IN my constituency, many fathers are in single-parent families or play a significant role in childcare responsibilities. It is important to recognise the invaluable role that fathers play in bringing up their children.
That is not always an easy job. I have two children under five myself, two boys. Parenthood can be a huge challenge, but becoming a father is my proudest achievement – even more so than being elected to Parliament – and something that has changed my life entirely.
In my experience, parenting support groups are aimed largely at mothers and in the early days, weeks and even years, some fathers struggle to find support.
MPs have talked about the statistics and fathers feeling like a spare part during pre and post-natal discussions and services. That mirrors my experience. My first son was born in the middle of the night, and I was out of the hospital within 45 minutes of that happening.
I came back the next morning at 8am to be told that I would not be allowed in until visiting time at 10.30am. Fortunately, in the end, I managed to find my way in, but that is one example of the challenges.
Another example I remember is to do with breastfeeding. My first son was bottle-fed; I was involved in that, getting to feed him and connecting with him in that way. My second son was breast-fed, and I felt thoroughly left out of that bonding process – in a way jealous of that connection between my wife and son that I was not able to engage in.
There are many examples of difficult and stressful circumstances that bring about emotions that are not necessarily helpful or healthy in that environment.
Young fathers need support. I represent the community of Mansfield, so I will highlight the particular challenges of working-class fathers, and those on low incomes especially who face the additional challenges of accessing housing or affording parental leave, for example.
Mental health issues are not based on wealth or background, so we can all be susceptible to such difficulties. While it is widely acknowledged that working-class boys, for example, are likely to have lower educational attainment and fewer life chances, it is not acknowledged that their extra difficulties and challenges might extend to parenthood as well.
The added burden of a low income, trying to afford not only the cost of living but the additional costs of parenthood, is an extra stress that often falls on fathers in particular.
We all know the shocking statistics on young men’s mental health, especially suicide, and the early weeks and months of having a first child in particular can be among the most stressful times in the life of a family and of a father, and difficult to cope with for our own mental health and wellbeing.
Since becoming an MP, I have looked at the area of early intervention for families and children. It seems obvious that if families do not receive that early assistance when they first need it, instead being left to deal with the issues alone, that will come out in later life, as has been discussed.
The early years challenges show themselves later on, through school, when children with mental health and behavioural problems might often come at greater cost to public services than if they had received the early intervention.
I strongly believe that a preventive approach is the right one. In such services, we tend to deal with crises and, increasingly, those services are built around crisis management rather than proactive and preventive support. Putting an emphasis on parenthood and establishing relationships between fathers and support services has to be a priority. Trust is hugely important.
I remember the experience of a social services visit after the birth of my elder son. They sent me out of the room to get a glass of water and asked my wife if I was abusing her. That is something that they do in all circumstances – it is the right thing to do, to check that the family environment is safe for mother and baby – but I felt pretty put out. Fortunately, my wife joked about it with me afterwards.
For a young man from a difficult background, however, someone who had problems at school or has been involved with social services historically, I imagine that that could add to the feeling of being labelled and held up as a bad person, a bad character, by the services that are meant to support parents. That can add to the challenges and the stress, and is another thing that might need to be discussed more openly in terms of the challenges that might face young, low-income working-class fathers in particular.
It is why I have a particular ask of Ministers. Effective use of funding, catching problems early and having early preventive service are vital if we are to support children, families and, in particular, fathers.
Ben Bradley is the Conservative MP for Mansfield. He spoke in a Parliamentary debate on early parenthood – this is an edited version.