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4 May 2017

Attending the birth of my child will be a privilege – and terrifying

As late as the 1980s, it wasn't unusual for fathers to be elsewhere at the crucial moment. 

By Yo Zushi

John Hammond was born in a house that had two cellars and six storeys, with servants shuttling up and down a marble staircase connecting the lavish ground floor to a private ballroom. It was a late afternoon in December 1910, and Manhattan’s best doctors were on call to attend to his birth. John would be the Hammonds’ fifth child: the newest member of the extraordinarily wealthy Vanderbilt family through his mother’s line, and the grandson of a civil war general through his father’s. 

This was no typical 20th-century labour, then, but the aloofness of John’s father that day was not unique to the gilded classes. While his wife pushed and strained and took care of business, he sauntered from his downtown law offices to a club called the Knickerbocker and got himself a drink. “Children are seldom born at the cocktail hour,” he reasoned. The bartender fixed him a stiff one. By the time he got home, John was in his mother’s arms.

My own father missed the birth of his three children, but not to sip cocktails. In part, he was anxious about how he’d cope with the gore (it’s considered normal for a mother to lose up to half a litre of blood), and anyway, it wasn’t unusual for a Japanese man in the early 1980s to be elsewhere. In England today, however, dads are expected to take a more active part in the process. Over 90 per cent of them are in the room when their child pops out, rather than down the nearest pub. This is a relatively recent development. “When my daughter was born in 1950, it was unheard of for fathers to be present,” a dad from south-east London told the researcher Laura King a few years ago. “Childbirth was definitely women’s business.”

Old attitudes die hard. Once in a while you still read news stories about, say, the former footballer John Barnes skipping the birth of his seventh child to commentate on a Chelsea-Liverpool game, or the chef Gordon Ramsay declaring he’d “rather be stark bollock naked in a steam room with 50 vegans” than see his wife in labour. Yet doctors have encouraged men to be by their partner’s side since at least the early 1950s, when more women began to have children in NHS hospitals than at home. 

Before having babies was institutionalised, most mothers gave birth surrounded by family members in their own house. Hospital births could, by contrast, feel impersonal, with the mother struggling among medical professionals who were little more than strangers. According to a study published in February 2016, a father can be an ideal “representation of family links” in this rather clinical context, and his presence can contribute to the mother’s comfort and well-being. It can also help him to develop “closer and more intimate links leading to a consolidation of the family unit [and] the assumption of a parental role”. All good things, and it seems to me a far better use of a dude’s time than sipping an Old Fashioned at the Knickerbocker, or being stark bollock naked in a steam room with 50 vegans. 

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Knowing that being there is beneficial and helpful doesn’t make the thought of it any less terrifying, however. The due date of our first child, Kurt, was last Sunday, but we’re still waiting for him to arrive. We went to all the antenatal classes at Homerton University Hospital in east London and have a rough idea of what will happen – and a rough idea is the best we can hope for. “Every labour is different,” the BabyCentre website tells us. I just hope it’s not too different, and everything turns out as it should.

I suppose it’s natural for me to fear what could go wrong. Many men suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing difficult births, and having heard some horror stories from my friends, I’m not surprised (one told me of his girlfriend being wheeled off for an emergency caesarean; he was asked to sign a form specifying which should be saved in the event of disaster: his partner or his child). Yet what struck me over the past few months of preparing for Kurt’s birth is how little most men actually know about labour.

In the movies – the source of the bulk of my knowledge on any subject – the waters break, the mother is rushed into a cab and we see her on a hospital bed. She moans. Cut to the doctor’s face, perhaps a bead of sweat inching down his temple. Then the sound of a baby crying signals that it’s all over. Looks simple enough.

None of this prepares you for the reality that the average length of the first stage of labour is between 12 and 14 hours; that the next two stages can last three or more hours; that doctors suggest the mother takes a break once the baby’s head is out (!); that there is such a thing as a “show”, a splodgy, H R Giger-style mucus plug that falls out of the cervix before anything gets going; that babies can shit in the amniotic fluid; that mothers don’t just lie on a hospital bed but instead are recommended to get on all fours, squat, lean on a giant “birthing ball”, or hang from a weird cloth contraption suspended from a pole; that an epidural is administered through a “needle” that looks as thick as a drinking straw; that after the baby is born, the placenta has to be “birthed”, too. You learn a lot of bewildering new things at those antenatal classes. Taking it all in can be a bit daunting.

Yet I’m glad that I can be there when it happens. It’s more or less accepted now that supporting your partner as she gives birth is a rite of passage as much as it is a responsibility. But I think it’s also a privilege. I want to help. I want to see our son come into the world. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I also understand, though, that the 1950s dad who spoke to Laura King was right in a way. Childbirth is women’s business. What anxieties I may have are probably nothing compared to my partner’s. My role, as a guy, is relatively small. Still, I’m happy I can be a part of it. Wish us luck!