An interview with Elliott Rae, founder of "Music.Football.Fatherhood."
“It was 2015 and mental health wasn’t really a thing at that time”.
These are the first words that Elliott says to me, immediately showing why his contribution to the mental health conversation in the last few years has been so crucial.
It is not that mental health wasn’t a thing in 2015. It wasn’t a thing that men talked about.
Elliott Rae is the founder of Music.Football.Fatherhood (MFF), a successful blog platform where all aspects of fatherhood and masculinity, including mental health, are discussed openly by him and a number of guest writers.
Building on this community of writers, earlier this year he published the book, DAD, which he co-wrote and curated along with 20 other fathers: an inspiring collection of stories that represent the diversity of modern fatherhood, exploring everything from childbirth trauma to surrogacy, from bereavement to gender stereotypes, from being a gay father to changing work-life balance, and more.
Inspire the Mind Deputy Editor, Melissa Bujtor, read the book and was deeply moved by the raw honesty of the stories. She came to me with the idea of curating a series of blogs on fathers’ mental health, match-making the compelling and inspiring stories of four writers with the scientific and medical perspectives of four academics. (See the Editor’s note at the end of this blog for a snapshot of the programme). And she suggested I started the series with an interview of the man behind this adventure.
I started my interview by asking why he, a committed and busy civil servant in the Department of Transport, started MFF.
“It all came out of my personal story”, Elliott starts.
A tragic medical emergency during the birth of his first (and so far only) daughter, now a healthy and lively 6-year-old girl, but back then, in the hours and days immediately after the birth, suffering from group B streptococcus (GBS) bacteria infection, requiring immediate emergency care. To make things worse, his wife also lost a lot of blood during the delivery.
“We went from a normal delivery to an unreal mental zone where doctors and nurses were rushing around trying to save both my wife and my daughter”. He was watching it all as if he were not there, “like through a CCTV camera”.
His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was starting then.
After two weeks in the incubator in the hospital, the new family started their new life at home, but things “did not feel normal”.
Both he and his wife were very anxious that their daughter could be ill again. “We brought her to A&E eight times in three months, for things that were perfectly normal for a child, but we were terrified it could be the infection coming back”.
The first 3–4 months were “just very raw, just getting by”.
They would rarely go out. They would try to talk things through between the two of them, to elaborate what had happened, but struggled to really process it.
His short paternity leave had been used up at hospital with his daughter. So, he threw himself into work, and did not share with his co-workers what had happened.
How could he tell people how bad was he feeling, when they were congratulating him on being a new dad?
His wife was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety and received some counselling sessions, but he “did not even know” that he could be seeking help.
Unfortunately, at around 6 months after the birth, their daughter suffered from a severe allergic reaction to wheat. In a perhaps even more dramatic reliving of the first medical emergency, in 2–3 minutes she became very red and swollen. The ambulance came and brought her into A&E as a major emergency.
This experience triggered the starting of the classic symptoms of PTSD: “flashbacks of the events of both medical emergencies, down to the smell of the antibiotics and the beeping sound of the intensive care unit, reliving the emotions as if they were real and I was there; nightmares, insomnia, crying, feeling overwhelmed and very anxious”.
Again, at work, he did not share what was happening. In fact, he would avoid conversing with colleagues, as he felt unable to concentrate, was always very panicky and physically sick.
And again, he did not seek help.
“I did not know it was possible for me to receive help. I did not know what PTSD was. And I got really good at hiding my emotions. It was easy to blame it all on being a tired new dad”.
“In 2017 I started writing the MFF blog, because there was nothing online for fathers. Mums had Mumsnet but we did not have anything”.
He started with just a few paragraphs and pictures, as a space that was just for him, where he could write and express his thoughts and emotions.
And he immediately started attracting the attention of other fathers who wanted not only to read about fatherhood but also to share their stories and their experience. By the end of the year, he had written a piece on The Independent and been interviewed by the BBC.
And then he realised that the blog was not enough to truly bring these stories to life. He needed a book.
“And this is how DAD was born. With a dozen of regular contributors to MFF, and a few more fathers that were invited through personal contacts. We wanted to make a book that talked to all fathers, to fathers of all ages, races, and sexualities”.
“But the book was such a difficult project”, he emphatically says.
They decided to self-produce through crowdfunding, which meant they had to do everything: from editing the chapters to creating the cover, from choosing the paper and font to designing the colour palette, from sorting out contracts and copyright to planning the PR and marketing strategy.
“These were not professional writers, they are ordinary dads and that’s the beauty of it”, he continues, “so for every chapter I had to ask them… can you explore more of this… can you describe how you felt then… can you talk about the darkest moments … any lessons that you learnt… but it was a logistical nightmare. I tried to ask them to go further while also being sensitive, while struggling with deadlines for chapter completions.”
By the time the crowdfunding was launched, in November 2020, half of the chapters had already been drafted, but all at different stages. And the launch day was scheduled for Father’s Day 2021–20th of June.
“But we made it”.
And then success arrived.
Interviews on radio, TV, and in newspapers. DAD was in June’s top 10 Amazon bestsellers list for parenting. And Elliott started bringing the conversation on masculinity and mental health to the public, to cultural events, to corporate and governmental organisations. Truly impacting the discourse on fatherhood.
MFF now host a variety of writers, podcasts, and meetups for dads. It has a reputation for being a safe website, providing evidence-based information. “I wanted it to become fathers’ Mumsnet”, he says. And he might be very close to doing this.
Through publishing and speaking revenues, he has been able to leave his job and dedicate all of his energy to his social enterprise. The content of the blogs remains accessible to all, for free.
And he is working on a documentary.
“And on another child, maybe”, he concludes.
f you have enjoyed this blog, do not miss the full 10-part series that will explore aspects of modern-day fatherhood, men’s mental health, and the science behind it — starting today. Over the next 5 weeks (20th October through 19th November) every Wednesday we will publish a lived-experience piece from one of the fathers who contributed to Dad or MFF, followed on the Thursday by a scientific piece from one of our contributing scientists exploring the associated mental health aspects. Each writer and scientist couple have been working together to present a cohesive, human, evidence-based portrait of four important areas — traumatic birth and PTSD, fatherhood during lock-down and post-natal depression, stillbirth, and surrogacy. We will finish the series on International Men’s Day, the 19 November, with a final piece by Will Nicholson, another of DAD’s contributors and an activist for social and system change, bringing together art, health and wellbeing.
We hope you enjoy this ITM special series as we shine a spotlight on men’s mental health and fatherhood.