You know when you do something that leaves you feeling all positive and makes you feel hopeful for the future? That’s how I feel having just returned from the Side By Side fatherhood conference in Canada.
Its full title was the Canadian National Father Involvement Conference and it was organised by a charity called Dad Central. The charity Movember, which is increasingly involved in the sphere of men’s and fathers’ mental health, sponsored the event.
The two-day conference in Ottawa bought together 200 health professionals, social workers, First Nation representatives, academics, Canadian policy makers and, of course, dads. All were there to learn and share experiences of the positive impact fathers can have on their children and families. Despite a scandal engulfing the Canadian Government, Conservative MP and dad of two Matt Jeneroux took time out to address the conference on the second day to outline work he is doing to promote strong mental health in new fathers.
I was asked to attend and participate in a panel discussion organised by Movember. Chaired by Barbara Snelgrove of Movember Canada, I spoke about my experiences of being the main carer for my daughters and challenges I have faced along the way.
Also on the panel was Judy Chu, a lecturer from Stanford University in the USA who wrote a book called When Boys Become Boys based on research she carried about boys and masculinity. I don’t mind admitting I felt totally unqualified being part of the panel in Judy’s company!
Nonetheless, I outlined negative experiences I have had with the UK’s health system. This includes minor issues such as being told by a GP I was “babysitting” when I took my child for a routine appointment, through to the experiences I had on the maternity ward when Mrs Adams gave birth to Izzy (it’s all detailed in this blog post if you wish to take a look).
Looking to 2030, I said I hoped we would have ring-fenced parental leave for men as part of our shared parental leave system in the UK. I said I hoped employers would become more flexible and recognise men want more flexible working opportunities. I also said I hoped men would get more involved in debates about breastfeeding and vaccinations as the level of debate on these issues can be very poor and would benefit from male voices.
Just to deviate for a moment, I was aware that Canada has a shared parental leave system. It turns out the province of Quebec, unlike other Canadian states and territories, has ring-fenced leave for fathers. This has proven to be very successful, demonstrating that such steps are needed to encourage men to exercise their right to the leave and to force employers to accept that it isn’t always women who wish to take time out of the workforce when a child arrives.
Getting back to the panel discussion, Judy Chu, who among her other roles is also chair of Movember’s Global Health Advisory Committee, made some fascinating points based on her experience and research. She said society often underestimates what men and boys are capable of knowing and doing when it comes to expressing emotions and engaging in relationships.
Chu added that societal expectations should be changed to reflect their humanity more accurately. Men and boys, Chu feels, should be encouraged and feel empowered to speak up and get involved more with their families, children and wider relationships. A major challenge is to remove and reduce societal constraints, such as archaic views of men’s roles in the family or less explicit discriminatory practices. She gave the example of employment practices that prevent men from taking paternity leave.
Chu referenced the goals that Movember has put in place. These state that it’s not enough to simply raise awareness of how men can make healthy lifestyle choices and how involved fatherhood is good for mums, children and dads, but that men must feel able to be involved dads and lead healthier lifestyles. In other words, talk is great, but action is better.
Of course, that was just one session. Side By Side attracted some very inspiring speakers, such as psychologist Dr Stuart Shanker.
Dr Shanker made some very thought-provoking comments about what’s called the limbic system. This is a primal system engrained in both women and men that makes us want to care for our offspring. He explained this is something that had only been recognised in the past 20 years and shows that caregiving, not traditionally associated with men, is not an exclusively female trait.
Dr Shanker went on to talk about stress and the impact this can have on dads when they discipline children. He also revealed a shocking statistic. Believe it or not, 50,000 children were expelled from nurseries in the USA last year. I have never heard of a child being expelled from nursery before, so I was stunned to hear this.
As a non-Canadian with little knowledge of indigenous issues, it was fascinating listening to what Dr Kevin wâsakâyâsiw Lewis had to say about the work he is doing. An education specialist and part of the
Ministikwan Lake Cree Nation, he works with First Nation youngsters to preserve their culture and heritage. He has established schools that promote traditional beliefs and has got different generations of First Nations mixing with each other and sharing their knowledge.
A presentation by Dr Cindy-Lee Dennis, meanwhile, seemed to electrify the conference. I would have to write a separate blog post just to list all of Dr Dennis’s titles so let’s just say she’s an expert in community healthcare and leave it there!
Dr Dennis explained that men can have a very positive impact in assisting their partners to breastfeed. That’s possibly not big news, but she went on to talk about how dads can have a major role in preventing their offspring from contracting non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and so on.
You might imagine that fathers can only have an impact once their child is born. Dr Dennis said all the evidence shows the behaviour of fathers pre-conception can have an impact on offspring and reduce them contracting these health conditions in later life.
Thus far, however, pre-conception community health campaigns have focused on mothers and not been inclusive of fathers. This, Dr Dennis concluded, is missing a trick.
Those are just a few highlights from Side By Side 2019. It was wonderful to be part of such a great event and an event that was solely focused on helping dads be the best fathers they can by working together with their partners (I think this is where the Side By Side name comes from).
It was inspiring to hear of the great work being done in Canada. While it left me feeling very excited, I also felt a bit downhearted.
There is no reason whatsoever why such an event couldn’t be held in the UK. We have fatherhood charities, academics and health specialists of the same calibre. I have participated in conferences held by charities, education bodies and academics. I can’t, however, think of a single instance where these groups have gathered in the same room at the same time to discuss issues involving fathers. It shows a lack of joined-up thinking.
I think Dad Central and the Canadians should be very proud of this. The UK, meanwhile, could learn a thing or two from their friends on the other side of the Atlantic.