I'd been told that a new father should light a fat cigar and head for the pub to wet the baby's head. But I wanted to stay

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'You are going to be there for the birth, aren't you?" asked friends as we prepared for the arrival of our first child last month. "Of course," said I, a model of New Mannery, picturing myself heroically clad in an ER-style green gown, ready to mop my wife's brow, cut the umbilical cord and announce at the appropriate moment, Delboy-style, "It's a baby."

But what then? I'd been told that a new father, having done his duty, should light a fat cigar, head for the pub and "wet the baby's head". The alternative version was that, after a gruelling night in the labour ward, you headed home for some well-earned kip, so you were on top form next day, with balloons blown and bunting waving, to welcome mother and child back into the family home.

But neither option appealed to me. I wanted to stay. It seemed so unfair that I should be sent home just when the fun was starting. After all, I'd been present for the conception, supported my wife through morning sickness, shared her bloom of pregnancy. We'd gone to antenatal classes together and I'd accompanied her to her various hospital appointments. I'd felt the baby hiccoughing inside my wife and collected a fistful of radar-like photographs showing the baby at various stages of foetal development. So, why, I asked myself, should I have to miss the baby's first night?

As soon as I visited the labour ward I realised why. Apart from once when sneaking a quick pee in a powder room when the gents was full, I'd never been in such an exclusively female place. The midwives were all women and the patients were unmistakably so, as several walked slowly by, faces pained, hands gripping the small of their backs. Easier, thought I, to find a bed in a convent, than to lay my head down here.

But my wife was all for me staying, so we booked an amenity room - the NHS euphemism for a private bed - off the main ward for pounds 50 a night. That way, she'd get some sleep, away from the wailing baby chorus, and I stood a better chance of staying with her. Cut off from the main part of the ward, with our own loo, there would be no tell-tale signs of my presence ("Who's left the seat up?"). Perhaps, thought I (imagining myself as a latter-day Sid James in the movie Carry on Baby), I could hide under the bed when Hattie Jacques or her equivalent checked for loitering dads before lights out.

I needn't have worried. The first night was easy. Arriving at the hospital after midnight, when my wife could no longer stand the pain of the contractions at home, we were ushered into our room. No one argued with me about staying. The always considerate midwives could see that my wife faced a long, lonely night as her labour slowly advanced. She needed to be as relaxed as possible and to sleep as much as she could. They brought me a fold-up bed.

It was wonderful being there. We were both tired, but it felt like the great adventure was at last about to begin and we should be together. I was able to help her with a bath to ease the pain, place hot towels and flannels on her back when the contractions came and fit her "Tens" machine, which provides pain relief through tiny electronic shocks.

Our daughter, Sophie, was not born until the following evening, just before midnight. My wife was exhausted after a long labour and was in no condition to give Sophie her full attention. But once our daughter had been passed fit by the paediatrician, I was there to hold her and talk to her through her first moments in the outside world. Once again, no one pushed me out. Since my wife was too tired to breastfeed until the following day, the midwife let me give Sophie a bottlefeed rather than doing it herself and then showed me how to bathe her and change her nappy. Then, as dawn broke, the three of us were left alone amid the debris of the labour room, each of us stunned by what had happened.

I will always cherish that time, that sense of being with Sophie right from the beginning, when her head was still distended by a difficult delivery, her body still bloody and her hands still cold and rubbery. That experience means that I don't consider myself an appendage to herself and her mother, a secondary parent, a semi-adequate male. I feel confident and at ease with her.

Had I not been committed to staying, I would perhaps have left at that point. But Sophie and her mother were in hospital for another couple of days and I remained, bringing her mother her meals, taking Sophie to the nursery to bathe her, changing her nappies, listening as a steady stream of doctors, midwives, a dietician and a paediatrician dropped by, dispensing advice. Had I just been confined to visiting hours, I would have missed all this. A few eyebrows were raised, but most people accepted what I was doing in the intended spirit.

The fold-up bed was, however, taken away and I wasn't allowed to bring my own in. Yet it was obvious that at night, my wife, recovering from a gruelling physical ordeal, was not fit enough either to walk or wind the baby after night feeds and that the midwives were too busy to help as much as they would have liked. So I slept on an armchair and helped out.

Then on the final, fourth night, the ward sister decided enough was enough. A midwife, clearly disagreeing with the decision, was sent down to us just before midnight to say I had to go home. Fair enough, I thought. The hospital had been generous in turning a blind eye to me for so long. But I was sad that night not to be with Sophie and her mother; and my wife, still exhausted, had little sleep dealing with the baby on her own.

I had, however, been lucky. Most fathers, according to the Royal College of Midwives, do not stay over because, said a spokeswoman, the mother wants to rest after giving birth. (Our experience was that she gets more rest when properly supported by a partner.) Apparently, the only exceptions to these rules are when there is a health problem with the mother or baby. A few hospitals have "parents rooms'' where the three can stay together. Most hospitals have amenity rooms - but not everyone can afford them (we spent pounds 150 in all) and there is no guarantee that a hospital will be as tolerant of bending the rules as ours was.

I'm sure all this will change in time. Just as today it seems odd for a father not to attend the birth of his child, so, at least for the first- born, it will seem strange for a father not to stay over and share the whole experience.

I'd recommend it and my experience is that most health professionals think it is good for everyone concerned. But until fathers take the initiative and make a fuss, they'll just have to carry on supporting the sad pretence that they'd rather be at home watching television or drinking a pint in the pub than marvelling with amazement at the beautiful child they have helped to createn

New fathers: hospital policy

St James hospital, Leeds:

"Should there be any problem after the birth, facilities are available for fathers to stay over. But, usually, we wouldn't have the facilities. There are other patients to consider. There are security issues to think about: we don't vet fathers who come to the wards. In an ideal world we would have these facilities, but it's not and we don't."

St Mary's Hospital for Women and Children, Manchester

"The hospital is a specialist unit that tends to deliver women with particular problems. Most of our maternity wards are single rooms so fathers can sleep here. When a child is stillborn, we offer the 'rainbow room' where parents can stay with the body overnight."

Liverpool Women's Hospital:

"We offer a very positive policy towards fathers who wish to stay over. We think it is beneficial because it bonds the family grouping. He can support the wife and give assistance to the baby. All our fathers have been moved by staying. The problem is many are not able to because of work. We are fortunate in being a new hospital with a lot of single rooms. We do not actively encourage fathers to stay because we do not want to create extra demand. But if we had more single-room accommodation, we would actively encourage them."

Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham

"We have put-you-up beds that can be used by fathers in side rooms. But if it became normal practice for men to stay over, it would become very difficult. We have a lot of four-bedded bays. You would have a husband there with three strange women. I don't think the men would be comfortable. The majority want to get home and tell everyone about it."

King's College hospital, London

"If there is felt to be a need, such as a major antenatal problem or the baby has died, we have a small proportion of single rooms where fathers can also sleep on a z-bed. But we can't accommodate fathers usually. Most hospitals were not designed for the new man."