Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fathers roles at birth and parenting

Image: New father from Clairity's photostream at flickr.com

A discussion on how women are supported postpartum began on this blog in the comments to my post about doula and midwifery assistants. I decided to commence a poll (see side bar) however this has not attracted many votes or much attention. One of the issues that we discussed in these comments was the role that men play during the postpartum period. I am also interested in the role that men play during pregnancy and birth.

When I first began in the midwifery profession it was very unusual for a man to attend antenatal classes or to be present at the birth. The father of the baby might have a couple of days of leave from work when a baby was born and then he was back to work. It was usually the woman's own mother, sisters, aunties or female friends who provided her with support at home after her baby was born. this was in the early to mid 1970s.

Now things are very different and fathers are involved and encouraged to be involved from conception onwards. As women have demanded equal rights in the workforce they have also demanded that men take equal responsibility for parenting and care of the family and home. This is an enormous transition in a very short space of time and of course for some families life has not changed much from the way it was in the 1970s and others may be anywhere along the continuum to full emancipation of both parents.

I discovered that a book has recently been written by men about mens experiences at birth. I am happy for all comments here but I would love to hear from men. What are your thoughts on societies expectations of men and women in birth and parenting. How was the experience of birth and early parenting for you? What do you think the role of men should be in supporting their family with a new baby? Do both men and women need some additional support when there is a new baby in the family? Do men feel prepared for the new roles that society expects of them? Are they adequately prepared for these new roles?

One of the issues that I see is how we treat fathers immediately after the baby is born in a hospital, which rightly or wrongly is where most babies are born at present. At homebirth fathers are there from the start and continue to be there right through with their partner. In birthing centers fathers are often encouraged to stay with their partners. In hospitals, once the baby is born, the father is sent home, by himself. The support he has been encouraged to give during the pregnancy and birth is not longer wanted or allowed. I wonder how fathers feel about this also?


saeugetier said...

fortunately, there are now hospitals where the fathers can stay with mother and baby (here in germany) in so called family rooms. but we're not staying there anyhow, we just go there to give birth and plan to leave the same day.

Leigh Blackall said...

Inviting post Carolyn. I have thought about these same things before, not sure why, I'm not a farther, but seem to feel pity for fathers and the disfunctional relationship they can develop with their family, sometimes from day one!... I think this perspective started after reading Manhood and Raising Boys. (I used to work in a book shop with a lot of spare time :)

So, anyway, my own feeling about your questions are quite mixed. My wife and I would like to have the family mothers, aunties and sisters around if we had kids to raise. Both of us are clueless and have not had the benefit of community living where people share their experiences.

Similar, I would like to be around fathers, uncles and brothers who can tell me about fatherhood.

Unfortunately our social structure has been significantly changed from anything remotely communal, institutionalisation has left us all at a loss for our individual and social capacities. So even if we could pull together the family for support, it would probably be not much help at all, because we haven't shared much life experience anyway!

So, the mother and father are left with each other, and the institutional substitutions. A hospital, a midwife, a community centre.. all of them lack the community bond that is really needed and developed in people from birth, but the one that can offer that level of comfort, commitment, understanding and support would be the one I would look for. We would have about 6 months to bond with those that would be charged to support us, and hopefully they would be there for at least the first year, and on call after that! Not likely I know :(

Pity the families of today. Our liberty, equality, and individualism has left us just as oppressed.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

seeing if short comment works here

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Ok so a short comment works why not a long one? I keep trying to get this to work but not luck. what is it about David's post that this does not like?

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Very strange. i tried to post David's comments in the last box, didn't work. When i took it out it posted fine.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Thanks for your comments here Leigh. Many of us have moved away and lost what would be our traditional support network for both Fathers and Mothers, i.e. our own extended family. Should the state step in to fill that gap? Should there be any additional state funded support for new parents, over and above what exists. Your midwife will usually continue follow up care for 4-6 weeks after your baby is born. all midwives have different ways of working but visits are usually frequent for the first week and then get down to a weekly visit until discharge form her care.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

I've been present at the births of two of my children. One was in the birthing unit in Christchurch (wood was the name I think). I was always encouraged to be a part of the experience, and left when Heidi did. The second was a homebirth in our lounge, so again was able to participate fully.

Expectations of child-birth?
I think that they vary hugely depending on the social context that you exist within (we all live in our social bubble, don't we). I was encouraged to be involved from the outset, and wanted to be involved, although older family members were not so comfortable with this. Outside of the family I found people to be largely accepting of my choices re: child-birth. My sense is that both of the options (involvement & non-involvement) are available to men at present, and both are acceptable to society in general although not to all members obviously.

Once past the child-birth I think that most mothers tend to take the main role in terms of looking after the child & the fathers input varies tremendously. I think I've been fairly involved generally. We shared the getting up at night, etc., although after our most recent child's birth I didn't take a lot of time off work. I was happy to return to work in this case, but if I had wanted to have more extended leave I don't think that it would have been supported by my work environment (woman manager interestingly).

Once the kids were past the baby stage I think our parenting has been pretty equal.

I actually think that having a child is something that no-one can be really prepared for. It happens. It stretches you well beyond your capacity to deal with your life, and somehow you manage to get through the other side. Do people need extra support? It's definately appreciated, but we've had times of coping alright without support.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

got it at last it was it was the way David had put a symbol within a bracket that it didn't like. I removed that and it posted. Phew!!!! I was very puzzled and really worried.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Davids comment that parenting stretches us way beyond what we knew we were capable of. It's a process and a journey which I found (out of natural necessity and maybe evolution) i am capable of doing well enough.
So many situations present themselves in parenting which need some thinking through or additional consideration or adjustment - so thats what we do.
I'm warmed to hear that david felt included and encouraged by caregivers as his baby was joining the world. Nice.
As a midwife I can't think of a time when I would provide care in a way that excluded the partner/father - oh unless for some social reason the woman wished for that to occur - but then that would be her action - not mine - my role is more secondary to the womans of course.
As a midwife I am always very clear what my role is and when it ends (until the next pregnancy) and one of my roles or responsibilities is to support the parents to feel confident that they have the means to continue parenting beyond my time-frame with them. I think it is about faciltating parents to identify their longer term support system - or identify the absence of one. Where there is a lack of support we can use our community contacts to hook people up or provide suggestions as to how they might access this.
Often the existing support system may no longer fully meet new needs so growing into parents can mean evolving a new network.
I think it is important for midwives to identify what their role is and to focus on doing that really well. I also think it is important for the public to support us by having realistic expectations.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Thanks for your comments Rae and David. I do agree that fatherhood and motherhood are very dependent on the social group to which you belong. I suppose where it becomes difficult is where the couple come from very different backgrounds with different expectations. Good to have these discussions I suppose before we enter into parenthood.

Thanks for your discussion about the midwives role her too Rae. Midwifery is about education and helping to prepare parents for their new roles. I totally agree that midwives should avoid creating dependence in the woman and her family. It is their experience and their new life together as a family. The more the midwife can support them to problem solve for themselves the better.

tired of smiling said...

The birth of our first child ended in an unexpected cesarian. I was taken care of by the nurses in the days afterward, but my husband was shuffled away. He had been up for more than 24 hours straight, and was expected to drive home to get some sleep after the birth. He was exhausted and in no shape to drive, but was not offered a comfortable place for a short nap, or even a cup of coffee.
They felt he was in the way.
They gave him heck for sleeping in the vinyl chair at my bedside. They gave him heck for not knowing that we needed to provide diapers. Of course, I was recovering from surgery, and figuring out how I was supposed to take care of a new baby at the same time without him. It was awful. For both of us. As much as he wanted to be involved he ended up fighting the system and just surviving like I was.
Of course, like many others, I managed to find (and afford) a midwife the second time around and had a much better birth where we all felt like a million bucks afterward. Ironically, I needed less from my husband, but got more.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Thanks for raising this important issue. Unfortunately the situation you describe here is not so very unusual. I have seen this happen to fathers in New Zealand as well. Not only is this disregarding the partners role is supporting the baby and mother it is also unsafe to send someone who is so exhausted off into the night to drive a car. I am glad you managed to sort out care which suited you better for your next pregnancy, what a shame you have to pay for this. In New Zealand we are very fortunate that all midwifery care, independent, continuity as well as facility, is free to women, paid for by the government.

Graeme said...

I havenh't been an attending father for nearly 30 years but I was prsent for the birth of 2/3 of my children and I must say that I welcomed the opportuntiy to be part of the process although I cannot say that 30 years ago the father was a welcome presence.
It is omportant that men take the earliest opportuntiy to bond with mother and child and be very active in allaspects of postpartum care.
I wouldalso like to see grandfathers being more involved in this process as I have found it difficult to 'break into' the roleof a granfather being twice removed.

Carolyn McIntosh said...

Thanks for your comment here Graeme. It is good to have your input. I wonder if you think life is better or worse for new fathers now than it was 30 years ago. I think grandfathers can be very important people in their grandchildren's lives. I have very fond memories of spending time with my grandfather, he was much more fun than my grandmother I thought.

Anonymous said...

good point Graeme. Where I worked in the north island grandparents were frequently present at births or within minutes of. It was the norm to have a group of people attend the woman throughout the birth. i noticed in Dunedin where i live now - this was not common. I don't know why?
It does feel really nice to have a supportive group with the woman. It is a family event first and foremost depending on your perspective I guess.

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