For those in various states of sleep-deprivation, bewilderment, infatuation and physical pain, the first-time parents’ group can be a lifeline.
It offers practical information, along with the solace that while you might have little idea as to what this baby-rearing gig is all about, you’re far from alone.
But not everyone feels welcome at parents’ groups.
Though they were rebranded 20 years ago to be more inclusive, many people still know them simply — and exclusively — as ‘mothers’ groups’.
Health researcher Norma Barrett conducted a study into the groups, and says they need to catch up with a societal shift.
“It’s time to start looking at dads as equal parents and not as babysitters,” Ms Barrett says.
“The reality is that 80,000 Australian families have stay-at-home dads and 18 per cent of lone parents in Australia are dads.
“We have more mothers than ever in the workforce and we no longer see dads just as breadwinners.
“We’ve moved beyond this idea of mums’ group. It is parents’ group and we should try our very best to look at it and call it such.”
‘I thought it was a space for mums’
Ms Barrett interviewed first-time parents to help Victoria’s Warrnambool City Council learn why its parent groups didn’t have full participation by mothers — and virtually no participation by fathers.
She says she learned that the needs of participants have changed — the groups are no longer primarily about providing information to new parents.
“It appears from my small study that [parents] really just wanted to meet peers, share their experiences with people who are going through similar things, and get those social connections,” Ms Barrett says.
But the study also revealed those social connections aren’t extending to new fathers.
Jeremy Piert, who wasn’t part of Ms Barrett’s study, didn’t feel welcome at his local first-time parents’ group.
“I thought it was a space for mums to talk about being pregnant as well as childbirth, without me being around or interfering in that process,” he says.
He feels as though he’s “missed out on opportunities for building friendships” and being able to share stories “with someone who’s in the same boat”.
Ms Barrett says it’s evidence of a problem that needs correcting.
She’s recommended Warrnambool City Council make more explicit in their promotional material that fathers and same-sex parents are welcome.
‘Mixed feelings’ on fathers’ presence
While Ms Barrett sees an all-inclusive parenting group as important, she acknowledges that to get it right requires balancing competing needs.
“I got some mixed feedback from the mothers I interviewed as to whether they thought [having fathers present] was a good idea or not,” she says.
“A lot of them felt like similar support for fathers would be quite helpful.
“However, there was mixed feelings on whether or not fathers should be present, for example, when mothers were sharing birth stories.”
But she says the need for birth and pregnancy related conversations doesn’t preclude the idea of a mixed parenting group.
“It’s important to keep in mind that that’s a very small part of parents group and it might be something that’s discussed in the first session,” Ms Barrett says.
“There could be scope for mothers to have a separate meeting just to talk through their experiences of birth and then subsequent meetings for both parents to be involved.”
An alternative model could involve parallel parenting groups running.
“The other thing that we could explore is whether segregated groups would actually better address parents’ needs,” Ms Barrett says.
“Maybe fathers’ needs aren’t going to be catered for in first-time parents’ groups and that might be OK.”
‘A great deal of stigma’
When his partner returned to work, Mr Piert resigned from his job to care full-time for their 10-month-old child.
He says the decision garnered some interesting responses.
“I was looked at as someone who had their child for the day and was a babysitting dad,” he says.
Some of the topics of new parent’s groups:
“There was also the issue of being a ‘Mr Mum’. I’ve been told that I should basically wear an apron and get stockings.
“And there’s still those stigmas from the ’80s that it’s not a real job and you’re taking away the role of the woman — or you are a woman.”
He says that stigma “might be part of the reason that dads don’t go to parents’ group” and that education is key to shifting it.
“There’s no longer a mum and dad role, especially in this day and age. It’s … just a parent role, and primary caregiver, in a family unit and that changes all the time, and will after this,” he says.
“That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It just needs education on that fact.”
Ms Barrett is unsurprised by the negative responses Mr Piert received as primary carer.
“It’s very disappointing to hear and absolutely my research reflected this notion of men being considered female or displaced when they go to things like parents’ group,” she says.
She says she found there was “a great deal of stigma” reported by mothers in first-time parents’ groups surrounding fatherhood, and fathers attending parents’ group.
“I interviewed one particular mother who said that her partner had attended and was keen to participate but felt quite uncomfortable when he got to the group because he was the only dad present and he felt like he needed another dad there for support,” she says.
“One [other] mother that I spoke to said, ‘my husband wouldn’t attend this, he’s a bloke’s bloke, he would never even consider doing that, he wouldn’t feel comfortable there at all’.
“I found that overall first-time parents’ groups strongly reinforce our traditional social gender norms of parenting, so anyone who didn’t fit that cookie cutter mould might be put off, such as fathers, or mothers who tend to use non-traditional approaches, such as mothers who are into gentle parenting or baby-wearing.”
Mr Piert believes it’s time these gender norms got a re-think.
“If men or anyone think that women are naturally good at [parenting] — they aren’t. That’s a cultural stereotype that might’ve been learned. It’s absolutely not true,” he says.
“No-one knows what they’re doing and it’s a big, big learning curve.
“I’m an older dad, I’m 40 now, so I don’t feel like an idiot for not knowing things; where I feel like a lot of younger dads might feel a bit stupid and a bit embarrassed if they don’t have the answers.
“The ones who go to the group realise no-one has the answers.”