One Dad at a Time

The humility quotient was high in the parish hall at St. Mary’s in Stamford. Fifteen men had gathered for a fatherhood support group. It was late spring. The sun was setting over the city. The NBA playoffs were on. There were loads of other things these guys could have been doing on such a night.

For the most part, though, they weren’t there because they wanted to be. They were there because they had to be.  

“Most of these guys are here because something happened,” said Daniel, a program volunteer with the nonprofit Saint Joseph Parenting Center. “They made a mistake and got involved with the legal system. For a lot of them, if they want to see their kids, they have to do this. They’re good guys, though. They take it seriously.”

The vagueness of the statement intrigued me. I both did and didn’t want to know more about the kinds of things that could “happen.” SJPC’s mission is to use parenting education to prevent abuse and neglect. One thing was clear: no one around the table was proud of what had “happened.”

Daniel is himself a graduate of the 12-week “Dads are the Difference” program. It’s just one of the 28 free parenting classes offered by SJPC in both English and Spanish. Daniel says the program helped him find new and productive ways to relate to his kids. He got so much out of it that he now volunteers to help lead the discussions.

Measi O’Rourke, SJPC’s executive director, says that sometimes just getting the guys talking is the hardest part. The first few meetings can be pretty sticky. By about the third week, though, they start to open up.

“Talking about parenting comes naturally to moms,” says O’Rourke, who is a nurse by training. “It’s harder for the dads. They’re used to being called deadbeats. But they’re not. They’re just beaten down.”

The guys in the basement at St. Mary’s were a diverse crew. They came, as one among them said, from “all walks of life.” They were white, black, Latino—and everything in between. Some were young; some not. A few had mud on their boots. Others were dressed for business. There was even a three-piece suit and a pocket square.

What they had in common was both beautiful and simple: they all wanted to become better fathers. They knew they needed to start getting it right. So they came to these evening sessions—to listen, to share, to compare notes, to grow.

It worked. As I listened to them reflect on how the program had helped them, it became clear that it actually had. They talked about the importance of communication and self-awareness. They talked about identifying weakness and building trust in relationships. They talked about taking care of themselves, physically and mentally. They talked about forgiveness.

“We’re more than just providers,” said one of the dads. “We’re nurturers, too. We have to give our kids what they need, when they need it, not just when it’s convenient for us.”

Coping with frustration was a recurring theme. What to do when you’re worn down from a long day? Where do you find the patience to listen to a replay of your son’s dodge-ball game or a name-by-name census of your daughter’s dolls?

Daniel asked them to imagine a mandatory work function with the boss that they absolutely didn’t want to attend. “Sometimes you just have to put on that phony smile and get through it,” he said. “You can do it at your job, right? Why can’t you do it at home?”

The nodding heads around the table confirmed that Daniel had hit upon a plainly unassailable strategy. Sometimes you gotta dig deep.

“You know what I realized in the last few weeks?” piped up one of the guys. “Being a father is a marathon, not a sprint.” The observation was met with enthusiastic exclamations in the affirmative. I found myself nodding in agreement, too. I didn’t have to be there, but I’m glad I was.

We hear a lot about the breakdown of the family, especially in urban areas such as Bridgeport and Stamford. What we don’t hear much about are people like Measi O’Rourke, Daniel, and the other giving souls of the Saint Joseph Parenting Center who are doing what they can to put it back together.

God bless them for their efforts. And if you can find it in your heart to help, God bless you, too.

From the June 2016 edition of Fairfield County Catholic

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