Liana Summer Sol fell asleep during the check-in. Zachary Dasch slurped from his bottle, oblivious to discussion about the cultural relativity of parenting practices. Graydon and Griffin Fitzpatrick were twinning, naturally, in identical onesies that read, "Daddy and I agreed … Mommy's the best!"
Except for an occasional babble or burp, the Saturday morning meet-up at Abington Health Center remained relatively tranquil — until Greg Whelan III flung a toy at his buddy Elizabeth Brennian.
Elizabeth's father, Jerry, scooped up his wailing 7-month-old. "You're OK," he murmured. Greg's father, also named Greg, apologized. And the toy-flinger toddled to another adult — the only man in the room without a baby in tow — to offer him a slightly moist green plastic doughnut.
It was just another morning at DadLab, a peer mentoring group for new fathers and fathers-to-be, a space to share everything that is sublime and absurd and confounding and depleting about parenthood, in the company of other men.
Psychologist Jay Cherney launched DadLab in late 2016. The idea, he says, was to make a space parallel to the refuge and sisterhood many women find in mommies' groups, a place for men to talk frankly about fathering.
"DadLab is a safe space to be scared, to admit you're scared, and that opens up the learning opportunities," says Cherney. "Men like to be in charge. They like to fix things. But for new fathers … there's chaos, there's overload, there's exhaustion. Sometimes a crying baby won't stop crying, no matter what you do."
New DadLab participants attend a two-and-a-half-hour introductory workshop, along with their wives; Cherney invites them to talk about their own fathers, their dreams and fears about parenthood, the ways they will navigate conflict, stress, and gender roles once the baby is born.
After that, the men can join ongoing DadLab groups — sponsored by Abington Hospital and a private donor, and free to participants — that meet every other Saturday, or attend a couples group with their partners. Some start as "pre-dads" (Cherney's lingo), then show up later with diaper bags and babies.
"You see the fathering happening right there as they share their experiences and stories," he says. Cherney recalls one pre-dad who perched on the edge of his chair, taut with anxiety about impending parenthood. "He said, 'I don't think I can do this.' The guys gave him lots of support. A couple weeks ago, he came to the couples group with his wife and 4-week-old baby, and he was flying high."
On a recent Saturday morning, a sunny conference room at Abington's Willow Grove facility filled quickly — 12 fathers with kids ranging from 3 weeks to a year old, and one wary-looking pre-dad.
"Made it!" exulted Jason Sol, trundling in with 3-month-old Liana in her car seat. It was his first solo outing with the baby. That was also true for Brennian and for Steven Dasch, there with 5-week-old Zachary.
"This is our first time away from Mom," announced Tim DeGroff, with 2-month-old Mary nestled in his lap. "If she starts having a meltdown, I'll have to go."
As the men took turns checking in — describing, at Cherney's invitation, one highlight and one hurdle of their parenting lives — some common themes emerged. Sleep — or more precisely, the dearth of it — was one.
"We are so deep in the throes of not-sleeping," Jeffrey Lavenberg sighed as he jostled 3-week-old Elliott in his arms. "I'm reaching that point where the adrenaline's not keeping up." His comrades nodded: Been there, buddy.
Whelan, father of 13-month-old Greg III, recalled sleep-training his son. "I thought he was going to cry for hours; the first night, he cried for 17 minutes. Now, he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. It's been a crazy year."
Brennian, who wore a bright yellow T-shirt and a haze of 5 o'clock shadow, told the group Elizabeth started sleeping better after three months. "So you're past the hundred days of darkness," Cherney noted. "Hear that, guys? You got to hang in there."
With Cherney's gentle prompts, the men talked about bonding (it doesn't happen instantly), about anxiety (their own and their wives') and about the ongoing struggle to attend to work, fatherhood, and their marriages.
They chuckled at a clip from the documentary Babies, which depicts the lives of infants in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. In one sequence, a nurse in Mongolia tightly swaddles a newborn, and the mother — who gave birth a day or two earlier — clutches the baby as she straddles her husband's motorcycle.
Cherney contrasted that scene with United States practice: new parents can't leave the hospital without a regulation car seat. "The point is to remember that the [parenting] standards are totally embedded in our culture," he told the men.
Lavenberg continued to rock Elliott. The twins commando-crawled in opposite directions. DeGroff maneuvered his phone one-handed to snap a picture of Mary.
And Cherney asked another question: Have you felt frustrated or angry with your baby? A moment's silence, then the stories began to spill out.
"Liana would latch, pass out, cry, and we'd try to latch her again," Sol recalled. "I had no idea what she was going through."
"The first two weeks, we felt like we were completely useless," Brennian said.
"Last night," offered Fitzpatrick, "we put them both down, and five minutes later, they were both screaming. We didn't know what to do."
Cherney nodded. "It's the helplessness — the worst feeling, but we all go through it. There's this expectation out there that it's so exciting and wonderful to be a new dad, but there's also the hard part. That's what's so useful about DadLab. This is a place where you can be OK with the hard parts."
After 90 minutes, the babies were restive. Sol needed to manage a diaper emergency; Fitzpatrick strapped Graydon and Griffin into their side-by-side stroller. On the periphery, pre-dad Tyler Hurst was taking mental notes. He and his wife, due with their first baby in August, had attended some birth classes, but Hurst felt they overlooked the role of fathers.
"Before we were even pregnant, I'd be driving to work, daydreaming about conversations I could have with my child," he said. After the group, he had more pragmatic items on his mind. "I definitely need to learn more about breast-feeding," he said. "And sleep training.
"But seeing the way you guys interact with your kids gives me a little bit of faith: OK, this is going to be all right."