As a single mum with several friends who are single dads (with one of whom I write a monthly article for Wikivorce) I went along last night to the Westminster Debate for Fathers.

The purpose of the debate – organised by Natasha Philips of Researching Reform – wasn’t clear at the outset so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – although it became apparent that the focus was on raising awareness of the need for immediate, emotional and “network” support for single dads rather than any form of legislative reform of the family courts and/or government policy.

The two hour session started with Bob Greig of OnlyDads talking with searing honesty about the painful process a single dad goes through from the initial silent scream of the initial breakup/loss and the subsequent crushing isolation. Then the whirlwind of trying to hold down a job, run a home, provide 24/7 care for the kids, find relevant sources of help and battle social stigma. His stories of how some single dads self-medicate with alcohol etc were worrying and examples of how some are “spat out” of the whirlwind with a devastating mental and emotional crisis were sad to hear. His final stage – being stuck between a rock and a hard place – is one with which most single parents will be familiar.

Billy McGranaghan of DadsHouse was a little more upbeat as he talked through some of the services his charity provided – cooking classes, football matches to bring single and married dads together, walk-in counselling services, life coaching, the all important “chat with a cup of tea” and the more ambitious day centres and accommodation for single fathers with kids.

Rob Williams of The Fatherhood Institute mentioned the lack of information and research on single dads (although he provided scary data on the impact of poverty on the cognitive development of young children) and explored eloquently the differences between lone parenting and single fatherhood as he described how difficult it was for single dads to adjust from society’s ingrained bread winner expectation to primary carer. He touched on the built-in assumptions in society with reference to the one year maternity vs two weeks paternity leave and employers’ surprise at being asked about flexible working for men as opposed to women. He also reminded us how often things are labelled “Mother and toddler” which can deter fathers.

Lord Listowel – a champion of children’s rights – underlined the lack of data on this “invisible” group by showing that the figures for single dads varied from 133,000 to 218,000. He talked through some further numbers to highlight the differences between single mums and single dads – the age of the father and the children (generally older), the increased likelihood that there is no other living parent (single dads 12% versus single mums 3%) and the higher income as a result of single dads being more likely to be employed. The increased chance of mental illness amongst single dads was mentioned too.

John Hemming MP was strident in his condemnation of the authorities using significant resources to pursue and persecute lone parents rather than helping them and applauded initiatives such as the Home Start and Sure Start. He appeared an advocate of mutual support systems rather than State systems.

Following the panel’s introductions there were various comments and questions from the room. Happily a “single dads” research project is about to commence to consider four issues:

a) Employment rates and employer attitudes
b) Formal and informal child care arrangements
c) Financial and housing issues
d) Mental health issues

A researcher for Gingerbread asked what single dads wanted that is different to what is provided for single mums and single parents generally. The panel were swift to respond with ideas around clear signposting for practical and emotional support specifically for single dads and a buddy system offering a call, a pint and a man-to-man chat.

Another group were seeking examples of single dads having trouble obtaining maintenance from wealthier mums. Others (I think it was Families Need Fathers) were concerned about services for dads who suffered domestic abuse. There were comments about how fathers with infrequent contact with their children coped and nudges towards help on attachment available from fostering and adoption groups.

After a bit of a break, the debate turned to solutions rather than exploring the problems and issues. Bob said that easy access to information was paramount and showed how he is achieving this at OnlyDads. He also thanked the many high quality professional advisers in law, finance and counselling who provide their services free and anonymously. Billy asked for evaluations for financing projects – especially at local authorities – to be speedier and pleaded for better connection with grass roots single dads by the various agencies.

Rob offered three suggestions:

1) Fatherhood needs to become normal (e.g. maternity/paternity leave and flexible working to accommodate)
2) Services should help dads to network and not be directed only at mothers (he mentioned a good example where school letters addressed to mums and dads rather than parents generated more involvement from fathers)
3) More gents toilets at support centres.

There was some discussion about the sometimes negative impact on single dads of the action taken by Fathers4Justice and some insightful comments about the difference between family procedure and family law. A lawyer mentioned that the Family Courts did try to act in the best interests of the children – rather than the parents. There were also some comments about the role of positive psychology in helping those with teenage children going through difficult times.

Others called for more media focus on fathers and some imminent opportunities were mentioned. A final comment related to the need for high profile “positive role models” of single dads – in the media and Government – only Michael Jackson and Prince Charles had been identified to date.

My reflections

1. It’s different for boys I have observed that single dads really do things differently to single mums. The priorities and approach is different. The perceptions are different. The kids react differently. Society responds differently. As a marketer, I would suggest that the various “helping” agencies should properly connect with this special group in order to really see things from their perspective rather than try to impose solutions that meet the needs of similar but different groups.

2. How many “Single Dads?” It seems that the definition of single dads revolves around full time care for children. Yet there must be millions of fathers who are part time single dads (perhaps with contact for just two weekends a month and holidays) who must experience some of the issues. If they were added into the equation they may have a bigger voice. However, a full time single dad said he has little in common with a part time single dad – the issues are different.

3. Niches. The message – loud and clear – was that groups, no matter whether we think that their needs are similar to other groups – want on-line content that is focused on them. Therefore, if you have services for single dads then your web and social networking material needs to clearly signpost “Single Dads”. Not “Single Parents”.

4. Family law. Poverty and accommodation for single parents is a big issue. As long as the Courts focus on the financial assets – usually the matrimonial home – then the kids will lose out. Wouldn’t it be better that the family home is where the children remain with the parents moving in and out as they share parenting across the week – with a small apartment for them to use when not with the kids? Much more affordable than trying to have two homes with the requisite number of bedrooms for the kids to move between. And less disruptive for the kids. But I guess too many parents would find that an imposition.

5. Be clear about what’s wanted. Maybe I spend too much time in the business world where aims and requirements are always spelt out clearly. But I think that the debate highlighted that single dads need to draw up a list of what they want and need to help them – then the apparently willing and enthusiastic politicians and support agencies can adapt their resources accordingly. Over to you guys…