Being a man, being a father

BAAF trainer and social worker, Pete Wrighton runs training days and a support group for male carers, and is himself a single father of two birth children. He talks to Suzanne Harding about the role of men in adoption and permanent fostering.

“A child’s rights and needs are a good starting point in considering the importance of male adoptive and foster carers,” says Pete. “Experiencing positive relationships with both male and female adults provides children with the opportunity to eventually develop their own adult identity and life choices from a broader perspective. Although agencies do recognise what men have to offer, awareness of gender roles and their impact on children should be receiving much more attention.”

Image of white dad and daughter

Pete feels it is vital to think about children’s psychological and social needs in relation to gender. “From a very early age, children begin to develop their own unique internal picture about what men and women, mums and dads are like, and how they behave. These defining images are mainly shaped by family experience. They will heavily influence a child’s emotions and behaviour patterns when joining a new family. This means that the family may be drawn into re-enacting previous behaviours, such as punitive fathering.”

Most children needing a new family will have experienced poor quality relationships with adult males, often involving absent or abusive fathers, or unpredictable fathers giving out confusing signals. Male carers therefore need to appreciate and make sense of the child’s own picture of fathering, containing as it may elements of mistrust, suspicion and fear, which are not necessarily apparent on the surface.

If part of a couple, it may be useful to discuss how to understand and manage this, and to talk about respective roles and how to achieve mutual support. “We know there are a few support groups for male carers, and more are being set up, but there is virtually no research on this to date,” says Pete. “We need to hear more about the experiences of male carers in order to better understand their role and how it can be supported.”

During the training days he facilitates, Pete asks participants to think about how they see themselves, both as men and as fathers. One exercise he often uses involves the men choosing some adjectives about their own fathers and reflecting on the similarities and differences to themselves.

Male carers need to appreciate the child’s own picture of fathering

“It can help them see what being a man and a father means to them, and what they think is expected of them,” says Pete. “I ask them to think about what a child might need from them, and to generally try to understand how a child moving to a new family might view fathers. “This can lead to very useful discussions, where participants learn from each other about different approaches to specific issues and problems that arise in adoptive and foster families.”

Pete’s support group for male carers is held bi-monthly and it has proved to be a positive experience for those concerned. The group currently has about eight members and is open to male carers from all backgrounds though, at present, members seem to be mainly the male partner in heterosexual adoptive families.

“The men who attend the courses and groups tend to discuss all aspects of adoption and fostering, rather than ‘men’s issues’, but find it helpful to do so from a male perspective, with others who share similar experiences – it’s not about being 'anti-female',” Pete explains. “It’s male carers being very honest about wanting to be a good adoptive or foster parent.”

Chairing a fostering panel has given Pete insights into the expectations of men and their roles from the applicants themselves. “They vary,” he says. “Some couples describe the female partner as the primary carer and the male as ‘back-up’, and others see their roles as equal. However, in a small but growing number of cases, the male is seen as the primary carer.”

If the man is not wholeheartedly committed to being an adoptive or foster father, things could work out very badly indeed

There are also more and more single males and male same-sex couples adopting or fostering, and so facing issues and dilemmas of their own as male carers. “They may sometimes be unsure about applying to adopt or foster, uncertain they would be welcomed by the agencies, while the agencies themselves may appear to be at least initially equally uncertain about such applications,” comments Pete. “However, although there is no substantive research on male-only parenting in adoption and fostering, anecdotally it appears that these men are providing very effective care and stable placements for children.”

Pete understands that many men can feel like a ‘fish out of water’ during the preparation and approval process, and feels that agencies need to ensure they are encouraging male applicants to talk about their role. “Without wanting to stereotype people, you often find that women are more able to talk about their feelings and relationships in general. Men in childcare situations, perhaps being in the minority, may clam up or even talk too much, nervously, out of a need to be in control!” he says.

"Agencies should be making sure that men are fully included in the preparation process and that they feel as comfortable as possible.” If a male partner in a couple is feeling sidelined, Pete suggests that he discuss the issue with his partner, with the couple raising it together in a preparation group or with their social worker. He appreciates that prospective carers could feel vulnerable when it comes to bringing up a problem and be afraid of rocking the boat, but strongly advises that such issues need to be dealt with sooner rather than later, to avoid any difficulties building up in the future.

“Social workers should be aware of any issues arising for prospective carers, including their motivation to adopt or foster. For example, sometimes the female partner is the one who most wants a child, and is to be the 'primary carer'. “It is very important to consider respective roles, and clarify expectations before a child is placed. Occasionally a male applicant may be less motivated, or undecided about the application, so sensitive discussion is needed to establish whether or not it is wise to pursue the application at this point.”

Agencies should be making sure that men are fully included in the preparation process

Pete believes that agencies should review their family placement policies to ensure the male carer role is recognised and promoted in an appropriate way. More attention should be drawn to gender roles and the impact they can have, not only on children, but also on a couple’s relationship.

“And although not a legal requirement, it would be great if agencies could provide male carer support groups and training events”, he says.

If such a group is not available, Pete recommends that carers ask their agency if one could be created, or even look to forming their own group by making direct approaches to other male carers.

Getting support and looking after themselves before, during and after adoption or fostering is important for all carers, and Pete particularly urges male carers to seek and accept support whenever they need it.

“I have found that some male carers are reluctant to attend training and get support,” he says.

“This may partly reflect a tendency for men to expect themselves to solve problems, as a mark of competence, but it is important and useful to see getting help as a sign of strength, not weakness.”

He feels that agencies could play a part in this too, and as an example, when he writes to male carers inviting them to attend training sessions, Pete acknowledges in his letter that men do not always want to tackle emotional issues directly, and that training can help them deal with this.

“By getting support,” Pete concludes, “men are gaining positive messages and coping strategies that they can take back to their family, and which will help them develop as an individual, a partner and a parent.”

For more information about support groups for male carers, contact your local authority adoption and fostering services, or email pete.wrighton@baaf.org.uk

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Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in May 2005.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 27 April 10

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