Expectant fathers learn a lot about pregnancy, birth and childcare, but usually only in relation to their partner. The charity Working With Men offers dads the chance to learn practical skills and mental health advice that focuses on how they can be the best father possible
It’s a Saturday morning at University Hospital Lewisham and a group of men are unwrapping the nappies worn by dolls of babies. Inside them is a concoction unlike any you’ve seen before, designed to match the early poos. Unless, of course, you have changed a baby’s undergarments previously.
“What poo colours are bad?” asks one soon-to-be father. “How do we know?”
The course conveners smile.
“Poo is how you get to know your baby,” says one with so much affection it almost makes excrement seem adorable.
For all these men, this is their preparation for their first children. I’m stood at the sides of an antenatal class for expectant dads, and that’s just as unusual as it sounds.
Antenatal classes are, traditionally, the preserve of women. Or, if men are a part of them, it’s to learn how to help their wives. This class, organised by the charity Working With Men, is to focus on what men need to know about being a good father, a healthy father and a present father.
The expectations on fathers has changed a lot: long gone are the days of sitting in a waiting room smoking cigars while your wife is surrounded by medical staff. But the education for men, who now want – and are expected – to be more present during birth, has not developed a huge amount. “NHS hospitals do run antenatal classes, but very few and far between, and not very encouraging to men on that journey,” explained Working With Men’s CEO, Christopher Muwanguzi. “Working with the Expectant Fathers Programme we wanted to fill that gap.” The session I attended does cost £50 – though there are subsidised places for fathers who can’t pay for the session – but they’re hoping to build a business model that allows that to change. “Where we’ll earn the money is working with big, big employers doing sessions for banks and tech companies,” explained Muwanguzi. “You can imagine a new dad going back to work. We want to help them through that period.”
In the room are ten expectant dads, Muwanguzi, workshop facilitator Paul McDaniel and a Lewisham Hospital midwife called Tracy Foley. Each of the dads has a pseudo-child, with the exception of Richard: as he is expecting twins, he is rocking one in each arm. Some dads have propped them between knee and elbow, others are subconsciously already holding them as if they were flesh and blood. I don’t think I see Richard drop his from the crooks of his arms once.
On the board they’ve all given their names, expected dates of birth, if they know the gender (weirdly nearly everyone is expecting a girl) and what the main thing they came for was: at least a third of the group have said practical skills are top of the list. Some dads already know each other from their National Childbirth Trust (NCT) course, an antenatal programme for couples that runs over six weeks. For many, it’s their first time meeting each other. But as Paul, Tracy and Christopher make clear, it’s groups like this that help provide essential community bonds when you’re a parent.
“It can be quite isolating with a baby, so make contact with people at the children’s centre,” Tracy recommends. Christopher suggests taking kids to “sing and sign” classes, which allow you to teach very young children a sign language for communicating their needs long before they’re verbal.
“When my son was born, my wife and I built a fantastic relationship with another couple, and now their child is my godson,” said Paul. “The friend network you build up through situations like this can be very powerful.”
After some icebreaker exercises, the dads are taken through some basic practical skills, including how to “top and tail” the baby when changing. This is where they face the relatively strong facsimile for a newborn’s poo.
“In the diapers we’ve put coffee and marmite and all sorts of things to create the texture,” Christopher told me. “Unfortunately, we cannot get the smell.”
For several of the dads, the first session was one of the most surprising for them and not just because of the yeasty turd they had to wipe up. “I’m now seeing things like bathing as opportunities for bonding, not as chores associated with a little being that needs help,” said Ashley Perry, whose first child is coming in January. Many of the other dads I spoke to agreed. This was, of course, Working With Men’s intention the whole time: “Fathers are able to understand a lot more than about cleaning their baby and having an understanding with their children,” explained Christopher. “The bond and attachment when you’re cleaning your baby, and your baby releases amazing hormones. And you do too.”
Tracy makes it very clear that tackling the poo should be Dad’s role and that, after the thick black paste of the first, you can expect green – “the consistency of marmite” due to the presence of meconium – and then yellow from the milk fats.
The second is focused on prioritising what type of father you want to be. The dads are asked to talk about the things they’re supposed to be as fathers, or the things they want to be. Loving and kind? Or strict and firm? “Those things are key for men, who are defined as disciplinarians,” explained Christopher. “It’s very difficult to discipline a baby.”
After lunch is another card game. The dads split into teams of two, given a “cheque” for £250 and a set of cards showing items they may want to buy as part of their baby budget: cots, prams, bottles, nappies. Some things are obvious, and others surprising: the amount of things you can wangle pre-owned, the amount of bottles parents may require (up to 12 for someone with twins, 6-8 for an individual child) and the amount of diapers you may be required to purchase on the regular. Everybody takes out a pen and notes down the fact you’re best trying to find a pram that includes a car seat and, most importantly, can fit in the boot of your car. A discussion of babygrows and cot bumpers – yay to the former, nay to the latter – turns into a debate about the virtues of co-sleeping.
The final session in the seminar room was perhaps the most unusual session for prospective dads: a talk about mental health and wellbeing for their partners and for them. Christopher started it off by talking about the three biggest changes when a kid is born: sex, sleep and sacrifice. Tracy also discussed the likelihood of mums having postnatal depression and, more importantly, “Mums cry for no reason. That’s not prenatal depression: she’s just tired and emotional.”
Finally, the group heads down the corridor from the seminar room to the birthing unit. A group of nurses call out to us as we walk, like we’re the astronauts in Armageddon. “Here come the greatest dads on earth!” says one.
If the rest of the day had all been about the terrifying, but still deeply theoretical, state of fatherhood, then the final stage of the day was about something a little bit more imminent. Tracy leads us into the birthing room, a quiet, purple room that smells a bit like chlorine and looks a bit like a Premier Inn. There’s a bed, a cot, a large, sleek wooden cabin, a computer at a desk and, rather incongruously, a vast tub shaped like a club in a deck of playing cards. This, Tracy explains, is the birthing pool.
If you ever want to hear about how your wife is going to give birth, you probably want to hear it from Tracy: soft-spoken but incredibly knowledgable, even a breached baby sounded like nothing when she explained how they’d handle it. “Midwives can be stigmatised sometimes by men because they think they’re only focused on women,” explained Muwanguzi. “And most do focus on the mother. But having a midwife dedicated to talking to these guys… She wasn’t assuming, she spoke very well and very clearly, was very professional. Tracy was fantastic.”
There is nothing that Tracy can’t tell you. Does your wife want to be massaged? “If your wife isn’t tactile, she’s not going to become like that in labour.” Hypnobirthing? “Put the positive affirmations on your birth plan.” What food to pack for the room? Honey from the spoon is great. Birth plans? Both of you should wear it printed on a big plain white T-shirt. How to make milk, how to feed, the scourge of prep machines (“They get quite mildewed,” explains Tracy) and even a section in praise of the placenta (“It’s a fantastic organ. It tells us a lot of things.”)
But perhaps the part that sticks out most was Tracy asking if anybody had a supporter who’d be coming along to the birth. “One thing you may not have thought about is what about you? It’s emotional having a baby. You’re supporting your partner, but who’s there supporting you? Have you thought about having someone on call for you if you want to go out to eat or get something to drink or get some fresh air?”
This is the real key to the Expectant Fathers Programme: a reminder that a father is not going to face the same problems as a mother, but there are still problems and crises and things to prepare.
“A lot of what the media portrays is the very negative process of the birth: the anxiety, the things that impact the process,” explained Ashley Perry. “This is about actually taking control of that. You don’t run a marathon if you haven’t trained.”