Dad Matters blog – 

Breaking the Ice

It’s Friday at 12.25, I rush the final mouthfuls of yoghurt into my daughter’s mouth, which I munch on some peanut butter on toast. If I set off in five minutes, I will make it just in time.Inevitably, getting ready to go takes much longer than I expected and, after a break-neck march through the drizzly park, I arrive at the entrance ramp. I am a couple of minutes late. My first opportunity to establish a basis for adult social chat has vanished. The class begins with reassuring familiarity, at least for the parents who have already been attending the sessions. For me, the words and actions, props, and music are something I am learning on the job, but this is fine. 

I scan the room and another father is here with his partner. It is unexpectedly heartening to see another man trying to navigate this world, which is unsurprisingly occupied by mothers on parental leave (blame our appalling statutory policies for paternity and shared parental leave). The ‘go to’ question is asked, ‘So, how old is your little one?’, and I enthusiastically comment on any discernible detail that can extend the conversation. I complement a jumper and make flippant, self-deprecating comments, anything to appear affable. It works… for a while. Then, I return to the sanctuary of focused interaction with my daughter, but the ice is broken!

The short-lived respite of a factual response to my ‘go to’ question always paves way for the dilemma, where does this conversation go from here? I have been reflecting on my experiences in recent weeks at a 6-to-18-month baby class with my 8-month-old daughter. I hope what I have learned might be helpful to other dads stepping into this world.

I am very fortunate to be able to take shared parental leaveand attending a baby class was something I wanted to experience, for me and my daughter. I have written and spoken elsewhere about my experiences of parenthood with my son, and feel fairly confident in my ‘caring competencies’.However, I have come to realise that baby classes are a totally different skill and experience to add to my parental CV. The main emotions I have felt when attending these classes are awkwardness, immersion, friendliness (from the leader and other parents), and loneliness. 

My main learning points concern the final point of loneliness, which is a very important emotion to consider if we are to encourage more fathers to take parental leave. For a dad,becoming the lead carer will typically mean taking over from mum. For social interactions, we will start from scratch when we attend classes, but may enter a room where other parents (mostly mums) have already attended previous weeks, and know one another. This can feel like a social barrier. In my first week, I was intent on not seeming like an incompetent parent when I brought my daughter along, or a social pariah, but this is a difficult balancing act. Setting aside the necessary task of learning the songs and associated movements, I have identified five lessons to help with the social side of baby classes that I hope may be useful for others:

Five Lessons for Baby Class Socialising

1. Arriving early is a very good idea. It means you get to the class in a calm state of mind, can chose a seat, and potentially start a conversation (I usually fail at this step).

2. Be strategic about where you sit! This is difficult in week one, but rule one will. Pre-existing friendships will exist and it is probably best to sit next to parents who are not already firm friends.

3. Remember you are attending this class for your child andyou! The class I am attending enables parents to either chat or focus entirely on their child and the action of the session. There is nothing wrong with letting your child be a bit free while you get to know someone. 

4. Parents love complements about their children. I have found that positive comments about their outfits (which is also complementing the parent’s taste) and the child’s personality always go down well. 

5. Remember to continue chatting as you get ready to go, this is a golden time. Don’t be afraid to seek someone out afterwards, even if you feel like a school child trying to make a friend. You are role modelling human interaction for your child and you may just make a friend, too.

Finally, I have found that the baby class I attend, though a very positive experience, operates on the basis that parents will get to know each other of their own volition. I call on baby class organisers to continue with a small ‘ice breaker’ opportunity for parents in these classes. I appreciate many parents have already been through this sometimes-uncomfortable sharing experience, but others may be new and therefore can benefit from sharing even a small part of who they are to find connections. 

Breaking the ice does not have to be a shattering experience and it can make baby classes a positive time for you and your child.