When I was pregnant with my son Lucas 14 years ago, my then-husband and I attended a prenatal class to prepare us for childbirth. The class, which focused mainly on me and what I should expect, consisted of a couple of 3-hour sessions a week or so apart. Aside from having interacted with babies in his family, that class was my husband’s only real meaningful gathering of information leading up to the birth of our baby. Well, the class, and … me. I was the primary source of expertise on all things baby.
My nightstand hosted a small library of baby-care books, from the requisite What to Expect tome to more specific books offering insight on successful breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and gentle sleep-training solutions. I read them all. My husband went about his business as usual, barely glancing at the books I was so desperately trying to commit to memory. It wasn’t that he didn’t care — it’s that he assumed I would share the information with him when the need arose. He believed I had everything under control. And honestly, I was fine with that because so did I.
The resentment didn’t show up until a few weeks after the baby was born. The arrangement my then-husband and I had painted ourselves into was a common one when I was pregnant 14 years ago, and it’s still a common one today: the role of mother as gatekeeper.
In this arrangement, Mother is the expert and primary parent, and Dad plays a secondary role — a supporting role. Mother holds all knowledge and has veto power over everything to do with the baby.
Not only is this not an equal partnership, but it puts both Mom and Dad in a position where they may feel resentment for their needs not being met. This was the case with me and my kids’ father. I quickly came to resent being the only decision-maker, the only one who knew where things were, the only one who could calm the baby. It was not an empowering role for me. I wanted help. I wanted an equal partner. But I was the one who had read all the books and therefore possessed all the information. It wasn’t just that I was the only one with milk-filled breasts — I also had tons of tricks up my sleeves that I’d learned from reading all those books.
My husband’s position wasn’t any better. He was eager to help but felt deferring to me was not only the wisest option, but also the more respectful one. He trusted my ability to mother, to handle any problem that arose, to know the answers. And that’s a fair assumption since I behaved as gatekeeper. I was controlling and critical. I wielded my veto power frequently and with impunity. If I didn’t feel he was doing enough, I became frustrated with him. If I didn’t think he was doing something right, I nitpicked him.
It didn’t matter that I know I was supposed to let my partner do things his own way and not micromanage him; I couldn’t control myself. I was the one who’d gone to the trouble to read all those books. I was the one who did all that work. And then, on top of all the exhaustion that came along with new motherhood, I also had to play the role of instructor? I was super not into it, and I took it out on him.
My former partner and I could’ve benefited from a class that has become increasingly popular among soon-to-be parents: Bootcamp for Dads. This is a peer-led class where soon-to-be dads are given a crash course in baby care. As we shift toward a more equitable distribution of various types of labor in the home, from housework to childrearing, Bootcamp for Dads is yet another step in the right direction. The class teaches everything from how to distinguish a baby’s different cries to how to accomplish what they call a father’s secret weapon: the perfect swaddle. The camp is called “bootcamp” as an acknowledgment of the contradictory feelings some dads may feel about their role as a caregiver and societal expectations surrounding masculinity. (Hopefully someday we can just call it “Baby Care 101” and no one’s masculinity will be threatened, but hey, baby steps. Haha, “baby steps?” Get it?)
Anyway, the usual prenatal classes, including the one I and my kids’ dad took 14 years ago, tend to focus more on the mother’s role and feelings. A new father’s role, if it’s defined at all, is often defined in terms of its relationship to the mother, again, as a secondary role. But, as more and more dads are eager and willing to play an equal part in all things baby care (and we love them for this, by the way), a class that focuses on their unique set of needs is both welcome and needed.
Because, though many of the tasks of parenting can be performed by either partner, sometimes the most important role for the non-birth or non-there-all-the-time parent does require being a consistent and reliable support system. Mom may be the only food source, but Dad can hop out of bed and get the baby, change their diaper, and bring them to Mom (after she’s peed, of course) along with a glass of water and a nursing pillow. This is what equal baby care looks like, and this is what classes like Bootcamp can teach.
To be clear, this class isn’t just for heterosexual relationships. It may be called “Bootcamp for Dads,” but the lessons learned would benefit any parent who feels “sidelined,” be they part of a gay couple or an adoptive couple.
Basically, the class is meant to coach someone up from a secondary role to a competent and equal partner in baby care. A confident and present parenting partner not only reduces the mental load of the mother or primary caregiver, but also strengthens the bond between the other parent and the baby. A 2017 study revealed that higher levels of interaction between fathers and babies at four months and 24 months positively correlate with improved cognitive function in the second year of life.
My kids’ dad was and still is an involved father, and we are a solid parenting team. But I think if he’d had the chance to participate in one of these Bootcamp for Dads classes, it probably would’ve eased some of those early conflicts where I resented being the “gatekeeper” and relayer of all information pertaining to baby care and he felt like he couldn’t do anything right. We made it through, and our kids are doing awesome, but a little bootcamp may have been just the thing to get my partner off the sidelines and me out of the role of coach.