“What used to be the secret business of the women’s circle is now the expectant father’s job description.” Lucy Perry, Cheers to Childbirth: a dad’s guide to childbirth support, Pure Publishing 2010.
Unlike their fathers, men in the twenty-first century are encouraged to be present at the births of their babies. In fact, it’s a social expectation that they attend the birth, support their partner in her every need and know what those needs might be. It takes a brave BRAVE man to admit that he doesn’t want to be at the birth. But should he be let off the hook if he’d rather be somewhere else? I don’t mean the kind of cop out where he’d rather be fishing, but the kind desperate desire to be anywhere, even the dentist, rather than at the business end of the birth of his own child.
There is a small number of men who are absolutely terrified at the thought of being present when their partner is in labour. Their mates probably have a lot to answer for, making childbirth sound like a day in the trenches of warfare. Or they just may not feel equipped to support their partner through such a foreign experience in such an unfamiliar environment as a hospital. Perhaps there are mental illness issues that prevent a man from being emotionally available to his partner at this time. I’m not suggesting that all men who don’t want to attend the birth of their baby are mentally ill, I’m just considering various reasons that may prevent men from wanting to participate.
If an expectant father is very anxious about the birth, he’s better of being somewhere else, says Associate Professor of Midwivery and President of the Australian College of Midwives, Hannah Dahlen. “If a man is forced to be with his partner in labour, his fear can impact on the woman’s experience and can effectively alter the course of the birth in a negative way.”
“We need a get-out clause for men,” says Hannah. “They shouldn’t be forced to be involved in childbirth if they don’t want to be. Most men are keen to be involved, but men are doers and women are talkers, thinkers and feelers. Birth is an incredibly instinctive process and men need to allow this process to unfold without trying to fix anything.”
Well-known french author and surgeon Dr Michel Odent goes one step further and says that fathers shouldn’t have a role in childbirth even if they want to support their partner. He says that men interfere with the natural chemistry of birth, they fuss about and talk too much and they allow their own fears to rub off on their partner.
He’s absolutely right in a way: if a bloke is distracted from the task at hand, if he’s making phone calls and checking his emails, talking too much and not paying his full attention to the labouring woman, he will interfere with the natural hormones that drive the labour and numb the pain. Those men, should stay at home and assemble the cot. However, if an expectant father knows what he is doing, he can play a critical role in the birth and be more important than any medical team. A man can support his partner in a way that no midwife, doula or doctor can.
This is where Dr O and I disagree. He thinks all men should stay away from the world of birth. I think all the men who genuinely fear the birth should make themselves scarce and those who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t bother to prepare for their role should find someone else to support their partner such as an experienced doula.
Those who want to have an active role in the birth of their baby should prepare themselves for the challenge on a practical level. Men should know what to expect from the birth process and the hospital environment (or home if that’s where they will be birthing) and they should feel empowered to protect and adore their partner through the challenge.
How can men prepare themselves for what has been secret women’s business since the beginning of time?
For a start, they should attend Beer + Bubs: childbirth education for men at the pub. These classes are run in all major cities, specifically for expectant fathers, in their natural habitat: the local pub. The session focusses on the support person’s role and allows men the opportunity to meet other men in the same boat and to ask questions that he might be nervous to ask in front of his partner.
Blokes should also read Cheers to Childbirth: a dad’s guide to childbirth support which includes chapters called Life after Birth and Breastfeeding for Blokes, together with birth stories from some high profile Australian fathers.