Sign up for our newsletter and keep up-to-date with parenting policy, good practice, research and events
Involved fathers ensure that children, women and families as a whole benefit. A consensus is emerging that we need to move from having to prove the value of fathers to designing services which include rather than marginalise them.
However, the image projected by family services is a problem. Visual images, assumptions in how fathers are written about, the look and feel of a waiting room or reception area - all of these may give the message that a service is really just for women and mothers (compounding the burden on women and not allowing men the opportunity to get more involved in the lives of their children and families).
Leaflets, posters, websites and other publicity materials can convey powerful messages about what constitutes a family and who a service is designed for. For instance, page 6 of the Early Years Framework has a lovely picture of a mother and her children.
A Pathway of Care for Vulnerable Families from the Scottish Government describes the booklet as for 'pre and post birth for both mother, child, family' (sic). In it, there are 29 references to 'mother'. To 'father'?: 'Phrase not found'.
2015's Eat Better Feel Better campaign led off with 'we are all getting behind the mums of Scotland to support them to make sure they can buy and cook healthier food for their families'. The campaign's images of men show them enjoying food whereas women are shown cooking for their families - none of the nine Cookalong Videos feature men cooking.
Images of fatherless families suggest two things. Firstly, that children and housework are women's business and secondly, that men, by being invisible are dispensable in families. Social services are particularly notable for publicity featuring children's services for women with fostering, see for example the woman and two children on the front cover of Fife's fostering booklet or the woman and child illustrating Shetland's childminder resources.
Such careless use of stock images goes beyond official sources. Child Safety Week in 2015 carried a poster entitled ' Tea-time Terrors?' featuring a harassed woman in the kitchen with her three children.
The words and phrases used in these leaflets, booklets, online materials and so on also communicate a subtle message. In the most studiously neutral examples aimed at mothers and fathers, in an effort not to identify only mothers with childcare, the words 'parent' or 'parents' are used as in 'parent and toddler group'. However, very few people think of 'mother' or 'father' because of the default understanding that parent equals mother.
Elsewhere mothers are often 'mums' and fathers are often, well, fathers, or 'the father' as for example:
'Public health and education worked together with Claire's mum and the children to support understanding of the father's illness and help mum to prepare the children for changed circumstances' (Getting It Right For Every Child in Lanarkshire, Practice Examples)
Supposing that none of these messages were received by the types of fathers who, it may be thought, need encouragement to involve themselves with services and they come looking for help. How might they be greeted before they talk to anyone or when they walk through the door of the clinic, GP waiting area, family centre or social work office? Look around and look around again. These are not places where men and fathers are expected to be. Posters and leaflets on the walls and tables are mostly intended for women: Weightwatchers, Moon Walk or hotlines and warnings to women about rape (Rape Crisis). When men feature, it is generally negatively as in domestic abuse or Zero Tolerance posters.
If a man/father decides to wait and is oblivious to the posters on the walls and the leaflets on the tables, what can he read? These areas are generally stocked with Bella, Take a Break or Cosmopolitan.
In most examples, the absence of fathers or their negative depiction is unthinking rather than deliberate. It follows that change (and with it encouraging greater father involvement in families) is neither costly nor resource-heavy. Children, women, families, communities and fathers stand to benefit. Father-proofing is not only about the importance of depicting men as involved or capable of being involved in the lives of their children and families, it is also a way to welcome men into family welfare, child care and public health services.
It is about stopping depicting women as sole carers with the sole responsibility for the health, welfare and safety of children and families. Win, win.
Other articles about fathers: