Fathers in maternity services: best practice from Australia: I’m a Dad

30 June 2005

Coff’s Harbour, New South Wales, Australia, features white sands, ridiculously aquamarine waters, high unemployment and a substantial ethnic minority population, many of South Asian origin. Coff’s Harbour also features visibly active fathers. On the beaches, in the cafes, in the botanical gardens you see them, frequently in their trademark I’m a Dad cap or T-shirt.

It’s astonishing how often, in different countries at exactly the same time the same issue raises its head. At the very moment, five years ago, when the UK Government launched its first funding stream for fathers’ projects, the Australian Federal Government also produced funding for Men and Family Relationships.  In both countries projects that later were to delight their funders by seemingly “getting it right in one go” in fact rose out of the ashes of earlier, unsupported and unfunded (or virtually unfunded) initiatives.  These had rendered workers exhausted and discouraged, and had rarely been sustained.  But they had left “pawprints” which were to make the later successes possible.  

When the Australian funding was announced, Coffs-based psychologist Tony White was NSW Mid-North Coast Regional Manager with Burnside (a large NGO).  Obtaining two years leave-of-absence from his management job, he hit the funding running.  This was his chance.  For 25 years he’d tinkered at the edges, working (often evenings and weekends, usually unpaid) to engage fathers in health and early childhood settings in Sydney and rural New South Wales.  He knew what he wanted; he understood the challenges; he had seen the benefits – to fathers, mothers and babies.

Five years on, White is back in his management job, and I’m a Dad is solid, with three permanent part-time staff: two men, one woman – all parents who came up through the programme.  One focuses on events and fundraising, another on engaging with fathers, the third on mainstreaming the work. The Coff’s approach is couple-focused (the sexes are not separated during birth-preparation) but with special strategies to engage the fathers. A male worker contributes to ante-natal classes, offering a wider focus than the birth-experience; and, later, meets each new father either at the hospital or at home, giving him a locally-sponsored I’m a Dad goodie-bag – and his contact-details.

It doesn’t stop there.  There are post-birth ante-natal class reunions (most dads attend); dads’ only events (including regular barbecues at the local DIY Superstore) and family functions (‘The Biggest Fathers Day Breakfast in the World’).  The staff work with local services and individual fathers and couples; and produce the local father-aware newsletter Parentalk, which is hugely successful in sustaining parent networks. 

I’m a Dad fathers have gone on to accredited courses in, among other things, child welfare. Advocacy training has equipped some to lobby for more father-friendly hospital processes: a request that fathers be called “fathers”, not “labour partners”; and a place for the father’s name on the baby’s hospital records. Incredibly, this last has not yet been achieved – but they’re not giving up.  Five dads, now accredited mentors, are developing their own projects including a playgroup for “sole charge dads”, who often have their children for part of the week (10-12 dads regularly attend).  A second playgroup in a different location is being organized.

The work is spreading.  White and his colleagues presented to NSW state funders, who have now made involved fatherhood a priority within an early years state-funding stream (Families First).  As a result, there are now Family Support Worker Fathers (often ex-youth-workers who have become dads) right along NSW’s Mid-North Coast. 

And I’m a Dad?  While government funding was recently increased by 30 per cent, White is nervous about relying on this one source.  He’s now seeking corporate support – not only in Coffs but to replicate the program elsewhere. 

Evaluation results

The experiences of parents who’d had babies before, and during, the ‘I’m a Dad’ programme, were compared. 

I’m a Dad fathers

  • found the father-inclusive ante-natal classes more relevant
  • felt more included in the hospital setting
  • said the I’m a Dad gift-bag made them feel proud and important in their child’s life
  • felt more competent and confident as parents
  • were more satisfied with family life, their relationship with their child, and their ‘performance’ as fathers. 

I’m a Dad mothers and fathers

  • were more satisfied with related services including Maternity Home Visiting, Early Childhood Centres and the Early Childhood Home Visiting Nursing Service
  • were more likely to attend post-birth ante-natal class reunions 
  • recognised the gift-bag message as being ‘dads are important too’ ‘dads should feel proud’ ‘support is available’.

To the evaluator’s and project manager’s deep sadness, insufficient funds have been made available to measure the outcomes for mothers and babies.

Evaluator:  Dr Graeme Russell, Macquarie University: russellg@bigpond.net.au