One reason why I wanted to hold this debate is that I feel it is hard for male colleagues to raise the subject. As a mother, I know that if my other half had come to me and said, “I am feeling a bit down,” I would have said, “But you didn’t give birth to the child!” For many years, we have forgotten that it is very much about a partnership. There are many issues that mothers still face—there are still huge issues around discrimination in maternity and everything else—but that must not mean that we forget the issues that fathers face, and that is why this is an important debate.
I completely understand why male colleagues might not have felt comfortable in raising this issue, because they may well feel that they would be accused of forgetting all the other issues around maternity discrimination. I feel very honoured to be raising it on behalf of all the dads out there. Perhaps I can talk about it with more ease.
The constituent of Chris Elmore is doing a brilliant job in raising the issue of men’s mental health, post-baby. It is important that we do that. If that equates to having more training, that is what must happen, although I am always loth to say that our hard-working health professionals need any more training than they already get. They have a very important job to do, and by and large they are all doing it brilliantly.
One aspect of parenthood that can impact on wellbeing is loneliness. When Jo Cox stood in the Chamber and spoke of her own challenges with loneliness, including the example of becoming a mother, she widened discussion on the subject. I, too, had my own brushes with maternity-leave loneliness. While the rest of the world here was discussing the referendum campaigns, I was on maternity leave. I dealt with that by going to the supermarket every day, just for a chat.
For new fathers, it can be harder. When my other half took his three months shared parenting leave, he felt isolated from baby groups, as many were either branded “mother and baby” or were predominantly made up of mums, making him feel less inclined to go in. There are excellent apps connecting mums, such as Mush, which we profiled in the loneliness strategy, as did the CSJ in its report, but there are hardly any dad apps set up to connect full-time fathers. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, with his digital background, may be interested in upscaling that from a health perspective.
The loneliness strategy, which I was privileged to publish on behalf of the Government in October 2018, specifically, on my request, used an infographic of a dad pushing a baby to highlight becoming a parent as a trigger for loneliness while at the same time reflecting that it is not a gender issue. The more we all acknowledge loneliness as an issue, the quicker we will reduce the stigma and instead create connections that help to combat it. I was pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care was a core partner in the delivery of the strategy.
The CSJ noted that children's centres are a key part of delivering opportunities for dads to connect, and that many were not doing so, despite its being a legal requirement. I know that children’s centres are a politically contentious issue because of funding and I would hate the debate to be bogged down by that, but the centres in my constituency, some of which have restructured, could play an enormously important role in creating support networks for dads. It is a shame that because of funding pressures, gaps in services are occurring.