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Feminism, Fathers and Childbirth » Women's Courage

Feminism, Fathers and Childbirth

February 25th, 2011 by hannahky Leave a reply »

When I found an article in the New York Times by psychologist Keith Ablow [1] about how men felt less attracted to their wives after witnessing their childbirth, I realized I had not yet examined the role of male partners in women’s birthing. Of course there are alternative family structures, such as in lesbian partnerships or women who are single mothers from the very beginning. But in this blog post I would like to focus on the role that a male partner can play in a woman’s  intra- and post-partum well being.

In other cultures, there is often more of an emphasis on the whole family’s role of support for new mothers and mothers-to-be. Mukta, the doctorate student who spoke with us a few weeks ago, told me that a woman will usually return to live with her family for a few months before and after giving birth, which can be a great mechanism for protecting these especially vulnerable women from abuse or violence.
But in the US, where families tend to have a more nuclear structure, women will depend more heavily on their partner to care for and tend to them during and after the birthing. But the article from the New York Times showed an unsettling pattern. Dr. Ablow’s patient recalled witnessing the infant emerge from his wife’s vagina, and said, “how are you supposed to go from seeing that to wanting to be with…?” he stopped, implying the rest of the sentence with a nervous look in his eyes.
Dr. Ablow ascribes this discomfort with witnessing childbirth to “trouble seeing women as sexual beings after seeing them make babies.” As one blogger puts it, “for some, the erotic depends on maintaining a distinction between the sexual and the reproductive.” [2]  Rather than decrying a culture which allows men to imagine their partners as uniquely “sexual beings”, Dr. Ablow is rather sympathetic towards these men. “I myself recall feeling as if the clinical focus on childbirth during prenatal classes, including the detailed descriptions of the placenta and the meconium, took away from the wonder of the process, rather than adding to it,” he says.
Of course childbirth is messy and potentially disgusting. And it’s true that in much of the world, and in the US until the latter half of the 20th century, almost all women gave birth without their husbands, whether in the delivery room or in the arms of their female companions. But I still think that the culture of childbirth needs to adjust better to a new model of the family. In a society where the mothers and aunts and sisters are not usually present to support a laboring woman, I don’t think it is fair to advocate exonerating men who don’t want to witness their children’s birth. Because it is not a matter of “witnessing.” It is usually also a matter of actively supporting, whether physically or emotionally. I think the man’s role, if skillfully enacted, can be just as important as that of a doula or labor assistant.
If a woman requests that her husband be present with her during birth and he refuses or does so unwillingly, it is, in my opinion, far more detrimental to a relationship than the potential of a loss in libido. A woman who is abandoned by her partner in an incredibly vulnerable state, as I see it, has far more to lose. Because trust is, in the end, a bigger deal than libido.
On the other hand, an interesting article by gynecologist Michel Odent [3] provides a different (and in my opinion stronger) argument against the presence of men in the delivery room. “It is only 35 years since men first entered the delivery room, yet we have welcomed them in without question,” he says. Their eagerness to “participate,” “share the experience,” and put on a calm front for their partner’s sake in spite of their anxiety can actually really disturb a woman. “It has been proven,” he says, “that it is physically impossible to be in a complete state of relaxation if there is an individual standing next to you who is tense and full of adrenaline.” And it is well known that adrenaline inhibits the release of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes contractions and activates the mammary glands. Thus, Odent advocates that ideally women would give birth almost entirely alone, with only the help of a trusted female midwife or doula. “At the present time, when birth is more difficult and longer than ever, when more women need drugs or Caesareans,” he says, “we have to dare to smash the limits of political correctness and ask whether men should really be present at birth.”

Looking at these different perspectives has not left me with a good, conclusive sense of what a man’s role in childbirth should be. I am interested to hear your opinion. Should men be present in the labor ward? How can we help men be a truly supportive presence in the delivery room, rather than one that is awkwardly “trying to be helpful?”  And what might be done to remedy the disturbingly frequent incidence of partnerships disintegrating shortly after labor due to “loss of attraction” in men?

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/23/health/23case.html?_r=1
2. http://www.slate.com/id/2125227/
3.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-559913/A-obstetrician-men-NEVER-birth-child.html

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8 comments

  1. ntahir says:

    Those are some really good ending questions! Men’s role in childbirth has definitely become more participatory that it had been some decades ago. More and more men in America choose to be by their partners’ sides during childbirth, and even though it is difficult for them to watch the process, it brings their partners some kind of comfort during one of the most difficult times in their lives. However, I also think that the choice of being in the delivery room with their partner is not entirely up to the father of the child being born; in many countries it is still not permissible for the man to go inside and watch his wife/partner give birth. Western societies such as the US and the UK allow men to be with their partners during delivery, however countries such as Pakistan, India, even Middle Eastern countries like the UAE, do not support the same. I think this has a lot to do with the cultural beliefs and level of conservatism in these countries. On a slightly different note, I wonder if the presence/absence of a male partner in the delivery room has any kind of impact on the emotional stability/ postpartum conditions of the woman who is giving birth; it would be interesting to find out.

  2. ntahir says:

    Those are some really good ending questions! Men’s role in childbirth has definitely become more participatory that it had been some decades ago. More and more men in America choose to be by their partners’ sides during childbirth, and even though it is difficult for them to watch the process, it brings their partners some kind of comfort during one of the most difficult times in their lives. However, I also think that the choice of being in the delivery room with their partner is not entirely up to the father of the child being born; in many countries it is still not permissible for the man to go inside and watch his wife/partner give birth. Western societies such as the US and the UK allow men to be with their partners during delivery, however countries such as Pakistan, India, even Middle Eastern countries like the UAE, do not support the same. I think this has a lot to do with the cultural beliefs and level of conservatism in these countries. On a slightly different note, I wonder if the presence/absence of a male partner in the delivery room has any kind of impact on the emotional stability/ postpartum conditions of the woman who is giving birth; it would be interesting to find out.

  3. ktwebb says:

    Hi Hannah,

    I feel like the time is right for me to chime in. My half-brother recently helped his wife through her second child, and I’m fairly certain he was in the room with her as she underwent a C-section. Given that they had a second child only around 14 months after the first one, I would guess that there wasn’t too much of a drop in libido afterward. That, however, is conjecture.

    I think for my part, I want to be or to do whatever I can to be most helpful, but really what I think I’ll feel is largely helplessness. My dad described being in the delivery room for my birth, and his role was essentially standing still and offering encouragement while my mom dug her fingers into him. I certainly hope I can be more useful in that sort of situation, but if getting injured is my penance for not having to give birth, so be it. The thought of not being there being helpful is a little distressing, because then I’d feel even more useless, but again, what’s important is whatever the woman who’s been producing a human being wants. As for the libido matter, I’ve never had to deal with this directly, but I don’t really understand how after seeing a woman give birth to your own child you could do anything but love her more.

    -Kevin

  4. kaking says:

    Hi Hannah!

    Really interesting post, and you definitely pose a great question to consider about what role men should play in the labor process. I personally had always assumed that men should be present when their wives/significant others were giving birth to provide support. However, I had never really thought about the ways in which a man could be detrimental to the labor process, including making it more difficult for the woman to relax. This definitely makes me reconsider my previous assumptions about the role of men and whether or not it’s best that they are in the delivery room. I especially reconsidered this after learning that men felt less sexually attracted to their wives after watching them give birth. I’m not really sure how to reconcile this, but I agree with the above posts that the sexual and reproductive roles can co-exist, and that men should learn to separate these things in their mind. Anyways, great blog post like always! I look forward to your next post!

    - Kelsey

  5. Bisi says:

    Hi Hannah,

    I’ve always wondered myself whether or not I want my future husband in the room when I’m giving birth. My mother kicked my father out during my and my siblings’ births; my oldest sister asked my brother-in-law to sit in the waiting room when my oldest sister had her children. With that being said, my father’s lack of presence in the room during my birth has been largely made up for by his presence in my life for the past 21 one years and his presence in my mom’s life for over 30 years.

    With this personal evidence (not that I think my life should be the model for all), I personally think a man’s role during childbirth isn’t one that should be forced on him nor do I see a reason why he should be present in the delivery room when his nervousness can inhibit a woman from giving birth peaceably. I also think we should be stressing men’s roles in making sure that they are there for the well-being and health of their wife and children through their lifetimes. The success of raising a child and helping a mother be able to raise a child is what is most important–it is what is most important for a man to be able to do–and he can do that immediately after the child has been delivered.

    If anything, I think we should be asking why men were asked into the delivery room in the first place and maybe that will give us more perspective into the issue. If it is because of the emerging influence of video cameras and movies on our fetish with documenting every moment of life, then maybe we have allowed this to get the better of us and supersede our better judgment.

    Great post!

    Great post!

  6. klstaves says:

    As you suggested, I think that individual women must be allowed to decide whether or not they wish their husbands to be present during labor and delivery. However, I think it is interesting to consider how the institutions we develop influence women’s ability to make this decision. For example, at the OB/GYN wing I worked in in Oaxaca last summer, men were technically allowed to enter the hospital wing, but the women had to specifically ask for their husbands to be allowed in. The wing was completely blocked off from through traffic, and without someone to specifically open the doors for them, the husbands could not get in. This system seemed to set up an unspoken norm that dissuaded husbands from being present at the birth of their children. Similarly, I feel like here in the US the norm is to allow husbands to be present at the birth. Might this system pressure women to allow their husbands to be present even if that is not really their wish? It seems to me that it is important to encourage women to make a decision regarding whether or not they wish their husbands to be present well before the delivery actually occurs.

  7. vcarcia says:

    “For some, the erotic depends on maintaining a distinction between the sexual and the reproductive.”

    Very interesting topic! The idea that men have trouble with childbirth has been popularized by the media, often through a comedic lens. However, it’s interesting to understand how men and their behavior toward their partners can have far-reaching consequences, and can often contribute to issues like post-partum depression. I also very much agreed with your position on men taking an active role in the birth of their children, not merely acting as non-acting witnesses. However, one must also take into account the individual woman’s preference. Some women might not be too willing to allow their husbands into the chilbirth space and will prefer just women being present or giving birth alone.
    I think the most important factor should be the husband’s support no matter what the preferences and his care and understanding after the birth has occurred. He shouldn’t have to separate sexual being from reproductive being, the two can mutually coexist. Rather, it is culture which often informs this mental block, particularly through a media that often portrays birth as something funny, comedic, and not worthy of respect.
    In the end, there shouldn’t be one uniform way of giving birth. Every woman is different and their childbirthing preferences should be respected as such. Very good article. Left me with a lot to think about!

  8. laurah21 says:

    Hey Hannah,
    I always enjoy reading your posts, thanks for sharing! It definitely raises very interesting questions. So this past summer I interviewed indigenous (often Quechua speakers) in the Andes of Peru about prenatal care attitudes, but I also asked them about what would be an “ideal delivery.” Interestingly, many women (mostly the ones in the most rural areas, Quechua speakers, not really the ones who lives int he city center) said they would prefer to give birth alone. Other women said they’d want their mothers or a birth attendant (forget the Quechua name for them). However, when I asked, in case of a complication who would be the most appropriate person to help you, many many said their husbands. I have to look back to my data to see if the group of women with those answers overlap, but I just remember those two striking responses: wanting to give birth alone and having husbands help them (even when they said they’d want to give birth in a hospital with health providers, they still trusted their husbands more than the doctors, but I think this might be very specific to indigenous populations in the Andes who do not always have good provider-patient trust/relationship). Going back to your post, I would further ask the role of culture in birthing preferences (specifically, if wanting husbands present or not). Food for thought! :)

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