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.