Dad Camp “I felt weird about wearing the baby sling. I couldn’t work out how to pump the tyres on the pram. I couldn’t make a kite.”

PARENT OPINION BY NICK LONG

My dad knows how to catch fish in almost any waterway. He can fix and make stuff, not expertly, but with ingenuity that makes you think that if we were marooned somewhere, we’d survive. (He reckons the secret is to always have cable ties.) And Dad does all the other stuff that makes fathers a breed apart: he wheels out jokes that are well past their prime, expecting you to enjoy them just as much as you did when you were six. And he does that thing with his hips when he dances. It’s like a horror movie: you don’t want to watch but you can’t look away.

As I held my son for the first time, I wondered if I’d be transformed into a man just like that. The kind of bloke who knows how to jump-start a lawnmower, rig up a swing from an old tyre and, because now we’re in the twenty-first century, turn four different varieties of fruit into salad, with one child swinging from the drawstring of my pyjama pants while the other shrieks, “Don’t waaant fruit salad!!!”

But it didn’t happen. I’d spent my life learning other kinds of skills, many of which were carried out in front of a computer screen. And I feared all the inadequacies I hid for a lifetime—from not knowing how to tie an anchor hitch to not being able to bowl a googly—were about to come back to haunt me.

It made me wonder: why can you get training for almost anything, but not for the most important role of your life?

I’m not talking about a one-day prenatal class where you learn not to hold your baby by one leg and, after lunch, rehearse soothing phrases to use while your partner is in the most ghastly throes of labour. We did one of those classes. I learned to fold a swaddling cloth. Thought I had the whole ‘being a dad’ thing nailed. Yeah, right. I didn’t. Over the weeks and years that followed the birth of our first boy, barely a day went by when I didn’t despair at how unprepared I was.

I felt weird about wearing the baby sling. I couldn’t work out how to pump the tyres on the pram. I couldn’t make a kite. And getting up in the middle of the night to read a story to a whimpering toddler about a rabbit that took a trip on a train? I was just so not ready for that.

It wasn’t only stuff directly related to child-raising. After years of living in apartments, suddenly we moved into a house. It had a lawn. It had a big garage with a wall to hang tools. There were shower doors that came off the tracks. There was a treehouse that needed new floorboards. There was a huge list of things that ‘Dad Needs To Fix!’ and it was destined to grow endlessly, because DIY was something my dad did—not me. I didn’t know the first thing about it. And with my dad over a thousand kilometres away, getting him over to give me a crash course wasn’t going to happen.

What’s needed, I reckon, is an intensive, live-in, seven-day fatherhood boot camp. You go there with, say, nine other dads-to-be and you are immersed in everything a father needs to know. It would be run by someone from the 1970s who has been through it and has the scars. A mustachioed father of six called ‘Merv’ or ‘Big Kev’.

Each day starts at five o’clock in the morning with what sounds like a possum caught in an escalator but is actually a recording of a real waking-up baby. The dads who think co-sleeping is a good idea are woken two hours earlier by a very agitated piglet tossed into their bed.

That morning, you learn Woodworking Basics, Campfires for Dummies, Sibling Conflict Resolution 101 and How to Create a Meal Kids Won’t Hate (That Is Not Chicken Nuggets!). During lunch-hour they break out the balls so you can become less humiliating at soccer, rugby, cricket or netball. And in the afternoon, you can choose to take classes in Gluing Eyes Back on Dolls, Diggers and Where to Find Them, or Skate Park First Aid, followed by the compulsory subject How to Find That Monster Truck That Used to Be Called Trucky but Has Recently and Without Your Knowledge Had His Name Changed to Wheelie.

Each night over a beer, Big Kev instructs you in the finer points of barbecuing, while simultaneously fielding questions on diverse subjects such as gutting a flathead or making streamers for the handlebars of a bike. After a week, you’re a changed man. You’ve learned everything you always knew you should, but were afraid to ask. And, after being apart from your lover for a week, you’ve also had a taste of the sex-starved Sahara that awaits you in early parenthood.

You think your training is over. Then, while the mum-to-be is in early labour, you’re ushered into another room. It’s dark, but you find the light switch. There’s Big Kev. He puts his hand on your shoulder: “You’ve proved yourself worthy. But there’s one last piece of knowledge left … ” He presses play on a stereo and swings his hips. Starts pumping his shoulders like a rooster ready to take off. You find it impossible not to follow. A shimmy passes through your body. You bite your lower lip and start an ungainly shuffle across the floor. “Yes! Yes!” whispers Big Kev. “You’re crossing the last frontier!” And in that moment you realise he’s right. You’re Dad Dancing! You’re finally ready to become one of them. 

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