I want to preface this article by saying what I hope is obvious. Not all people who give birth will have a husband. You may be a single parent – by choice or otherwise. You may be in a same sex relationship. You may be in a committed relationship which has not yet, or may never progress to marriage. Each of these choices is equally valid, however I wanted to write this article from my perspective as a cisgender heterosexual female in order to address the specific challenges of receiving exclusive birth support from an intimate male partner. I understand that this may mean that this article does not feel relevant or accessible for you. I hope that in the future we can share guest blogs that highlight a more diverse perspective on birth. If you feel you could add to this conversation please get in touch at Breanna@birthofamother.com.au
For many women deciding to have your husband as your birth partner is a no brainer. These days there is an expectation that men will not only want to be at the birth of their child/ren but they will be an active participant in the process. We take for granted that our partner, by virtue of knowing us better than anyone else in the world, will know exactly what we need during labor. Whether we want to be touched or left alone, how to massage us, when to offer words of encouragement and when to silently hold space. As women who are enduring the ups and downs of not just birth, but pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding and everything in between, it feels like a small thing to ask that men step up, do some research and acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to provide this kind of support. However, I think it’s important that we stop to consider whether this is a realistic expectation.
Historically, the kind of support that women sought during labor has been provided almost exclusively by women. More specifically, by our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers and other women in our communities who have experienced and attended births and felt called to support birthing women. In fact it wasn’t until the 1970’s that men in the western world began to consistently play an active role in the birthing experience. Even then, men’s experience of birth was incredibly limited, often restricted to the role of passive observer. There to provide familiarity and the occasional “you’re doing great honey.”
The expectations of today’s men as birthing partners are unprecedented and far more involved than at any other time in history. Often the expectation is that they will play a central role in the birth process, providing uninterrupted and unwavering physical and emotional support to their partner throughout labor. That they will understand the birth process and what is required of them at each stage of labor. That they will help their partner to overcome crises of confidence, and support her to achieve the kind of birth she desires. That he will advocate for her, reassure her, and when necessary, hold firm against any deviation from her birth plan.
Many women would argue that this is as it should be, that we have fought for this kind of progress. I would tend to agree with you however, I think that it is incredibly important to acknowledge the challenges that men face to providing exclusive and comprehensive birth support.
While some men may naturally rise to the challenge of being a birthing partner, for many (arguably the majority) of men, this role will feel unfamiliar. Often times there is no blue print for what we are asking of them. They cannot discuss with their father or grandfather what it was like to play this role. They cannot draw on their own experience of birth or memories of attending other women’s births. They are starting from zero. Or more likely negative ten, with an understanding of birth formed almost exclusively from fear-based overexaggerated media portrayals of what birth looks like, feels like and sounds like.
As a result men lack confidence and credibility when it comes to birth, because they simply do not have the necessary knowledge or experience. They know it and we know it. They can’t relate to what it feels like to go through the discomfort of pregnancy. They can’t honesty tell you that they know how much it (labour) hurts. And they can’t possibly imagine what it is like to have someone suck on their nipple for hours on end until it is cracked and bleeding. While men can say all the right things, with empathy and the best intentions, often these words simply don’t carry as much weight as if they were coming from someone who has lived this experience. This often leads to (in the words of Rhea Demsey) a “what the fuck would you know?” moment and a crumbling of the woman’s resolve.
This lack of experience also means that in the throws of labour men can end up feeling overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of the experience and distressed at the sight of their partner in pain. While these experiences are normal and necessary for labour and birth to unfold, for someone who has not previously witnessed physiological birth, it can feel chaotic and frightening. This is not only problematic for the husband, but so too for the partner who is relying on his confidence, clarity and reassurance to get her through.
Now this isn’t a “poor me” for men, far from it. This is about figuring out what kind of support you require to have a positive birth and who is most likely to be able to provide that.
So if not your husband then who?
When we look at the research, the evidence is incredibly clear that women benefit from having continuous emotional support from someone other than their intimate partner throughout labour. This does not mean that husbands are an unnecessary part of the process, but rather that additional support is usually required. Many women assume that this is part of a midwife’s role, however in the current birthing climate midwives face many barriers to providing this kind of continuous support.
This is why an increasing number of women are beginning to explore the option of having a doula at their birth. Doulas are trained to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to women during labor, birth, and in the immediate postpartum period. They have usually witnessed many births and feel comfortable and confident navigating the twists and turns of birth and responding to a birthing woman’s unique needs. As their only obligations are to the woman and her partner (ie. not the hospital that employs them), they are able to fill this gap and provide true continuous support.
Despite evidence to support the benefits of having a doula, many women feel apprehensive about hiring one. These concerns can be wide and varied but often center around privacy, feeling crowded, and the desire to protect their husband’s role in the birth.
While these concerns are only natural, due to the intimate nature of this experience, evidence suggests that bringing in a doula can enhance the experience for not just the birthing woman but also her partner. This is because many doulas consider supporting the partner to be a central part of their role. Not just physically, stepping in to perform hip squeezes or offer a hand to hold while the partner ducks out to use the bathroom or recollect himself, but emotionally they hold space for the partner. With this support, partners are more able to feel confident and empowered to provide the kind of love, support, encouragement and oxytocin boost to their partner that only they can.
In this way, doulas tend to enhance the father’s role in childbirth, not detract from it, increasing the chances of both you and your partner having a positive birthing experience.
If a doula is not for you, you still have many great options.
Should you choose to have your partner, mum or a close friend at your birth, it is imperative that they are onboard with the kind of birth you desire and are prepared to support you. This starts with the understanding that you might be asking something of them that they initially may be ill-equipped for. Fortunately, there are many great options to ensure your support people have the necessary knowledge, understanding and tools to support you to achieve the kind of birth you desire.
Perhaps the most likely to guarantee success is taking an independent childbirth education class with your support person/ people. Examples of these include; Hypnobirthing Australia (https://hypnobirthingaustralia.com.au/), She Births (https://shebirths.com/) or Calm Birth Classes (https://calmbirth.com.au/). These classes help to ensure that you and your support team are knowledgeable about the process of normal birth, aware of what to expect and prepared with tools. In addition to this, it is important that you spend time talking to your support people about your hopes, desires and fears surrounding birth and how they can best support you.
Regardless of who you choose to share your birth experience with a little preparation can help to ensure you have a positive, empowered and supported birth.