8 min read

Fatherhood in Rural Aotearoa: My Story of starting a Dad’s group

a man in a class setting group

I still remember the sense of relief I felt when I arrived at my first group session at Changeability in Masterton. I had just driven from my isolated little corner of the Wairarapa to ‘town’. It was a long drive wondering who else would be there and what the group was really about. I really had no idea what to expect, only that I had exhausted my own ability to heal and change by myself. But I knew that I needed support.

I was relieved to find that this group was a safe space to take off my mask, take stock of my struggles and just be with other men on my journey of healing and change.

So, I did the hard bit, seeking out the support to make the changes I needed. I started to feel the rewards of change, being open, and being real with others. I couldn’t help but wonder about the other guys I knew. Maybe they were struggling too? I wanted to start a dad’s support group, but the Wairarapa isn’t exactly the sort of place where men will come flocking to a dad’s coffee group in a café and chat to other guys they didn’t know. I knew it might be hard to get started, but I also knew how rewarding it would be if I did. I took the first steps to start the group by inviting a few other dads I knew with kids under 5, one was even about to start his own family.

‘Wai Dadz has been running for 4 and a bit years now. The best part was seeing other men step up with helping other men and organising events. I was happy to mentor a replacement leader once reliable funding was secured. We’ve seen men overcome challenging times within their marriage, become more present fathers, and feel safe to be open with the realities of life from finances to business and intimacy. Here’s how I did it:

Use your existing networks

I had got to know a few other dads at day care and school drop off in town, but we all worked at different places spread around the Wairarapa. With the aid of Facebook groups, the Wairarapa Dads group was born. It started with 5 guys I didn’t know that well, a bonfire in the paddock at my place, of course there was a BBQ as well. Plenty of off-street parking amongst the sheep sh*t. There was something about sharing stories around the bonfire seemed to click with the men. Stories of brothers lost and brothers helped. Being outside together away from distractions certainly helped, that’s a rural thing!

Meet face to face first and then follow up

We followed up with a few monthly coffee groups catchups with toddlers and attendance was patchy. I would often message out the invitation on the Facebook group, and individually send a message to guys who weren’t active on social media.

Hey bro! hope you’re having a good week, coffee group is back on this Saturday! Same discount deal at that café across from the park - hope you can join us!

I’ll admit it was hard to build a core group but eventually everyone just knew that it was on every month on the first Saturday at the same café in Carterton. It helped that the café was across the road from the local park and playground so we could bail when the kids started acting up and making too much noise inside the café, which inevitably happened!

Do stuff together.

We grew the group to about 20 guys, eventually one of the guys suggested a bush walk in a local nature reserve. Being in the bush especially with other guys has always been a place of healing for me. So, we started the bush walks as a monthly opportunity for the dad’s group to connect outdoors with their kids. Doing something together outside made conversations a lot easier. The invitation was simply just to explore a new bush walk each month together as a local dad’s group with our kids coming along. Monthly coffee group was a good catchup where we planned the next bush walk mission.

This proved quite popular as a monthly event on the second Saturday of the month. The group rapidly grew with now over 100 local dads being members of the Facebook group.

Start an easy conversation.

We learned that group bush walks allowed us to heal our relationships with our kids. We had toddlers and babies in front packs, and kids walking across a swing bridge for the first time with their dad. It was pretty epic! I remember the occasional little person melt-down, their shoe fell off, the tree branches were in the way, the river water was too cold… always a testing moment but this was different. We’re here bro. Yeah, I get this too. You’ve got this. This is a safe space to breathe and practice connection not perfection. Dad slips over into the mud sometimes too. The smiles, the squeals, the laughter and banter. It was a moment to be present and not focus on the things that many of us were struggling with. The chaos of COVID and lockdowns, lost jobs, separation from family, and at times, separation from our kids.

I remember one dad in particular being able to find peace of mind and courage to navigate co-parenting arrangements through a tough marriage break-up. He was able to share that during the bush walk and he wasn’t alone with that sense of distress. Through our recommendations he was able to find professional help through the men’s group at Changeability. With perseverance he eventually found a counsellor he clicked with.

Keep at it and ask others to help.

I realised that for me and other men, there was an essential need for peer support groups like the coffee group and bush walking group to compliment the professionally run change programmes for men. Those regular weekend catchups when you might have counselling appointments during the week and those big gaps in between appointments wondering if you’re the only one going through the journey of transformation. The truth is you are not the only one struggling with the changes you want to make. It takes courage to join a group or even start one, but every small town should have a group like this.

Some bits of advice if you’re keen to start a group like this:

1. Find out what’s already happening in the community/rōhe – ask around, checkout Facebook groups, chances are a group like this already exists in your local! 2.

2. Use your existing networks – guys at work, day-care/school drop-off, watching kids sport.

3. Start an easy conversation around those shared challenges with kids! Share a funny story about the crazy stuff kids do because laughter helps! Being real about the struggle helps to break the ice and remember you’re not the only one!

4. Meet face to face first and then follow up send a message and invitation to join the group. We grew the group fast once we reached about 20 guys, then mutual friends joined up as they heard about it. Expect only some guys will come every month and others will prefer just to share within the online group. Many guys will quietly just appreciate just being part of the group and knowing it is there when they need it.

5. Do stuff together. Conversations flow better over a shared walk or activity.

6. Keep at it and ask others to help. Leading a dad’s peer support group might be the most satisfying thing you do. It’s not because you’re perfect or got it all together, it’s because this will help a lot of men and will create the community of healthy men your kids will grow up in…

Every man that I’ve crossed paths with has his own unique story.

To hear a little more about mine, click here.

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