Monday, May 10, 2010


One of my very favorite subjects - dads! A request for information on how to prepare dads/what to cover with them came up on a list I'm on so I wrote a bunch of stuff and then realized I might want to say something here, too. Disclaim: I don't want this to appear that I spend all my time talking to dads and am not invested with the mother, I'm simply emphasizing the conversations I have with dads for the sake of bringing this to light a bit.

Early on I realized that dads are important (duh, right?). They're not cheerleaders, they're integral to the birth process, and the birth process is integral to them going on to be fathers. I was hearing a lot of unintentional condescension around dads and being the mother of sons I feel rather sensitive around the messages we give boys and men. Words like 'clueless' get tossed around a lot.

I started talking to my own husband about what men want from the birth experience and he gave me a really great insight that has held true through every client over these last many years. Dads aren't invested in the process, usually. They want to know their wife is going to come home alive and safe. Second to that is that the baby will come home alive and safe. It's a hard thing to admit but it's usually true- dads don't want to be left alone to raise a child by themselves, they'd rather have another child with their wife if it comes to that. I totally hear that, I totally understand it.

What I see a lot is couples trying to meet in the middle but dad often doesn't get a chance to say what he thinks and feels without the mom kind of overriding it. I'm not saying this happens all the time, but generally, it's very common. Dads are attached to *survival*, not experience. If birthing the baby while hanging from a tree limb upside down while bees attack is going to be the very best assurance that his wife and babe will come out alive, he's a fan of tree-limb-bee-birth.

Moms want to know that as she goes into the mystery of her birth that he will protect her space, stand up for what she wants. Dads aren't as attached to the experience as they are knowing she'll be safe. This means that when a provider says, "We recommend we make this change in course for your safety," they're speaking to this man's deepest fears. This is going to trump his partner's wish for an experience, and understandably so!

When I meet with clients and ask moms about their desires for their birth, a lot of the time they have a pretty clear idea of what they do and don't want. Most are flexible to what surprises might arise and how willing they are to go with the flow, but generally they know they want no pain meds, or a waterbirth, or an epidural at 7cm, etc.

When I ask dads what they want, I have yet to meet a dad with a detailed vision beyond making sure his loved ones are safe. They often just don't know what exists beyond that. I think that this is hard for moms because we do know what we want and we want our husbands to know, too. We want them to be equally invested (in what we want). We want to know that if someone walks in threatening to break our water that he can speak up for us if we can't.

That's a tall order. It's certainly not impossible, but asking a father to be knowledgeable enough about birth to question the provider in a situation where he is oftentimes entrained to what the provider is saying is a tough spot to put a dad in. I've seen several scenarios:

* Mom wants dad to stand up for her. Dad tries, but it creates a conflict energy and mom shuts him down in front of the staff.
* Mom wants to avoid a certain intervention that is now being offered/suggested by a provider who seems to have a good argument. Dad feels stuck between the provider who is telling him that this needs to happen, and his wife's wishes. He ends up bending to what the provider is saying and helping to talk his wife into it.
* Mom and dad are prepared and ask for a few minutes alone to formulate their questions before deciding.

When I sit with clients at consultations I look at the father and say, "She really wants you to understand that this is a life changing experience for her. She will never be the same after this. You are about to see your wife turn into a bona fide warrior and you will never look at her the same way again. This is huge for her."

Then I say to moms, "He isn't as attached to the experience (and I invite dad to correct me if I have it wrong) as he is attached to bringing you home alive. He will happily chuck the whole scene if it means he gets to bring you home. This is a scary event for him, the closest he's ever probably walked with Death and it's not him, it's his 'heart', his wife, who has to do it." I see the light bulb go on over dads every single time I say this. They've been hesitant to say it for fear of upsetting her, or they haven't been heard, or it's been challenged by the mom's desire for a good experience, so a lot of time dads just keep their feelings to themselves around this. When I come in, objective, a 'professional' (whatever that means!), claiming what I know without judgment and asking the mom to meet him there, it has 100% of the time stimulated some powerful conversation between the couple.

As a doula what I then try to do is talk about how to fill the gaps between what they need. What does the mother need? What does the father need? Now that he's been witnessed in his journey, we talk about what they individually want out of the birth in an open way.

I tell my couples that if we treat men like fathers and not like birth coaches or assistants (or worse), that they will rise and feel like fathers. In a culture where a dad who sticks around for his family is viewed as a 'surprise' or a 'good man', the expectations around men being fathers is very low. I personally believe that if we set people up for success they will rise. If we enter into birth treating men like they must be told where to stand, where to look, what to say, how to say it, they will have pretty low confidence in parenting that babe after it arrives. It can set up a funky dynamic where the mother becomes the 'expert' and the father becomes (again) the assistant. Rather than parenting his child, he's supporting the mother in parenting the child for the both of them.

I argue that men should be heard equally with the mothers. Their own journey should be witnessed. I talked to dads about guarding the space, keeping it safe, and how to do that in a way that makes sense. It's not about standing outside of the birth hut to keep the tigers away. Now the tigers are a little different and the trick is getting dads to see them. For example, making sure the lights are low and voices are kept low so mom can focus. Make sure no one is talking to her during a contraction (unless there is some major necessity). Helping to keep distractions like the phone and visitors to a minimum. Telling her how strong, powerful, beautiful and amazing she is. Being the 'muscle' to hold her up, lift her, support her hips, etc. as she needs.

It's about teaching men a new language for being the protectors of the birth space so they can show up for the mother in the way they do best, and not just shuffling them to the head of the bed so they won't be 'traumatized' by what they see.

If men believed they were, and and were supported in being integral to the birth experience, how might this change how they show up as fathers?


BirthNurse said...

Thank you for sharing. Good ideas and insights, as usual!

Housefairy said...

I really like what you planned on saying to the dads. They have no idea how could rock

BookwormMama said...

This is an awesome post. You should send it to Midwifery Today and have it published there! :]

Also, have you done any reading on what Michel Odent says about Dads and birth? You might find it very interesting...