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Fathers in hard labour: 'Being there' during childbirth is not automatically a good thing. David Shannon reports

David Shannon
Saturday 23 October 1993 23:02 BST

JERRY GALLOWAY, a cafe owner in Nottingham, is a new father. Two weeks ago his partner Ann gave birth to Katie, their first child, and Jerry saw it all happen. 'Watching her being born was the best thing that's ever happened to me,' he says.' I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It was magic.'

Ever since men stopped boiling water for the midwife and were allowed to witness what goes on in the delivery room, they have been groping for the words to describe what they have seen. Magical, marvellous, beautiful, fantastic, unbelievable, gobsmacked - for every man who has said the words, 40 others will have had to listen to him going on and on about it. About 90 per cent of all deliveries are now attended by fathers.

In the midst of all the superlatives, however, some local difficulties are beginning to emerge. Pressure, guilt, trauma, fear, unreality, damage to the relationship between father and mother, between father and child - these are not topics very often raised in any discussion of the father's role in childbirth, least of all by men themselves.

Yet what little research has been done into the attitudes of men who have been present during childbirth is beginning to suggest that 'being there' is not always the marvellous, fulfilling experience for fathers that it is supposed to be. Indeed, some men are beginning to admit that they are not at all sure they want to be there the first place.

WRITER Nick Hornby says that the experience of seeing his first child born left him numbed and shocked. 'I never asked myself, 'Do I really want to be there?' Lots of my friends are fathers and not one wasn't at the birth. I suppose I just took it as read that I would be,' he says. 'I went to National Childbirth Trust classes with other men. Through them, we all came to believe that much medical intervention wasn't either likely or advisable. In the end, all of us ended up witnessing it: forceps deliveries, Caesareans, things for which we just weren't prepared. We were also encouraged to question everything that happens during labour. I couldn't, and relied instead on an absolute childish faith in the medical staff. If they'd said to me, 'At this point she needs to stand on her head and eat jelly beans', I'd have started feeding them to her.'

Nick's wife Virginia had an exceptionally difficult labour. At one point, Nick thought he was going to lose both her and the baby. 'I went completely numb, waiting for this terrible grief to befall me,' he says. 'I felt responsible for all of it, felt it was all my fault.' His son Danny was eventually born by Caesarean section. Both Virginia and the baby are perfectly healthy now, but Nick's view of childbirth has been changed forever. 'The labour showed me how much I wanted the child, how important being a father was to me. But it was extremely unpleasant.'

Even when births go more smoothly, some fathers' memories are laden with regrets. 'My son Philip was born just over a year ago,' says Dulwich lawyer Brian Matthews. 'I wanted to help, but my wife was incredibly irritable. I spent most of the time during labour feeling like a spare part. I'd mop her brow and she'd say, 'Don't do that now]'. She never actually shouted 'Look what you've done to me]', but the word 'bastard' was never far from her lips.'

The problem for British fathers is that, regardless of their own preferences, being there at the birth is increasingly hard to avoid. 'If your partner was having her leg re-set, no-one would expect you to hold her hand and say, 'Now breathe deeply' during it,' says Michael Bennett, a London solicitor. 'In childbirth it's assumed that unless you are extremely involved in everything that happens, you must be a bad husband and father.'

Forty years ago, things were a little different. Alex Johnson, a schoolteacher in Bristol, wasn't in the delivery room when his wife Margaret had their first child in 1952. He was teaching religious instruction in a classroom four miles away.

'Back then, you might drop your wife off at the hospital, but you weren't expected to come back until after the baby was born. I had a call two hours after she went in to say Simon had arrived. It was only when I got there that I found out how difficult the birth had been: the cord had nearly strangled him]'

It is sometimes assumed that men's greater involvement in childbirth was connected to the rise of the women's movement. In fact it owed more to social change and the breakdown of the extended family. 'The move to bring men into the labour ward started in the 1950s when feminism was at its lowest point since the turn of the century,' says childbirth writer Angela Phillips. 'Sheila Kitzinger set up the first ante- natal classes for couples in about 1956. Traditionally, women were attended in labour by their mothers or other women. The Fifties were the beginning of the era of husband, wife and 2.4 children. There was an ideological move to separate people into units.'

'By the 1960s, couples were becoming more isolated and loading more responsibilities on each other,' says Richard Seel, an anthropologist who is also a former editor of the National Childbirth Trust magazine. 'Women thought, 'He supports me in everything else I do - I want him to support me in this'. The medical people then started to get involved. A few surveys were done which said labour was easier if the father was present and, after resisting for a while, they decided it was a good idea. If the father is there, you don't need to provide so much nursing care - something which appeals to hospital administrators.'

SOME childbirth experts have reopened the argument that having fathers in the delivery room actually does more harm than good. The French natural childbirth pioneer Dr Michel Odent is currently involved in research expected to show that the benefits are far lower than has previously been believed. He thinks that the father's presence makes some women feel inhibited, and that labour progresses best when men are out of the way.

It's a view some couples privately agree with. Norwich teachers James and Sally Bailey were adamant that James would not attend the birth of their daughter, Geraldine, despite heavy pressure from friends and family. 'Sally told me she didn't want me to see her in such an 'undignified' situation,' James says, 'so we arranged for her mother to be with her. Even if I had been there, I know I would have just been a nuisance. I am incredibly squeamish about gore and pain. If I'd been with Sally, I'd probably have needed as much medical attention as she did.'

London midwife and counsellor Ann Herreboudt is convinced that the pressure for fathers to attend the birth is damaging and dangerous. 'Everyone tells them it's good for them to be there, but I see the consequences when it goes wrong,' she says. 'If the labour is difficult and the man watches his partner suffering, he sometimes blames the baby for it. The trauma the man feels on seeing his partner in such pain can affect their sex life, too. He associates the pain with sex and doesn't want to put her through it again. Statistically, marriage break-ups are most likely to occur in the 18 months following childbirth. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but the trauma men go through during labour certainly contributes to it. Out of 300 deliveries I'm involved in every year, 10-15 couples will have serious relationship problems as a result of the father's reaction to the birth.'

According to Richard Seel, the first hours and days after the child is born are particularly hard for fathers. He says that, in his experience, as many as 90 per cent feel down and depressed. 'They've had all the anxiety of seeing the woman they love in anything from discomfort to great distress and not being able to stop it,' he says. 'Then, when what they want above all is to be with her and the baby, sooner or later they're sent away. The message they're given may be accurate but isn't pleasant: you're superfluous, you're not required, the mother and baby can manage without you.'

Feelings of anxiety and superfluousness are exacerbated by the treatment men receive in some hospitals. 'My girlfriend Barbara was so sedated when she was in labour, she wasn't aware much of me being there,' remembers Graham O'Leary, a taxi driver in Liverpool. 'Even when I tried holding her hand, the midwife told me it would be better if I didn't. She wanted Barbara to try holding her own legs. At one stage, I heard the midwife say, 'The cord's round the neck'. I started panicking. They freed the cord but, when the baby came out, they rushed him away to this table. This panicked me even more. I found out later it's normal for them to do this, but at the time I didn't know what was happening, Barbara was crying and asking for the baby. I just stood there, tears in my eyes, feeling completely helpless.'

Of course it is quite right and proper that mother and child should be the main focus of attention in the delivery room. It is also true that men can behave strangely and don't always make things easy for the nursing staff. 'Some faint, some cry, some rush around with a video camera, one man just sat in a corner with his mobile phone and a newspaper,' says London midwife Julie Bishop. 'Sometimes they try to run the show, too. A couple may have agreed beforehand on a drug-free labour. If things start to get bad, the woman may change her mind and ask for some pethidine. The man will say, 'Don't listen to her. She doesn't really want it and I'm here to make sure she doesn't get it'.' She hasn't yet met anyone who's brought his own forceps along, but thinks it's only a matter of time.

Despite the problems, however, Julie Bishop still believes that in most cases couples do benefit if they are together for the birth. Ann Herreboudt and Richard Seel agree. But in a more perfect world, attendance would be a matter of real discussion and choice, rather than moral compulsion, and men who don't attend wouldn't automatically be branded uncaring or cowardly. Men who go to ante-natal classes (and many hospitals report that more than 50 per cent do not) would be made more aware of the complications that may be ahead. 'One thing the NCT is now trying to do is introduce couples who've recently had a baby to those who are soon to have one,' says Richard Seel. 'This seems a better way of getting over what the experience may be like. And, particularly where births are difficult, men would be given some kind of counselling.'

'People are very aware of the need for women to discuss everything after the birth,' says Julie Bishop. 'They can talk to the obstetrician and midwife and health visitor. Often new mothers may seem very positive at first and readily accept why a Caesarean, for example, or an induced delivery was necessary. But later they will admit they found the whole thing bloody awful.

'Men are rarely given the chance to discuss their feelings, or anything else about it. They're just expected to say 'It was magic' and go back to work.'

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