Scotland’s first dads-only playgroup, in one of our most deprived areas, is out to challenge the notion that men are inadequate as parents or inappropriate as child carers. Andrew Mackenzie takes his boy along to see if it’s any fun
Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise
Playing in the street, gonna be a big man some day
You got mud on your face
You big disgrace
Kicking your can all over the place
This is what they play us out to, us 17 or so dads and our early-years offspring who have pitched up in Sighthill on a Saturday morning for an hour and a half at what is Scotland’s only playgroup specifically for dads and their kids.
“I’m a big Queen fan,” says David Marshall, co-founder of Dads Rock, and a man, for all I know, of otherwise impeccable taste. “In fact, I wanted to call it Dads Will Rock You, but we thought maybe that was a bit much. Maybe a bit too literal, you know, specific.”
His playgroup co-founder, Thomas Lynch, nods indulgently. Maybe not such a big fan of “The Queen”. But they’ve just belted out Brian and Freddie’s ubiquitous rock anthem on acoustic guitar and we’ve all joined in, following the words on the laminated songsheets provided, stomping our feet, clapping our hands and dribbling on our shoes. Dads in their 20s, 30s and 40s, kids from nought to four (the youngest is a baby of five weeks, who first came along to Dads Rock at the age of nine days when the group held its first session last month, here in one of the most socially disadvantaged districts of the capital).
On the ride over from Leith, a zone of not dissimilar reputation, my early-years assistant, Max (aged two-and-two-thirds), is eager to know what we can expect of our morning’s expedition. “Will there be jigsaws and games?” he asks. Jigsaws are presently his favourite activity, but I’m not expecting them to be a big feature of the Dads Rock experience and so, as we traverse the toon and skim doon the dual carriageway section of Wester Hailes Road, deep into the heart of social housing central, I tell him I’m not sure about the jigsaws but there’ll definitely be games.
And there are plenty of them in the impressive Gate 55 community hub on Sighthill Road, most of them bought with money granted to the group by the Big Lottery fund, which enabled Dads Rock’s establishment. Alongside a plentiful array of the educational bits and recreational bobs with which we furnish childhood, there’s a room dedicated to arts and crafts – a competition for the best Mother’s Day card is running on the day we are there – and a music room containing multiple objects to pluck, blow and bash. And there’s a really nice atmosphere. But why are we here?
“Well, there was nothing like this in Edinburgh, or anywhere else in Scotland as far as we were aware. And when it comes to dads looking after their kids and working in childcare generally, there are still problems of alienation and stigma – the idea that dads shouldn’t really be doing this,” says Marshall, a 33-year-old home delivery driver for the Co-op and father of Freya (two-and-a-half), from nearby Parkhead.
His Dads Rock compadre, Lynch, a 38-year-old HR manager with Bank of Scotland and a professional counsellor, father of Lewis (three-and-a-half), and himself from Sighthill, notes: “It’s also about what kind of society do we want. We want good male role models, and we need to change the perception that dads aren’t any good. We have low expectations of dads, but their contribution should be just as important as the mums’. And we need to recognise and encourage that.”
Incompetent dads are a comic staple of popular perception – their terror of nappies, their hapless fumblings, their emotional inadequacy. And we collude in it, many of us dads, because it lets us off the hook. Research suggests British women do twice as much childcare as men, and nearly half of all mothers feel that their partners don’t do their fair share. You know the types – poor and horrified, rich and appalled, middle-class and mixed up – many dads are happy to let the assumption of their incompetence slide, as it increases the chances of their getting away with doing less. In fact, in fairness, most of us are probably at it some of the time. Child-rearing’s not easy. Blokes, eh?
But the flip side of the funny is, of course, darker. Distressing tales of predation and domestic abuse, flagged up luridly in the media, fuel the low-level background hum of suspicion about all men around children. Male workers are as rare as hen’s teeth in the pre-school institutions, which is a shame because the kids couldn’t really give a monkey’s about gender politics, and they respond well to the Y chromosome in the early-years environment. Which is why it is such a shame that here in Scotland it is telling that of the 200 students currently enrolled on Strathclyde University’s BA course in Childhood Practice, only two of them are men.
Collectively, on this Saturday morning, the Gate 55 gathering of mixed nationalities of uniform colour (namely pasty, it’s been a long winter) does not exactly look beset with social problems. None of us were helicoptering off to a glamorous sports fixture that afternoon, right enough, but nor did it look like any of us would be prevented from getting along to the game by other means if we’d really wanted to by a cocktail of chronic addictions and entrenched dysfunctions. And while it’s nice for folks with ways and means to have another option of a Saturday morning, how do you reach other people in need of this kind of enterprise?
“We’ve flyer-ed the high-rise tenements, one of which is for asylum seekers,” says Marshall. “We went into Wester Hailes shopping centre with a stall, talked to loads of parents. We’ve also reached out to Stonewall [the lesbian, gay and bisexual charitable group] because there are a lot of dads, gay couples, adopting kids as well. It’s not as though we’re trying to, you know, ‘work our magic’ - ‘Everyone must come together...’; it’s about dads... about breaking down the barriers for an hour and a half on a Saturday.”
He adds: “It would be nice to see some dads from Wester Hailes, some dads whose lives are defined by – what’s the politically correct term? – poverty. Because they’ve got so much to give as well. We’ve spoken to so many agencies, social work departments, and we’ve done as much as we can, really, to get them through the door short of literally going round the house and taking them out. So it’s a gradual process to try and get the local dads and kids along.”
“ ‘Build it and they will come.’ Isn’t that it?” interjects local dad Steve Leslie, 49, a warehouse stock controller for an audio-visual goods company, and father of Jason (three and a bit). “It’s like that. As word gets out, people will come along. I’m amazed at the number of nationalities that are here already.”
Thomas Lynch tells a story: “Last week we had a conference, organised by Children in Scotland and Fathers Network Scotland [Lynch is vice-chair of the latter], and someone told the story of a local young man who’d applied for a childcare course. His friends and family really didn’t understand why he’d want to work in that field, and there was an accusation of him being a paedophile. Suffice to say this scared him and he withdrew from the course.
“It’s terrible that that fear is out there. There’s a lot of suspicion – and men are scared too. It’s all about chipping away at these assumptions. We know there are bad consequences in society if dads are absent.”
Buddy you’re a young man, hard man
Shouting in the street, gonna take on the world some day
You got blood on your face
You big disgrace
Waving your banner all over the place
Gavin Paterson is over from North Ayrshire for the morning to see what’s going on. A student of education and social services in Glasgow, he’s considering setting up a similar group as part of a practical assignment for his course, but he’s worried that it won’t wash with the west-coast dad massive. “You know, with the macho thing,” he says. And Lynch, who is at this moment showing himself to be a dab hand at the sink, replies: “I think the problem’s not the macho thing so much as shyness.”
Coconuts are flying all over this shy. They’re on Facebook and Twitter. Lynch is talking on the Kaye Adams show on Radio Scotland. Marshall is talking about a national network (north Edinburgh, Musselburgh, Prestonpans, for now, Lochaber... Brighton]. Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP for the local Edinburgh Pentlands constituency, drops in to Gate 55 to ask about the endeavour and offer his support. “I wish there had been something like this going when my kids, who are in their 20s now, were young,” he says, promising to tweet about his visit afterwards. At the beginning of the week he takes another step, lodging a motion at Holyrood applauding the work of the group.
Queen fan Marshall feels they’re building on rock. “That’s part of the Dads Rock idea,” he says, “Probably one of the most important factors is that many dads don’t know that they are the rock of the family – half the time they aren’t given the opportunity, or they don’t take the opportunity, to be that rock.”
Buddy you’re an old man, poor man
Pleading with your eyes, gonna make
You some peace some day
You got mud on your face
Somebody better put you back into your place
“Speaking to my dad in the late part of his life, he was saying that even at that stage, he was still muddling his way through it,” says Jason’s dad, who is glad Jason’s mum had seen the local flyers for Dads Rock at Gate 55, just across the road from her house. “You never get a total handle on it. Everything’s always changing. Even as a pensioner he was still trying to be a great dad. One thing he did say which really stayed with me: ‘You will amaze yourself at what you can do by being a parent. You will be absolutely astounded. Things that you would never think you would do, you will do.’ ”
Jason’s elder half-brother, Taylor, born in Las Vegas and now aged eight, keeps the younger kids occupied with a game of hide’n’seek while the grown-ups set about the scene shifting and the stowage. Everyone’s had a good time. The dads, the tots, the absent mums (best Mother’s Day card went to the child of Stefan, the dad wearing the green rugby jersey with Cymru stitched in red on its back). And there’s not been one outbreak of howling or wailing – in fact there’s been nary a whimper at Gate 55. That’s not what generally happens in the mixed gender groups of adults with kids that I’m familiar with. It’s rare to come across a group of this age mix over this time span as peaceful, cheerful and generally unstressed as this one is. Normally something kicks off, in fact something always kicks off. But not this morning.
Maybe this is how it goes in the mums-only playgroups – maybe it’s all uproar-free. But you know what, I doubt it.
We will we will rock you
We will we will rock you.
• Dads Rock meets at Gate 55, Sighthill Road, Edinburgh, on Saturdays from 10 to 11.30am