Back To School: Basic Training For New (Clueless) Dads

If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be a father for the first time—at least in this lifetime—just eight short weeks from now. As part of the preparatory process, my wife and I have been attending the free classes provided by our hospital, Essentia. We’re halfway through lamaze, we’ve completed the breastfeeding course, and I, needing extra attention, took a solo trip to learn all about becoming a dad.

The “Basic Training for New Dads” class was a quintessential clueless male experience. Even the walk in was perfect… but before I explain why, I need to tell you a little something about having a clue.

Somewhere out there exists a clue mall. At that clue mall, one can acquire any number of clues to assist in any given situation. But if you miss the clue bus, you’ll never make it to the clue mall, and, as a result, you will forever be… clueless.

My fellow first-time-father (I’ll call him Jim), a big, friendly guy with a great chuckle, had clearly missed the clue bus. He looked like a Midwest version of Jonah Hill. We made eye contact on the walk into the hospital from the crowded parking lot. As we neared the doorway, it was clear we were about to have that awkward “Do I speed up and go in first, or slow down so he gets there first?” moment. Naturally, we both made the same decision and walked through the double doors together like a couple.

I started the obligatory banter with a question about whether he was also there for some daddy class, trying to act as tough and aloof as possible. It turned out he was there for the class, and wouldn’t you know it, both of our wives “forced” us to go—we were now both pretending to be tough as we made our way to the elevator.

At this point, I must admit that I, too, had missed the clue bus. But I had at least made it to the bus stop in time to see which direction it was headed (I saw the tiny sign that said “Fathers class downstairs”). Jim, having no clue, assumed it was up on the sixth floor, where babies are born. And why wouldn’t our class be where babies are born? I can’t fault his logic.

So while I took the elevator down, Jim politely declined my invitation to hop aboard and waited to catch a lift up to six. After finding my seat around the large conference table, my unknown friend waltzed in with the appropriately sheepish grin on his face as we made eye contact for the second time that evening.

“Apparently we are going to the same class!” he exclaimed. Yeah, I’m glad my wife made me go that night, but this Fatherhood 101 class was definitely tailor-made for Jim.

Don’t get me wrong. We all needed that class. I learned more than I expected I would. And Jim, he’s going to be one of the best dads out there. Eager to learn, positive in outlook, he will be a role model future classes will look to for inspiration. I’m glad we met.

Throughout the class, while listening to our instructor, Zach, field questions from the audience, I couldn’t help but imagine all of the first time dads who’d gone through the course before me. I wondered what other stories could be told. I decided to ask Zach if he’d be willing to share his perspective. He agreed to answer a few questions about what it’s like to teach this class, what his favorite stories are, and what other advice he may have for us first timers out there…

Fill me in on the necessary details… like how long you’ve been in the profession, how long you’ve been at Essentia, how long you’ve been teaching this daddy’s course, and any other similar courses you teach.

Zach: I’ve been a Registered Nurse since 2006 (BSN) and have been with Essentia Health ever since. I’ve been teaching the Basic Training for New Dads class on a monthly basis since September of 2013. I don’t teach any other Childbirth Preparation classes, but I do teach Epic (Essentia Health’s Electronic Medical record) to new staff and Sunday School for preschoolers at my church. So you can see I like to cover all stages!

Why do you give up those nights you could be with your own family?

Zach: My wife encourages me to continue teaching this class, as she sees the joy I have when coming home from teaching it. Now that my firstborn is older (4 ½ years), I’ve explained [to him] that I must go to teach the new dads to get ready for their baby’s arrival. When he knows I’m about to teach it he asks, “Are you going to go teach them how to be good daddies?”

Are you to the point that you can kind of pick out the future dads that either A) have a clue or, more importantly, B) have no clue at all?

Zach: I can definitely get a feel for this right away for most guys. The “deer in headlights” look is a quick giveaway, but I also can get a general feel based on the engagement they have during classes and by the types of questions they ask.

Which part of the class do you dread, if any?

Zach: I don’t really dread any of it, although I do sometimes get a “dirty” look when I talk to them about cloth diapers as being an alternative to disposable. One guy even said, “I’m not putting those things in my washing machine!” I just want them to know that this can be a viable option and definitely a way to save money and our landfills some space (not to mention the many other benefits).

Which part of being a first time father do you love to discuss or teach?

Zach: My favorite topic is the last one I cover, which is Baby Care. I start with two questions: 1.) Who has held a newborn (<2 weeks old) baby before?  2.) Who has changed a newborn’s (<2 weeks old) diaper before?  Usually the ones that raise their hands to the 1st questions are uncles and for the 2nd question, I high five (not really)—but most don’t do this until their own. I then ask, if we [were to] ask those same two questions to women, how would they answer…  I love to show the men the different ways to hold a baby (cradle, lap, chest, and the most “manly” football hold). I also enjoy showing them the diapering process and seeing how they really are watching, probably thinking in the back of their minds that they are going to have to do this many, many, many times. (Earlier in class I told them that we changed approx. 5,500 diapers on our firstborn, cloth of course).

What are some of the more obscure, hilarious, or otherwise head-smackingly dumb questions you hear?

Zach: I sometimes get various questions about breastfeeding, and the class can get pretty interesting with some of the questions the new dads ask. I am able to respond to many of these, but I also do tell them that I’m no Lactation Nurse and they should attend the breastfeeding class Essentia offers to get more info.

What comment or question really caught you off guard… in a good way?

Zach: I’ve had many and can really see the sincerity when I get them. For instance, “Do you have any recommendations of books I could read to prepare?”  I thought, wow, in my experience, it was my wife devouring the books and information (probably since the pregnancy affected her body much more than mine) and then relaying it to me. Another time a guy took notes and ran out of room so I gave him some more paper to write on.  So I definitely believe that any man can be a great dad, they just need to invest—and coming to this class is part of that investment.

What’s the biggest lesson you try to get through to first time dads?

Zach: I think the biggest lesson by far would be this: BE THERE!  Focused time is the key. Sitting next to your kid on the couch staring at a screen (TV or smart phone) doesn’t count. When you get home, get down on the floor at their level and play with them.  Listen to them. Right now my almost 2-year-old loves to say “Why?” or “Why Daddy?” all the time. At times I get worn out from the frequency of this question and end up saying “Because!,” but that’s not what he’s looking for. He just wants affirmation that I’m paying attention and am there “with” him… and not just physically there and mentally checked out.

What lesson that you’ve learned as a dad do you wish you could teach in the class but for whatever reason can’t (due to time, appropriateness, etc.)?

Zach: I think my last answer could also go here to the extent that I could spend the whole class discussing how many fathers in our culture have failed and as a result we are seeing the consequences. Think of it, just a century ago the sons (and daughters) worked alongside of their dads (and moms) on the farms and now we see them for a couple of hours a day and on the weekends. What can we do to be “present” with our children while at the same time provide for our family? That is the question.

Someone before you must have taught this class… Did he or she leave you with any parting words of wisdom?

Zach:  Yes, the former teacher of this class used to share a personal story that I still share in every class. He would challenge the guys to “talk to the belly”, meaning—of course—the pregnant wife’s belly. Now that can be an intimidating and awkward thing.  He would go on to say that with his child he talked to the belly a lot, and when he didn’t know what to say, he’d read the sports page to it.  When his baby was born and the doctor lifted it up, this dad starting talking and the baby turned its head toward the voice.  How cool would it be if your baby already recognized you when they’re born!

Looking Forward to Fatherhood

The reality of impending fatherhood is still very much an abstract thought for me. I’m not the one pregnant. I’m not experiencing massive physical changes that serve as constant reminders of what’s about to happen. I barely have any idea of what’s happening now. How am I supposed to comprehend the changes to come?

My brother-in-law once said that these classes helped make his wife’s pregnancy more real. That’s starting to make a lot of sense now that I’ve been through a few myself. Sure, I’ve learned a thing or two, but I think the “realness” of what’s coming is finally starting to fully sink in thanks to these weekly baby classes. If for no other reason that that, I would encourage all future fathers to attend.

3 Responses

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