IT’S Saturday and the first day of summer and Maitland Park is a hive of activity, despite being just 9am.
A junior cricket game has commenced, the nearby pool has already attracted several families with towels in hand and the enclosed playground is already swarming with toddlers.
In the middle of the playground overlooking the slippery dip are a handful of blokes standing in a semi-circle. One eye on each other, the other fixed on their kids; to make sure they don’t tumble from the steps or push another child off a swing.
It’s a scene replicated in playgrounds across Australia. But today’s meeting is different. It’s organised. It’s the Hunter group of DILF Club. Dads I’d Like to Friend.
DILF Club is a rapidly growing grassroots organisation aimed at connecting fathers. It encourages dads to head down to the park or beach with their children, armed with a “hot frothie” or coffee and socialise with other men who are experiencing the similar joys and tribulations of parenthood.
Basically mothers’ group, but for dads.
In between talk of sleep deprivation, dirty nappy horror stories and The Wiggles, there’s more typical “blokey” chat about cars, motorbikes and whether David Klemmer can make the Knights a top-eight side.
Since launching at Terrigal on the Central Coast on September 4, DILF Club has attracted 1700 members and quickly multiplied with groups springing up in Tasmania, Illawarra, New England, Sydney, Queensland, WA and even New Zealand.
Father-of-three Jason Gray started the Hunter DILF group a month ago. The 41-year-old moved to Gillieston Heights from Caringbah a year ago with his wife and their two-year-old daughter Charlotte and found it difficult to connect with other men in the area who had a similar lifestyle.
“If you go to the pub it’s just a bunch of young guys drinking all the time and that’s not my scene anymore,” Gray says wearing the trademark black DILF Club t-shirt. “So I thought it would be a great way to connect with dads and meet new people in the area.”
The results are steady thus far. The weekly meetings at Maitland Park on Saturday and Speers Point Park on Sunday have attracted a handful of dads, but the group has 191 members on Facebook.
“It’s just part of getting out and meeting other dads and sharing experiences and realising we’ve actually all got the same experiences in terms of bringing up children,” Gray says. “We have the same problems and achievements and it’s good to share them.
“I think dads are really flourishing when they share those achievements, because it quantifies that dads have an important role these days.”
The role of fathers has been slowly increasing for several decades. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies the amount of parent couples with children under 18 years, where both partners work, has increased from 53 per cent in 1996 to 61 per cent in 2016.
During that same time the percentage of stay-at-home mums has decreased from 33 per cent to 27 per cent.
Naturally more dads are stepping up to take an active role in the upbringing of their babies and toddlers. The days of men merely being the bread-winner, while the mother almost exclusively raised the children, are less common.
From 2004-05 only 31 per cent of dads took paternal leave. That grew to 49 per cent in 2013-15.
Gray, who also has children aged 18 and 15 from a previous relationship, says he has noticed a distinct change from when he first became a father in his early 20s.
“The experience this time is a lot different and I’m trying to make it a lot different in terms of being more involved as a dad and taking on a more fatherly role,” he says. ”I think society is more accepting of dads now in terms of their roles.”
ONE dad who has taken a new-age approach to fatherhood is Carrington’s Beau Vincent.
Two months ago Vincent and his wife Suzie Pollack-Vincent made the decision to switch roles within their family. Pollack-Vincent would return to work front of house in their hatted Hunter Street restaurant, Subo, after three years as the primary carer for their sons Raphael, 3, and Leo, 1.
In turn, Vincent left behind the hectic lifestyle of being a head chef and moved into the world of baby sensory classes, toddler tantrums and playground adventures as a stay-at-home dad.
“I remember getting up at 6.30am and it was just constant all day and I didn’t know if I can do this. This is actually harder than being at work,” Vincent says.
“But then you get used to it and you get into bit of a routine and I love it now. I’m pretty privileged to be able to do it.
“I think there’s a lot of dads who would like to do it but they can’t make it possible in this day and age and they’ve got to go to work.”
Vincent says his family made the decision to swap roles after they found a quality chef in Mal Meiers to take over Subo. Vincent was also feeling isolated from his children due to the demands of the restaurant.
“It was a bit of a surface relationship where I’d come home and see them for an hour in the morning then I’d go to work,” he says. “I think a few dads experience it where the kids don’t want to be around you because you don’t really put the time into them, so they just go to their mum.
“That was a bit challenging. Ralphie or Leo would always go to Suzie, so you feel on the outer.
“Now doing this they’ve really come to me and done a 180 and gone to me for support and help. So there has been a connection and it feels pretty awesome.”
Vincent, who still goes into Subo once a week when his sons are at daycare, says becoming a stay-home dad has also strengthened his bond with his wife.
“I appreciate her a lot more for everything she used to do,” he says. “She helps me probably more than I used to help her. I regret that a little bit. Now I know how it is.”
Recent studies have shed further light on the importance of fathers in the early years of their children’s lives.
Associate professor Richard Fletcher leads the Fathers and Families Research Program at the University of Newcastle and was behind the development of the SMS4dads program for first-time fathers.
The program sends messages of advice and information to fathers’ mobile phones in line with their child’s development. It has been successfully trialed in NSW and received a recommendation from the state government.
SMS4dads was partly developed to tackle postnatal depression in men, which Fletcher estimates affects one in 10 new fathers. More than one in seven women suffer postnatal depression, according to Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia.
Fletcher says men can often suffer postnatal depression due to feeling isolated from the experience of having a baby and because health services generally focus on the mother.
“Isolation is an issue as dads do get anxiety and depression,” Dr Fletcher says. “We now know that. We also know that when that happens, that has an effect on the babies.
“We used to think it didn’t matter much what he did in that department. He just had to bring in the money, not drink too much and not be violent and everything would be right.
“We now know, and we did a large study in 2011 of about 5000 children’s data, that men who had symptoms of depression in the first year, their children had three times the rate of behaviour problems when they reached pre-school.”
DILF Club co-founder, Stuart Hay, says breaking the stigma that “being a dad isn’t cool” and establishing a support network for fathers was the group’s primary aim.
As a firefighter who works two 24-hour shifts per week, he is often the primary carer for his sons Fletcher, 5, and Julian, 3, and knows how isolating the role can be.
“We’re a group that’s inclusive of everyone and if dads are struggling a bit that’s where they need to be, around a bunch of dads, not pushing a stroller by themselves,” Hay says.
Dr Fletcher welcomes the rise of dads groups like DILF Club and believes the government should support them, much like they fund midwives or child and family health nurses to run programs for mothers.
While these programs don’t exclude fathers, Fletcher says they aren’t always the most comfortable environments for men.
“Twenty years ago you might have had a lot of trouble if you started it off,” Dr Fletcher says. “Blokes would have gone, ‘what’s going to happen at the group? What do I do?’ Now there’s more confidence with new dads.”