Sins of the absent father

*Contact numbers for dads in need of support

DARREN Mattock is not a guy who overstates things, but he clearly believes the lion's share of social ills plaguing us today can be traced back to absent fathers.

And he isn't alone.

A steady trickle of research over the past 20 years provides profoundly disturbing evidence establishing clear links between absent fathering and children who freefall into spirals of crime, prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism and jail.

TRUE CALLING: The Fatherhood Project manager Darren Mattock hangs out with son Charlie, 4.
TRUE CALLING: The Fatherhood Project manager Darren Mattock hangs out with son Charlie, 4.

Based in Lismore, the general manager of the Fatherhood Project on the North Coast says a new study on absent fathers, to be launched at Southern Cross University (see adjacent story), is long overdue.

"What's powerful about this sort of research is hearing the real stories and being able to connect more dots around people's experiences and where the links to dad are in that picture," he said.

"I imagine it will be quite telling … all the research is telling me that there are really deep links to a lot, if not most, of our health and social problems that track back to dad at some point, and it's important we understand more about the man's experience in this."

We need to normalise men getting together to talk about fatherhood

But it's not all doom and gloom on the domestic front.

Darren says the inverse is also true of engaged, active fathering, and he has devoted his private and profession life to re-establishing the links to healthy fathering for men.

Darren is himself the product of a troubled childhood that included suicide attempts and a violent father. Darren hit the wall as his own relationship broke down when his now four-year-old son Charlie was just six months old.

"That was the beginning of the journey for me," he said.

"I knew it was sink or swim time, so I went to the Men and Family Centre to do a workshop and it was a total lights-on moment for me. By about the third week I could see what was happening in that space with other men, and I was in. I realised this was the work I wanted to do."

Nearly five years on, Darren senses a shift, a momentum even, as he continues to develop and deliver services to disconnected and disenfranchised dads.

Two weeks ago he launched a Facebook page called Becoming Dad which already has almost 3000 "likes".

Another innovative project he established last October, called Beer and Bubs, gets new dads together at the pub, which draws men seeking a deeper fathering experience into his Building Better Dads program.

"We need to normalise men getting together to talk about fatherhood. We're running Beer and Bubs in Byron at the moment but bringing it to Lismore soon," he said.

"(Fatherhood) is about being there and having a sense of purpose. What I've discovered in this work is that when a man feels he has a sense of purpose and he's connected to the experience of becoming a dad, he's more likely to get involved, more likely to be there, more likely to be emotionally, psychologically and physically present.

"When he doesn't, that's when the 'naturalisation', if you like, doesn't happen. He can still largely be the unhealthy teenage boy, start to act out, become selfish, be disconnected and removed, and that's when people separate, and why people separate. A lot of new mums feel like they've got two kids."

Darren says dads who tap into the sense of responsibility that comes with being a father usually "step up and grow up".

Whether the absent- father phenomenon is the byproduct of the much-bandied-about "masculinity crisis" as many suggest, the fact remains there are too many alienated and disenfranchised fathers out there who often fall into spirals of anti-social behaviours that exacerbate their situations.

A quick browse of the internet shows many so-called support sites for fathers either trade on derogatory notions of masculinity and fatherhood for a cheap laugh, or border on the militant, with some groups facing accusations of kidnapping and other hostile action.

I see men becoming dads as a huge opportunity because it's a transformational moment in a man's life

Darren said there was a strong need to "restore the rights of passage to fatherhood".

"These processes have become so diluted that they are almost non-existent. Most men's experience of preparing to be a dad is being dragged along to antenatal classes - and that's it."

He said fatherhood was a core part of recreating a healthy sense of masculinity.

"I see men becoming dads as a huge opportunity because it's a transformational moment in a man's life.

"I see that window as a real opportunity. Becoming a dad is a huge motivation to self-reflect and think about the man you want to be.

"We haven't taken big enough steps to heal these issues and the vision for my work is to create a pool of healthy male role models who serve as fatherhood mentors to do this work with other men so there's more role-modelling of what it means to be a good, healthy man and a connected father, and then share this stuff with other guys so they've got that to draw on."

Local support for dads

  • Uncle Byron Bay: 02 6680 8582 - Provides male mentors for boys without active fathers.
  • Pathways to Manhood: 1300 850 766 - Assists boys making the shift to manhood.
  • Interrelate: 6623 2750 - Provides services that strengthen and support family relationships.
  • Men and Family Centre: 6622 6116 - Offers counselling and courses to men and their families.

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