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All Points North #64: Foreign dads seek community during parental leave

Many migrant fathers on paternity leave in Finland face isolation but lack the resources to create peer networks.

Audio: Yle

It helps to do some research and have a plan for activities to enjoy with your toddler when you're on paternity leave, says James Cramer, a stay-at-home dad from the United Kingdom. Cramer told APN that when he began paternity leave in Finland, he hoped to meet other parents casually at the playground, strike up conversations and make friends along the way.

"I wished I had prepared better. I wish I had spent some time selling the idea of parental leave to other dads so we could have gone through this journey together," he added.

Even as the current government is trying to even the parental leave playing field by offering both parents five months of parental leave and an additional five months to be divided as they deem fit, stay-at-home dads say the the experience can be lonely, with little face-to-face human interaction.

"I quite naively thought by going there [to the playground] everyday, I would meet the regulars and that there would be a lot more social opportunities. But it soon became apparent to me that it's just going to be my son and me," Cramer told APN this week. "I just wasn't seeing people and people were not available. It was tough to come to terms with."

During the early weeks of paternal leave, it was also difficult to break free of the tyranny of work-related emails, action plans and to-do lists, Cramer said. Getting into a head space where child-rearing and not work was the priority took some time, he added.

Affirming identity through language

Fabrizio Turci, a peer support group facilitator with the family-oriented NGO Familia, said that fathers he talks to often grapple with reconciling the father figures they have known with the fathers they want to be.

"A lot of fathers want to be more involved in their child's lives, much more than their fathers or father figures were. But they don't have enough tools because of the conditioning about traditional gender roles. They want to show a different side of masculinity but they don't know how to do it," said Turci, who runs a fathers’ group that connects foreign fathers.

Fathers, especially immigrant dads with Finnish partners, often don't have the support they need to share their native language with their children, simply because it may not be a language that both parents speak at home. In some cases, they give up the attempt to impart their language altogether, Turci noted.

He added that others even see their language and name as an impediment to their child's ability to fit into Finnish society and they may give them up as a result.

"Bilingualism is not just about the language, but about the connection to their culture and identity. The father's language is sometimes the only one that children can speak to their grandparents. It is very important that the child shouldn't feel something is wrong with having two cultures, but know that it empowers them as humans," Turci said.

Claiming new spaces

In spite of the push to get more fathers to stay at home with their kids, Cramer noted that men may sometimes feel uncertain about entering spaces that have traditionally been dominated by women, such as playgrounds and even public child care facilities where carers can change a diaper.

Those rooms can feel like female spaces, Cramer observes. "Even walking into those rooms felt quite intimidating because you get looks, as the women feel the room is designated for breastfeeding. A lot of spaces feel off-limits. In the playgrounds, mothers would often huddle and it feels odd to approach them."

Turci noted that the more men venture into these common spaces, the less they will feel like intruders. "The more fathers that are out there, the more playgrounds are going to have fathers around. A lot of dads just stay at home thinking no one else is out there. It's just a matter of reaching out."

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The All Points North podcast is a weekly look at what's going on in Finland. Subscribe via iTunes (and leave a review!), listen on Spotify and Yle Areena or find it on your favourite podcatching app or via our RSS feed.

This week's show was presented by Denise Wall and Ronan Browne. Our producer was Priya Ramachandran D’souza and the audio engineer was Anders Johansson.

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