Fathers DO Make a Difference

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This past spring I gave a keynote address at an early childhood conference, with over 1,200 special education teachers, providers, and family members in attendance. The title of my presentation was, "Fathers: The Forgotten Parent." It was a special occasion for me as my 84-year-old dad was in the audience and hearing me speak for the first time. There was an emotional strength and poignancy to my remarks. Upon completing the speech, I was approached by a young woman. After complimenting me for the talk, she remarked, "I almost didn't come today. When I looked at the program last night, I was angry that someone was speaking about fathers. I just couldn't see what that had to do with families of children with disabilities. Was I ever wrong."

This comment captures much of the past decade and my work with fathers of children with special needs, and the providers who are a part of their lives. Despite our embracing the principles of family-centered care, our awareness about the drastic changes in family demographics and how economics have made 70% of all homes in America dual income households, the role of fathers still remains ambiguous and unclear.

I started this job in the fall of 1986 with the sole task of starting father support groups for men whose children had disabilities. I always remember my first session; three people were in attendance, and the lone father hardly said a word all evening. Ultimately, I answered my own questions and drove home wondering just what I had gotten myself into.

Early on, when telling teachers and health care personnel about my goal of enhanced father involvement, the typical response would be: "Gosh, that's great, but you don't think men will really show up, do you?" That attitude persisted for years, and still does in many subtle ways, but come they did. There are now over 80 fathers' programs in 36 states and Canada. There are 14 programs in California alone, and two states, California and Washington, have statewide networks. There are three fathers' programs in New Zealand. Inquiries have been received from literally every region of the world. With few exceptions (our Bellevue program has more than 100 participants), the programs are not large. What counts is that increasing numbers of men are fully involved and active members in their children's lives and the health care decisions that affect them.

In 1986, our organization was the only federally funded program advocating for fathers of children with special health care needs. In 1997, that is still the case. One can do a MEDLINE search and find fewer than 30 articles about fathers of children with disabilities. Thus, while interest and concern for fathers have improved, the actual programs and research regarding men continues to be inadequate. Few males enter the field of early childhood education, and those that do often realize how isolated they are. Where I work, the Kindering Center Neurodevelopmental Center for children birth to 3, there are 30 staff--28 women and 2 men. Neither of us is directly involved with the children (physical and occupational therapy, speech and classroom). The reasons for this lack of male involvement are many: low salaries, poor recruitment by colleges and universities, a failure by men to see this work as important and of great consequence, and social service agencies unwilling to search out, train, and employ men.

Children lose out when this happens. One fact has not changed over the years--children need men in their lives. The research is eminently clear about the results of such involvement: children develop enhanced empathy and sensitivity to others; personal independence is increased as is a child's sexual identity and perspective for the future. The building of healthy, appropriate relationships is elevated.

The stigma that men do not want to be involved in their children's lives persists. Being the family breadwinner is still seen as the primary function for men. Corporate America, despite limited family medical leave provisions, generally embraces this stereotype. Yet one of the fastest growing populations in the United States is the single-father, full-custodial home. About 1.3 million fathers are in such a position, a 100% increase in the past decade. What they need are resources and support, flexible hours, and a service provider system that makes them know they are welcome and needed in the care of their children. All men need such supports!

What has sustained me through the years are the men themselves. They have shared their pain, their losses, their joys and hopes. In particular, I have been profoundly touched by men whose children have HIV. Often seen as pariahs, many of these men live in a world of profound isolation and guilt, raising their sick children in an environment of non-existent support or understanding. Yet when they meet other men, they learn they are not alone. They discover that reaching out for help is an act of strength. They all agree that involvement with their children has given them new definitions of fatherhood; they are more patient, they let go and live more fully in the moment, and they openly play with, hug, and love their kids. Letting tears flow after so many years "of being strong" is a relief--never an embarrassment--and good humor and fraternity bond the men together.

In an article about his 3-year-old son Alex, born with the complications from a prenatal stroke, John Tierney of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, captures the essence of what many men are learning from their children about fatherhood.

Alex has helped me discover the unyielding positive person within myself. He has taught me about courage, discipline, and hope. He has helped me to define myself and my goals. He has made me realize that being a loving husband and father is what truly defines a man's worth.

Are health care and educational settings increasingly "father friendly?" Perhaps. Are the stereotypes of men as incompetent, boozing womanizers changing? Slightly. Are men changing and learning? Absolutely! The challenge for all of us was articulated in 1989 by Randi Wolf and certainly remains the same today:

Children need and deserve the love and attention of both parents. Let's work together so that every parent is fully respected and every child has the opportunity to establish close bonds with both men and women right from the start. There is nothing more critical to the long-range future of our species than raising our children well. As there is nothing more difficult, it makes sense to muster all the forces available. In this spirit, let's . . . welcome fathers as full and equal partners in this task.


Wolf, R. (1989). Partnerships beyond pretense: A challenge to moms and dads. Family Resource Coalition, 8(3), 3.

>b>About the author:

James May is the Project Director of the National Fathers' Network (NFN), a federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau program, and is supported by the Kindering Center in Bellevue, Washington. He is an educator and certified mental health counselor and has been involved with families and young people for more than 30 years. He advocates for fathers and families of children with special needs through trainings, development of mentoring and support programs, curriculum development, and publication of a tri-yearly newsletter. The Network's current initiatives include enhanced programs for fathers in health care settings and improved health care for rural and inner city families and for families of children with HIV. The NFN produces a monthly column, "Fathers' Voices," in Exceptional Parent magazine and manages a Web page (http://www.fathersnetwork.org).

James May can be contacted at:
National Fathers' Network
Kindering Center
16120 N.F- Eighth St.
Bellevue, WA 98008-3937
Telephone: 206-747-4004, ext. 218
Email: jmay@fathersnetwork.org
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