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Fathers' Forum: A support group for dads
It was supposed to be just a group of dads - maybe riffing on parenthood or marriages or maybe struggling against a fierce cultural current of Alpha-male machismo that has always said, "Guys don't do this! Guys are loners. Guys are tough. They're gritty. They're strong. They're modern-day Spartans hewn from the chiseled jaw of Steve McQueen and the leather-clad attitude of the Fonz. Fatherhood? They can tough it out."
And yet, there we were - all seven of us, hugging. Heads bent. Arms draped around backs. Seven guys huddled in the middle of a '70s-era, wood-paneled room in a second-floor walkup office. No one talked. No one - well, almost no one - looked up. We stood quietly, our arms wrapped around each other, our legs planted on a Navajo-style rug from Ikea and our bodies swaying as if caught in a gentle breeze.
This was my introduction to the Fathers' Forum. For 20 years, the group run by marriage and family therapist Bruce Linton has provided a place for new dads to gather and discuss their parental roles. Roughly 1,000 men have met every other week under Linton's guidance, opening up about fatherhood in an environment many said they couldn't find elsewhere. Lee Ann Slaton, education coordinator at San Francisco's Parents Place resource center, said mothers have many groups available to them in the Bay Area, while fathers have only a handful. Linton said his group bridges that gap.
"Where it all started for me was when I became a dad and felt like I had no connection to other fathers, and this was an incredibly important time in my life," Linton said. "One of the things that never got discussed was fatherhood - maybe there was a lot of talk about our own fathers but not about being fathers."
That was 27 years ago, after the birth of Linton's son, Morgan. And the times haven't changed for many dads.
"When my son Oliver was born, I just kept saying how isolated I felt," said group member Thomas Lurquin, a money manager from Berkeley who couldn't help smiling when he mentioned his two boys, Oliver and Elliot.
"There was this sense that some of the friendships I had with other guys had completely dissolved around the birth of Oliver, and I was missing this sort of interaction with other guys around something we all cared about," Lurquin said. "And it wasn't just baseball or basketball, it was something else, and some people just weren't making that transition at the same time as I was."
Enter the Fathers' Forum. Every other Wednesday in Linton's office, Lurquin and five other dads settle into worn recliners and a cozy, floral couch. For the first 15 minutes, they chat about anything and everything. Sailing. New jobs. Bad bosses. Camping trips with the kids.
After a while they take turns sharing their personal experiences and observations about fatherhood and how they approach the role. A common subject is their own fathers. Some of their dads were distant or grumpy or simply not there. A few said they wanted to do things a little differently, now that they've been given the chance themselves. All said it was difficult to find common ground with other fathers at work or in social settings, and that the Fathers' Forum is an outlet to simply talk with other dads about the joys and trials of raising kids.
"That's something as men we all do. We want more of a connection, but that vulnerability is scary," Linton said. "At one of the very first groups, there was one guy who arrived 20 minutes early and sat out in the parking lot and he said, 'You know, I don't think I can do this. I don't think I can get in the door.' "
Linton, author of the book "Finding Time for Fatherhood: Men's Concerns as Parents," recently released a DVD about the Fathers' Forum and maintains the Web site FathersForum.com, so dads can get more information and network with each other.
Fifty-eight, with a scramble of coppery gray hair, a salty beard and an easy smile, Linton remembered cutting back on work hours when his son was born so that he could co-parent with his wife. Fatherhood, for his generation, was slowly beginning to change.
"I think what changed for me was when I heard John Lennon, who was sort of a mentor, talk about how he took care of his son - how he said, 'I take care of the baby and I'm proud of it.' That was when it first started," he said. "It felt like there had been a lukewarm feeling about dads spending time with the kids - it was more about how you should help out around the house more, do more vacuuming or dishes or be supportive of the mom but not be a better father."
Over the years, he said he's seen the role of fathers change greatly - "there's more of an expectation of involvement" - and yet many fathers still have difficulties connecting with other dads.
"There's an attitude around many dads that you just do it all on instinct, you don't need a class and you figure it out as you go along. I don't dismiss all of that, but it really helps to have other dads talk and share their experiences," Linton said. "I find it has something to do with our culture - we don't really have the opportunity in society to bring up some of these feelings."
Milan Hanacek, an Oakland architect and father of a 9-month-old boy, said he was there to simply learn from the other dads, to hear what they are going through and what he might expect down the road.
"I grew up and had this idea that learning was very important. You go to school to learn all types of things or you learn a trade or a profession," Hanacek explained. "So why not learn from other fathers instead of trying to figure it all out on your own? You need a license for everything nowadays, and fatherhood is much more important and they let anyone do it. But this is a big, big thing, and I didn't want to screw it up."
Matthew Gibbs, a carpenter and artist from Berkeley, said he went to Linton a few years ago for therapy to deal with stress and anxiety he couldn't put his finger on.
"I thought I was going crazy," Gibbs said. "But after a while talking to Bruce, I realized I wasn't going crazy. He said, 'You know, some of the things you're talking about, all dads are going through.' I gave it a shot. That was two years ago."
Fatherhood is easier now, Gibbs said, smiling almost uncontrollably when he mentioned his Father's Day plans with his children, Elijah, 5, and Juliette, 2.
Mark Rhoades, a Berkeley urban planner/developer and father to Thomas, 4, and Jasper, 1, joined the group about three months ago. Many dads start when their children are infants or toddlers and stay until the kids reach kindergarten - when meeting other parents through school events is easier.
"I had a lot of anxiety about being a new father and wanting to be really intentional about getting into fatherhood - having waited until I was 36 to have my first," Rhoades said. "I wanted to create better circumstances than I had and be a better dad."
A family therapist suggested the Fathers' Forum to Rhoades, but he was hesitant to join, putting off inquiries for months. "My big fear was that it was going to be one of those touchy-feely Berkeley things," he said. "You know, dancing around the fire and beating drums."
Or joining a group hug?
But that is how every session ends, with arms stretched across backs in the wood-paneled office - a silent bonding. Linton explained that guys had been "holding" each other emotionally during the session, and the physical link only serves to strengthen that bond.
"I've been trying to figure out a way to explain this group and why it works," Linton said. "It's not a therapy group, but it's certainly therapeutic. It's not a support group, but it is supportive, and it's not just a men's group. It's not any of those things but it's all of those things."
And somehow, even for a first-timer, after two hours of listening to these men talk intimately about their children, their marriages, their own fathers, fears, faults and futures, standing in a silent, swaying embrace felt like the perfect guy thing - and the perfect dad thing - to do.
Mike Adamick is a San Francisco stay-at-home dad and contributor
to The Chronicle's parenting blog, The Poop. E- mail him at s