By Kathy P. Behan
Until the mid-1970’s, fathers-to-be weren’t allowed in many hospital delivery rooms to witness the birth of their children. Labor was viewed as women’s work and fathers’ jobs consisted of worrying, pacing the hospital’s halls and handing out cigars when it was all over.
But now fathers are not only encouraged to participate in the birth of their children, they’re practically pressured into it. As John, a 28-year-old father-to-be, puts it: “Fathers in the delivery room have become the new ‘in’ thing — everybody’s doing it. I feel as if I have to defend myself for not wanting to be there.”
How popular is the delivering-dads phenomenon? A random, informal sampling of hospitals across the country indicated that 60 to 95 percent of all women giving birth in the past year had husbands or other “support persons” present during labor — even in cases of caesarean sections.
But not all fathers have a desire to witness their child’s birth. Some men simply feel squeamish about the idea. “I’m just not a fan of blood,” explains John.
“It would embarrass some men to be in the delivery room,” says Kermit E. Krantz, M.D., chairman of the department of gynecology and obstetrics at the University of Kansas College of Health Sciences and Hospital. “After all, a man would see his wife in a whole new light. His role as a father, lover and husband is fine, but don’t ask him to become part of the nitty-gritty of having children.”
One of the most common reasons dads give for not being present during birth is a fear of seeing their wives suffer. Reveals Jim, a 37-year-old father of three, “It’s not pleasurable to see someone you love going through such a painful process.”
And it’s not merely being a witness to pain but also not being able to do anything to alleviate that pain. “A father has no control over the situation,” explains Robert Austin, Ph.D., a psychologist in Boston, Mass. “He can’t take the pain away. He’s put in a weak and powerless position, and for some men this is intolerable.”
Explains one father: “I wouldn’t be in any position to help. The only thing I could do is offer encouragement — but encouragement to do what? To bear the pain differently? I think a father’s presence is more of a hindrance than a help. Instead of giving in to the pain and calling out for help or relief, the mother might try to put on a brave
Other men don’t want to ride the emotional roller coaster of being present in the delivery room. “A father will feel some incredible excitement but also some real panic — getting shaken to the roots,” points out Dr. Austin. “To become part of this process is to let yourself into the fear and terror that a woman goes through.”
Even though the to-be or not-to-be in the delivery room debate continues, all parents must decide for themselves where they stand on this issue. Comments Robert A. Block, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology, John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Turnersville, N.J., “Today’s parents are a much better informed
population than previous generations. They have a good idea of what they want. And there are enough modes of delivery care available to suit everyone.”
Some hospitals now offer a birthing alternative to a “reluctant” father. He’s allowed to stay with his wife right up until the time of delivery, and then he can retire to a waiting room during the actual birth. After the child is born, the father is immediately allowed to be with his wife and new child.
Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer specializing in family and health issues.