Dads of children who have disabilities rarely shout about being carers. After all, we are dads, and with fatherhood there comes the responsibility to care for a little person who arrives with a bundle of needs. The expectation is that if you get through the first year or two you will be rewarded with being able to reacquaint yourself with sleep and settle back into the expected family life.
I spent nine months expecting “normal” fatherhood, and the reality of having a child whose needs never lessen from the day they are born came without warning, without time to adjust and without a “being the dad of a child with disabilities – an introductory course” book.
So the starting point of that adjustment comes with isolation and keeping busy, two factors that have a huge impact on mental health and physical health. What dads like us do not generally do is show we need support. Machismo goes a long way in reinforcing the barriers; as a guy growing up you are instilled with not showing that you’re not coping, not showing that you need help. This is fine if you are coping, but caring for a child with disabilities requires resilience and strength that will be chipped at and tested day by day over months and years.
Most carer support networks, online or in person, are at best not designed to target dads and at worst can seem geared solely to mums. Coupled with the fact that most dads who care are looking after children whose professional care is delivered by a mainly female workforce in nursing, early years education and allied health professions it creates a bubble around dads. I spent three years in the bubble, caring for my son, caring for my family but not for myself; I’d have felt guilty highlighting my own needs when everyone was focusing on the far more prevalent and important needs that my son had at that time.
The recognition of dads who care by services as a distinct group who have distinct support preferences and needs is the first hurdle but not an insoluble one. Many of the issues we face are highlighted in the recent report Dads Care Too. Dads find it hard to find the support, so making the support visible would make a huge difference. This would go a long way to helping dads who care realise that they are not “just dad”, and that support can help them cope with the constant responsibility and effort that they provide to their children. ?