Should dads be in the delivery room?

Date

Monica Dux

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As well as expressing my attitude to episiotomies and forceps, emergency caesars and epidurals, my first birth plan included lengthy instructions about what to do if my husband fainted. This was added at his insistence, as he was terrified that he'd pass out at a crucial moment, gashing his head on the way down and diverting vital medical resources away from the baby and me.

This wasn't an entirely fanciful scenario, since my husband's fear of blood and gore is such that he once needed medical attention after witnessing me cut my finger. Yet the obvious solution - that he avoid the risk of head injury by staying outside the birthing suite until the gory stuff was over - was never even discussed. And no wonder. A new father can still get away with shirking most of the work associated with having a baby, but there's one thing that is sure to classify him as a certified scumbag, and that's failing to turn up for the birth.

Yet there are those who question the wisdom of this social rule. Prominent among them is Michel Odent, a French obstetrician and renowned natural birth advocate, who went from guru to bad guy when he expressed the sacrilegious opinion that dads were a liability to labouring women, as their presence interrupted the primal workings of the birthing mother's brain. Another dissenting voice is British bioethicist Dr Jonathan Ives, who believes that witnessing labour can interfere with a father's ability to bond with his new baby.

Following this lead, a handful of experts has started using the term ''post-traumatic parturition syndrome'', a high-falutin way of saying that a man was freaked out by seeing his wife pass an object the size of a watermelon.

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In most cultures birthing is seen as strictly women's business, and dads are expressly excluded from being present. Until the 1970s, it was much the same in the West. Male obstetricians may have run the birthing show, but the guy who kicked the whole thing off was expected to pace up and down in the waiting room, assuming that he wasn't needed at work, or down at the pub. At this time many doctors considered birthing to be dangerous to the delicate male psyche, with some even suggesting that witnessing a birth might unleash ''latent homosexuality'' in the father-to-be.

This blanket ban on dads only began to lift in the 1970s, thanks to lobbying from the natural birth movement, a handful of dedicated doctors, and some determined parents-to-be. But once the door to the birthing suite was opened, attitudes changed rapidly, so that by the mid-1980s sociologists who were studying the phenomena had trouble finding dads who hadn't attended the birth of their children.

Today, most fathers-to-be try to get actively involved, reading up about birthing and attending prenatal classes. A midwife told me that some men feel so much ownership over the whole process that they start referring to ''our uterus''.

When the big day arrives, the truth is, while mum labours, most dads spend their time standing around, bored, confused about what they should be doing or, in my husband's case, trying not to pass out. So, should we reconsider the idea of men in the birthing room, or give them the option of abstaining, without social condemnation?

Back in the 1980s a group of psychologists undertook a study in which they observed the role male partners played in labour. After the birth most new mums gave extremely positive reports of their partner's performance, remembering them as having been an invaluable support. Yet when these accounts were compared with the observations the researchers had made, it was found that many of the ''invaluable'' dads had done nothing more than sit in the corner reading the paper, probably eating the boiled lollies.

Maybe this provides an insight into the real reason that dads ought to keep attending births. When you're passing that watermelon, you want to think that you're not doing it on your own, that there's someone there, sharing the whole thing with you. Even if he does hog all the lollies.

Monica Dux's latest book Things I Didn't Expect (when I was expecting), is published by Melbourne University Press.

40 comments

  • My twins are now 4 years old, but I still remember walking the 'natural birth' gauntlet, and the one thing that struck me was the absolute, complete lack of evidence.

    Don't get me wrong, many of things done in modern obstetrics also lack a firm body of evidence and are more driven by habit. But the natural birth movement is philosophy NOT science. There is no evidence that fathers interrupt the birth process, and if we want to go back to how we 'used to birth' would we also be happy with going back to devastating maternal and fetal mortality?

    Personally, I didn't give a monkeys that my husband was bored during labour. I needed him there to help me, to act as my advocate with the staff when I was in too much pain to talk, and when things went very VERY wrong I needed him there to help get us through it.

    Commenter
    Liv
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 9:44AM
    • My husband is still traumatised from the very pear-shaped arrival of our first son, who got stuck, and even more so by the massive haemorrhage I had a week later at home which almost killed me (I still see my blood splashing off the bathroom walls, it looked like a horror movie, and he was the one who found me & called the ambulance etc..) And he is usually very calm & has a very high pain threshold.

      The woman doesn't have to watch her nether regions being sliced/ripped open, so I'm not sure what's to be gained from making the husband/partner watch either if it's not a standard arrival. They asked me if I wanted a mirror: I said "Why, is my hair messy?". That was 18 hours in & after drugs... That said, seeing the baby actually arrive is something I wanted to share immediately, when they put him on my chest & he looked at me, and then at his dad. A moment neither of us will ever forget. Fortunately he appeared satisfied with what he saw...

      Perhaps keep all but the keenest up the head end. My husband did watch the Caesarean for the second behind the blocking sheet. I didn't want to watch that.

      Commenter
      Carmine
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 12:38PM
  • Ah the tribuations of the poor old dads-to-be is heart wrenching....not! They had no such trouble being in the bed conceiving said baby but at birthing time they're vulnerable. Suck it up princesses!

    Commenter
    rrr
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 9:44AM
    • And how is single life treating you?

      Commenter
      Weary
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 11:09AM
    • The comments coming from rrr clearly prove that SHE did not read the article. You can't hide behind your username, we know you're a woman with issues towards men, otherwise you wouldn't have posted your comment. The fact some men, and while we are at it, WOMEN faint at the sight of blood is not what this article is about. And really, who's business is it other than the couple's, about who is in the room? Considering how many other people are in the room these days, does the father's presence really interrupt the primal workings of the birthing mother's brain? Get over yourselves. Being there for the birth of my twin girls was one of the greatest experiences I will ever have and I know my wife appreciated my support.

      Commenter
      XR
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 12:33PM
    • @Weary - I am a woman with three children and my husband attended all three births. If I were "single", I'm sure life would be treating me just as well.

      @XR - my point exactly!

      Commenter
      rrr
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 1:28PM
  • I remember when I was pregnant with my first baby, I was deliberating whether or not to have my husband there. He was stunned and assumed I would want him there and not only that, that he did not want to miss it for anything. I told him I would let him know my decision. Hey, if I could have not been there, I would have missed it. Yep, all three times. I did have a doula and I was concerned that he would be a distraction or hindrance. Of course, how could I guilt him with the pain of childbirth for the rest of his life if he missed it all? What to do? Decisions, decisions.
    Ultimately, I let him be there and told him, stay up behind my shoulder! He didn't. He ended up holding a leg and front row. I told him to do what I said, to not take it personal when I said or did anything mean to him ( "I said Don't touch me!!") and wanted to smack him when I saw the look of hurt when he tried to offer me something to feel better.

    In hindsight, I feel yes, he was a distraction for me when labouring cause I was aware my cow bellows were freaking him. Once I had the epidurals he was fun to have around. I believe it is up to the woman and if a man says I don't think I can do this, you should let them off the hook.

    Commenter
    butterball37
    Date and time
    April 15, 2013, 9:46AM
    • "I believe it is up to the woman". I don't agree with that at all. Being a family means being a team and making decisions together. I'm not sure why you think it's your decision whether a father witnesses the birth of his child. Perhaps legally you might be able to enforce it but legal doesn't equate to moral and certainly doesn't mean there aren't consequences. The fact that you wanted to hit your husband during what should've been an amazing and bonding experience is awful. Your decision not to have an epidural immediately on admission was your own mistake; not his. Quite frankly I don't know why a guy would settle for having kids with someone who feels/acts the way you described. I sure wouldn't.

      My wife and I loved our natural birth. Seeing my daughter come into the world and placing her in mum's arms was the most magical experience in my life. I'll always remember when you head first appeared and soothing/encouraging my wife with her labor. Cutting the umbilical cord was also amazing. My thoughts are that any man who wouldn't want to be involved in the birth might want to consider how much they really want to have kids. Any women who doesn't want their husband to share the experience with her might want to consider whether they really love their husband enough to commit to having kids with them. After all it's a very long and difficult road having children and if you don't love them absolutely you likely won't make it; with everyone, but mostly the children, suffering.

      Commenter
      James
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 10:32AM
    • " I told him I would let him know my decision" And I would have told you thanks but I think i made a mistake marrying you!

      Commenter
      Non User
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 11:16AM
    • I rate being present for the birth of my son as the most profound experience of my life, the most emotional and the most wonderful.

      I don't blame your husband for being devastated. Even after he told you, in your words, that he "would not miss it for anything", you responded by saying you "would let him know of your decision" (very magnanimous).

      If my wife had treated me like that, I would lose respect for her.

      Commenter
      Ben C of Canberra
      Date and time
      April 15, 2013, 11:58AM

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