran from 7.15 p.m. to 9.45 p.m. The 6 ‘graduates’ of that Group went on to complete a 6 week course in befriending skills in June-July 1998, to enable them to become ‘mentors’ for the fathers joining the next Fathers’ Group (see below).

The group was co-facilitated by two project workers, one male and one female. This mixed-sex approach to delivering the group is unusual within the family support field, in that most work with fathers’ and men’s groups tends to be carried out entirely by male staff. Our intention here was to provide a model of how a man and a woman could negotiate and co-operate effectively, and to facilitate the process of the men's feelings, projections and identifications about gender roles in general being raised and discussed within the group.

The main group ran for 28 weekly sessions of two and half-hours, comprising both ‘educational’ and ‘therapeutic’ input. Weekly meetings were divided into a structured session, in which specific topics were covered according to a pre-set agenda, and a less structured session in which fathers could explore current issues and problems, and address personal feelings and anxieties. These two sessions corresponded broadly to the education and therapeutic aims of the Programme, though in practice there was a certain amount of overlap between the two. A wide range of issues were covered within the structured sessions, including:


  • Men’s roles in society
    What is a ‘father’?
    Men at home
    Male and friendships
    Male sexuality
    Relationship with own fathers / male carer
    Relationship with mothers / female carer
    Valuing oneself as a father
    Relationships with partners, including communication and negotiation skills
    Aggression and violence: causes, consequences and what to do about it
    The concept of ‘childhood’
    Stages of child development
    The meaning and effects of child abuse
    "Taking things out on" children
    Communicating with children
    Discipline and setting and enforcing appropriate boundaries
    Building children’s self esteem

The focus of the sessions remained largely as planned before the programme began, and fitted in well with the members' stated goals. Within that framework, members were given the chance to influence the content and structure of sessions through regular written and verbal feedback on the group, and we as facilitators encouraged the men to raise other issues for discussion if they wanted to. We did not hold the group rigidly to a pre-set agenda if something else seemed more important.

The less structured therapeutic sessions focussed on men’s personal experiences and feelings concerned with being a father or carer. Here, personal feelings arising out of the discussion topic were explored in more depth, and other recent and past experiences could be reflected on. The Group also met periodically at weekends with the children (and, where appropriate, adult partners) for lunch, play activities and informal outings.

(ii) Location for the Group

Before the group started, there was some uncertainty about where the meetings should take place. We explored the option of facilitating the group in the fairly 'homely' basement therapy, but it was too small for the group, and also was separate from the main activities of the centre. In the end, we decided to use the group room within the Walworth NEWPIN centre. We wondered how far the men would feel comfortable in what was a space used almost exclusively by women and their children. The members and staff of the centre itself were also somewhat wary of the group using that space, which involved trusting and 'letting in' an unknown group of men. Although this issue raised feelings for both the men and women using the centre, it proved productive within the group in putting certain features of masculine and feminine roles and relations on the agenda. (See the sections below on the group process, and on the future development of services for fathers, for further comments on these issues).

(iii) Supporting Each Other Outside the Group

Early on in the group, once it had achieved some cohesion, we established a telephone network, so that fathers could contact other group members or facilitators if they needed support or a chat. Although it was not be used much at the beginning, it offered support indirectly - the fathers told us that just knowing there was someone who they could call gave a feeling of connectedness, and alleviated isolation. All members were encouraged to contact each other when there were no group sessions due to the holiday times. If a member had been distressed within the group David or Barbara would phone them or encourage another group member to make that contact. If a member had not attended the session and had not made contact with the group, someone would call them to see how they were, and encourage them to attend next time. The facilitators' numbers were on the list in order to foster a sense of openness, safety and equality within the group.

The telephone support network was designed to be a source of empowerment for the members of the group. As with NEWPIN's work with mothers, there was an emphasis on the importance of fathers building a lasting support network whose benefits would continue to be felt after the Programme itself was finished.

(iv) Befrienders’ Group

As stated above, we also ran 6 sessions on befriending skills for the men who completed the 8-month programme. This mirrored in many ways a similar course offered to NEWPIN women. It looked in depth at the skills and attitudes necessary to be an effective befriender or mentor, and matched each new group member with a suitable befriender. We will continue to support the befriending relationship through group supervision. Feedback from the fathers who attended this course has been positive, with considerable gains in confidence and self-esteem.

G. The Group Process

(i) Beginnings

We were surprised by how quickly the group discussion took off - right from the first week they quickly felt that it was a non-judgmental and supportive space in which being a father was taken seriously, and took the opportunity to talk about their needs fairly openly. The early stages saw a steady and solid build up of trust and attachment within the group. The positive initial attachments formed by group members to Barbara and David helped this process. There was a strong enthusiasm within the group about the fact that this was 'their' group, alongside a positive belief that the group could offer them 'answers'. There quickly began a process of identification of similarities between group members and a common purpose was formed within the group. The men in the group seemed to like having the structure that a weekly discussion topic provided, and were not put off by the personal nature of the subjects.

(ii) Relationship to the Rest of Newpin

This enthusiasm and comfortableness contrasted with their feeling that the physical space 'belonged' to the women who used the centre. In the early weeks of the group, there was a feeling around that the members were just 'visitors' to the centre. One man described the group as 'mice who came out at night'. But this soon changed. The men began to take ownership by putting up their posters and pictures on the walls in the group room. Subsequently, there have been several constructive points of contact between male and female NEWPIN members. The NEWPIN conference in January 1998 provided a forum in the form of a workshop for the men to describe in moving detail the experiences that had led them to seek out support. And it was clear to everyone that there was considerable common ground between the men's and women's experiences of depression, isolation, abusive experiences earlier in their own lives that left them damaged, but determined not to repeat the patterns of the past. Other NEWPIN user-members and staff who heard the fathers speak were greatly impressed by their courage and candour. It was clear that their efforts to sustain greater involvement with their children faced many social and cultural obstacles. There was a strong consensus that every NEWPIN Centre should have a fathers group. More recently, the fathers were invited to the Walworth centre’s social evening, and this went very well.

(iii) Ground Rules/Boundary Issues

It was important for the group to own and agree group ground rules at an early stage. We discussed NEWPIN’s core values of Respect Support Empathy and Equality, but gave the men a major say in the formulation of the ground rules. This reduced the likelihood that David or Barbara could be perceived as authoritarian figures, which would impinge unhelpfully on the group process - particularly for those men whose fathers' or mothers had in the past been brutal, aggressive and oppressive.

Keeping boundaries was not always easy. The group went through a temporary period of starting late and running over at the end, perhaps partly reflecting the men's internal chaos/lack of boundaries, and their ambivalence about authority and whether the group felt safe and supportive. In the early weeks Barbara sometimes found herself in the position of time keeping and felt like an authority figure. David initially held back from that role in order to be sensitive to possible projections onto him as an oppressive father figure.

As the group progressed, these issues came up in a variety of guises, particularly around appropriate parenting styles and gender roles. The importance and difficulty of exercising parental authority and boundary setting often featured in discussion, along with its relationship to ideas and roles concerning openness/respect and nurture/support in family relationships. Having a male and a female facilitator seemed to be a key aspect of the group. This enabled the group members to experience both a man and a woman being both supportive/empathic, and clear about issues of authority and respect. The two facilitators provided a role model of a co-operative and assertive working relationship within an overall framework of commitment to the importance of involved fatherhood.

From the beginning, we had decided to facilitate the 'educational' session at the beginning, then have a break for food and resume with the therapeutic session. This was sometimes difficult to implement mainly due to poor time keeping at the start of sessions. But this also reflected the emotional needs of group members, which sometimes led to the programme being departed from to allow a member to explore a burning issue for him. Eventually, after considerable dissension and uncertainty, we all agreed to keep the initial 'how-are-you' part of the evening session to a minimum of a few sentences for each man, and offered the chance to go into more detail later. We also suggested that members could arrive from 6.00pm, which was taken up reasonably well. Getting the balance right between sticking to our pre-set agenda and allowing other concerns to be addressed was crucial in developing a feeling of safety and identification within the group.

(iv) Anger, Trust and Intimacy

The men did experience the group as a steadily safer place as time went by, and the ability to tolerate and express conflict, anger and difference developed alongside, sometimes with powerful results. For example, there was an argument between two members who had previously talked about the aggression and violence in their earlier lives, and the potential for future violence. Both had initially been unable to manage their aggression positively. One member stayed away from the group as he was concerned that he was not able to contain his aggression. Both David and Barbara made contact with him by telephone and visited him at home, at which point he was feeling very isolated and depressed.

We encouraged him to bring all these feelings into the group. He decided to return, partly influenced by his 10-year old daughter who told him he had to go because, "since you’ve been going to NEWPIN, you’ve stopped shouting at me so much". In the next session, he expressed his feelings of anger towards the other group member, and in discussion he was able to understand that this member was reminding him of his own adult son whom he had a difficult relationship with. The group provided a safe place where feelings could be expressed and personal change could take place.

Midway through the programme another member was distressed about his relationship with his son as he found it hard to comfort him when he himself was overwhelmed by the recent death of his wife (the child’s mother). Whilst talking, he was gripped by his own feelings of loss and inadequacy, and needed comforting himself. He was distraught and sobbing with his feelings of grief and pain. David moved towards him and held him in his arms comforting him and holding him physically. In the weeks that followed there was lots of discussion around this situation. Most of the men had wanted to do the same thing but had not felt it was ok - it was too large a transgression of the normal expectations of how men related to each other. We talked about the interaction between physical closeness, emotional intimacy and sexuality, and how this was being played out in the father's relationship with his son.

A third father also left the group for a few weeks as he had felt inhibited about expressing his feelings in the group. Again, David contacted him, met him outside the group, and persuaded him to come back. Thereafter, he made considerable changes, becoming far more open about his own past experiences, and how vulnerable he still felt in his role as a single father.

In contrast to these examples of men finding their 'voices' and capacity for growth, one of the seven principal members became steadily more detached from the group, and eventually dropped out altogether. Although he was able to discuss his experiences with a fair degree of insight, his situation was too painful for him to be able to sustain this openness. He was not living with his child, and was embroiled in a bitter dispute over contact with his son's mother. The consequent feelings of anger and loss, combined with shame over earlier patterns of violence and excessive use of alcohol, were too powerful for him to sustain his relationship with the group.

(v) Conclusion: Relationship Between Programmes for Fathers and Mothers

This group has made us realise that there is a lot of overlap in the needs of mothers and fathers. For example, isolation, depression, guilt and lack of confidence are significant for these fathers just as they are for NEWPIN women. As for the women, being in the group brings them face to face with many painful memories and experiences. The fathers and mothers also share a passionate concern for their children’s wellbeing, and a determination to be a good enough parent. Moreover, our experience is consistent with research findings that fathers’ potential contribution to child care and development does not differ in any fundamental way from that of mothers.

Clearly however, mothers and fathers have different experiences and support needs, and we do a disservice to both if we pretend otherwise. A crucial task for any effective fathers programme is to recognise that fathers have the potential to be (and often are) fully competent and loving care givers. But we should not assume that to be a ‘good enough’ father simply means being like a ‘good enough’ mother. We have found that men can bring different strengths and experiences to the tasks of parenting, which, whilst not radically different from those of women, should be honoured and taken as our starting point in working with fathers.

H. Findings on Programme Effectiveness

Based on group interactions, end-of-group interviews, and revisiting the questions put in the pregroup questionnaire, it is clear that the men valued it highly and nearly all of them said they had made substantial changes in their relationships with their children. Most of them learnt some ways of relating to their children which were different from their own parents’ behaviour – shouting and hitting less, remaining calmer, listening more. They felt less bound up in feelings of anger and shame about the past, more confident, more open with their feelings, and were more aware of their children’s needs.

The men developed well in their ability to seek support within the group, and worked through very painful feelings about whether the group cared for and respected them. They also built supportive relationships with other fathers outside the group, e.g. via use of phone network (although this was not easy for them, and the project workers remained their principal sources of one-to-one support outside the group). Some of them didn’t want the group to end – they felt they still had a lot more to gain.

In retrospect, it seems important that the two project workers spent a lot of time in advance discussing their feelings and attitudes about fatherhood and masculinity and working in a group. By the time the group started, we knew each other quite well, and trusted each other. Above all, this helped us to provide a safe space for the men, and a model of how a man and a woman can negotiate and co-operate effectively. They trusted us to work well together.

Some of the men felt less comfortable with a woman at first because of their own poor relationships with women. Others found it harder to open up with a man because they still felt scared of their fathers’ abusiveness and authoritarianism. But these projections about the men’s mothers and fathers were worked on within the group. For example, in the session where one of the fathers broke down and David talked him through it and hugged him, it affected the group profoundly to see a man take on this nurturing role. As discussed above, most of the other men had wanted to do the same, but felt unable to do so. But we talked through their feelings of guilt and discomfort, and thereafter most of the men felt and acted freer in their relationships within and beyond the group.

The presence of the female worker produced some initial reticence about sexuality and attitudes to women, but after some time we managed to talk about this openly. After that, it was easier to acknowledge ambivalent feeling towards women (both hostility and idealisations), and, as a result, become more aware of the men’s relationships to their fathers as authority/care figures, and the implications for their own identity.

I. Future Developments

David Bartlett will oversee the future strategic development of NEWPIN’s services for fathers. All the developments and plans mentioned below are, in many ways, outcomes of the experiences of the 1997/98 group.

(i) Replication

Another support group started in November 1998 in Southwark. It will be similar to the 1997-98 group in structure, but incorporating lessons from the earlier group. In particular, subject to the wishes of the members, we will include extra material in a number of areas (eg post-natal depression in fathers and mothers; more on identifying and valuing the different interactional styles of fathers and mothers, and how these pertain to the men in the group). Ideally, we would also like to see fathers’ programmes in all existing and new NEWPIN centres.

(ii) Evidence-based Practice

If we are to develop truly ‘evidence-based’ practice there is a pressing need to carry out rigorous and reliable independent evaluations of existing interventions in the family support sphere. So NEWPIN has approached the Policy Research Bureau to provide externally validated information on the impact of the programme of work with fathers developed at the Walworth centre, and to assess the effectiveness of the Programme in achieving its stated aims. PRB is a new independent centre for applied social policy research in the field of children, young people and families whose staff have substantial experience of research and evaluation amongst parents and children both within the population at large and within needy and disadvantaged groups. We hope to secure funding from Nuffield for Deborah Ghate and Neal Hazel of the PRB to conduct an in-depth evaluation of the next programme after the one starting in November 1998.

(iii) Short Programme

ILPS and other agencies have stressed their view that many fathers would only be attracted by a programme that is relatively short in duration, and available without a prolonged waiting period; so we also envisage setting up shorter (8-week), less intensive fathers’ support groups from early 1999, which would be free-standing modules and drop-in groups, as well as a gateway to the longer programme for those that chose to join. Such a structure could be used to run short groups for specific subgroups of fathers (black and ethnic minority fathers; fathers in prison or probation; young fathers; non-resident fathers etc). Supported by an Enterprise Award from Community Care Magazine, we will be employing a black male worker to develop short programmes for black fathers in South East London. See Appendix 1 for further comments on the nature of future programmes for fathers at NEWPIN centres.

(iv) Internal Audit of NEWPIN’s Other Services

NEWPIN also plans to audit its mainstream centre services and the content of its training courses, to ensure that they are run in a way that promotes appropriate and positive images of fathers as well as mothers. NEWPIN is serious about supporting fathers and promoting their healthy involvement in family life in this and future generations, so it must ensure that all its services and physical spaces provide positive images of fathers.

(v) Practitioners Guide

We have written a step-by-step guide to setting up a Fathers’ programme attached to a local centre, and we are considering whether there will be a need for the centre’s user members, staff and management committee to access training/consultancy or a study day about the implications for their centre of initiating a fathers’ programme. This would provide an opportunity to look at what developments in knowledge, skills and attitudes are needed to enable a NEWPIN centre to provide a service to fathers that is genuinely ‘father-friendly’.

David Bartlett

Barbara Plows

© National NEWPIN October 1998

 

Appendix 1: Integration of Fathers into the NEWPIN Process

NEWPIN is actively considering how to integrate fathers more fully and appropriately into its centres’ daytime programmes. Nearly all the men in the 1997-98 group would welcome it. . Our current thinking is that in general it would currently be preferable for men to have already been through a NEWPIN fathers group before they engage in active work in the daycentre setting. One approach would be the introduction of fathers who have been through a fathers group into a mixed group (either at the local Centre or the National Training Centre at Walworth) with women who have also had substantial input on issues to do with empathy, respect, personal responsibility, self-awareness and growth in the context of individual, family and group relationships. Such follow-on groups could have a range of aims and contents. Some of the fathers might be interested in a course that focussed on parenting and relationship issues, and gaining experience interacting with their own and others’ children in a structured play setting. Others could benefit most from support with vocational courses, literacy skills, counselling skills etc.

Integration could therefore provide greater opportunities for directly supporting the men's relationships with their children, and encourage men and women to work on their preconceptions about the opposite sex. It could also help men feel less marginal and unconfident as father, by being treated on a similar basis to women in NEWPIN; and by working on attitudes/feelings of low confidence as a father that can be highlighted by the presence of women (e.g. many men feel that women are better parents and know more about childcare than they do). NEWPIN women could work on becoming more assertive and confident with men in a safe space.

But unless such integration is carefully handled, introducing men could backfire. It could make women staff and clients feel less safe. Some men might be put off by the daunting prospect of coming into a predominantly female space, or might feel marginalised and swamped. Men might find it harder to show their vulnerable side and explore their masculine identity at a NEWPIN centre where women are around. Some men and women might feel less confident in their parenting if they felt under the watchful gaze of people of the other sex. Healthy integration would need to find a way of men, women and children relating that respects everyone’s needs for safety, separateness and individuality, whilst at the same time stressing the importance of communication and finding appropriate ways of working together.

 

A Separate NEWPIN Men’s Centre?

An alternative approach would be a specific Centre for fathers to recreate the NEWPIN ethos and model in a way that powerfully reaches men. There are now a number of day centres for fathers in the USA, and several in New Zealand and Australia, which successfully run daycentres for fathers with a similar agenda to our centres. Such a centre would give fathers a separate space (as the evening group does), and yet it could provide the basis for positive links (eg joint groups for parents, joint attendance at the NEWPIN Training Centre by both men and women) with the other local NEWPIN centres attended by women.

There would be a strong argument for developing this as a collaborative project with another well-established family support agency, in order to create a centre that offered a broad range of services aimed at different groups of fathers, and covering a variety of models of supporting fathers. Such a centre should provide a range of services and activities beyond the core parenting support programme – e.g. legal advice, couple counselling, a contact centre, vocational training opportunities etc. It should also offer a range of training opportunities to other organisations and professional groups that work – or want to work - with fathers.

The feasibility of such an initiative would obviously need to be carefully assessed. For example, would there be enough fathers willing to use it during the day? In fact, a substantial number of referring agencies (particularly health visitors, GP counsellors, family centres) have mentioned that there is a need for a daytime service. And the evidence from the USA and Australia lends support to the view that such a centre would be well used and effective. NEWPIN is currently exploring options for developing this approach.

 


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