Today, Michael Barrette is a laid-back, seasoned father, but this wasn't always the case. Before his son Brendan was born in August 1999, Barrette reluctantly "enlisted" in Boot Camp for New Dads to learn the ropes.
A program that brings expectant fathers together with recent dads and their newborns to learn from one another, Boot Camp for New Dads is now in more than 120 communities in 36 states. Graduates -- the "veteran" dads -- range in age from 16 to 60. Recruits, or "rookies," come from all income brackets and all ethnic backgrounds. Some are unemployed and others are corporate attorneys.
My father lived with me and my family during the last two years of his life while he sank ever deeper into Alzheimer’s disease.
His behavior was frequently bizarre. He might emerge from his bedroom with three of my son’s baseball caps piled on top of his head but wearing no pants. When trying to participate in a conversation, he might blurt out passionate pronouncements that made no sense at all. “Ya see, the individualism is something that’s not already formed,” he would bellow. “You gotta fight...
"I didn't think I would learn much because I thought I was well-prepared for fatherhood," Barrette recalls. Because he was 9 when his younger brother was born, Barrette had some experience changing diapers, but a man's role in the family has changed dramatically in the more than 25 years since then. Back then, fathers didn't even witness birth because they weren't allowed in the birth room -- whereas today they are considered equal partners in the process, and are increasingly expected to behave as such.
"When I found myself in a room full of guys talking about what I was feeling, it was a profound experience," says Barrette, a musician whose group included a physicist, a couple of police officers, and a truck driver.
"It was a diverse group of guys all expressing the same fears and hopes," he says. "Everyone is concerned about creating a bond with their child."
Facing the Fear Factor
In a three-hour session, Barrette -- along with other rookie dads, veteran dads, and a coach -- discussed the potential pitfalls of fatherhood, such as the strain a new baby can put on a marriage and the baby blues their partner might suffer following delivery. They also learned some important "how-tos" -- such as how to swaddle, diaper, feed, and even hold a baby. Depending on the locale, Boot Camp typically consists of one or two initial sessions and ongoing support through monthly group meetings of new fathers.
"It's reassuring to hold and comfort a baby," says Barrette. "The fear factor melts away when you get the baby in your arms."