"US doctor Robert Bradley confirmed that a father’s presence helped the mother to relax." Photo: Ali Johnson Photography
“Andrew was rubbish at the birth of our first,” adds his wife Nina, 35. “He kept moaning about being bored, how he was too hot, arguing with the staff in a very aggressive and macho way, as if he was dealing with clients. When they came to put the epidural in, he fainted at the sight of the needle. So we’ve decided this time I’m better off with Mum in the delivery room. But the few friends we told teased Andrew so much for wimpishness that we’re now keeping it to ourselves.”
Not so long ago, a father being present at the birth of his child was unthinkable. Women panted in the delivery room, men smoked a fat cigar in the pub. But since the Seventies, all this has changed and, today, witnessing your children’s entry into the world is a mandatory rite of passage in which 93 per cent of men participate.
But what about the seven per cent of men who still can’t, or more usually don’t want to, witness their loved one as she labours, pushes and crowns, a process which the singer Robbie Williams described as like “watching my favourite pub burning down”?
Last week, TV presenter Nick Knowles, 51, outraged many when he announced that he wouldn’t attend the birth of his third child in August. His second wife, Jessica, 26, told a magazine that she preferred to give birth accompanied by a friend who was “not too emotionally involved”.
“Giving birth is a very physical process and I don’t want him to see me in that vulnerable state. I prefer a little bit of smoke and mirrors,” she said. Knowles added: “'There’s a huge amount of guilt, fear and worry on a man’s behalf when their partner gives birth, along with a feeling of complete uselessness.”
“Men will tell you that they want to be at the birth, but it’s because they think they ought to be,” he continued. “Admitting that you’re not going to be there provokes the most extraordinary reaction, as if it’s an abdication of responsibility.”
Online forums reacted with outrage, with most criticism being reserved for Jessica, who was described as “selfish” and “vain”, not to mention “naive” to think she’d be able to maintain her mystique once sleepless nights with a vomiting baby commenced. Knowles retorted: “I think it is a mark of how brainwashed we are on the subject that people, and women in particular, can be so abusive to [my wife] on a choice that is ours and ours alone.”
So is Knowles a wimpish throwback? Is his wife a Stepford clone, more concerned with keeping up appearances than bonding over this primal process? Or has society gone too far in expecting men and women to share in such intimate moments?
Siobhan Freegard, founder of the popular parenting website Netmums, is forgiving of Knowles’s decision. “Most mothers do want the support of their partner, and most men do want to witness the miracle of birth, and report feeling in awe of their partners and much closer to them afterwards. But giving birth is tough enough, so if the father is so uncomfortable that he’ll only make it worse, or the mother wants to retain some mystique, then that’s fine. Asking their mum to be a birthing partner, rather than a male partner, is a popular choice for many.”
Indeed, as Knowles pointed out to his critics, it only became customary for fathers to attend births from the late Sixties onwards. Previously, female modesty was seen as sacrosanct, though in some cases, midwives would command husbands to enter in order to have sex with their labouring wives, in an attempt to speed up delivery.
Attitudes changed fully after an influential 1962 study by US doctor Robert Bradley confirmed that a father’s presence helped the mother to relax. A new emphasis on the nuclear family also meant that women were now more likely to turn to husbands, rather than female relations, for emotional, as well as financial, support.
Today, men like Gordon Ramsay, who claimed that participating in the birth of his four children would mean his sex life “would be damaged by images like something out of a sci-fi movie – skinned rabbits and conger eels coming at me from everywhere”, seem as antediluvian as bowler hats and hansom cabs.
“I can’t imagine my husband not being at my children’s birth,” says Sarah, 37. “He’s the person I know best in the world, not to mention that I’ve needed him at every birth to literally run to find midwives, as the hospitals were so short-staffed.”
Others have more complex motives. “My husband is very alpha and sporty – the only time I’ve seen him in utter awe of me is when I’m giving birth,” says Liz, 39, who is currently pregnant with her fifth child.
But a minority side with Jessica Knowles. A 2006 survey in the UK by the Royal College of Midwives showed a significant number of mothers (38 per cent) wished their partners hadn’t been present, with one in six saying men “got in the way”, and one in four men admitting they felt “useless”.
Leah, whose baby was born by elective caesarean, says: “We had to wait a long time to go into theatre and my husband drove me nuts, complaining about how hungry he was, when I’d been nil-by-mouth since six the night before. As soon as the baby was born he rushed into the hallway to call everyone, and I was left alone for ages while they stitched me up. Then he came back with sandwiches for him and not me. My resentment spoilt what should have been a beautiful experience.”
Not all medics are convinced either that a male presence is necessary. In 2009, the respected French obstetrician Michel Odent stated men in delivery rooms were the reason for rising caesarean rates, claiming a male partner could make a woman more anxious, slowing the production of the hormone oxytocin, which helps the labour process. And a recent survey by Oxford University showed that men were “deeply affected” by difficult births, with some experiencing subsequent depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Consultant obstetrician Chandrima Biswas, who points out that most fathers who don’t attend births today do so for cultural reasons, says that we shouldn’t mock men who complain of trauma. “I used to think fathers had no right to complain about anything, since women did all the hard work, but experience has made me think it is a very complex process for men,” she says. “There’s a deep-down evolutionary agenda that wants to protect their partners and stop them from coming to any harm.
“I’ve delivered for a few women who ended up needing forceps, and the fathers have come back to me with PTSD. They’ve felt completely out of control and, unlike the mothers, they haven’t been producing oxytocin, which prepares you and makes you more accepting of what’s happening. Some of them say: 'I can’t look at my partner in the same way any more, I’m not sure if I can have sex with her again.’”
The need to protect means that some men can be overly interfering, too. “They swear at you. One said: 'You’re not putting those ----ing forceps on my baby’s head.’ With some, you have to say: 'Could you just go and sit down because I can’t deal with your wife, your baby and you!’”
Nonetheless, Biswas thinks men should attend births, if possible, having prepared themselves in advance for the goriest of eventualities.
“Couples get closer through the hugely emotional experience of seeing a baby born. When you’re screaming in pain, you want the person you are closest to in the world to support you. I know I wouldn’t have been able to swear at my mother – she would have been shocked – but my husband took it in his stride.”