Joe Brodnik is a father and 1st grade teacher in Taos, New Mexico. Along with his full-time work with children, he is a mentor and godparent to several other kids, hosts a regular men’s group, co-leads family events and retreats, and loves to tell stories. He writes a blog called Off Grid Kids with over 7,000 followers and initiated the #Greatdad Campaign in 2018 to highlight the work of fathers across the country. The name Iron John is an ode to Robert Bly, whose book by that title is a classic on boys’ initiation into manhood.
In 2015, three years after my daughter was born, my wife asked for a divorce. It shook my world. My entire identity as a husband, father and breadwinner - hard-earned after three years supporting a wife and toddler - was lost almost instantly. I had always been an involved father, but suddenly the role took on a new meaning. I became the full-time playmate, cook, sandman and wilderness guide. But throughout that first summer, something magnificent happened - the relationship between my daughter and I became solely our own, mediated by no one else in the entire world.
Fortunately, my ex-wife and I separated gracefully; there had never been anger between us. As our daughter shuffled back and forth, we shifted from the language of lovers to the language of loving parents. We both loved our daughter to pieces and knew that that had to trump any hard feelings between us. That’s a tall order, but an important one. No matter how great a father I am, and no matter how great a mother she is - our daughter needs both of us. Every child does. Today, our daughter spends four days a week with me and three with her mother.
The shift in our family coincided with a shift in my daughter’s need for other children. As most young parents quickly learn, an infant or toddler is largely focused on her parents and is only peripherally interested in other children. That changes around age three as the social work of the child comes into focus. The result was that I was forced to learn not only how to be a daddy for one but a caregiver for many children.
My first few steps into childcare were slow and hesitant, and it took a lot of courage. I had always thought I would enjoy having children, but like most men I had had little experience with kids before having one myself. What would it be like to care for three of them?! Not knowing what else to do, I simply made myself available to other parents. Duh, they took the bait. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded with kids. We went on walks, explored rivers and ponds, broke a wagon or two, and generally had fun. By the time my daughter was four, we were at the center of a small galaxy of children, both boys and girls, and I loved it.
In the fall of 2016, I met Silke Markowski, co-founder of the Taos Waldorf school and we became good friends. It was fortuitous for both of us, as Silke had recently left the Waldorf school to form a forest kindergarten. It began that fall, and I became her assistant. Over the course of the next two years we learned much from each other (and the children) as we led the school through canyons and rivers, mountains and farms. We also fell in love. Silke is now in her third year, while I have branched out with a first grade in 2018.
In 2016, with encouragement from friends and family, I began writing and sharing stories about our outdoor adventures with kids, a project that turned into Off Grid Kids, a blog now followed by over 7,000 people (since my daughter’s birth I have, at times, lived off the grid but no longer). I also co-facilitate a men’s group, co-lead family events and retreats, and try to advance the cause of fatherhood nationwide. In 2018, I initiated the #Greatdad Campaign, a website and Facebook page designed to share the stories of great dads across the nation.
The photo at left shows my daughter and me with my father at the Rio Grande. I chose this photo because I want to honor him. My mother died shortly after my first birthday and somehow, in spite of that, my dad managed to juggle my brother and I, law school during the day and a job at the bus station at night (he did have some help). But more than that, he was always available and loving to me. More than anything else, it was his love and support that turned me into who I am today. Not everyone has a father like that. I wish they did.
In his book Manhood, Steve Biddulph writes that less than 2-3% of men report having a strong and loving bond with their fathers. Most simply tolerate them. About one in three men actively dislike their fathers. And it’s not much different for women. In a 2014 report on the effect of fathers on their teenage daughters, Scientific American reports, “fewer dads are participating in the lives of their children now than at any time since the U.S. began keeping records.”
That was only four years ago.
In the past, young men and women participated in the raising of a community’s children, so that when their turn came around to parent a child they knew the ropes. Sadly, that’s no longer the case. Today, most women, let alone men, have little to do with children till the moment the doctor or midwife plops one in their lap. That’s how it was for me. It can be shocking to go from the relatively easy life of the single or married man to one with a child. Women hire midwives, doctors, doulas and therapists, but what do men do? Usually, nothing. Or, they tend to their wives. That’s good, but it’s not enough. Men need other men. This is my greatest piece of advice - if you’re interested in becoming a strong, compassionate and loving father you will need other strong, compassionate and loving men. Find them.