Sept. 25, 2000 -- Eighteen men, all strangers to each other, are sitting in a circle in a bright hospital meeting room in Irvine, Calif. Some of the guys have babies on their laps and blissed-out expressions on their faces. The others look nervous, as they reluctantly begin to talk about themselves. "I'm worried," says one man. He couldn't be much more than 20 years old, but he's got rings under his eyes and looks jittery as he spins a paper coffee cup in his hands. "My dad used to get mad when I'd do something wrong; he'd hit me -- really let me have it. I keep wondering if I'll be able to handle my own temper when the baby comes."
A tall, handsome man stares fixedly at the floor. "I'm afraid it'll be the end of my love life," he says, rubbing his hands together. "What if my wife no longer finds me necessary?" He looks up tentatively, as if expecting the others to be shaking their heads in disgust. Instead, half the men in the room are nodding in sympathy. "Things have been good," he goes on, "and everyone keeps telling me that nothing will be the same after this."
Suddenly, a burly man jumps up and makes a time-out gesture, like a coach at a basketball game. "Diaper change!" he barks in a New Jersey accent. "We need a volunteer." The coach -- group leader Barry Fitzgerald -- points to one of the men without babies, who reluctantly gets down on his knees next to a chubby 2-month-old girl. But with expert advice from the baby's dad, he rises to the task. "It's like cleaning a fish," the dad says. "You get rid of the unwanted stuff, make it nice and clean, and then wrap it up tight."
Welcome to boot camp. Boot Camp for New Dads, that is, where raw recruits -- "rookies" they're called here -- team up for four hours with grizzled veterans who have been in the parenting game now for as long as three months. The 12 rookies get to ask questions and talk about their fears and expectations. The vets -- who were here as rookies only a few months before and are accompanied today by their babies -- dish out advice and reassurance and serve as living proof that fathers can survive -- and even thrive -- along with their offspring.
Getting Over the New Dad Jitters
Two generations ago, fathers rarely set foot in the delivery room. Today's fathers not only help with the birth, but they want -- and are expected -- to play a greater role in the lives of their children than ever before in our history. But these heightened expectations bring with them a lot of pressure and leave many dads feeling unprepared. Boot camp helps them get ready -- and get over some of their jitters.
Greg Bishop, a management consultant and father of four children, started the camps 10 years ago as a way to give fathers-to-be a little basic training. It has since become the largest workshop for expectant fathers in the country, with 100 programs in cities from coast to coast, and some 26,000 graduates to date. The camps are clearly filling a need.
"Men are way behind the curve when the baby comes," Bishop says. "Moms get into parenting with a long tradition and lots of role models. And they've already had a nine-month relationship with the baby. We try to help men catch up a little, to give them the reassurance and skills they need to start on the right foot."
That's important, because if men's initial experiences as fathers are bad, they're more likely to go AWOL -- one reason, says Bishop, that 42% of American kids are growing up without fathers in their homes, according to data gathered in 1998 by the National Fatherhood Initiative.
A Magic Moment
Such statistics helped motivate Bishop to start the camps. "I thought if you could start dads off on the right foot, they'd have a much better chance of hanging in there and following through," he says.
His intuition is supported by the work of Princeton sociology professor Sara McLannahan, PhD. In unpublished research posted on her web site (http://www.ppic.org/publications/occasional/waller.op.html), McLannahan found that the birth of a baby is a "magic moment," when fathers are highly motivated and can either be turned on to fatherhood or turned away from it. If the early experience is good and the father feels empowered, the connection is likely to grow. If the new dad feels left out, a negative pattern may be set that the family follows for years to come.
Other research suggests that the benefits of a strong father-child bond are significant and enduring. A study by Harvard researchers published in the September 1995 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that fathers who spend a lot of quality time with their 3-month-olds are likely to be strongly bonded to their kids nine months later. And researchers at the University of Maryland, writing in the July-August 1999 issue of Child Development, found that when fathers enjoy parenting and play with their kids in a nurturing way, the children seem to develop stronger cognitive and language skills.
Such down-the-road benefits may seem a bit abstract to the dad who's down on the floor working on his diapering technique. But he completes the job (to a round of applause) and the mood in the room shifts from awkward and silent to relaxed and talkative.
Fitzgerald asks the men to say a few words about their experiences with their own dads. Many report that their fathers were "quiet," "absent," or "preoccupied with other things." To a man, these future fathers say they want to have more intimate and communicative relationships with their kids than they had with their own dads.
Bruce Linton, a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist who also leads support groups for expectant dads, says the heightened aspirations and anxiety of today's fathers "represent the emergence of something great in men who are about to have kids. It's a period of amazing developmental growth, of wanting the world to be a safer place, and of intense love toward the newborn, the partner, and the community."
The sentiment may sound a bit grand, but the theory seems to hold water here at boot camp: While the rookies fidget, the vets are focused, self-assured, and calm. Though only six months or so farther down the fatherhood road, they have crossed the Rubicon and have earned the power to console. By the end of the fourth hour, the babies have started fussing. But four or five diapers have already been changed, the babies have been passed around like precious footballs, and the mood is high. When the meeting ends, some of the men hug and others shake hands and trade numbers. But the focus has shifted from the men to the babies, who are now being tossed, burped, and tickled.
"This has been a nice dose of reality," says one of the expectant dads as he heads toward the door. "I'm excited and I know I can do it. But I'm still nervous."
Gordy Slack is a science and health writer based in Oakland, Calif. He is a columnist and contributing editor at California Wild, the science and natural history magazine published by the California Academy of Sciences. He is also the "veteran" father of two young boys.