Me and my dad

spending time together

Our history reins with maternal figures. The tender, gentle, dedicated, thoughtful Fathers make infrequent appearances in our stories and collective memory. They have forever existed, many of us know these men, yet their place in the maternal sphere has a long shadow drawn across it. Naturally the link between mother and baby is physical, over nine months as the life grows, the bonds are sewn, yet the Father is no less a part of the maternal connect. While females in the workplace get asked about their children- politicians, business women, musicians, engineers, writers- men seldom do. The reasons for this are varied and complex. Some of it is societal and cultural, some of the reasoning is so damply buried in our soil we do not know how to bring it up and allow it to have air and dry. What isn’t up for question is the love that Fathers have for their children. The love has always been there, if sometimes quiet, cautious, busy or stowed away. The tides are shifting, as they always have. Now, Fathers, along with Mothers, have learnt to read the tides and they choose when they travel with their children and how they travel, there’s more options, and many Fathers are choosing to be more involved.

“As a parent and as a society, I think its paramount to get back to basics, especially in relation to family time,” said Leigh Whitten.

Leigh spends a lot of time with his children, working night shift and then often looking after them all day. He is the type of bloke who plugs away, making the best of things. For Leigh, his children are his main priority. Not work, not house work, not making big bucks, but his kids. That is not to say that things aren’t challenging, things aren’t flawed, they often are, but he is there and tries his best to be present.

“So often we focus on finishing a task or activity that we forget to enjoy the time spent together doing said activity. It is important to regularly schedule family time together, regardless of time restraints or what it gets in the way of. The benefits of family time are as important for parents as it is for the kids, I believe,” said Leigh.  

Leigh has a positive attitude and is not afraid of standing on his own two feet. He is comfortable with his masculinity and maternal identity. These two variables are not exclusive, but complimentary in Leigh’s eyes.

Leigh is the leader of Me and My Dad Playgroup in Ballarat. This playgroup was featured heavily in the media cycle throughout the year, highlighted as something unique, a handful of blokes, getting together at playgroup, a world so often the space of women. Leigh and the other Fathers at the group don’t see it as being an unusual thing, for them its natural, but they are aware that it has not always been that way.

“The first time I saw my Dad cry was five years ago, when my Mum died,” said Leigh.

“That was the first time I really saw him have any emotion,” he said.

“My Dad showed emotion the day I moved to Aus, that was the first time I saw my Dad cry” added the Kiwi member of the group Paul Matthews.

“I think I try and give my kids what I missed out on, to be honest,” said Leigh.

 “My Dads great,” said Leigh with authority, “Don’t get me wrong.”

“He was not very maternal.”

“Nowadays tides have changed as far as being a Dad goes. Dads used to go to work, come home, where’s my dinner love, have a beer, watch telly and go off to bed. It’s a lot different now.”

“Blokes can show a bit of emotion now, it’s more accepted,” said Paul.

And so it is, here in his regional outpost in Sebastopol, a group of men talk, don’t talk. They come together every week with their kids and each other.

“Gentle, now,” one Dad says to his son on the other side of the room as he enthusiastically plays with two little girls and their trucks.

His son looks up and returns to his playing, gentler.

The kids respond, they listen, but the Fathers don’t quash their zeal.

The excitement builds as new play equipment are unwrapped as part of a Great Start Grant the playgroup received. The eldest boy in the group is overwhelmed on this particular morning. He shifts around the room, crying, yet keeping involved, not wanting to miss out.

“Why are you crying mate,” said his Dad.

“It’s okay.”

His Dad let him go, comforted when necessary, but there is no telling off or putting down for expressing emotions.

“My kids have enriched my life in many ways. Despite the parental trials and tribulations, they have made me more patient and helped me reconnect with my inner child through play and other daily activities,” said Leigh.

The Me and my Dad Playgroup mentor Maureen Hatcher has watched the group come together.

“Half the time they’re talking about footy and concerts and they’re on their phones and all that usual thing but how many times have I walked in and they’re talking about their child not sleeping the night before or they’re not eating or the average parent stuff but they’re connecting over it.”

“I think it’s putting them in a different environment where those conversations are really easy. I don’t think in a pub that’s going to be an easy conversation for a Dad to bring up,” said Maureen.

 The space allows these conversations to unravel naturally.

“Having other blokes who were going through the stuff that I was going through and actually not be judged so that was really good. You don’t always know what’s going on with your wife or the baby and seeing that the other kids are going through the same things and hearing the stories you think, ah this is normal,” said Paul.

It is normal here and this little get-together is proving to be a great preventative measure.

“There’s such a big discussion about mental health at the moment,” said Maureen.

Current statistics show how big an issue mental health is, across the developed world, and among men. Here’s an outlet, one that these men are proud of.

One Father travels to attend. His wife is a principal, he worked in hospitality, it was hard for him to support them all so it made more sense that she went back to work and he stayed with the kids.

When he met his maternal health nurse, she recommended this group. Another father she knew had been to Dads group which had a really positive impact.  

“It has helped my mental health immensely.”

They have found a spot here, an identity, and culture. That does not mean that society mirrors the sentiment in all areas.

 “There’s still a lot of stigma about Dads looking after their kids,” said Paul.

“Like the changerooms- males being in the toilets- that’s hard. Lily went to a dance concert and they didn’t let one of the Dads stay to look after her on the rehearsal day because he was a man, he wasn’t allowed in the change rooms.”

Paul said that was hard, just as it’s hard when his daughter sometimes wants her Mum instead. It continues to be an eye-opening experience, as it is for all parents. It is a team effort.

“To have both parents present and active, will give my kids two avenues to learn and develop. It also provides a support network as parents for one other, in reiterating what is said and also the love and support that is given,” said Leigh.

“I think the importance of being present and involved in my kids lives in vital for their emotional, mental and educational development.”

“As a father, like so many others, I sometimes feel misunderstood as the public perception of Dads can sadly often still be very old school. You take the kids to the playground, public toilets or out for lunch, without Mum; and often feel like people look at you weird, "Are they his kids?" "It must be his weekend to have the kids" Look, he is babysitting". When really what we are doing is what we want to do and that is interact with our kids and enjoy our time with them as they grow. Although at times, it can be frustrating, society's view would never deter me for doing the best I can for my kids.”’

The group are now part of each other’s lives.

“They’ve grown up together, haven’t they Leigh,” said Paul.

There was a big brekkie hosted at Leigh’s house a few Sundays ago. The whole family was there, the wives have become friends.

“They’ve all become friends through these connections so it’s a whole ripple effect,” said Maureen who went along with her colleague Louise.

“The wives and partners get together and have fun together, but they say they have the adult playgroup,” said Maureen with a laugh, “they have seen the benefits of Dad’s playgroup. It’s so natural.”

The general notion is that there should be more of this, more often. Maureen said that Leigh has been a great leader and hopes that they come get some sort of funding to promote Dads playgroups and have a model for it.

“We have had phone calls from Sydney and it’s been really popular. People want to talk to Leigh about how to do it. I think he would like to do this sort of thing full time”

Leigh will soon be moving on, as many of the Dads will as their children transition onto school. Their bonds are tight and there is a niggling undercurrent that they don’t want to give up their weekly catch-ups here.

“Over the past few years, I feel the role of the father has changed dramatically. With so many mums and women in the workforce and that it’s a 24hr a day society, Dads are able, and needed, to be more hands on, especially with the day to day things,” said Leigh.

For these Dads being with their children seems as natural as the sun rising in the morning and falling at night. For many Fathers the world over, as they gave their children life, their children give them so much joy and love- it is worth giving up a lot of the other stuff for and spending time together.

Article by Sinead Halliday