‘When I became a father for the first time, I felt like a spectator’

parent antenatal course

by Stephanie Spencer |
Updated on

After experiencing multiple ‘traditional’ antenatal courses, MANtenatal founder Gordon recognised the need for a better and more modern approach. MANtenatal is a digital platform designed to help dads and birth partners prepare for fatherhood, so they can support mum pre, during and after birth, ultimately being the best dad they can be. We spoke to Gordon to find out more about MANtenatal and how dads (and mums) can benefit from joining their growing global community...

What was your own experience of first-time fatherhood?

I have four children, two were vaginal births, and two were C-sections. So I've seen all possible exits! In addition to that, my sister is also a midwife. But the first time when I became a father, I genuinely felt like a rabbit in the headlights, watching my partner going through something I genuinely wasn't prepared for. I felt under massive amounts of pressure to know birth preferences, interventions, pain relief, but it was all very much in the heat of the moment. I remember being asked all these different things, and I just didn't really have a clue. And that feeling of helplessness was awful. It’s a huge part of the catalyst of why I set up this business, because I don't want other guys to go through some of the experiences that I did first time around.

I’ve attended and completed two separate NCT courses, and it was incredible in terms of making friends, it really was. But in terms of content I made some key observations. 99% of a traditional antenatal course is focused on mum and baby, and it should be! But what I think that we're not touching on enough is taking the time to truly prepare new dads. I remember one evening at the NCT course, the dads were actually told to go to the pub, we had the night off, and the reason… because they were now going to focus on ‘women topics’ – pelvic floor, breastfeeding, healing, prolapse etc. But reflecting on this, how can dads truly advocate, care for, empathise, ultimately look after their partner if they've not got a clue about what she's going through?

What made you see a gap in the market for MANtenatal?

Really it was during the second NCT course. The tutor announced to the group of new parents that I already had children and I kid you not, the amount of dads-to-be in that class that came forward with questions during the coffee break… and I thought hang on, there's a massive gap in the market here, we're not preparing the dads for their journey to parenthood. That’s when MANtenatal was born.

By preparing new dads-to-be, mum gets a partner who's able to step up, who's able to advocate, who knows in advance that it's going to be a tough journey, who's prepared for it and confident for what lies ahead. But he is also able to appreciate the magic moments that are going to come their way too. So it can only benefit by switching the narrative, talking about ‘family’ – not just mum and baby. And that's what we're doing, we're not competing against other antenatal courses, if anything, we’re actually complementing them.

With MANtenatal, we're making a concerted effort to create a generational shift. I mean, my own father never changed my nappy. It’s not something he is proud of, it simply was not expected of him. And when we’re talking to the guys – we call them squads – they say, ‘yeah my dad never did either’. As part of our coaching, we tell dads to step up and believe that you're not going to be the best dad you can be, until you’ve got baby sh*t under your nails! So together, we're making that generational shift, which is so powerful to see the impact that has once their baby arrives.

How has MANtenatal evolved since you began?

We started out in a school hall, but when Covid kicked in we had to go online to reach the dads and it's evolved from there – today we're now fully digital, all our courses are completely online, and we offer three different options to suit all personal circumstances.

You can either join our live group sessions for two evenings via zoom, with up to 10 to 15 people and we cover the A-Z of everything you need to know. This format is interactive, and dads get to meet other new dads and share their hopes, worries and questions.

We’ve also created a fully on demand option where you can download our course modules, and you are then in full control to pause, play, rewind, go back to anytime you want. It’s like our very own little Netflix series, and we have nine episodes lasting around 12 minutes each. This works well for guys who work shifts or are in different time zones. We've actually now got guys who are joining us from as far away as New Zealand, the USA, Canada, it blows my mind!

Then we've also got private one-to-ones, again completely digital. Some celebrities and sportsmen have picked this option, but we also get guys coming to us after baby loss who prefer to speak privately. It’s can be too sensitive for them to sit in that traditional setting where everyone's buzzing and excited. They want to talk to someone who can support them, talk to someone who's been there and experienced loss, which I have as well. During these 1:1’s the connections and conversations can be really powerful and filled with lots of raw emotion.

We’ve also now got an app on the iOS and Android stores, as well as an online Discord area where dads can chat and support one another 24/7. So we’ve got many different ways for dads to connect and get or share advice. Dads, helping dads!

What's the main reason dads sign up for MANtenatal?

I'd say it's twofold. A big one is to feel more confident and prepared for the journey to fatherhood. But there's also a second one, which is they've been told to join. We actually ask this exact question in the first session, and many of them do say my partner signed me up, or they get it as a gift from bump to prepare for their arrival. And what better gift can you give than knowledge, confidence, and being prepared for stepping up and being a dad. There's also a real desire for camaraderie and connecting with other guys going through the same journey as them. Not everyone has friends becoming dads at the exact same time, so we’re creating that support network, or squads as we like to call them.

Is it just for first-time dads?

I would say the majority of the people who join us are first-time dads, but it's absolutely not exclusive. We get guys who come to us after baby loss, we get guys who join us that already have three boys and they’ve found out they’re having a girl, we've had guys join who had a child 12+ years ago and want to join us to get a refresher and be better prepared this time around.

In addition, we have same sex couples join us too, where, again, the journey to fatherhood is not a one-size fits all, they could have a surrogate, they could be adopting, whatever it may be, as a dad you simply want to be the best that you can be and this is why it’s important to me that MANtenatal is fully inclusive.

What are the benefits of dad only sessions?

Nothing is taboo, which is key. It's different when dads can talk to other dads. We do actually ask, how many of you would put your hand up in a traditional setting, when your partner's sitting beside you, and ask the questions that you actually want to know the answers to? There will be topics you might feel you can’t raise with your partner or with other mums in the room.

We take the time to acknowledge and do everything we can to appreciate what mum is going through, but we also talk about things that aren’t normally mentioned. Like when baby is first born - if you are having a hospital birth, did you know that in an uncomplicated birth, a mum will stay in hospital one or two nights on average? On that first night, no one talks about dad driving home alone and in darkness. So from the highest high of becoming a father to this anti-climactic drive home in silence, to having to leave his wife/partner/birth mum and his brand new baby, and put the keys in the front door, to find the house exactly as it was when you left in that excited rush grabbing the hospital bag. Who prepares him for that from a mental perspective? That's just a sample of the stuff we talk about.

Actually we’ve got no issue with a mum being in the room, listening to what we say. My favourite moment is when I’m doing the course live and we tell them parenting is hard work. And we’re specifically talking to the dads by saying ‘you have to step up as fatherhood is not a spectator sport’. And when we do that mum’s hand sometimes comes into the screen with a little thumbs up, saying thank you, someone's finally told him!

What are the three most common concerns that new dads or dads to be have when they come to you?

Lack of sleep is definitely one. Okay, yeah, it's going to happen. But when guys open up to us and say that the reason that they've mentioned sleep is because they've got things like anger management issues, they're not the best version of themselves when they're sleep deprived. Some of them have medical conditions and they know that lack of sleep is going to trigger it and they're genuinely scared.

The other one I'd say is in terms of the financial cost of having a child, because everything's so expensive. And I think the other fear is not knowing how to deal with a situation, whether it’s in labour or after baby is born, how to support mum, how to advocate for her.

Mainly they're worried about making mistakes. And we talk to the guys and say that a large part of parenting is actually making mistakes. I've made many, many mistakes as a dad and I certainly do not get it right all the time. But part of the mindset is removing this pressure of thinking it's all got to be perfect. Perfection doesn't exist. Progress exists. Every day should be about making progress. Everybody's going to make mistakes, but it's about giving things a go and trying your best.

What advice would you give to a new dad who is struggling with his mental health?

The first thing I would do is ask all dads to take a closer look at the words ‘mental health’, the word ‘men’ is actually hidden inside the word MENtal... And men need to be confident enough to talk about it. Honestly as a parent there are tough moments coming your way, it's not going to be rainbows and butterflies all the time. We genuinely talk about this, and what we say to the guys is, you're never on your own. From this point onwards, you're part of our global squad that you can reach out to and ask for support or advice, we've got a whole section on mental health on Instagram and Discord. It’s ok not to be ok, don't bottle it up.

We also give the tools to recognise the signs of burnout, when you’re nearing your limit, or when mum is struggling too. And you should be sharing this stuff with your partner as well – working as a team will make the world of difference.

One of the dads who came on our course was brave enough to say, ‘I want to do an Instagram Live to share with other dads the mental health challenges I’ve faced’. So I set up a chat with this guy about what he's experienced, how he's coped with it, where he got support from. The fact that he took the time out to do that and show that vulnerability to the world was fantastic, that he wants someone else to be able to benefit from it and spread the word. It’s available now on our IG series called ‘MANtenetal MENtal Health’. If I could give one piece of advice it would be communicate with other people, share how you’re feeling.

They say ‘It takes a village’ – what is the importance of community in new parenthood?

I'd say that what we're doing is we're creating a global digital village – it's not about boundaries anymore. We’ve removed the geographical boundaries, and we say it's about creating that squad of guys that can talk about anything they’re facing. Because you'll probably find several of them are going through or have experienced the same thing. It's not just ‘I go on this course, job done’ – these relationships, these bonds we have are for as long as they need and if people are getting value from it, and then you pay it forward to help the next squad of new dads.

I think the ability to open up to other men who are in the exact same boat as you are a massive benefit for the squads. And then afterwards, they can create that community between them to help each other.

What's your favourite thing about being a dad?

My favourite thing is when I take a step back and realise how much my kids have evolved and grown. Just having little ones that you can re-live your own childhood through by getting on the floor and playing, watching classic 80’s movies, reading together or teaching them to ride their bikes is amazing. It's like tapping into my inner child all over again, I find that pretty magical.

You can find out much more about MANtenatal and meet Gordon face-to-face in the next few weeks as they will be hosting a live ‘Dad Panel’ at the Baby Show being held at Olympia London on 20-22 October.

Alternatively, check out their website www.MANtenatal.com and socials @MANtenatal.

Stephanie Anthony is the Deputy Digital Editor at Mother&Baby and auntie to four aged 7 to 2 months old. With a particular interest in health, she loves discovering products that make parent’s lives easier.

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