The birth of a child: Confusion and powerlessness. A father’s role in labour, delivery and aftercare. Part 1

This is an ethnography assignment from my Master of Public Health. Its not perfect, not re-edited and clumsily chopped in three. References are listed on the final post.

INTRODUCTION

My wife lay exhausted on the crumpled sheets of the hospital bed; slightly dazed and confused by the late acting synthetic opioid analgesia she had been administered, still wearing the clothes she had laboured for thirty-six hours in; stained with amniotic fluid and sweat.

My new-born son, still unnamed, also exhausted; lay sleeping in the Special Care Nursery of the hospital, watched and monitored, having been admitted for observation due to being “flat” upon delivery.

I was the spare piece of the birthing puzzle- the husband, partner or friend that is along for the ride, but ultimately surplus to demand once things were in motion.

Now that the baby was born, I was torn. What was my role now?

My wife was still connected to intravenous lines that had long since served their purpose and my son was in another room being closely monitored having been born not breathing and requiring resuscitation.

I had waiting family to contact to share the wonderful news of the expected arrival of my newborn child.

I had a wife to assist following the most physically intense activity I’d ever witnessed.

I had a new creature in my life that I did not know, or yet love in a traditional sense – but had an overwhelming primeval impulse to protect and watch over.

Most of all, I had my own feelings, emotions and needs – but they had been largely ignored for the past few days and I had a feeling that was not about to change.

FATHER’S ROLE

The role of the father in the birth of their child is complicated and often unclear. A quick examination through the 1700 page textbook, Maternal Child Nursing Care (Wong, Perry, & Hockenberry, 2002)) found one dot point summary on the support needs of the father in labour.

Advice to practitioners included informing the soon-to-be-father of expected sights and smells and that needing to leave the room is fine; reinforcing that his presence in labour is helpful; offering him blankets to sleep on the chair and reminding him to eat (Wong, Perry, & Hockenberry, 2002). While this is arguably important information in practical terms; the almost condescending nature of the advice and occasionally the treatment of fathers in childbirth do little to acknowledge the father’s feelings and reactions to the machinations of labour.

A number of sources debate the value of having the father or partner in the delivery suite due to their lack of understanding of the process, high anxiety levels and lack of proper support to their partner (Vernon, 2006, Odent, 2010 and Winder, 2010). Winder (2010), a birth attendant and creator of BellyBelly .com.au; a high traffic Australian conception and birth website; challenges fathers in their motivation for attending the birth and their role in ensuring that their partner’s birth is all it should be. Vernon (2006), talks of men’s inability to allow things to “happen” in their role as “fixers” and creatures of action and often end up requiring comfort from their partners, increasing anxiety. Odent (2010), speaks of the increased neocortex stimulation and increased adrenaline associated with an attendant father-to-be.

All of these authors advocate for the use of a doula, or birth attendant; with the preferred outcomes being to ease the strain on the male as birthing partner through to removing the father from the role entirely.

While an unprepared, reluctant or anxious partner can be a hindrance to the birthing process (Vernon, 2006); should the emphasis be placed more on ensuring understanding than third-party involvement? Should all fathers be seen as a hindrance and potential negative influence on a successful birth? Chandler and Field (1997), argue that the benefits of an active, educated and engaged father in the support role is important to both parties. He also notes that fathers were not seen as part of a “labouring couple” and many felt tolerated rather than full partners in the birthing process (Chandler & Field, 1997).

Post-partum information and advice has a somewhat similar tone, with the onus being on the new father to ensure that he is providing the support and encouragement that his partner requires (Winder, 2006; Wong, Perry, & Hockenberry, 2002).

This is true, but there is little about the father’s own needs, insecurities and required support. The “father” in most of the literature and prenatal education appears to be the generalisation of the clueless bloke who purely wants to work, watch footy and have sex and hopes a baby won’t get in the way of all that.

Realistically, as the roles and expectations of women have changed dramatically over the past few generations – so has that of men.

MY BACKGROUND

Going into the labour experience was not going to be the same for me as it was for the general “bloke” described above. My background had given me some insight and education in to the birth process that had not been afforded on every man. It can be argued that knowledge is power. It can equally be argued that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

I am one of the 9.6% of male nurses in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Wellfare, 2011) , and through training and employment opportunities I had worked with prematurely born babies and children, assisted in the birth of four babies and had experience of hospitals, pain and medical staff.

I had endeavoured throughout my wife’s pregnancy and labour not to advertise my profession as it can have two unwanted effects. The first being, occasionally other health professionals stop talking to you and your partner as patients or clients, but to me as a nurse, seemingly hoping I will later translate and explain the conversation to my wife.

Secondly, there can be some reluctance or even annoyance, often a pre-conceived idea that you will be a bit of a “know-it-all” or overstep boundaries. I wanted to be treated as a first-time expectant father, not an off-duty nurse.

to be continued

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