I killed a thousand butterflies. It’s not my proudest moment. It happened right in front of my children, too. Not just my children, but 13 other children as well. Things could have gone better.
This past summer in Iowa, butterflies migrated right through the center of the state. It happened to coincide with my annual “dads’ trip.” This is the trip my dads’ group takes every year so we can build memories with our children. We pick a direction and go. We see the silliest of the silly. Large balls of twine or the world’s largest set of overalls. And this time, we killed at least 17% of the monarch butterfly population.
I didn’t much notice. I think that makes it worse.
Things did not go as planned on this trip. I mean, besides the butterfly massacre. Three days before we left, Penguin Books bought the rights to my at-home-dad book. It’s going to be a how-to book. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream. When I got the call, I was over the moon.
The very next day, my brother-in-law died in a car accident.
Two days after that, I went on the dads’ trip.
It’s hard to explain the emotions I was going through at the moment. The book deal was magical. The death of a close friend was life-shattering. Can you be in your highest high while also being in your lowest low? Apparently, yes. The emotions battle each other like two prizefighters in an octagon ring. At rest stops, I was emailing my new editor about the title of my book. At the same time, I was emailing my wife about funeral arrangements. In between, the kids were staring at the butterflies in my car’s grill.
Breakdowns: mechanical and otherwise
The other dads on the trip knew what was going on. They are going to be a big part of the book because they are a big part of my life. The things we have done together is the basis for all my writing. I’m a better father because of them. They were simultaneously happy for me and sad for me, which pretty much described my mood.
I followed our convoy of minivans to our next destination. But, if I’m honest, I had no idea what that destination was. My mind was preoccupied, as one would expect. I was thinking next steps. I was worried about my children, which is why we still came on the trip. I wanted them to be around their friends. Between all of us in this group, we have 16 kids who have grown up together over the last 11 years. I wanted my kids to have support during this hard time. And I needed the support. Desperately.
Halfway through the trip, white smoke began coming out the back of my van. This was it. This was my breaking point. The anxiety attack I had threatened to overwhelm me. I was in the middle of rural Iowa which is famously known for not being near anything. Chest-high fields of corn and wheat surrounded us. I didn’t know what to do.
But I didn’t need to. I had a dads’ group.
Do you really want to know the unvarnished truth about what it’s like to have a dad’s group? What it really means? If I take away all the filters on men’s emotions, even the ones I put on my own, and speak plainly: It’s life-changing. That’s what it is. There is no better way to explain it than that. It’s joy and camaraderie. It’s having someone to lean on without having to ask. It’s guys that know absolutely what you mean when you absolutely can’t say it. There’s an understanding there that goes beyond words. It’s a look or a nod. It’s a feeling that they know what they mean to you even if the words won’t come.
Dads’ group to the rescue
“What the fuck am I going to do?” I asked at a two-pump gas station with my car caked in dead butterflies. “That’s it. I quit. I’ve got nothing left.” I was cackling. I wanted to punch something. I was losing it.
“Shut up. We’ve already got it figured out,” Jake said.
“Yup,” said Mike.
Larry already had my hood up. He was standing with Mick over the engine. Jake was getting a paper towel to check the oil. They already had a plan to not only take care of my car, but my family. I don’t remember asking them for the plan, but apparently I didn’t need to.
At that moment, they took the weight of everything off me. The book, my brother-in-law, and the butterflies. This is what it means to be a part of a dad’s group. When you absolutely can’t lift anymore; they can.
For the rest of the trip, I was always bracketed by minivans. My oil was checked constantly. My kids were watched to free me up to deal with either the book or my extended family. I didn’t have to ask for either. It just happened. The trip went fine, and the minivan made it home. As it turns out, my very old minivan had engine sludge that caused the white smoke. My dads got me home, and on the trip, gave me the sturdy shoulders to count on when I wasn’t sure I could even count on myself.
Even now, months later, it’s tough to write about this because I’m afraid of how I’ll be perceived sharing something so personal. In fact, I’ve written a dozen versions of this story and thrown them all out. Expressing emotion to other men is not something that comes naturally to me. Simply saying “thank you” to them feels inadequate, as if it doesn’t go far enough to truly say how I feel about them. I’m usually full of humor and laughs, a nice way to hide emotions while still expressing them. It’s uncomfortable doing it this way. It’s exposing.
It is necessary.
City Dads Group is all about empowering fatherhood. It’s a place to make connections, to learn, and to advocate for fathers. But it’s also about giving back to others what we have been given. It’s taking our experiences and handing them to the next set of guys who are involved fathers. We do this without being asked because we know. We absolutely know.
Here, I can truthfully answer the question: What does a dads’ group mean to me? This. This is what a dads’ group means, and I hope you are as lucky as I am.