“Fathers at Birth”

I have been a vocal advocate of not forcing fathers to attend the labor and/or birth of their children if they don’t want to. Many men feel — and are — ill-equipped to be good labor companions. The long hours of “nothing happening” (dilation — which is hardly “nothing happening”, but it can appear to be so from the outside) may be boring; his wife may be in pain; he may want to protect her so coerces her into unwanted and unnecessary medication, etc. Of course, I’ve heard many stories of just the opposite — women who relied on their husbands as a “rock” to get them through the difficult passage of labor, who found their marriages renewed and strengthened by his wonderful support during labor, etc. — so I do not advocate a return to men being kept out of the labor and birth process entirely either. There is no one single right way for everyone in all the different circumstances — with all the different personalities and circumstances involved, there needs to be room for some give and take.

But I was intrigued by a book entitled Fathers at Birth: Your Role in Bringing Your Child Into the World by Rose St. John. Although I have just begun to read it, I am already looking forward to seeing how she brings the distinctly feminine arts of labor and birth into the masculine arena, making them accessible to men. All too often, pregnancy, labor and birth books are focused so much on women (which is only normal and natural, since they are the only ones who can be pregnant and go through labor and birth), and then they kind of say, “Oh, yeah, and your husband, too,” without really delving into the different way men perceive the world and react to things. Case in point — if you call your best friend and tell her all about your bad day, she’ll probably sympathize and say, “I hope tomorrow will be better for you.” If you tell your husband about your bad day, he’ll probably critique your handling of certain situations so that tomorrow you can have a better day because you’ll react differently to the trials of the day. The desire of both is the same — that you will have a good day tomorrow; but the way they react to your story is entirely different.

At the beginning of the book, the author begins with recapping the typical “taxicab birth” story, in which the driver ends up having to pull over on the side of the road and catch the baby, although he felt completely unwilling and indeed unequipped to do so. She writes:

Just like the driver, an expectant father is already equipped to attend his partner during childbirth; the secret is switching modes. The driver has to shift out of his angst and habitual way of thinking so he can see and respond to the situation as it is. Not how he wants it to be. He has to show up and play it as it lays.

I think this “switching modes” is extremely important, and something most birth books leave out, or don’t pay enough attention to. But many men need to be given tools so that they can switch modes and be who and what their wives need them to be, so they don’t flounder in the labor room, feeling like a fish out of water, and perhaps even making things worse with their attempts at helping which are less than helpful. I think one of the biggest problems that has arisen from men being in the labor rooms with their wives, is that they are more or less sent into combat without a gun or even basic training, but expected to completely fulfill the role assigned to them by society. Then, when they mess up, they feel like failures, and their wives may reinforce their failing, when it wasn’t really his fault to begin with.

If you want to know what a laboring woman needs from her partner and how to meet those needs, this book is for you.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book, and reviewing and commenting on it as I go along. Already I’m enjoying it, and I’ve only read the first few pages!

7 Responses

  1. Isn’t it a relatively new idea to have the husband in a delivery to begin with? All I can think about is the book “The Red Tent”, which I loved. Women have been the main labor support people throughout history. My husband was at both of our births, mainly because I did not want him to miss the birth of his children, but not really as a support person. It seems a little strange that we need a whole book to guide men on how to behave in a delivery. Is this over thinking? I will stay tuned to see what your reaction is to this book.

    • RR — in my understanding, yes, women have been the primary or sole caregivers and labor support of other women giving birth throughout human history. I remember seeing drawings from American Indians that included men (presumably the father) sometimes during labor, particularly when the woman needed a man’s strength — labor positions such as dangling from his neck, or him using a rebozo or long cloth to gyrate her hips to help a baby move down or change position — that sort of thing. Perhaps other cultures included men in similar ways; but I know many cultures essentially forbade men from being around a laboring woman. For instance, the Jewish Law calls a woman “unclean” when she menstruates and gives birth, and her husband is not allowed to touch her when she has “an issue of blood” or else he becomes ceremonially unclean as well, and needs to be purified.

      For centuries in Western culture, midwives were the birth attendant (although certainly other women were there; not so sure about men), and then male doctors started attending some women in birth — usually the rich ones who could afford it — and then it became a status symbol of wealth, so even poorer women started emulating them, if at all possible. But husbands were still probably discouraged from being there, even if a male doctor was present. Then of course, when birth moved to the hospital, NO ONE was allowed in except doctors and nurses who were the trained professionals who could watch over the medical procedure while keeping things sterile. So even if men sometimes dropped in to visit their laboring wives or were at the births of their children at home, they were expressly forbidden (as were the female friends and family) while in the hospital.

      In my understanding, this policy changed partly through the help of male obstetricians such as Dr. Bradley, who one day was struck when a woman gratefully told him, “I couldn’t have done it without you!” — and he thought, “She shouldn’t be saying that to *me* — if she says it to any man, it should be to her *husband*!” And that was the birth of The Bradley Method. Although it took some time before men were willingly allowed into the labor room, when that idea reached critical mass, the pendulum quickly swung to the idea that men *must* be in the labor room and watch their children being born, and any man who balked at the idea or wanted to decline was made to feel like pond scum for not wanting to witness the birth of the baby. But I don’t think that all men should be there — particularly if they don’t want to be.

      However, as I’m reading through this book, if it gives men tools to enable them to be there and not be a drain on their wives, or it helps them work through their fears and misgivings so that they *want* to be there, then I’m all for that. And that seems to be what is happening in the book. Will post more soon.

  2. Very interesting.

  3. I enjoyed this book and wrote about it a couple times on CfM and Talk Birth (oh, and ICEA too!). I immediately incorporated her “mountain” and “warrior” role ideas into my classes–I’m always looking for ways to help the men feel more engaged and acknowledged.

  4. I think a lot of it depends on the family. My husband was not at all interested in learning what was happening, did not attend the childbirth classes. It just isn’t his thing. It took 2 births for me to accept that, and with the third one, I finally got a doula. Hubby came in a couple times while I was laboring, and I remember those times very fondly, while my memories from the other 2 births lean towards irritation at his presence. He (and the “big” kids) came in for the whole pushing and actual birth of baby #3, and that was enough for both of us.

    I think you hit it on the head with the comment that they are “made to feel like pond scum” if not present for the whole thing, and I think that’s unfortunate.

  5. You know… I so agree with the statement of not making fathers be present if they don’t want to. I made it clear to my husband from day one that it was totally his choice and that I would support him no matter what. But no, he wants to actually CATCH the baby and has read more childbirth books than me. lol.

    But I agree, there’s this rumor that fathers will not bond if they’re not there. So not true.

  6. As I look back at my three births (2 inductions/epidurals and then finally a natural birth). A huge contributing factor was the maturity level of both me and my husband. He was my support and rock during my last labor and I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. But he was also a contributing factor to me getting the inductions with our first two births. I think he would agree that maturity had a lot to do with it-and awareness.
    If we are blessed to have another baby we are considering a home birth (and possibly unassisted). So we have both come a long way!
    For us it was prayer, research and communication that worked to get us where we are now.

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