When Elliott Rae started his dads’ group Music Football Fatherhood back in 2016, it was just him and a couple of men from work. He didn’t face any negativity exactly, people just didn’t really understand what he was doing, or why he was doing it.
But the last 12 months has seen a massive rise in interest in fatherhood and dads’ groups, he says, as fathers in the UK spend more time with their children and look to other dads to help them navigate a path through the twists and turns of parenting.
“Lockdown has seen more men take on more childcare than ever before and they are interested in finding support and discussing what it means to be a dad in 2021,” he says.
While in the early days, about 10 fathers would attend a session, 600 turned up for an MFF event in February called “helping your children through the pandemic”. “The shift has been massive,” says Rae, a former civil servant who now focuses on MFF full-time.
The statistics suggest the last year could be transformational for fathers. In May 2020, the Office for National Statistics found that the first Covid lockdown had led to a 58% increase in childcare undertaken by men, and while women still did more childcare, the gender care gap narrowed. In 2015, the ONS found that men were spending 39% of the time that women spent on childcare, compared with 64% during lockdown.
Lockdown Fathers, a report from the Fatherhood Institute, found 78% of dads spent more time with their children, 59% did more housework and 65% reported a better relationship with their child or children father-child relationship after the spring 2020 lockdown.
“Fathers are much more involved, are much more positive about being fathers and have the time and technology to connect with other parents and dads particularly,” says Adrienne Burgess, its joint chief executive.
“The government and employers have an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The conversation is shifting, says Elliott, who alongside 19 other dads recently published Dad: Untold Stories of Fatherhood, Love, Mental Health and Masculinity. “People are now seeing the value of supporting working dads – not just because of dads’ wellbeing but because of what that does for gender equality,” he says.
At the same time, both companies and employees are looking for advice on how to reshape the workplace. Last week, the retailer John Lewis announcedit would offer equal parental leave to both mums and dads. A recent survey for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found 48% of managers feared an employee exodus if remote working was stopped, while research out this week from the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the Nudge Unit) have found that letting male employees know male peers are supportive of parental leave and flexible working massively increases their intention to take it.
Dan Flanagan, who founded Dad La Soul, a father and child social group in Sussex, five years ago, has seen membership increase by about 40% in the last year. “Five years ago there were millions of mother and baby groups, but absolutely nothing for dads,” he says.
Given the chance to spend more time with their kids has given dads confidence, they have “seen the other side of parenting”, he says. “I think there’s been a seismic shift. It’s weird but I think out of something quite terrible. Something really quite good is going to happen.” While the group moved online during the pandemic, they are raring to get back to having fun in real life – with Nerf wars and bushcraft on the beach planned for the summer.
Leeds Dads has also seen a rise in online interest, but a wariness of real life meet-ups since the last lockdown, says its founder, Errol Murray. The group is organising a series of forest schools for dads and their kids in the summer holidays, so fathers can learn and play with their childern outside.
“We’re just providing an environment that allows dads to be supported,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it a brotherhood maybe, but it is a community of people with so much in common.”