The cover story in the May/June 2008 issue of Health Focus, a health magazine published by the Princeton Health Care System, describes a program that teaches fathers-to-be parenting skills. The program, although well-intentioned, reinforces sexual stereotypes and ultimately reduces, rather then increases, male involvement in substantive responsibilities of parenting.
Daddy Boot Camp is a one-day, three-hour course described in Health Focus as a “course designed for fathers-to-be to gain knowledge in parenting skills such as diapering, swaddling and feeding, and to develop hands-on skills for caring for their newborns.” It is the topic of the magazine’s lead story, featured on its cover and first two inside pages, as well as its Health Education Calendar.
As its name suggests, the Daddy Boot Camp program is based upon a military theme. Actual military boot camps are run by drill sergeants; the instructors in Daddy Boot Camps are called “drool sergeants.” Experienced fathers are known as veterans – the same term used for individuals who have completed their military service.
The theme is reinforced by the photographs accompanying the article. On the cover, two fathers, dressed in military fatigues, are pictured holding their baby daughters while a drool sergeant inspects their appearance. One of the fathers is wearing a pouch with matching military fatigue colors. But instead of weapons, the pouch contains a baby bottle and a stuffed animal. Similar photographs decorate the inside of the magazine. In one, the drool sergeant (dressed in military clothing) is holding the two infants from the cover. In another, a father wears a military helmet while feeding his daughter a bottle. The theme continues in the text of the article, which begins with “One-two-thee-four… what’s the baby crying for?”, a parody of the familiar chanting that soldiers use while marching.
Viewed collectively, the photographs and text of the Daddy Boot Camp article absolve men of the responsibility of caring for their newborn children. This is ironic because the intent of the program is to do just the opposite. To a limited extent, the program and article succeed in achieving this goal. The men who participate are taught several procedures that are helpful in caring for infants. Overall, however, the materials send a message that caring for a newborn child is not the primary responsibility of a man. Males who make a conscious decision to care for their newborns are doing something extra. They require special instruction and can be excused for not knowing (or wanting to know) how to care for babies.
The photographs depict a perfect world. The fathers and children are smiling and happy. There are no sobbing babies nor are there stressed-out parents trying to balance work, parenting and lack of sleep. The message is clear: Take one three-hour class on a Saturday morning and learn all that is needed to be a good parent. Conversely, the photos imply a negative message about mothers. Why can’t women learn care for their children with such ease and lack of stress?
The message of the photographs is reinforced throughout the text. The language makes it clear that parenting is not something that is natural for males:
“Every new father has the same fears and anxieties.”
“One of the dads was concerned he would ‘break’ his baby.”
Swaddling a baby is described as “a daunting task for almost everyone.”
Moreover, fatherhood is treated not as a joyful part of the human experience, but as a series of necessary tasks. The male instructors are described as “fathers who have been there,” a description that suggests they have been through difficult experiences. Men are urged to learn about breastfeeding and to read books about child care — not because these are the right things to do and are part of being a responsible parent, but because these are ways to avoid arguments with their spouses.
The military theme itself is disturbing since it juxtaposes nurturing a newborn child with an organization that teaches people how to kill other human beings. On another level, however, the military theme provides men with the comfort of retaining their masculinity while engaging in activities (parenting) that they may consider feminine. Again, this underscores the message that parenting is neither a natural activity nor a primary responsibility of men.
Other than the photographs of two infant girls, women are absent from the article. This absence – viewed in conjunction with the text – suggests that men and women have separate and distinct roles in parenting. According to the article, “The group setting provides just the right atmosphere for relaxed, frank discussions about fatherhood.”
Although women have no presence in the article, the Daddy Boot Camp website does offer a link to a “What Moms Need to Know About New Dads” section. Given the message contained in the article, the title of this section suggests more of the same. Unfortunately, the link only leads to a page indicating that the content of this section will be “coming soon” – a promise that fittingly underscores the overriding message of the article.