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Should Dad Skip the Birth?

Researchers at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham believe that dad’s involvement in pregnancy and childbirth might actually be setting him up to fail as a new father. Here’s the logic: These days, men are expected to really go through the pregnancy and birth with their partners — attend “antenatal classes” and assist during labor. But hard as he may try, the fact is he’s not the one doing the work. So he begins to feel like a passive, useless partner and this lack of mojo carries over into actual parenthood.

“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,” says Dr. Jonathan Ives, co-author of the paper.

If dad is less involved in the pregnancy and skips the childbirth classes and the birth, Ives and colleague Dr. Heather Draper predict he’ll be more confident.

It may seem counter-intuitive from someone who teaches those supposedly ego-destroying antenatal classes — I am a certified childbirth educator — but in some ways, I think these researchers are actually onto something.

On the first day of my childbirth classes, when we do introductions, almost without exception, one dad will joke, “the pregnancy has been fine…for me.” Everyone laughs because yes, despite the fact that we are here together and we are due, and we are excited and we are pregnant, the hilarious, crazy truth is that we are not. She is. I have heard the phrase “pregnant person” come from my friends and colleagues’ mouths more than a few times. Can we agree it’s a pregnant woman?

America really loves equality though. For better or for worse, it continues to be the primary force behind the women’s movement. But gestating and birthing a baby isn’t something men and women can share equally. It’s a time in our lives when the differences between men and women are starkly apparent. Perhaps the first time. When we try to force a template of equal partnership onto a physiological situation that just isn’t the same for men and women, are we really helping anyone? So many times I’ve heard new moms — even the most liberated among us — conclude at some point soon after the birth, “it really is different for us.” Men say the same thing. And, from my personal experience and many others’ I see, the dads do feel passive and helpless.

But should guys really sit out the labor? Now I can hear all of us freaking out over this; we’ve come such a long way! We cannot send the dad back to the waiting room with Don Draper and a bottle of rye. But wait:

Recently French obstetrician Michel Odent announced that women do better — with shorter, more straightforward births —when they labor with just one other woman in the room with them. No men. No male doctor. No male partner. Guys slow things down. Labor, in other words, is woman’s work. From all I know about the way birth works, I can see how, on an important level, this could be true. And, in a perhaps distinctly French way, the separation of the sexes here is not necessarily sexist.

In Odent’s birthing center, women are treated like goddesses and attended to by the most loving, experienced sage femmes (midwives). These women are having a very woman-focused, totally supported experience that does not in any way equal the Don-and-Betty-Draper model.

But here’s where we get to some problems: If dad is not with mom in labor here in America, who is? In our current model of care, that would be — for the most part — a fetal monitor. Actually, it depends on the caregiver and where you are and whether you BYO support in the form of a considerably pricey but proven effective labor doula. But for the most part, our system is set up for women to go through early and a good part of active labor without much human support. Hence, dad.

Plus, it’s the birth of your first baby — he should be there! Right? I wanted my husband there. Even though the first time around, both of us could have used a sage femme. But more importantly, let’s set the tone for working together and being supportive of one another as we bumble through this experience that will continue to be a unique experience for each partner. Keeping him out could very easily alienate him from the process and make him feel like all this baby stuff is a mystery. As Madeline Holler points out over on Strollerderby, this could truly kick in other elements of the Mad Men era — dad starts out in the waiting room and never really comes back in.

Lack of support in pregnancy and postpartum correlates with postpartum depression. Women need to get it from someone.

So, instead of keeping dad away, maybe the answer is as simple as acknowledging that the period of pregnancy and birth can be weird and awkward  and alienating for him. We can talk more about the differences between men and women’s experiences. We can give mom permission to go through a distinctly female experience without feeling like she’s a sell-out to women’s rights. We should look harder at why dad is feeling so passive in the delivery room and give him better tools to help his pregnant/birthing/lactating partner in a way that bolsters confidence. I spend much of my time in birth classes showing men precisely how not to be passive. I don’t talk about how he can go through labor, but how he can support it. And I do see an up-swing in confidence.

Dr. Ives, who is a featured speaker at an upcoming conference entitled, “Pregnancy and Pregnancy Planning in the New Parenting Culture” is, according to the Guardian, leading a, £100,000 study called, “The Moral Habitus of Fatherhood.” I’d be more intrigued with this new research if I could see matching funds applied to studies looking at innovations in the maternity care system that give more support to women (from women) and ways we can help dads understand what they can do.

photo: Salim Fadhley/Flckr

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