A Father’s Journey

I think that fathers are given a raw deal today when it comes to the birth of their babies. Don’t get me wrong, I think that we are WORLDS ahead of the times when fathers were shuffled into the waiting room to pace and await word that their wife had birthed their baby and that both were doing well….but in some ways I think the pendulum has swung too far and bonked them in the head.

While I acknowledge that stereotyping the genders isn’t always accurate, I believe it’s correct more often than it’s wrong. Women are usually primarily focused on home and family – raising children, running the home – while men are usually focused on providing security both financially as well as physically. If there is a threat to the family, it is usually the man that steps into the protector’s role. He is much more likely to be the one to jump out of bed in the middle of the night when there is a strange sound to go and check it out…..unless it’s a baby, then the woman is more likely to be getting up.

I think it’s very telling that when a couple sits down in my office to interview with me, she will often ask me things like, “do you do episiotomies?” “Can I eat and drink in labor?” “Do you do waterbirths?”

He is more likely to ask me, “What if something goes wrong?” “How much does this cost?” “Who is going to clean up afterwards?”

So a traditional man will go through life focusing on his career and falling in love and spending most waking hours thinking about MAKING babies….very rare is the man who ever gave any thought whatsoever to birthing babies! In fact, the mere topic coming up in a conversation is enough of an excuse for them to excuse themselves and speed walk to ANY other conversation that might possibly be occurring.

Until…..

All that baby making he had been enjoying….actually succeeds in making a baby! This man now has just a handful of months to learn everything about pregnancy and birth. Once upon a time he was expected to merely know that a child would eventually live in his home….then he had to know how to cut the cord when he was handed the scissors by a doctor…but NOW he is expected to learn the difference between effacement and dilation, why inductions of labor are bad, how to “coach” his wife through the “pains” of labor, how to door-block the anesthesiologist should he try to enter – and never show nervousness or become upset at seeing his wife sweat and grunt with primal power as she works to bring their baby into the world.

While I greatly appreciate and respect Michele Odent (French obstetrician) on many of his beliefs when it comes to births….I disagree with his contention that men have no place at births. I believe that they are vitally important and, in fact, deserve to be as involved as they want to be! I love it when daddy’s catch their own babies – my own husband has caught 3 of our own babies – so it’s not their ability to be involved that makes me feel bad for them…it’s the expectation and the pressure on many men to be MORE involved than THEY are comfortable with!

I think that it is just as wrong to force a man to attend classes and hold his wife’s hand every minute of labor and make him cut the cord or catch the baby….as it is to prevent a man from doing those things if he desires. We think so much about the woman giving birth and rarely talk about the men and it’s as much the birth of his baby as it is the mother’s.

This is near and dear to my heart because I have been as much in the father’s role as I believe a woman can be. While my husband and I tried desperately to conceive a child when we were first married, years of infertility treatments led to us being told I would never become pregnant. At that time there was a couple who had unexpectedly become pregnant and offered to carry the baby for us. They lived with us for the last 4 months of the pregnancy until our son was born. I went with her to prenatal appointments, loved on her belly, spoke to my son while he was still inside her, and tried my best to support her through the birth of my baby. It gave me a whole different perspective on what dads go through…and it’s not always fun!! The fears, the stress, the feeling responsible and helpless at the same time – I’d rather be the one birthing! I found giving birth much easier than the experience of being in the father’s role.

I’ve often said that in MY experience, after having been on both sides, I believe that the woman goes through all of the PHYSICAL stages of having a baby while the man goes through all of the EMOTIONAL stages of having a baby. I have often pondered why we don’t talk about the unique experience that men are about to go through to become fathers…? Why is the pregnancy/birth section at the bookstore packed with books for women, and yet if you look closely there are only a handful for the men? (and half of THOSE are humor books) We have thrown men (sometimes forcefully) into the delivery room, but haven’t taken any steps to help him along his journey.

And let there be no mistake….it is his journey as well. When he sees his wife at her most vulnerable, he is likely to be at his most protective – and yet feel more helpless than he ever has in his life. Having been unable to feel the baby kicking all day every day, pregnancy is much more of a concept than a reality. Sure, he knows a baby is coming….sort of. He has heard stories of labor and what women do – but that no more prepares him for how he will feel SEEING it, EXPERIENCING it, than hearing a birth story prepares a woman for the feelings of birth. There is a visceral and instinctive response he will usually have to want to fix things, to protect her, even though the reality is that there is nothing anybody can do but witness.

Sit in on any childbirth class and you will hear all about what she is likely to go through, stages of labor, her emotional responses to each stage, things she can do to cope with the sensations, ways she should eat and exercise throughout pregnancy, interventions they will offer her at the hospital….

….what is said about the father?

At Nurturing Hearts Birth Services, we have some wonderful childbirth educators who teach childbirth classes to couples. There are 16 hours in each series and I think they are fantastic classes!! HOWEVER, we also offer a “Basic Training for New Dads” class – this class is just a couple of hours long (one day). Yes, it reflects the bookstore with sprawling shelves of books for moms and a teeny section of books for dads….but I have also seen the difference in men who have taken that class that is only a couple of hours, and it’s remarkable….and it’s probably the first time these men are given permission to actually talk about and prepare for THEIR experience!! And I think that is a part of the equation that has been sorely missing for most men in preparation for fatherhood.

And in the 1990’s we added another person to the birthing team: Doulas! Doulas are trained birth professionals that offer non-clinical support throughout labor and birth.

How confusing to men!! Here we have yanked them out of the waiting room and told them that they are now to be the experts and the “coach” through this process – only to then tell them we are hiring someone else who on the surface appears to fill the role we told them they are going to occupy. Is it any wonderful it is intimidating (and maybe a little insulting on the onset) that we tell the men that their role is of coach, but we also plan to hire a coach? So if that’s his role, and we are hiring someone to do the job…then what the hell is he supposed to do??

I wish that we could just admit the truth – when we put them into that role, it wasn’t for the best for them or for us. They can’t possibly learn everything in just a few months, can’t be expected to remain objectively supportive through the process when it’s their wife going through it, and shouldn’t be forced into the position of being responsible for his wife through the experience. Much better for everyone to hire a doula, have her remember everything they are supposed to remember, have her to relieve fears by explaining what’s normal and what’s not….and, in short, let dad be WITH mom while the doula takes care OF mom. That’s one of the joys of a doula – dad can be with mom while doula takes care of both mom and dad and helps THEM along THEIR journey together – as a couple.

Hiring a doula and going to the Basic Training for New Dads class – those two things can take a stressful and scary situation and actually make it even a little exciting! I think that by taking some time before fatherhood to prepare for what he is likely to experience can make them better birth partners, better husbands, and better fathers…simply through acknowledging that they are HALF of this experience!! Acknowledging their unique fears, their desires, and their transition to fatherhood …I think they deserve it.

I think we all deserve that.

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