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Dads in the Delivery Room: We're Setting Them Up for Failure

In the last 30 or so years, dads have been invited into the delivery room.  Prior to that time, dads were pushed away from the birth process.  They went bowling, or they smoked cigars and paced the hallways.  In older cultures, men were actually banned from the birthing rooms entirely, and only women (mothers, sisters, midwives) were permitted.  Fathers were allowed only after the baby arrived.

So, we’ve really taken a big step forward, right?  Well…not entirely.

See, dads are certainly allowed into the delivery room, and even encouraged in some places (not all hospitals are very family-friendly, unfortunately).  But once they get in there, what happens?  That really depends on the place of delivery, as hospital policies and staff attitudes vary widely.  I’d say, though, that it usually goes something like this:

“Stand next to your wife.  Hold her hand.  And stay out of the way of the doctors.”

Husbands are not encouraged to participate in their child’s birth.  They’re encouraged to be present for it, but not to be involved in any way.  If there’s a tricky moment that is otherwise normal (like, for example, doctors needing to move a lip of cervix before the woman can push, or holding a woman’s legs), they’re more likely to ask staff for assistance than husbands.  At least in many places.  Even if the husband is asked, it’s almost like an afterthought.

I know when I had my first baby, my husband sat in a chair and talked to my dad while I labored (I talked to my mom).  When it came time for delivery, everyone basically ignored him.  He wasn’t unwelcome, but they didn’t specifically acknowledge him, either.  He spent most of the birth standing off to one side, watching everything.  There was a totally…benign attitude towards.  He was there, that was great…but that was it.  He said, “I felt like they were pushing me to the sidelines.”

We’re setting fathers up for failure as parents with this attitude.

For a long time, we’ve treated fathers with this same attitude everywhere.  That is, they are supposed to be with their families.  They are supposed to be “there” for their children.  But they do not need to take an especially active role in child-rearing.  No, they work and it falls to the mother to actually care for the children.  The father is primarily a playmate, not a caretaker.  When we see a father who does actually take care of their children on a regular basis, we’re shocked.  We applaud him as “Father of the Year.”  No mother would ever get this, because she’s expected to do it.  (And this is true even if both parents work!)

I think it starts with the pregnancy.  Fathers are allowed at OB appointments, but not encouraged.  They’re allowed in the delivery room, but they’re not asked to participate.  They’re told the entire time that they’re gearing up for fatherhood that their role is to support their wives.  They’re not told how, not given any specific instruction whatsoever. 

Many of these fathers end up feeling detached from the experience.  After all, they aren’t the ones experiencing the pregnancy, so it’s not really real to them unless they’re included and actively involved.  Once the baby is born, they aren’t the ones feeling the flood of hormones, breastfeeding, and so on.  They can feel left out by their wife, who is totally consumed by this tiny new person.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If we include fathers actively in the pregnancy and birth, we can make them feel a part of everything that is going on.  They are not pregnant, but they are expecting!  If fathers are taught ways that they can be active in the pregnancy (attending doctor’s appointments, massaging their wives, choosing names, deciding where the baby will be born, etc.), and are encouraged to be active during the birth, it makes a huge difference in how fathers feel about the pregnancy and the baby, and in how they bond with the baby once born.

Case in point: after our hospital experience, my husband felt very uncertain about his role with our daughter.  He knew he should be hands-on, and he was because I needed his help, but he felt very unsure and kind of removed from the whole thing.

But when our son was born, he attended every midwives’ appointment with me.  He talked to them almost as much as I did.  He was by my side in birthing class and talking to our instructor.  He was encouraged to participate in every part of the pregnancy.  During the birth he was welcomed and his support was as crucial as that of our midwives.  After our son was born, he felt so included and emotional that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the baby!  And that has shown in his parenting since then — deliberately going out of his way to spend time with and parent our children.  And he said: “With Daniel, I bawled my eyes out.”  It was an entirely different experience.

We need to actually and honestly invite fathers into the pregnancy and into the delivery room.  Not just tolerate or accept their presence, but treat them as expectant fathers.  Their role is different, but just as important as the woman’s.  He helped to conceive the child, and he is going to help raise the child!  He should be an active part of the pregnancy and the delivery, too.  We need to show fathers how they can help, how they can be involved.  They are expectant parents and they need to be truly included. 

During doctors’ appointments, fathers should be asked questions, and have their questions answered.  Even if that question is, “Umm, my wife is acting kind of crazy now…is that normal?”  (Wait to smack him until after you leave!)  They, too, have needs!   (And as a side note…it’s a good idea to involve the kids, too, if you have older ones!)

I think that if we encouraged and expected fathers to be a part of the pregnancy and birth, we would see a lot more hands-on dads…and a lot more happy families.  We need dads, but we have to help them out.  They don’t just “get it” anymore than moms do.  They need help, hand-holding, and people to invite them in.

Was your husband an active part of your pregnancy and birth (or, were you an active part of your wife’s pregnancy and birth)?  How did that affect the father-child bond?

Top image by *clairity*

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