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Images of Fathers

Copyright © 1997 by by James May


As the Project Director for the National Fathers' Network, I have spent the past ten years crisscrossing the country helping set up support groups for fathers of children with special needs. I have visited thirty six states and completed more than 200 trainings. I have experienced the bitter cold of Maine, the tropical climate of Hawaii, and the scorching heat of Texas. It has been a grand time, both in terms of seeing much of this country and the diverse people who inhabit it, but also in meeting men who share a common experience, endeavoring to be the best possible dads for their children with disabling conditions or chronic illness. I have been touched and often moved to tears hearing the stories these men share with each other. When I reflect on these travels, I find poignant images and memories full of wonder and delight, all saying something important about fathers and their desire to be competent, concerned caretakers. I remember two men who came to the first meeting of a Fathers Group and were surprised finding each other at such a gathering. With amazement and some embarrassment they discovered each had a child with a disability -- amazed because they had worked together for the past four years but had never shared this "secret." I have seen and heard variations on this story almost everywhere I go. What stands out is the isolation so many men experience, afraid to share their special world, fearful of being misunderstood and unwilling to reach out to others for help. The old male models of manliness -- being in control, self-sufficient, capable of handling all problems without asking for help -- die slowly. To finally openly talk about one's child, to know we all have the same fears, angers, frustrations as well as the joys of personal accomplishment, is an incredibly powerful experience. I routinely ask men why they come to such meetings. Often the answer is, "my wife wanted me to," or "I came because I was told to." When I ask them again at the end of the session the simple answer is, "I came to share my experiences and feelings with other men of similar backgrounds." The isolation slips away as the commonalties become supremely evident.

One way to deal with our pain is to deny we have it. A glib "I'm fine," or "everything's great" masks the confusion and concern men often feel regarding their families and the struggles they are going through. I think of the man who installed my storm windows. He seemed particularly angry, and we made little eye contact. Upon completing the job he asked to use a phone in my office. On the desk was a copy of a book about families raising children with special needs. With a sudden blurt he asked me, "What do you know about disabled kids?" Upon telling him about my job, he unleashed twenty minutes of unbridled rage about the past fifteen months of his life since his special needs child was born. He complained bitterly about the medical costs, the stresses he was experiencing with his wife, and the loss of a job. It was evident this was the first time he had openly shared these thoughts with anyone else. What was also evident behind the frustration and anger was the immense love and concern he felt for his child. Not daring to interrupt, I let him share his stories, and when through, I told him about groups of men who meet to share similar feelings and help support each other through their struggles. He was dumfounded such groups existed. Like so many other men, he needed a place to vent his frustrations, share his fears and joys and reach out for assistance. With men so often what is outwardly shown is not what is going on inside; men need safe places to be accepted and understood.

I am continually struck by how a group of men from disparate backgrounds can immediately connect with each other. In a fathers' group one finds mechanics and computer salesmen, loggers and professors, servicemen and engineers. I have often cringed a bit when first starting a session, quietly asking myself how these men will ever find something

in common. I particularly remember one man who was absolutely silent the entire two hour session; he seemed utterly detached from what was going on, and no amount of coaxing could elicit a comment. He seemed supremely bored by what was happening. As we were about to finish he finally looked up and began to talk about his child, haltingly at first but increasingly confident as he went on. He made it clear the session had been very special to him and that he intended to return the next time. Obviously I had misjudged him; I could only remark later to the group leaders how much camaraderie among the men was built in such a short period of time, and that we all have our own unique ways of sharing who we are. While the men seem so very different, in reality they are so very much alike. Underneath the tough exterior is a tenderness wanting to come out and be acknowledged. Their children is the glue that bonds them together.

I would be remiss not to comment about the laughter, the good humor and enjoyment the men bring to discussions regarding their children. The first steps at age five, the mastering of a feeding session or a diaper change, the joy in taking a son swimming on a Saturday afternoon, the relief of making it through a child's heart surgery, and the chance to take a daughter on a camping trip -- these are the stories that make our times together such a pleasure. The playful kidding with each other, the earthiness of discussing who had the last vasectomy, the exchanging of cigars with the birth of a child, and the preparation of a spaghetti dinner for the wives -- all are done with great gusto; rarely have I left a session feeling down or overwhelmed by sadness. For dads of special needs children, success comes in different ways--slow and measured, hopeful after what had seemed so hopeless. For most dads the child ultimately becomes a gift of love, a teacher. As one father proclaimed, "I feel proud of her [his daughter] and even proud of myself -- that I'm a damn good father. The irony is, I probably wouldn't have been if I didn't have a special needs child."

There is much written today about fathers being "derelict" in their fatherly responsibilities. These men have taught me to look past such stereotypes, and to see men working with great diligence to be superb fathers -- caretakers filled with compassion and sensitivity. Starting with this issue we will be featuring a new column, "Fathers' Voices." (Now on-line at the Fathers Network site) It will focus on a fathers' experience raising a child with special needs. We encourage all men to make their thoughts known. What has the journey been like for you? What have you learned about yourself in the process? What has your child taught you and your family?

Send all work to:

James May
Project Director
National Fathers' Network
Kindering Center
16120 N.E. Eighth Street
Bellevue, WA 98008
206.747.4004, ext. 218 & 206.284.2859

Reprinted from "Fathers' Voices," Exceptional Parent magazine, October, 1993. (updated). Portions of this article were previously published in Focus on Fathers Newsletter, 1(7), University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, 98195.

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