The Role of the Father
Go to any birth class, and it is common to see both expectant mothers and fathers in attendance. Most couples would not want it any other way. However, this has not always been the case. Over the centuries, childbirth has been a woman’s business.
Women were supported by other women during labor, with father only peripherally involved, if at all.
It has only been in recent centuries, with the evolution of medicine, that male doctors have become interested in childbirth, particularly the medicalization of the experience (see “Introduction to Natural Pregnancy”).
By the 1960s, fathers became included, and were expected to enter the delivery room arena—goodbye cigars! Interestingly, this parallels a time when hospitals became larger and less personal, and in the United States, midwives were less present. Hence, a familiar person, the father, emerges onto the childbirth scene.
My husband accompanied me to my birth class and participated in the exercises. When I went into labor with our first child, I woke him up in the wee hours of the morning. My contractions were climbing, and I really wanted him to press on my back, but he kept falling asleep, so I called my friend, Julie, who rushed over at 4:30 a.m.
She stuck by my side until my son was born. This worked out best for everyone. I appreciated having my husband there, but I could see he was more comfortable boiling the water and doing other activities assigned to him by the midwife.
Later on, I accompanied my friend, Susie, to the hospital for the birth of her second child, which consisted of only thirty minutes of hard labor.
Although I thought she had a wonderful birth, I glanced over to her husband who was weeping in the corner, traumatized by the whole experience. He was there because he felt obligated to be with us.
While sitting by my friend Karin’s side while she was laboring in the bathtub, her husband came into the bathroom eating a bagel with cream cheese. He wanted to check in with her to see if we needed anything.
Although he meant well, she was clearly irritated by the smell of the food and his conversation.
Most fathers have never witnessed a birth nor had any significant training besides a few childbirth classes, yet there are demands placed upon him that are beyond that of a medical student. Fathers are
expected to act as coach, guide, and advocate without any professional training.
As a woman’s contractions intensify, most men become uncomfortable and can even become distressed in seeing their wife in pain.
For a layperson this is a normal response. In addition, studies show that men and women tend to act differently toward the laboring woman.
During labor, women touch a laboring woman more frequently, while men prefer to talk. Trying to converse with a woman in labor can interfere with the birth process, which is more about “letting go” to another consciousness, and less about engaging the intellect (known as neocortex activity).
As a result, male partners are not always able to offer the type of support a laboring woman needs. The man’s role in labor can be one of three possibilities: coach, teammate, or witness.
The coach assists the woman during her contractions, while the teammate takes his instructions from the laboring woman or practitioner.
The most common role is that of a witness who observes labor and is there to “hold the woman’s hand.”
After attending many births from my medical training to all of my close friends, I have come to realize that being at the birth is not fitting for everyone, including (in some cases) the expectant father.
I have witnessed fathers who want to participate fully, and some who step back
and allow others to help. There is no right or wrong way. Many fathers do not really know how they will respond until the birth day.
Although there are wonderful stories of fathers who have been the ideal birth companion, this does not apply to all men. I have met quite a few men who confided in me that witnessing their wives birth was not a positive experience.
Research shows that male partners play a minor role in labor support, but it is still meaningful for most couples that he is present. In many cases, having her companion present during labor has a positive effect on a woman’s satisfaction with the birth experience.
Working with a professional, such as a doula, is a wonderful support for both the laboring woman and expectant father. In the end, if a woman desires a natural undisturbed birth in the hospital, I strongly recommend hiring a doula .