“Nurturing is not a genetically feminine attribute. Tears and laughter are not the province of women only. The last time I looked, men had tear ducts. They had arms for holding babies. They cared about their children. And they cried at births…let the shared experience of childbirth reclaim the human soul.”
–-Ariska Razak (midwife and healer)
Do men belong at births? Could their presence actually be inhibiting? These questions are occasionally turned over in the literature about midwifery and the hormonal “orchestration” of labor. Quite a few years ago, when writing about what was most helpful during my first labor and birth, I wrote: “My husband—his presence just there with me. I felt like we were one person. This isn’t something I feel like you can ‘train’ for. It was naturally arising and just pure.”
From a letter in the Fall 1997 issue of Mothering magazine: “Having men as coaches in our current hospital setting cannot work. I’m not sure that a man as coach can ever work. That is why all traditional societies used women who had themselves given birth. I think that hospitals have used the ‘man a coach’ idea as a facade to make the public think the hospital is opening its policies and changing its ideas, when actually it is just a cover up. The hospital continues its own structure and routine. It would take other women to challenge that facade…We can encourage fathers to bond with their babies at birth, and help them develop rituals appropriate to our time; however, we must honor the fact that birth is a woman’s process. As women help each other birth, we strengthen the family structure that is the very core of our society.” –Elanne Palcich
Research has indicated that men at birth take on one of three roles: that of “coach” (20%), “teammate” (20%), or “witness” (60%). I’ve observed both in person and in birth films that this seems accurate. Many men seem to be likely to fall into an “observer” (witness) type of role during birth, instead of a more hands-on one. This can be disappointing to women, or to the men themselves, who pictured a more active role in the birthing process. Particularly in filmed births, I note the father of the baby sitting by a woman’s bedside and holding her hand, or patting her back at most.
A good resource is the book Fathers at Birth by Rose St. John. This book expands the role of the father at birth from “observer” to that of “mountain” and “warrior.” The mountain is strong, stable, calm, still, and supportive. The warrior is alert, responsive, focused, and protective of the birth space and laboring woman. He is there to serve.
In the opening chapter of the book, the author says, “If families are to remain strong, men and their roles as partners, husbands, protectors, and fathers cannot be considered dispensable or superfluous. both partners are diminished when the value of a man’s contribution is marginalized, minimized, or not acknowledged. When the man’s vital role during labor and birth is understood, both men and women are empowered.”
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a mother from one of my most recent birth classes. She told me something that her husband said to her in labor that I found very profound. Staff at the hospital were becoming concerned that this mother’s labor was “not progressing” and “not normal.” She, in turn, became worried that she wasn’t normal and that something was wrong. Her husband told her: “There is no normal. There is no right way. There is only your birth.”
In Fathers at Birth, St. John addresses something similar:
“Of course your baby is the greatest gift of labor. but another great gift is you are pressed to your max or beyond, and you succeed. It expands who you know yourself to be…Labor is all about finding your threshold and learning you can go beyond it…If your partner feels, for whatever reason, that labor did not unfold as she had hoped, she needs your assurance. No woman should be judged or judge herself for doing whatever she has to to do to bring her baby forth into this world. And no man should be judged or judge himself for how he attends his partner or how he responds to birth. You are dealing with life on the edge. You do not know what will happen in it, and you are not in control. Together, you are participants in the mystery, and you do the best you can…On some levels, it doesn’t matter how you both get through labor. There is no prescription. No script. No right way. Its commanding power does not depend exclusively on you or your partner to do it. No matter how you get through, it alters and expands you…whether you are powerfully present, totally absent, or anywhere in between; birth deposits its power into your lives. The transformation is enduring. You can never go back.”
She also addresses the “weight” men shoulder when attending their partners in birth:
“Since men are not the ones doing the actual labor and birth, they may be embarrassed to admit how exhausted and relieved they are once it is over and all is well. they may also be reluctant to admit the amount of dedication and work it took them to attend their partner. I don’t think most women (or anyone else) realize the weight many men shoulder during labor and birth. What happens to a man’s partner and his baby, in effect, happens to him…[quote from father re: being present for his wife in labor] I don’t think anyone has any idea of the amount of effort it takes to be in a physically supportive role where you have to take action, yet be in a witness role where you have to be truly present…”
I saved some other quotes that are relevant to this topic:
“Dads can play a key role early on in pregnancy to help mom and baby get the care that’s safest and healthiest…He’s a very important advocate, and can provide emotional support for mom throughout labor and birth.”
–Tara Owens Shuler, Lamaze President-elect (via Five Tips for Expectant Dads to Prepare for Labor and Birth — Giving Birth with Confidence)
Personally, the births of each of our babies was been a catalyst for big changes in our home situation. Our first baby was the catalyst we needed to move away from our by-the-highway-no-yard townhouse in a city and onto our own land in the country near my parents. Our second baby was the catalyst we needed to finish building our real house and to move out of our temporary house and into our permanent home. When our baby girl was born in 2011, she was the biggest catalyst of all. We had spent our entire married life up to that point (13 years then, 16 now!) saying that we want to live a “home based life.” I truly do not think it is (biologically) normal, desirable, or healthy for anyone to spend 40+ hours a week out of their home, regardless of whether or not they have children or who the primary caregiver is. I don’t think fathers belong at work that much time, I don’t think mothers do either, and I don’t think children do either. The home-based life idea came to us long before we had kids and it came from all the reading and thinking I did about the simple living movement. So, that third baby results in us jettisoning his full-time job and focusing on our other passions and our “multiple streams of income.” All that time spent together at home also produced our fourth and final baby, born at home in the water in 2014.
“The absolute miracle of a birth and the emergence of a new human being into the world catapults both mother and father into the realm of awe and wonder. They are flooded with non-ordinary feelings and energies that support a deep connection not only with the newborn and each other, but also with the mystery and power of life itself.”
–John & Cher Franklin in FatherBirth