By Deborah Wolfe, World Vision Canada

My husband had been picked to demonstrate the diapering – and he couldn’t have been prouder.

Dave had been attending Dads 101 classes at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto, before the birth of our first child. He’d shown such eagerness to diaper, swaddle and lullaby the plastic doll that the instructor had asked him to come talk to the next group of fathers-to-be.

“I guess it helped me to talk about this stuff with other men,” said Dave, with a smile. “I feel way more prepared to be a dad.” A pregnancy journey which, so far, had been all about mother and baby, now welcomed my husband with open arms. And when our son was born, we were ready together.

You’re needed was the drift of the men care class. You’re important to this child. You have the capacity to be great at this.

A proud Dave with our new son, Derrick, a month after his Dads 101 class. Photo: JOHANNA MUGFORD

Bound by tradition

Men around the world need to know they can be great husbands and fathers – and not just by providing. Even here in Canada, men have struggled with this idea for generations. Tradition tells them how they’re supposed to behave, what they’re meant to prioritize, what they’re supposed to want.

For families in developing countries, tradition can wield even greater power. And it comes with major pressure for both genders. Surviving life in poverty can force men and women into separate spheres, as they divide up the seemingly endless responsibilities and try to handle them individually.

It can be very isolating, says World Vision Canada’s Maereg Tafere, whose frequently travels with the organization.

“Men are the ones expected to enter conflict when needed – fighting enemies and even animals. They do the physical labour, working the land. They’re expected to always provide for their families. On the other hand, women take care of the house and children.” Neither parent can fully understand what it’s like to be the other.

The grooming of boys and girls for their future roles started as early as age three, remembers Maereg, of his own childhood.

A man and boy work the fields in Ethiopia. Photo: CHRIS HUBER

“At three, boys might go with their dads to work, or to the fields. Dad would show his son what he was doing. Give him little jobs. Ask the boy to hand him a tool now and then.” And it’s not just about occupation, says Maereg.

“Dads also taught their boys how to stand up to others. If someone hits you, don’t take it. Maintain your territory.”

Critical partnerships

But maintaining territory doesn’t always work well when it comes to raising children. Men and women need one another’s understanding, otherwise each can feel alone in their separate spheres. Children need the love and care of both parents, so they can not only survive, but thrive.

In Myanmar, Zin was pregnant with her fourth child. One child had lived just a few days, another pregnancy had resulted in a miscarriage. So, this latest pregnancy was considered high-risk. Her baby would need to be born in a hospital in the city.

Zin and the new baby, born safely by Cesarean -section at the regional hospital. Photo: PAUL BETTINGS

Her husband Soe attended World Vision’s men’s classes before this child was born. He came to understand how critical he would be to his family during this time – and in the years afterward. This was insight her husband hadn’t had up until this point, said Zin, referring to their earlier struggles.

But this time, Soe was ready to be a great dad and husband.

“I had saved money to pay for the delivery at the hospital and prepared food in advance,” he says, remembering how he got ready for his second daughters’ birth.

“When Zin’s labour began, I took my wife to the hospital in my father’s boat. I waited there at the hospital all night then the doctor recommended surgery. I waited outside. Then, I heard my baby cry for the first time. I felt so good inside.”

Soe spoke comfortably to a World Vision Canada team about subjects like his wife’s milk coming in, the pain medication his wife received and what would be needed once they returned home.

“I feel very happy when holding our baby,” he said.

“We will name her once she’s home,” said Soe, with a smile. Photo: PAUL BETTINGS

Caring for both genders

In some countries, World Vision’s programs for men are called MenCare. In others, like Myanmar, they focus on gender care in general. Whatever the name, the benefits are the same. The groups welcome men into the fold – and the conversation. They teach men they’re essential in the lives of their wives and children, not just as protectors and breadwinners.

Men like Soe are proof that it’s been working well.

“Soe has changed so much this past year,” says gender group leader Daw Mu Mu Thein Shwe in Myanmar. “He didn’t have knowledge before about how to help. But now he’s cooking and spending time with his daughters, and his wife.”

There are now 60 village groups in Myanmar inviting both genders to the table for learning and discussion. They’ve been especially critical for men. Whether they’re discussing equality or learning to swaddle, the men grow with each session. And they hold one another accountable for change.

Like the group my husband Dave attended here in Toronto, these groups teach men that they’re more capable of being great husbands and parents to their little ones. As their children grow, they’ll learn that the paths males and females walk in life don’t have to be separate ones.

We’re all on this journey together.

A Mencare class in Myanmar, where dads are learning many things – including swaddling babies. Photo: PAUL BETTINGS