My sister is six months pregnant and she has asked me about what parenting classes she should take at the hospital and I did not hesitate to tell her that she shouldn't take any of them. In my opinion, parenting classes offered by hospitals do little more than lay the groundwork for developing tolerance of future PTA meetings and birthday parties for the kids of your annoying neighbors.
After nearly nine months of this parenting business, there is only one thing that is truly clear to me: none of the so-called experts know what the fuck they are talking about. I swear half of the books were written after a parent/pediatrician made it through the first few years of parenthood, realized that none of the books they read applied to their kids or provided the methods that ultimately worked for them, and so they decided that "their way must be the best way" and so freakin' great they just had to write a book about it. And they always write with such superlative-laden confidence, as if their method is finally going to work for every child that claws its way out of a vagina for the rest of eternity. What narcissism. Every kid is different and few methods and techniques are universal across the board.
This problem is only amplified in the "parenting classes" taught in birthing hospitals. As if folks on the cusp of parenthood need anything more to stress about, these classes have become a virtual battleground of ideas from all these conflicting authorities, marshaled together and dumped into your lap by some poor moonlighter just looking to score a few hundred extra bucks twice a month.
It starts with the actual hospital birthing class. Should they teach the Lamaze method? Bradley? Hypnobirth? Ours sort of skirted that dilemma by teaching none of them explicitly. Our class description should have simply said: "Partner to massage mother-to-be for six hours. Mother to breath as though in extreme pain. Bring a pillow."
I had some hopes of maybe meeting some cool parents at these classes. Wow, was I disappointed. The timing of the class meant that a lot of due dates would be in early February. When we went around the room to talk about our feelings (this was San Francisco), the timing issue seemed to cause a lot of stress among the fathers. Many were worried that their babies would be born during the Super Bowl. And that meant they were going to have to make a CHOICE between learning firsthand whether the bottles of "lite" piss beer would beat the bottles of "regular" piss beer in Bud Bowl 2005, or supporting their wives through their most painful day. I could see the gears churning in their meaty heads: "but what if the Bud Lite wide receiver bottle does a really cool touchdown dance after catching the winning pass?" Four or five of my classmates seemed stricken with this dilemma. One of them asked if the delivery rooms would have television sets.
About ten minutes after the class started, an Irish couple walked in. These two had taken the "dress comfortably" thing to an extreme. They weren't wearing traditional Ballymun track suits, but straight-up dirty sweatpants with denim jackets and oversized t-shirts. I swear, halfway through the class, the Irish dude pulled out a tinny of Heineken and popped it like he was sitting in a Londonderry living room watching some really boring sport involving jerseyed hirsute men kicking a ball back and forth to each other. These two were easily my favorite couple there.
When we got to about the fourth hour of panting, blowing and massaging, the meathead sitting next to us started taking things a little too far. His wife (wearing a velour J-Lo tracksuit) was on her knees practicing a position the teacher had explained would help back labor. He started kneading her ass cheeks, taking full chunks of butt flesh and just pressing into it with his fingers over and over. I started freaking out. I felt somehow implicated in this, as I myself massaged Wood's lower back as instructed. There were a lot of Judds in the class acting as though this was a sensitivity competition to determine who could massage their wife the best, and the whole pantomime of touching and heavy breathing made me feel like I had been involuntarily recruited into the world's most boring porn movie.
There was just something so demoralizing about the general lameness of the questions that spewed forth from our fellow first-time parents. There were questions about scheduling your C-Section without medical need and inducing labor to ensure that you would not miss your epidural window. The class took a detour when discussing umbilical cords, as one of the fathers just so happened to be the marketing director for one of those companies that collect and store cord blood. I sat there doing the math for how much I paid to sit and listen to this asshole's fifteen minute spiel. I started to wonder if he really was the baby's father, or if he just drags some pregnant woman around with him to all of the area parenting classes so he could pitch the miracle of cord blood retention to hapless first-time parents on the condition she gets six hours' worth of massage.
And don't even get me started about the circumcision questions.
My favorite moment came when the teacher started discussing vaginal tearing and the issue of how long most couples wait to have intercourse after the birth of the baby. "Most couples usually wait about four to six months," she said. "But I have talked to some who have gone as long as a year and a half."
The butt-kneader next to us blurted out: "A year and a half? Fuck that!"
Our six-hour birthing class was followed by six-hour parenting class the next weekend. Our instructor for this class was a post-partum doula so hippy-dippy she made our doula look like Harriet Miers. This instructor spent three hours discussing which baby products have artificial flavors and preservatives and the other three hours on the oh-so-useful skill of installing cloth diapers on a plastic infant. When she started modeling African-print slings for us, I realized I had seen this woman wearing unflattering pants and doing the noodle dance near the drumming circle at the foot of hippie hill in Golden Gate Park. She was the kind of woman who listens to spoken word and who could talk your fucking ear off about Leonard Peltier. Five minutes into the class I wrote Wood a note:
"I am not taking any parenting advice from that."
Even though her attachment parenting/no scent/no artificial anything teachings were so extreme, the Marina girls and even the gay couple took copious notes and asked her all kinds of annoying questions. They asked her opinion about the "expert" parenting books they received at their baby showers. You could trust she hated any book that didn't involve nurturing your infant's inner wood sprite or something she called the "marsupial method." It is amazing what soon-to-be parents will tolerate in the thrall of perceived authority. It felt like a college freshman seminar full of eager students oblivious of what a putz the washed-up professor is. I did get a laugh imagining the yuppie couple who asked the most questions and filled a notebook with their scrawlings actually raising their child based on the philosophy of this crunchy windbag.
Our third and final class was a three-hour breastfeeding seminar. And I have nothing to complain about there. The teacher simply showed a movie demonstrating proper latch techniques projected onto a ten-foot screen. Who in their right mind would complain about three hours worth of gigantic naked boobies? I may not give a shit about the Super Bowl, but I'm still a man.
Certainly there are hospital-based parenting classes that are better than the ones we attended, but the basic problems with these must be inherent in all. Face it, you just can't teach this stuff. They make you think you need to take classes because you want to feel prepared, but nothing in the world can prepare you for this. And that's okay. We may sometimes feel like conquistadors in a strange, savage land; but these paths are well-worn by others with less resources than we have who did just fine. Sometimes the paths created by others lead to dead-ends, sometimes to El Dorado. But most of the time you just have to hack your way through the jungle. It may be that it's even more rewarding that way. To quote Uncle Walt, the old homo bachelor, though a true teacher through and through:
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
. . .
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
I'll give my younger sister my aforementioned advice, but she probably won't listen. In a year or so we'll bond over the regret that those fifteen hours would have been better spent in movie theaters or fine restaurants or any other place you can no longer go once your hours are spent installing disposable diapers on a real live squirming kid. But she is just going to have to find that out for herself.