Fatherhood is not always what someone imagines; at St Michael's, we often watch new fathers grapple with its challenges and then begin to grow. One dad found himself in a dire situation when asked to choose between staying with his wife or raising his child as a single parent.
After three connecting flights and less than 24 hrs after arriving in England, Ali found himself in a dreary office face to face with social workers.
Ali was trying to take in what he was being told. There were concerns about his heavily pregnant wife and her ability to look after the new baby when it was born. They told him they would both need to do an assessment to show he could help her care for the baby.
“I thought, Ok, if that’s what we have to do,” he said, leaning back into the chair as if bracing himself all over again.
A month into the assessment, he was told by social workers and our team that his wife could not carry on with the assessment because she couldn’t keep the baby safe. It is a situation difficult to imagine.
This is how Ali found himself to be the single father he had never imagined.
Experiences of single dads
Many other dads have found themselves in these situations; over the last year, we have worked with a number of single dads. They are often questioned more intensely about how they can raise a child and work! Mothers rarely get asked this question so directly.
In the 1980s, St Michaels pioneered work with fathers in residential assessment settings. Back then, it wasn't standard practice for dads to be considered for an assessment. Local Authorities would push back. We had one young dad who had an excellent relationship with his child but lived in a house full of male siblings and his father. The local authority refused to see his potential.
Went to High Court
His baby's mother had pulled out of the assessment, and the plan was to have their daughter adopted. This dad wanted the opportunity to show he could do this alone. We supported him through the court process, where he won the right to have the assessment. It was a landmark moment and had a very happy ending.
These days, evidence backs up the belief that the best place for a child is with a family member (if it is safe). We regularly have single dads coming in for assessments.
Stop them falling through the gaps
Since the 1980's we have expanded our work with dads. Young dads, finding their feet, get support from our two young father practitioners. Our project Securing Change supports parents leaving our centres with or without their children. Our Caring Dads programme helps dads unpick their own childhood experiences to help them understand how their actions affect their children and partners. We do this while working alongside their partners or child’s mother, and the programme has been shown to reduce the number of children seeing or experiencing domestic abuse.
When it is safe, Dads need to be involved in their children's lives. In the child protection arena, dads tell us they feel unheard. We give them the skills to be heard so they can raise or co-parent their children.
Fathers need to be represented in the workforce
When dads come to our residential assessments the teams around them are predominately women. Having male professionals who can go in and support fathers is also important and something we are acutely aware of.
Fathers feel isolated
The dads we work with will often use more than one of our services, sometimes all at the same time.
Ali was in a residential assessment centre and got extra help from Lawrence, one of our young father practitioners.
“Lawrence is different from the people in the house. He is more like a mate I can call if I am worried about anything or need help. Being in an assessment is hard; they look at everything you do. I am worried if I make a mistake, the baby might go away.”
Young dads can feel incredibly isolated in a system that is very much designed to meet the needs of a mother. Our young father practitioners support them in their meetings with other professionals and help them get the support they need for housing, benefit and childcare.
Watching him grow
Lawrence said, "Ali has come a long way as a father since I met him eight weeks ago when he decided to do the assessment alone. He has shown himself to be a great dad; my job now is to make sure he is getting the help he needs so he can have the best start as a newly single dad."
When we speak to Ali, he is waiting for his son, who is in one of the family rooms at our Jigsaw Contact Centre, seeing his mum. Some contact centres can feel cold and clinical. We have designed ours so it feels like a living room, bright, filled with soft furnishings, toys and a fully equipped kitchen so you can make a lunch or a cup of hot chocolate.
“When we arrived in the house, I wasn’t allowed to leave my baby with his mum. I didn’t realise how bad she was.”
No idea it was so bad
Worries about the mum meant he had to be with his baby all the time. After a month, the decision was taken that she was a too high risk to the baby, and he was given the option of carrying on alone. He had spent a lot of time around children, but this was far from how he imagined his marriage and journey into fatherhood would begin.
“I have lots of nieces and nephews, so I knew about children and babies. I hadn't changed nappies, but I had had a lot of baby poop on my hands when their nappies exploded,” he laughs lifting his hands in the air like he is reliving the moment.
In Ali's culture, roles are strongly defined and looking after the baby is a mother's role, so this is something that he never expected. He imagined being a dad, playing with the child, and guiding them when they were older.
“I never thought I would be my baby’s primary carer, meeting his basic needs. I learnt it quickly, though. It felt quite natural to me. It means I have a strong bond with my baby because I am the one feeding and changing the nappies. He is a very chatty baby."
A difficult choice
Choosing his baby over his wife was not easy at first.
"In our community, it is really frowned upon to leave your wife, but I knew I wanted to be in my son’s life. My family have supported me, but not my extended family. They think I should have chosen my wife.”
He talks confidently like he is taking all this in his stride; he tells us he had a degree and had career aspirations, but that is all put on hold now. His son is his focus.
The local authority is trying to find him somewhere to live. He was due to leave our centre the following day, but it has been postponed.
I ask him how he has changed in the time he has been with us. He leans back in his chair, smiling and tells me he has learnt to be more patient. “I wasn’t so patient before. I have also learnt to put my son first. As a father, it feels like I am doing good; it’s a different feeling to being a materialist and working 9-5.”
Once he leaves our residential centre, he will be on another journey; being a single parent is not easy for mums or dads.
“I am a hopeful person. I just want to get back to the community and watch my son grow. I want to do things like ride a bike with him and play football.”