I think it was around the time my wife was pregnant with our first child that I had this curious conversation with a good friend of mine. Twice a father (and a devoted one at that), this friend was just brimming with opinions and empirical wisdom about the trials and tribulations of parenthood. “The one thing I regret,” he paused and then brought his tenor down to a hushed tone, “…was being there for the birth: I should have skipped it.” This was an unexpected sentiment from someone who makes a point of being ready and available for his family whenever needed. In his mind, being there during, and throughout, his wife’s labor was not really somewhere he needed to be, and in some respects had a lasting, semi-negative, impact on their relationship. His detailed justification for this conviction was highly personal, so I figure I should stop here with my account. However, the idea of fathers-to-be sitting out the birth of their child seemed justifiably retrograde in my mind and unappealing, to say the least.
But my friend is hardly alone. While I don’t have hard numbers on how many participate in the birth of their children vs. fathers who opt out, it is fair to say that since the 1970s, the number of hands-on fathers has increased. Men used to be relegated to the waiting room with other dads-in-waiting, as they caught up on sports scores and chain smoking. Now, while hardly requisite, men are welcomed in the delivery room/birthing room (if not expected) and not just to hold the video camera steady. Still there exists a marked disinclination by some fathers, which has been somewhat justified by a new bit of research out of Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Researchers at the Centre believe that a father’s involvement in both childbirth and pregnancy are just setting him up for profound (and possibly irreparable) failure once he realized that, for all of his effort, he is ultimately passive compared to the mother. To hear Dr Jonathan Ives, co-author of the paper state it, “It can then be very difficult for him to regain faith in himself once the baby is born and move from that passive state to being a proactive father.” In essence, these researchers are saying that if dad passes on the birthing classes, the exercises and the child birth itself, he will, as a result, be all the more confident of a parent.
As a way to (almost) strengthen the argument for this separation, the New York Times ran an article some years back about witnessing their wives/partners giving birth (maybe multiple times) basically killed their sexual desire for their respective partners. “Honestly,” one man, married for 12 years, told the New York Times in the 2005 article, “I think one of the main reasons I don’t feel attracted to my wife is that I saw her give birth three times. It’s like I know too much about that part of her.”
Now I have read that the presence of a man (whether he be a doctor, husband, or videographer) in the delivery/birthing room can sufficiently stress the mother out, and effectively works against a smooth and relaxed delivery. While I did not experience this firsthand, I was keenly aware during my wife’s labor that my role was largely supportive, and almost marginal, and at moments when I tried to verbally engage her, she would quietly “shush” me. However, I took no offense and have no regrets about sitting out the 13+ hours by my wife’s side. While I wasn’t exactly engaging every muscle in my body in an effort to pass an 8lb baby through my loins, I was making a worthy contribution.
But we contemporary minded breeders love the idea of equality, and embrace the idea that a couple should, and will, experience birth together. But needless to say, gestating and birthing a baby just isn’t quite the same thing for a man as it is for a woman. While the partnership can be established with a certain parity and equality in mind, when it comes to the physiological experience of childbirth, mother and partner are just in two distinct camps.
Does this mean dad has to take a holiday from involvement once his partner becomes pregnant (I can’t help but wonder if this particular dynamic is at all present with lesbian couples where one is the biological parent and the other takes a more supportive role)? Or instead of relegating fathers-to-be to the waiting room, maybe we just need to recognize that pregnancy and birth might just be a bit intimidating and awkward for the father-to-be, but an experience worth going through? If you are there for the conception, shouldn’t you be there for the delivery? It might just have to be OK that the miracle of both pregnancy and childbirth brings forth two very distinct experiences for both parents with one very unified result – a baby.