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Discussion of role of men in childbirth: Men are not Doulas

May 6, 2010

Men and women are wired differently on many levels.  I have myself attended workshops and read about the differences, trying to improve my own relationship with my wife.  The principles I learned and my life experiences have taught me that these differences are part of a brewing problem for men in the country, which is affecting childbirth.

History shows that men are not going to be found at the side of birthing women.  Is there a reason for that?  Possible a rational one?  Has pulling men into the birth suite really improved childbirth for women?   I think that after havingread that 90 percent of couple’s relationships are negatively impacted by the birth of a child, that something must be wrong.

My take on this is that the expectations placed on men when they do come to a birth are impossible for most men to fulfill.  The nurturing role has consistently been a female’s role.  To men being brought to a birth is awkward and causes emotional dissonance.  Yet the vast majority of births are being attended by men these days, but is this improving outcomes?  And, could it cause  relationships to be overstressed?.

I have read in many places that women and midwives are now reconsidering the role men should play.  Well that’s good.  Men are not unpaid doulas or cheap sources of labor support.

Both the medical and social models of birth have twisted the role of men at birth, and that is really scary for men really aren’t pawns.  Let look at four scenarios and how the projected roles on men can negatively affect the relationships between birth mothers and dads.

Hospital births:

  1. Natural childbirth in the hospital with uneducated guy

Men are often told they need to be at the hospital with their mates when they are giving birth.  In the hospital this means hours of men being “stuck” without much to do.  The hospital staff actually prefer guys to be uneducated.  These guys often really don’t  know what to do, and sometimes come between women and the birth experience they want, especially if they are afraid that something bad can happen.  Nurses and doctors latch on to one when they want to manipulate the women to take some interventionary course, like drugs, or surgery.  Remember men want first and foremost to have a safe birth.  These guys side with the hospital because they think the astute doctors have the woman’s best interest in mind.

2.  Natural childbirth in hospital with educated  guy

    The guy in this case may be thought of as wearing a flak jacket and carrying a loaded weapon.  They may be ready to fight all of the  interventionary procedures the hospital may want to dish out.  Confrontational and noncompliant, they are not well liked (much like doulas).

    Negatives for birthing in the hospital for the relationship?  Well the first scenario  causes a wedge between the desires of the woman and the birth she wanted.  Often these guys pay more attention to the television  or the Electronic fetal monitor in the room then they do their mates.  Women often say the guys are useless.  Many guys prefer not to be there at all, as labor is long and an emotional foreign ground for them.  So the opposing expectations and desires to be part of labor cause twice the harm to the couple’s relationship.

    The second scenario leaves a negative as well, as the birth environment can become a battle ground between the wills of the staff and the family.  Not quite ideal.  So how does that damage a relationship?  Well, indirectly, of course.  The added strife will cause many labors to shut down.  The release of adrenaline will start up a set of muscles that clamp down the uterus and signal the game is off – failure to progress in a hospital often means c-section, especially is any interventions like induction or stripping the membranes are used.  Adrenaline is the opposite chemical you want to release at a birth.  So this causes a conflict, and men can be quite the fighters but that can cause woman to have a birth experience she didn’t want at all.  I make it a point to tell guys in my book that they need to know that environment must match the style of birth their mates want.  Natural childbirth in a hospital is “a trial of labor.”  Hospital births are for medical complications known or emergencies, yet in many countries technological birth is the norm.  In Europe where midwives handle most births, the c-section rate is lower by far.  Midwives also control in some countries who gets transferred to the surgeons for complications.

    Home or birth center births:

    Now I realize that not all birthing centers are created equal, and that some are nothing more than a front for a hospital, and may even be on hospital grounds.  So with that in mind we can look at the two scenarios facing men.

    1. Natural childbirth at home or birth center (uneducated man)

    Taking a man to the home or birth center covers quite the far range of experiences for women.  But if the man is uneducated, both of these types of environments may bring apprehension and fear.  Men have been told by society that birth is an emergency.  The further removed from the “safety” of medical professionals they are will often create a tension in men which will pull them away from supporting these “unsafe” locations.  The truth is that uneducated people are the most likely to become afraid of the natural process of birth (I suppose women too).  Guys often will not listen to a woman wanting to have their baby born anywhere but the hospital.  Relationships can splinter because of the opposing philosophical value systems.

    2.  Natural childbirth at home or at a birth center (educated man)

      Depending on the education of the man, you have two focuses.  First, one type of educated man will give  further affirmation for why a non-hospital birth environment is beneficial, and thus the man is supportive.  But the other educated man will be thinking just the opposite:  especially if the training he received comes from the medical model – nurses or  doctors.  Doctors who handle technological births in hospitals are often very squeamish about any births outside of what they consider normal, but you’d be surprised how many educated women chose a non-hospital birth, so this can cause conflict.  One doctor was reported as saying after his child was born, “That was the first natural childbirth I’ve ever attended.”

      The fact that men are still often called to be at the birth regardless of the setting, places men in an awkward position.  Women may have the idea that the man must hold and support her the whole time she is in labor.  Midwives have told me that many guys are just in the way of their doing their work.  Women too have told me that they found the support they expected from their mate was not forth coming.

      What may be needed is a new redefined role for men.  Not one that women impose on men, but one that takes into regard the emotional strengths and weaknesses men have.  Yes men need to be educated about childbirth, but most are not cut out to be the labor support women require.  It bothers me that men are told to attend birth, not educated, and suddenly they have some roles and expectations placed on them by their mates that are unrealistic and based on a whole pile of assumptions.

      If you have comments or a story that brings out this discussion in detail, feel free to post.

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