Let's gather in a circle." David George Vequist IV, a 33-year-old human-resources executive, wasted no time calling us into formation. Some of the recruits resisted. "Over here!" Sergeant Dave ordered them.
I'm not the military type. I've never enjoyed waking up before sunrise or responded well to anyone giving me orders. Nonetheless, last spring I laced up my boots, bid farewell to my expectant wife, and marched off to boot camp, for a three-hour crash course in fatherhood training. I survived, and my wife and child will be grateful for what I learned that day.
Boot Camp for New Dads was created by Los Angeles health-care consultant Greg Bishop. It pairs expectant fathers with veteran dads and their babies. Bishop created the camp after meeting hordes of men who were ill-prepared for fatherhood. That was 11 years ago; today the program is available in more than 100 communities.
We met in a nondescript conference room at San Antonio's Methodist Hospital. For roll call, we gave our name and ETBA (expected time of baby's arrival). Our troop included a physician, a stockbroker, a retail-store manager, and a police officer. Most of the dads-to-be were closer to their life-transforming event than I. My wife, Leila, was barely four months pregnant. We were married on October 30, 1999, in New Orleans. A short time later, she became pregnant. It worked out exactly the way we'd planned it. I'm 36 and she's 38, and because we want to have more than one child, we needed to get started immediately.
Just as we finished roll call, we were joined by four veteran fathers. They arrived carrying babies and diaper bags. They settled in and found places for their baby carriers. Then Sergeant Dave announced, "Men, one day soon, you'll understand why these guys were late." The vets grinned.
Chris Forbes, 31, the father of 8-month-old Natalie, told us about our most vital post birth role: protector. "Your mission is to be your wife's number-one advocate," he said. "She's going to be worn-out and tired, especially if she's breast-feeding. Your job is to shield her from the outside world."
Brian Lawrence, 27, a high-school math and English teacher and the father of 5-month-old Noah, put it more bluntly. "You'll need a strategy for fending off relatives," he said. "Sometimes you just have to say, 'Go away.'"
"Many people will call and ask, 'Can we help?' But don't be fooled," Sergeant Dave warned us. "It's a secret code that translates to 'Can we come over to hold the baby and never leave?' Mothers and mothers-in-law are particularly well-versed in the code."
The vets stressed that the early days are vital for new parents to bond with their child. "So what do we do when people call and say they want to help?" I asked, worried about my ability to discourage friends. We were told to use our voice mail or answering machines if we have them. Record on the outgoing message vital statistics such as when, what, how tall, how heavy, and when visitors are allowed.
Your answering machine can be much more than a shield. "Hi, yes, we've had the baby. Visitation hours are from 5 to 6, weekdays. No weekends, period. Laundry pickup is from 9 to 5, seven days a week. We offer great rates. You can pick up, clean, and deliver our laundry for free."
If you do answer the phone, take people up on their offer: "You want to help? We have piles of laundry."
Sergeant Dave forged ahead. "What about breast-feeding?" he asked us. "How many of you know that your wives will probably need help with this?"
We trainees stared at him blankly. We were supposed to help with breast-feeding?
"Getting the child latched on can be difficult for some women," Dave acknowledged. "But breast-feeding is worth the trouble. It really helps the baby bond with his mother." Latched on? Like what, a binder clip?
"If you learn to help your wife position the baby properly for breast-feeding, she'll be impressed and grateful," Dave explained.
Lt. Alex Brenner, 26, a U.S. Army physical therapist and an expectant dad, piped in. "That's great for the moms, but how do we fathers bond with the baby?" he asked. The veterans offered several suggestions.
"When you get home from work, take the baby and give your wife a break," one vet advised. "Changing diapers, feeding, burping, and bathing are surefire ways to bond," another offered.
"You'll make mistakes-everyone does-but you don't always have to tell your wife about them," Dave said. "If you make an active attempt to be a part of your baby's life, seek out answers when you need them, and learn to trust your instincts, you'll be fine."
"Now about sex," Sergeant Dave said, switching his focus and getting everyone's attention. "It's going to change."
One father said his wife had lost her desire after the birth; another said the desire was still there but never the energy. Another warned that even after sex returns, we should expect a great deal of coitus interrupts. "You and your wife are in the middle of something, and the baby starts to cry? You're finished for the night."
"But the good news is that our son is the best thing that's ever happened to us," Dave said, somewhat tempering the bad news about sex. "Having a child has brought my wife and me closer to each other than we'd ever thought possible."
Other fathers echoed his sentiments. "It's amazing, but hang on to every moment. It flies by," said Charles McCash, 34, a surgeon who told the group that he'd changed his schedule and stopped seeing patients one half day a week to spend more time with his daughter, Claire. He even confessed to sometimes arriving late for work because of his determination to get one more smile from his daughter.
"You're starting the most challenging, difficult, but incredible adventure of your life," Brian added.
We moved from quality time to childproofing. "Imagine what the world looks like from your baby's point of view," Dave said. "Get on your belly and crawl around. You'll be amazed at the dangers you see."
The veterans said they'd had no idea their homes were so hazardous until it came time to babyproof them. They then gave advice on a litany of devices, products, and safety measures necessary to protect our tots.
"How do you know if something is a choking hazard?" Dave asked.
He pulled a cardboard toilet-paper tube from his gear. "If it can fit in here, your baby can choke on it," he said, pointing to the tube's opening, which is about the size of the average infant's open mouth.
Jayson Clinton, 28, a department-store manager, raised his hand. "We have this crib that's a family heirloom," he said. "It doesn't quite meet current safety standards, but we really want to use it. Can we?"
"Maybe as a planter," Dave answered.
"Let's take a quick break," Sergeant Dave said. "And wash your hands before you come back because you'll be holding the babies next."
I was watching one of the rookies. His face turned white. "Ever held a baby before?" I asked. He shook his head. With two nieces and a nephew, I wasn't nervous about holding a baby; feeding and burping frightened me. What if I couldn't do them right?
Upon our return from the break, we split into squadrons, with several rookies circling each vet. We were briefed on proper positions, including the cradle hold, the football hold (a dad's favorite), and the lap position as well as the over-the-shoulder-for-the-burp grip. I was assigned to Chris and his daughter, Natalie. I was nervous; she wasn't. She didn't flinch as I rotated her to display the basic holds.
She seemed more interested in the button on my sweater than anything else. Chris pulled out some baby biscuits and gave them to me. I'd never imagined that feeding a baby would be so captivating, but it was.
I glanced around the room and noticed Brian feeding Noah. I strolled over, and he put the baby on my lap. "You have to keep air from getting into the nipple," he said, instructing me on proper bottle positioning. I wasn't holding Noah tight enough either. "Clutch him closer," he said, gently grabbing my arm and pulling it around. "Don't be afraid."
Noah went at the bottle wildly, sucking and sucking. And minutes later-dozing and dozing. "He frequently falls asleep right after his feeding," Brian said. Me, too, I thought, but Noah had work to do. "He needs to burp," Brian said. Over my shoulder the tot went, still out cold. And then I was given the command: "Pat" and then "Harder." I was told this about three more times. "They're not as fragile as you might think," Brian explained, noting that burping requires quite a bit of effort.
I continued to pat, worried I might knock the baby into the Lamaze class next door. Five minutes later, Noah sounded off like a small cannon. I held him for another five minutes. "You're doing great," Brian assured me.
The aspect of fatherhood that terrifies me most is being responsible for another human being. But as I sat with Noah curled up against me, that fear began to fade.
The time I spent with the veteran dads at boot camp was reassuring. They were not superhuman-just ordinary guys like me.
On August 29, 2002 Hal Karp and his wife became the proud parents of Eli Maximilian Karp. For information on a boot camp near you visit www.newdads.org.
Copyright © 2002 Hal Karp. From the April 2002 issue of Parents magazine.