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Images of fathers.

As the project director for the National Fathers' Network, I have spent the past seven years crisscrossing the country developing programs for fathers of children with special needs. I have visited thirty-two states and completed more than 100 trainings. I have experienced the bitter cold of Maine, the tropical climate of Hawaii and the scorching heat of Texas. Through my travels, I have met many men who are working to be the best possible dads for their children with disabling conditions or chronic illnesses. Out of their common base of experience, these men have shared their moving stories and their efforts to be competent, concerned caregivers.

I remember two men who came to the first meeting of a Fathers Group and were surprised to find each other at such a gathering. With amazement and some embarrassment they discovered each had a child with a disability. The men had worked together for the past four years but never shared this "secret."

I see and hear variations on this story almost everywhere I go. What stands out is the isolation so many men experience because they are afraid to share their special world, fearful of being misunderstood and often unwilling to reach out to others for help. So many still believe that a man is supposed to take charge, be self-sufficient and handle all his problems without asking for help. The old male stereotypes die hard. To finally be able to talk openly about one's child is an incredibly powerful experience. When we talk to each other we realize that we all have the same fears, angers, frustrations and joys. Isolation slips away.

Some men simply deny their pain. A glib "I'm fine" or "everything's great" masks the confusion and concern men often feel about their families' struggles. I think of the silent, angry man who came to my home to install storm windows. After completing the job he asked to use a phone in my office. On my desk was a copy of a book about families raising children with special needs. With a sudden blast of anger he asked me, "What the hell do you know about disabled kids?" When I told him about my work, he unleashed 20 minutes of unbridled rage. Fifteen months ago, his special needs child was born. Since that time he'd experienced anxiety about medical costs, stresses in his marriage and the loss of his job. This was the first time he had openly shared these thoughts with anyone else.

But behind the frustration and anger, it was clear that he felt immense love and concern for his child. I let him share his stories uninterrupted. When he finished, I told him about groups of men who meet to share similar feelings and support each other through their struggles. He was dumbfounded to learn that such groups existed. Like other fathers, he needed a safe place to release his frustrations, share his fears and joys, and reach out for understanding and acceptance.

I am continually struck by how a group of men from disparate backgrounds can find ways to connect with each other. A typical fathers' group may include mechanics and computer salesmen, loggers and professors, servicemen and engineers. I often begin a new session quietly wondering how these men will ever find something in common. I remember one man who remained absolutely silent throughout an entire two-hour session. He seemed utterly detached and completely bored. No amount of coaxing could elicit a response. Just as we were about to end the meeting, he finally looked up and began to speak about his child. He was hesitant at first but grew increasingly confident as he went on. He made it clear that the session had meant a lot to him and that he intended to return the next time. Obviously I had misjudged him.

As I remarked later to the group leaders, we all have our own unique ways of sharing ourselves with others. While the men in the group seemed outwardly different, in reality they were very much alike. Underneath the tough exteriors was a tenderness waiting to come out and be acknowledged. Fatherhood of a child with special needs was the glue that bound them together.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the laughter, good humor and delight the men bring to discussions about their children. They share a child's first steps, the mastering of a feeding session, 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 stories bring a special pleasure to our times together. Rarely do I leave a session feeling depressed or overwhelmed by sadness.

For dads of special needs children, success is defined differently. Fathers of children with disabilities rejoice in small victories, in progress however slow and measured, in hope after what had seemed so hopeless. For most fathers the child ultimately becomes a gift of love, a teacher. As one father proclaimed, "1 feel proud of her [his daughter] and even proud of myself. I'm a damn good father. The irony is, I probably wouldn't have been if I didn't have a special needs child."

We hear much about absent or uninvolved fathers. The men I meet teach me to look past such stereotypes; instead, I see men working with great diligence to be compassionate, sensitive fathers.

For more information about the National Fathers'Network or to receive their quarterly newsletter, write or call: National Fathers' Network, Merrywood School, 16120 N.E. Eighth Street, Bellevue, WA 98008, (206) 74 7-4004 or (206) 282-1334. The National Fathers' Network is funded by a grant from the U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau, and is a subcontractor to the Association for the Care of Children's Health, Bethesda, Maryland. Portions of this article were previousIy published in Focus on Fathers newsletter, 1(7), University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195.
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Title Annotation:of exceptional children
Author:May, James
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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