Go to any town or city across the UK and you’ll quickly find a mother and child group, but for dads with babies, toddlers and young children, there aren’t always similar opportunities.
Dan Flanagan who lives in Worthing, West Sussex, is hoping to change that with a new father and child social group called Dad La Soul. The volunteer-run group aims to eradicate social isolation experienced by dads and give them a fun, welcoming environment where they can spend time with their kids.
“Being a dad can be quite a lonely life, but men don’t like to talk about that,” Dan, 44, tells HuffPost UK. “But once you get over those initial barriers and have conversations, these common themes keep coming up, such as ‘I had to miss the parents evening or sports day because I couldn’t get home from work’ or ‘I only get to see my son at bedtime and I don’t know what to do’. When you open up those conversations, you start to realise there’s a different side to blokes - we don’t just want to talk about beer and the World Cup.”
Dan, who is dad to six-year-old Natty, left his corporate job three years ago after becoming frustrated by the long commute, which meant he would barely arrive home before his son’s bedtime.
The death of his own father made him revaluate his life and he set up his own businesses - dad magazine Don’t Believe The Hype and child-friendly “rave nights” TotRockinBeats - in order to spend more time with his family.
“When I became more of a stay-at-home dad I had access to mother and toddler groups, but there were very few dads there and we were not made made to feel very welcome,” he says. “There are questions you have to contend with like ‘why haven’t you got a proper job?’ and ‘are you here just to have an affair?’”
The only other option open to Dan was visiting soft-play centres, where he says he was “surrounded by people sitting on their phones” so, out of sheer frustration, Dad La Soul was born.
The group meet monthly on a Saturday and the dads take it in turns to lead the session and teach the group a new skill. So far they’ve had classes on beatboxing, robot-making and film production, and all dads are welcome, whether they are stay-at-home dads, have busy working weeks, only get to see their children at weekends or stepdads looking to forge deeper bonds with their stepchildren.
The first four sessions have been held at different locations in the local area, but from this week the group will have a new home at Guildcare, a day-care centre supporting local older people Monday-Friday, which is usually closed at the weekend. Men who attend the centre on weekdays have been invited to join Dad La Soul as “wannabe Grandads”, and Dan has also invited members of Men in Sheds, an organisation for retired men.
“There’s some lovely old folks who can’t come out because they don’t have families. And we have families, but we can’t go out because we don’t have babysitters. So I thought we could solve the problem in one afternoon,” Dan jokes.
Sessions are kept to a tight, not-for-profit budget in order to keep them accessible, with entry costing £5 for adults and kids, and £3 for OAPs, while babies are allowed to attend for free.
Male friendship is at the heart of the concept, because Dan believes as men get older, they often become trapped in very small social circles. Although Dad La Soul will only meet monthly to start, Dan says members have already begun making friends, with some meeting up for a drink or organising play dates of their own.
The sheer existence of the group is reassuring for members like dad-of-two Tyler Slade, 37, from Worthing.
“I’m in a good place right now, but I do have a part of me worried that unless I ensure I keep socialising with my mates - apart from catch-ups at weddings and Christenings, which inevitably will be more few and far between as I get older - I’ll start to feel isolated myself,” he says.
“I want to make sure that I can hang out with my kids without being a burden and see my mates regularly and not just at the next wake!”
Dan has big plans for the group and hopes to expand to towns and cities across the UK and beyond in the next few years. Eventually, he’d like to work with social services so children without male role models, particularly those in care, can come to the sessions and find a mentor in one of the dads.
“What I’m looking to do is build a ‘Dad’s Army’ of these clubs,” he says. “As we grow, we’ll have a national, if not international, network of dads and that could have a hell of an impact.”
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