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The Dad Dilemma

The Dad Dilemma is the title of an article in The Age about the challenges of child birth. Thea O’Connor, the writer, says,

“Most Australian men are present and active at the birth of their children. But not everyone believes this is a good thing.”

Having been present for the births of my five children, I quickly asked my wife for her opinion. She matter-of-factly stated,

“You helped make the baby, so you should help with its birth!”

How could I not agree? I then asked if I had been a help in labour, or a distraction. “Well”, she said in a rather disappointed tone,

“It would have been a lot better with the birth of our firstborn if you had not chosen to read a 300 page book.”

I quickly asked forgiveness and explained that I was forced to sit outside in the lobby for hours on end during the 24 hour labour and I had to do something to keep my sanity. My wife realised that an insane husband in the labour ward would not have been a good look, and so forgave me.

Thirty two years later we are both still learning the art of forgiveness, an art which all families need to be fluent in, just to survive.

So what really is the Dad Dilemma? I will let Thea O’Connor explain:

Men can be traumatised by childbirth, especially when things go wrong.

The birth of Prince George to Kate Middleton made history in Britain. William was reportedly the first royal father to be at his wife’s side during labour. This makes the royals about 40 years behind Australia and the rest of the developing world, where more than 90 per cent of births are attended by men, says Professor Hannah Dahlen, the national spokeswoman for the Australian College of Midwives.

Since the 1970s when women started inviting men in, blokes from all walks of life have opened the door to the delivery room, and seem unlikely to leave any time soon. Now it’s expected that dad will be there, too – “If she’s going through all of that, the least you can do is be there”.

We’ve gone from zero men present at births to over 90 per cent in such a short space of time, but the space hasn’t evolved along with it.

Most fathers want to be at their child’s birth, Dahlen says, and most mothers want them there, too, but not everyone is in favour. Michel Odent, a French obstetrician known for advocating water births, claims men “disturb” the birthing process. Odent, who has 50 years of birthing experience, justifies his position with physiology. A labouring woman, he says, needs to be protected against any stimulation of the thinking part of her brain – the neocortex – for labour to proceed with ease. But the man’s questions, reassurance, advice and anxiety denies her the quiet mind that she needs. Odent has also observed that at the time of birth, men cannot help but say something or try to touch the baby. But this is when the mother needs a few moments alone with her infant so that her oxytocin levels can peak to assist delivery of the placenta.

The problem isn’t men themselves, argue several Australian birth educators, it’s the fact that men aren’t properly engaged, educated and supported.

“We’ve gone from zero men present at births to over 90 per cent in such a short space of time, but the space hasn’t evolved along with it,” says Darren Mattock, a birth educator for expectant fathers. “Antenatal education is still focused on mother and baby, leaving men on the fringe.”

No wonder many men don’t know where to stand or what to do when labour sets in, so fidget, text and pace the room instead, as Dahlen’s research has found.

Other men can try to take over, as midwife and childbirth educator Pip Wynn Owen has observed. “Some dads try to be Mr Fix-It or Super-Coach, constantly talking and asking questions. But his real job is to make her feel calm, loved and safe, and if he can’t do that, he can slow the labour.

“If a man is not helping the woman relax, or if he’s getting very anxious, then that increases her stress levels triggering the release of adrenalin, which increases pain and tension, interferes with the release of the labour hormones and slows down labour.”

However, with support and education, a father’s involvement with the birth “is lovely to watch”, Dahlen says. “When dad is part of a continuum of care model, knows the midwife, feels listened to and has attended training and education with his partner, he comes in really engaged and not feeling like a spare part in the room. He’ll suggest things, offer food to eat, know the right pressure points to push and when to leave off. These dads engage quickly with the baby and with parenting. They also have great admiration for the mother’s power.”

That’s what Dahlen’s own father, Peter, felt when he was present for two of his six children’s births. Disappointed that the British administration forbade him to be at Hannah’s birth, which took place in Yemen, he was keen to be there at the next.

“It never entered my mind not to be there, it felt very natural,” says Peter, now 85. “Having that intimate fellowship with Margaret in her pain and watching what mothers go through – it brings you into a deeper connection, love and affection with your wife.”

Lovework

‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. My wife’s answer is to the point, “If you want to be part of the fun of making a baby, you should be there at the end to help with the labour”.  As Peter (above) said about being present for the labour, “it brings you into a deeper love and affection with your wife”.

If you do nothing else, watch this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtR_-MINR1o

The answer to the dilemma is clear. As the tall man once said, “Just do it!”

Yours for being there

Warwick Marsh

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