WALLA WALLA - Josh Long is in the hot seat.
His recent - slight - expansion of girth is the subject of the moment at a Monday meeting of Dads for Dads at Children's Home Society of Washington.
It's baby weight, Long explains. His smile under the moustache is slightly rueful. He gained sympathy weight during his wife's pregnancy, but now his daughter is 6 months old.
"I call it the ‘baby shelf,'" Keith Angotti says with a laugh.
"Because I need a place to set her," Long concedes.
There is no telling where the conversation will roll at the weekly gathering of Walla Walla-area fathers. The subject might start at getting kids to do chores and end with wondering how to comfort a teenager.
In this room, on this kind of night, there is no judgement about any fatherhood topic, said Long, who facilitates the group along with Juan Galen.
The duo runs a mirror group for Latino fathers on Wednesday evenings at the nonprofit agency on Penny Lane.
Dads for Dads evolved out of another CHSW program that focused on parental relationships with children.
There were a number of fathers who approached him and indicated a need for something just for dads, Long recalls. One man told him that he loved his family and his life, but being in a group of other dads sharing what works and what doesn't could only make all of them better at the job.
Out of those requests the program was birthed in August. The rules and directions for the group were hashed out in the early meetings, Long says. Everyone agreed any guy invested in being a dad would be welcome.
It's why he's here tonight, Angotti says. The married father of two daughters is a regular on Monday nights. "I come because I want to be a better dad. It's as simple as that."
Jarod Dunleavy sees the group as a resource. His boy is 3 years old, and Dunleavy is eager to hear the experiences of others, the single dad explains. "I want to get ideas. If you're going to be a father, you want to be good at it."
Take, for example, the upcoming camping trip that Dunleavy, a charter fisherman by trade, has planned - a first for the dad and son. "It should be interesting," he says with a grin, his eyebrows raised.
It's that sort of activity that enhances a sense of family, says Dave Aerni, who has chosen to work nights so as to be with his children, including 5-month-old twins, as much as possible. "Spending time with the kids, it's a lot of personal time. If I'm awake I'm with the kids."
Aerni, head of a blended family that includes five little ones, has been in Dads for Dads from the start, a cheerleader for the program he sees as invaluable.
"Back when I was a single dad I ran into a lot of problems - how to raise my son correctly, how to discipline."
He wanted help and was willing to give time to a support group, "if I could get something back."
Not everyone has family or other built-in support, Aerni points out. "For dads, the best way to get advice is from a guy's perspective."
No one is claiming to have all the answers, Long adds. "I'm here because I want fathers in the community to ask questions and not feel judged for it."
Traditional parent support groups have veered toward moms, he says. Dads for Dads is intended to let fathers have the same opportunity to teach and absorb. Topics include being involved and emotionally available, balancing parenting duties and the rest of life, handling stress, evolving modes of fathering and passing on a parental legacy.
"We talk about what we want for our kids, what values do we want to give to them, Long asks. "What do we want them to say about us?"
Some of the men in this room did not see such goals modeled by their own fathers. Angotti, also a founding member of the group, is now the primary caregiver during the day for his children while his wife teaches. But he gave fathering not a single thought while growing up. He and his siblings were allowed to run wild. "We had no family time."
And he saw no need for anything different until he met his future wife, Angotti tells his peers. "And I started really changing when I had my first daughter."
Being the father they want to be can often be tough for the single dads, the men say.
"A lot of this group has been beat down by the laws in this state," Dunleavy says. "Deadbeat dad versus beat-down dad."
Angotti agrees. "Society supports giving up."
Aerni chimes in, "Just pay child support. Send the check and that's it."
Data shows how dangerous that can be, Long says. "In the last census, the numbers showed 43 percent of kids who grow up in fatherless homes get into trouble. Fathers are important."
He's seen it firsthand, Dunleavy says. "When I'm around single moms, their kids are clingy. They're just starving for a dad's attention."
The lesson is not lost on these men, however. "Time for kids is really important," Angotti says with a nod. "And I could do a better job of it."
Ticking off the ways he's found to gain quality time in parenting, he lists attending church, ice cream treats downtown and going to play dates organized by Walla Walla's Moms Network. "They don't care I'm a guy," Angotti says with a laugh.
Giving kids one-on-one attention becomes a topic on this night. It's necessary to grow those individual bonds, the fathers agree.
It can be as simple as shopping with the family and taking one kid off alone in a separate cart, Aerni said. "Even if you're in Walmart, you just split up. Because she won't remember her sister there somewhere in the same store."
Likewise, he makes sure his kids get minor celebrations for certain accomplishments, Angotti said. "The first time to ride a bike ..."
Mike Laizure seconds that. "The thing is, 10 years from now, the kids will remember you made them a priority."
However, people don't always accept that notion very well, he adds. "You make your kids the priority, they act like something's wrong with you."
Aerni nods. "That's the thing ... if you're not working, you're a real deadbeat. Men are geared to work, we don't expect anyone to pay for us."
Here the conversation veers to child-support payments. Negativity can happen, Long says later. "We try to get past that and ask ‘How can you help your kids?'"
One of the problems the group hopes to change is how information reaches fathers in Walla Walla. Many men have no idea about Dads for Dads or any other help, they say.
"A lot of people don't know how to look," Dunleavy ventures.
"I think a lot of people don't look," Long counters.
Organizations that focus on mothers have better marketing tactics, Angotti offers. "Guys don't know, they don't read the newspaper. I got a letter in the mail about (Children's Home Society of Washington)," he explains. "I actually read my junk mail."
Part of the problem is that people and organizations are often reactionary, Laizure believes. "Everything happens after a problem. Why not head it off?"
Aerni is inspired by the idea. "What about if every time you walk out of the hospital with a baby, you have a list of services?"
An hour after it began, the lively meeting draws to a close. Aerni is off to sing to his children before bedtime, he says, shaking everyone's hand.
It's not a perfect world but forward momentum can begin with fathers, Long tells the men. "Dads like you who never compromise your kids."
If you go
Dads for Dads meets at Children's Home Society of Washington, 1612 Penny Lane, on Monday and Wednesday, beginning at 6 p.m. There is no charge. For more information, call Josh Long at 529-2130, ext. 133.