It was a simple nod. A simple nod of her head as she emerged from the bathroom that turned my world upside down. A baby. A baby. A baby? A million thoughts raced through my head in that moment. What now? Is this the right time? Are we financially prepared? Will I be a good father? What will happen to our (and when I say “our” I really meant “my”) freedom? What do I do during labor? Do I really want to see a baby’s head coming out of my wife (NO!)? Do I even want to be in the same room, let alone cut the cord? We had wanted a baby. We had planned for it and we were ecstatic to finally be pregnant, but as the months went by and my wife’s belly began to grow, I really couldn’t ignore the fact that I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. We were both very nervous about pregnancy, birth, and having a newborn, so my wife signed us up for Bradley Method® childbirth education classes to help ease our fears. Once a week after work, we would drive to Charleston to spend three hours sitting on a tile floor learning about the miracle of pregnancy and birth. Then we would turn around, drive home, and get to bed around 11:30pm that night. A two hour drive. Once a week. For twelve weeks. Sitting on a hard tile floor. For three hours. Fantastic.
I can laugh at it now, but as I look back I realize that I learned and grew so much as a person during that time. Not only was the class geared toward me (me!), but I came to look forward to the uninterrupted time with my wife that we spent focusing on our growing family. I was already becoming a father, even before our child made his way into the world. Now that I have successfully participated in the natural births of our two children and continue to patiently father them on a daily basis, I realize how important my role really was in my wife’s pregnancy and our son’s birth.
I believe that fathers are an extremely underutilized and largely unsupported resource when it comes to pregnancy and birth. Under most circumstances, we as fathers have daily interactions with both mother and baby. This means that we also have daily influence on the paths that mother and child choose to take. Research has shown that the nature of a father’s involvement from the very beginning has a significant impact on a child’s development in a variety of ways. A father’s involvement has been linked to more successful breastfeeding, reduced post-natal depression, improved self esteem, and many other positive aspects of family development (Burgess, 2006). Our support, or lack of support for that matter, during the pregnancy and birth process has the potential to make or break the birth experience for our partners and ourselves.
Unfortunately, fathers are typically under prepared for what is going to happen during this time. In a process that has historically been attended to by a group of women, many men feel that it would be better if they were on the sidelines of the big event rather than an active player. Furthermore, men are caught up in a society which views birth as something that should be feared and medicated rather than celebrated as the joyous occasion that is most often is. I have had many friends tell me that they had no idea what was going on in labor, they didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know how to respond, and that they were scared of what was happening to their wife in the delivery room. However, if a father is well-informed and is given guidance so that he feels safe and confident, he can provide his wife with a sense of security like no one else can. I have come to realize that the intimacy and support that I provided to my wife in labor did more to ease the sensation (OK, pain) than any amount of medication ever would have.
It is a widely believed that family foundations are created during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding (Houser, 2009). As I watched my wife in pregnancy, I found myself wanting to be included and wondering how I could be part of the bonding process that was already happening between mother and baby. I remember some well-meaning person told me once that “a woman becomes a mother when she gets pregnant, but a man doesn’t become a father until he holds his baby”. While I appreciate the sentiment, and there are probably those who believe this to be true, I felt that there had to be a way for me to feel like I was becoming a father well before my baby made his way into this world. I wanted to be there, I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to be part of the bonding process too. In our classes, I learned that my presence would trigger an increased release of oxytocin in my wife, which would reinforce our family bonding experience during my son’s birth. Additionally, I thought being an active participant in the birth of my son would kickstart my parenting instincts and provide me with in increased sense of nurturing and protection, which I most certainly was not feeling in the early stages of my wife’s pregnancy. During the early stages, her mood swings and hormone changes were enough to make me want to stay late at the office or grab a drink with friends for happy hour. Then I read a line in an article by Patrick Houser. “Fathers who feel welcomed and included are more likely to stay. Fathers who feel abandoned, alienated, and excluded will tend to leave, or disappear. Disappearing can look like overworking, drinking, drug use, infidelity, spending time away from the family, and ultimately, separation and divorce. This is a current trend in society” (Houser, Issue 38). I realized that by my “disappearing”, I was continuing that terrible societal trend and ignoring what I knew in my heart to be one of the most important decisions I would ever make about my marriage and development of my family, the decision to be involved.
Of course, what a couple decides about the birth of their child is intensely personal. My choices will not be right for you, and yours won’t be right for me or anyone else. The key word though is “choice”. There are many choices when it comes to pregnancy and birth, and what is truly important is getting the information and support necessary to know what your choices are. That we, as fathers, choose to participate is crucial to our relationships, the health of our families, and improving our society as a whole.
- Burgess, Adrienne. The Costs and Benefits of Active Fatherhood.http://www.men-care.org/data/costs%20and%20benefits.pdf
- Houser, Patrick. Fathers-To-Be Handbook. Maine: Creative Life Systems, 2009.
- Houser, Patrick. “The Dad Factor.” Pathways to Family Wellness, Issue 38. http://pathwaystofamilywellness.org/Pregnancy-Birth/the-dad-factor.html