Out of no where, this short new kid began pushing me backward into the middle of the school’s courtyard until I fell and my books scattered in the grass. It was a few months into 9th grade. For whatever reason, this kid picked me to show everyone he was tough or cool or something. I was an easy target. I was tall, near anorexically thin, shy and a good two years from puberty. In those first few months of 9th grade, this short new kid terrorized me. He knocked my books out of my hand. He made fun of me. Once he grabbed my books off my desk and threw them out of the classroom. Now he was ready for the final blow. He was going to kick my ass.
He was not my first bully. I don’t really remember who was. All I remember is being made fun of a lot by many other kids, starting about 6th grade. It was miserable. I was scared most days at school. I tried to be invisible to protect myself. I sat in the back of class, never raised my hand, avoided eye contact and walked quickly from one class to the next. The teasing didn’t stop but I felt I contained it to a minimum. That was, until this short new kid started school and needed to feel important.
Kids abandoned the hallways and encircled us. The bully was standing and glaring at me lying on the ground surrounded by my books. No one wanted to miss the ass-kicking. I stayed down but I was furious and frightened. I wanted to stand up and punch this kid right in the face. Never have I ever wanted to fight someone more in my life. At the same time, I wanted to hide or disappear. I did not want to be there. My breath quickened and I felt my face turn hot. I started to get up and the the circle around us grew louder. The other kids were about to witness a fight, sure to be the highlight of the week, maybe the year.
I disappointed them.
There was no way I was going to win a fight with this kid, or any other kid for that matter. I knew I was weak and I knew I would look ridiculous. It would have been like Apollo Creed fighting Adrian instead of her fighter boyfriend Rocky. I sat up on my knees with my head down and slowly gathered up my books. Inside I was seething with anger and trembling with fear. The short new kid was probably taunting me, baiting me to fight him, but I didn’t hear anything. I held in my anger, and my tears, got up with my books and started walking away, my head hung low. There was no doubt in my mind this kid was going to tackle me from behind and start wailing on me as he intended. But nothing happened. Everyone went silent. The circle broke away, allowing me to pass, dumbfounded. Squeezing my face tightly to hold back a waterfall of tears, I walked to my next class.
It was the last day that kid ever bothered me.
My instinct was to fight back but my brain knew that was impossible. What I did not realize at the time, but know now, is that the bully, all bullies actually, was more scared than me. He was afraid of himself. He didn’t want to feel insignificant. He needed attention to feel good about himself. When I didn’t give him what he wanted, he left me alone. Ignoring a bully, unbeknownst to me at the time, is one of the best strategies to protect yourself.
Eventually I hit puberty but my shy nature and flimsy frame continued to make me an obvious target for bullies.
I was a junior in college, living off campus for the first time, when I found myself in a similar situation to 9th grade. I was living with my best friend, Mike, and another guy I knew, Jimmy. Jimmy was a large man, a few inches taller and at least twice my weight. He knew his size compared to mine would intimidate me and after a few months he began to use it.
One night, he and I got into an argument. I do not remember what it was but I am sure it was about something he wanted me to do for him that I was not going to do. He became enraged, got in my face and yelled menacingly at me. I was backed into a corner of the kitchen and his anger grew when I refused to acquiesce to his demand. My best friend, Mike, who was about as lightweight as me, grabbed our phone and dialed 9-1-1.
Jimmy backed off. A few minutes later the cops arrived. They talked to me and tried to talk to Jimmy. I was shaking but otherwise okay. Jimmy went to his room unwilling to talk to the cops. The cops asked if I wanted to file a domestic violence report but I declined. I didn’t think Jimmy would be violent. He had the chance but just yelled at me. As long as that was all I had to endure, I could manage, especially knowing my best friend had my back. Strangely, being bullied as a teen gave me strength mentally I didn’t have physically. I also felt Jimmy was embarrassed by his actions. Shortly afterward, he moved out and we found a new roommate, Jason, who cared way more about his girlfriend than intimidating me.
As I moved into adulthood, bullying followed. My earlier experiences, however, taught me a lot. I had survived a couple very serious incidents and hundreds of smaller ones. I also grew in confidence. I wouldn’t say I had a lot but I had enough that I knew I could stand up for myself.
In 2011, I became President of the National At-Home Dad Network, a non-profit organization creating community for stay-at-home dads. Our primary function was hosting an annual convention. We had agreed to host the convention in Washington DC that year, the home town of one of the founding board members, Mike (another Mike, not my best friend from college). I had worked with Mike for the past 2 years on the board. He was taller and heavier than my former roommate Jimmy.
Mike was put in charge of the convention and the planning committee of about 20 dads from around the country. However, Mike would not work with anyone on the committee. He took great offense to being asked about the progress planning the convention. As the months of 2011 ticked by, I became concerned with the lack of information from Mike. Instead of sharing his plans with me, he attacked me in phone calls and emails, accusing me of not trusting him and trying to take over the convention planning. Since Mike was unwilling to share any details with anyone, the board voted to remove him as convention chairman. We discovered he had done almost nothing to plan the event. He was trying to bully me so I wouldn’t find out he was failing. It was May and the convention was scheduled for October.
Everybody pulled together and made the 16th Annual At-Home Dads Convention happen. It was, in fact, the most attended convention of the previous 5 years. Mike came and was very helpful with things on the ground. He did not bully me or anyone else that weekend. Nearly every day that year, though, I was highly anxious, scared and frustrated. I frequently felt like I was trembling inside. It was a strain on me and my family but I was proud of myself and everyone who came together to make the event a success.
Mike’s bullying of me, however, did not end. At the following convention, also in DC, he spoke in front of all the attendees about something (I forget what it was) he strongly disagreed with me about. I ignored him. He wrote negatively about me on Facebook every so often the next couple years. I would reply respectfully with truth to his misleading accusations but otherwise ignored him. His abuse stopped after I stepped down as President of the National At-Home Dad Network in 2015.
I have not experienced any significant bullying incident since, but I expect I will sometime in the future. There are people who need to tear others down to feel better about themselves. It is an unfortunate reality of humanity.
Bullying, at its core, is about fear. There is something within a person who bullies that he or she is afraid to face or afraid others will find out. To avoid these gnawing feelings of unimportance, self-loathing and weakness, a bully finds someone to beat up or terrorize so he or she can feel superior. The bully is driven by an all consuming fear of his or her brokenness being revealed.
I wish I could go back to that scared, ashamed 9th grader who was trying to hold back his tears and tell him I was going to be okay. I wish I could tell him how wonderful his life was going to be if he could hold on and persevere. I wish he could see my life now instead of fearing the next day being worse than the day before. Perhaps I would have been less miserable, had fewer bouts of depression. Maybe I would have become more confident in myself a lot sooner. I do know that I am happy about who I am today, most of the time. My traumas have not defined me. My survival has.
The hotel room was filled beyond its legal capacity. Sprawled upon the two double beds, chair, night stands, window sill and floor sat twenty or so men. The air was thick with their voices. There was the six foot six, skinny Asian man with a few wisps of hair still clinging to his head, throwing his head back with roaring laughter. There was the short, thin, balding former professor with wire-rimmed glasses shoveling out words of wisdom at a speed nearly breaking the sound barrier. There was the stocky pastor with the red beard smiling quietly and listening intently. There was the Kentuckian with a slight southern drawl and glimmering eyes finishing up a long, winding, hilarious story. There was a guy named Dayv. There were several others and there was me.
You couldn’t tell from the jovial late afternoon conversation that just two months before the economy had tanked, which was soon to be known as “The Great Recession.” There was no indication the event they had originally planned in Sacramento California, in that hotel, was supposed to be attended by dozens of men but had to be cancelled due to the uncertain economy. And yet, some of them came from across the country anyway. They crammed into one of their hotel rooms and, more or less, conducted the event they had cancelled.
The chatter before they headed to dinner was broken up when the former professor stood up and asked for the voices to quiet down. Some snickered. One hurled a sarcastic insult at him. Others talked in hushed tones. The floor his, momentarily, he asked these men what they were going to do about next year.
Murmurs. More snickering. A few talked to the guy closest to him. A voice rose above the rest and simply asked, “How about we have it in Omaha?” He was quiet, midwestern, face round, eyes steely. It was in the middle of the country, he explained. Omaha was affordable and it had character. He had a group of guys, me among them, who would help with the planning.
Something sent the Asian into another fit of uproarious laughter. He was listening to another of the Kentuckian’s stories instead of the steely-eyed midwestern. The former professor nodded approvingly at the suggestion of Omaha. The red-bearded pastor considered the idea quietly. Voices rose as they discussed the idea. Some spilled another joke.
“I think that would work,” somebody spoke up loud enough to be heard above the again growing roar.
“I’m in!” bellowed the Asian.
And that’s how the Annual At-Home Dads Convention (now know as HomeDadCon) was saved.
Three years earlier, at the end of the 10th Annual At-Home Dads Convention in Chicago, where it had been held for its first ten years, organizers announced they had decided to not host an 11th convention. Many of the dads, however, did not want to stop having this annual gathering. Andy Ferguson (the former professor), Hogan Hilling (the loud tall Asian), Phil Andrew (the steely-eyed midwestern) and several other dads (my aging brain have forgotten their names, plus I wasn’t there) began talking about how they could continue this event. They knew these annual gatherings had changed their lives and wanted to continue offering other at-home dads that same life-changing opportunity. Andy, like Phil would three years later, stepped up and offered to host the convention in Kansas City, where we was then living. It was centrally located, affordable and had a good group of guys to help with planning.
In November 2006, the 11th Annual At-Home Dads Convention kicked off. About half as many dads (50) attended compared to the the previous year in Chicago. It was the first of my now 14 consecutive conventions. The great presenters, break-out sessions, food and camaraderie was there. The life-changing experience was still there. A new era of the event was born.
The 12th Convention in 2007 was held the next year in Kansas City. In 2008 it moved to Sacramento. And then it was cancelled.
For the second time in its history, the Convention was revived.
The following two Conventions were held in Omaha, each with about 50 dads. The Convention in 2011 moved to Washington DC. Another snag developed.
The leader organizing that Convention clashed with the Board of Directors of the recently formed National At-Home Dad Network. By late spring of 2011, he was no longer involved with the Convention. I had recently been elected President of the Board and with about four months before the Convention, we began furiously putting the pieces together to make the Convention happen. Robb Tavill, one of the key planners of the Conventions in Omaha, Hogan Hilling and Kevin Folk from the DC area were instrumental in leading the team from across the country to put on the largest convention since 2005.
From then, the Convention has grown steadily. By my last year as President in 2015, nearly 150 dads attended. Through today, the Convention has persevered and is now in it’s 24th year.
The history of this event is like a roller coaster. We had ups. We had downs. We had twists and turns. We screamed in terror. Yet, this event stayed on the tracks.
Its survival through many difficulties and different leaders, I think, explains the value and necessity of this event for stay-at-home dads. The connections made and the parenting skills shared are life-changing. Dads who felt isolated and knew no one attending the convention, often left after three days with many new friends who hug like true brothers. They leave as better men and fathers and it compels them to want to give back. No matter the challenges, and there have been many, these dads have been committed to do whatever needs to be done to make sure the Convention happens the next year. They recognize the impact it has made on their lives, how critical this event has been to the improvements in their families and they want to share this with as many other dads as possible.
I am very humbled for having the opportunity to be involved in the history of this event, to keeping it going and to have helped so many dads. It is a testament to the character of the men who attend and the brotherhood they have created which is so strong it cannot be broken no matter the difficulty. Hundreds, probably thousands, of dads will be impacted as this event continues for decades to come, an event that has transcended squabbles of ego and logistics, scarcity of money and manpower, to be among one the longest lasting annual conventions in the country. It is by no accident. If you have never attended, I recommend you make plans for next year. If you have attended, I encourage you to return. If you think it cannot possibly be this valuable, I challenge you to find out for yourself. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Experiences that transform people are rare. The Annual At-Home Dads Convention (now know as HomeDadCon) is one of these rare experiences.
I was standing at the edge of a cliff in Yellowstone National Park. About 125 feet below lay our then 11-year-old daughter, Anna, on her back, seemingly glued to the near vertical canyon face, black helmet on, arms and legs immobile, one shoe on and one shoe several feet below. Another 150 feet directly below, in the river, was a dark black horse, dead. My wife was kneeling next to our daughter’s right side, an EMT on her left. I don’t remember breathing.
Anna, her then eight-year-old sister, Macy, and my wife had taken a horse trail ride. Since our other two children were not old enough to ride, I had taken them on a hike in another part of the park. Our girls were excited. These horses would not go in circles on a lead rope. They were going to ride a trail!
When Anna’s horse came along the lip of the canyon at an area named Coyote Slide, it took a step to the right for reasons we will never know. It was a fateful step. Beneath that hoof was nothingness. The horse tumbled down into the canyon, our daughter along with it.
It took four hours to extricate her from the canyon. They brought in a rescue helicopter which hoisted her about 1,000 feet into the air to clear the canyon and trees.
As I watched my daughter, secured in a basket that was twisting and turning in the wind, fearing she was paralyzed and possibly dying from internal injuries, one of the EMTs came over and asked if I was all right.
“No I’m not okay!” I screamed, tears gushing down my face. “That’s my f***ing daughter!”
Incredibly, she only had minor scrapes and bruises. No internal injuries. No paralysis. Within a week, she had completely recovered and was running, jumping, swimming and being her sassy self.
It took longer for me to stop crying. Much longer.
What helped me recover was sharing my story. I posted it on Facebook. I called several friends who listened in stunned silence as I tearfully retold the story. I stood in front of seventy other dads at the Annual At-Home Dads Convention in Denver, CO a few months after the accident and told them the story. Many of the dads, some who had never met me before, cried openly along with me.
We are living in the first generation in which men are realizing the definition of masculinity needs an upgrade. Our society has taught men we are supposed to be tough and stoic. Through the good and bad, and sometimes ugly experiences from our own fathers, today’s dads are recognizing masculinity is much broader and includes hands-on involvement with their children, vulnerability and compassion.
I have discovered, through sharing my experiences - my truths, tears and triumphs - and encouraging other dads to do the same, helps dads heal, gives dads the confidence to be better partners and parents and allows them to connect with their children on a deeper level. Through my years of experience as a father and advocate for involved fatherhood, as leader of dad clubs, the National At-Home Dad Network and appearances on hundreds of TV, radio and print interviews, I know dads need a safe place to be emotionally vulnerable.
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HomeDadCon is one of those safe places. In it's 24th year, this convention for stay-at-home dads brings dads together for all different backgrounds and geographies to learn about becoming better parents and develop camaraderie with other like-minded dads. They will hear other stories and tell their own and will be empowered and more confident when they return home. The welcoming, non-judgmental culture of this unique event brings out our vulnerability in a safe place where we can share, laugh and cry together.
I am fortunate to have met so many incredible dads through my now 14 years attending these conventions. It has made me a better dad, husband and man. It will do the same for you.
Originally published June 2015 in Dads Behaving DADLY 2: 72 More Truths, Tears and Triumphs of Modern Fatherhood by Hogan Hilling and Al Watts by Motivational Press.