There has been a lot of commentary recently about dads, and a lot of it quite negative. As a mum of three with one on the way, as well as an antenatal practitioner, I have found this really sad. Coming from people who are certainly influential in the world of birth, I wonder how we have reached this point where it feels acceptable to send out the message that dads are pretty irrelevant.
I believe strongly that every family is unique. In some, dads will be more active in the daily parenting, and in others less so – not because they are men and having a penis renders them incapable, but just because that is how the specific family dynamic works. In our family, it is my husband who does the school run twice a day, sorts out everyone’s breakfasts and uniforms, and gets up with our 18 month old in the night when he wakes (which is most nights). While he might not be able to breastfeed our babies, it is pretty much the only thing he cannot do, and he certainly makes a huge difference in my abilities to breastfeed and nurture.
What bothers me most about the resurgence of some of these old-fashioned ideas about birth and parenting being ‘women’s business’, is that they are often attributed to the stereotypical ‘macho men’, but actually, they are increasingly being endorsed and promoted by some birth professionals.
As a woman and a mum, I thank no person who thinks they are liberating or empowering me by suggesting that I would be better off without the father of my children at my birth or in my home during those early few days and weeks.
Quite simply, they don’t know me, they don’t know my husband, they don’t know my family – and are therefore not qualified to make that assertion on our behalf.
Yes, it might suit some families for dad not to be at the birth, or take a shorter paternity leave – and I support each individual family to challenge societal expectations, to explore their options and make a choice for themselves – if it works for you, then it’s the right choice. But it didn’t and doesn’t suit me and my family, and so there will also be plenty of others it also won’t work for. Our third birth experience was a wonderful home birth and I was generally on an oxytocin-fuelled cloud nine the first few weeks – but I still wanted and needed my husband. In fact, he was integral to create the beautiful birthing and babymoon experience I enjoyed! By making assertions that these experiences and times ‘should be’ for women only, then all this achieves is judging and limiting MY choices, not supporting my reality and wishes of motherhood and mothering.
My reality included:
During our third pregnancy, my husband came to every single antenatal appointment with me, to be involved in the decisions and options for our pregnancy, and to support me.
He was the one who sorted out the older children’s dinner and then settled them into bed while I relaxed and rocked on my birth ball as labour got going.
He was the one who prepared my birth space, with the music, lighting and scent.
He was the one who asked our midwife to read our detailed birth plan in the hallway before being permitted to come into the room, in order to respect the ambiance I needed.
He was the one who I needed to hear give me encouragement, the only one I wanted in the room with me, the only person I had in the room with me until the moment baby was literally emerging.
He was the one who told the midwife to stop stitching a perineal repair when I became very distressed and wanted to be able to tell her to stop but couldn’t find the words.
He was the one who, when I lost a huge chunk of retained amniotic sac in the middle of the night 72 hours after birth (and I thought my uterus was falling out!) that I shouted for in the middle of the night for help.
He was the one who checked the antibiotic prescription I was given, discovered it was wrong and got it corrected.
He was the one who took our newborn son (and both the older children) for an outing to the park when I nearly collapsed with exhaustion 7 days after birth, so I could get a couple of hours sleep.
He was the one who kept me constantly supplied with drinks and biscuits, without being asked, throughout the early days and weeks of breastfeeding.
He was the one who washed and dried every reusable nappy and wipe we used in that first few weeks.
He was the one who cooked all our meals.
He was the one who sang to and rocked our baby when I needed a shower, or some space.
He was the one who sang to and rocked our baby just because he loved him and wanted to enjoy him.
He did all these things, and he did a million more.
I don’t think this is what every dad should do, nor what every mum would necessarily want or need. But it was and IS right for us.
I say it again, because it is so important, I am not being liberated or empowered with the suggestion that I would be better off without the father of my children at my birth or in my home in those first few weeks.
When ‘experts’ start promoting the idea that men are inherently detrimental to birth, that men have nothing to offer in the early days at home with a baby – then they are belittling my experience and wishes.
After the birth of our first baby seven years ago, my husband went back to work after a week. Mainly because at the time it was what was ‘normal’ in our circle and we bowed down to those cultural expectations. This was incredibly tough on both of us. We had BOTH just become parents, and were struggling with our own individual different adjustment issues. We were both vulnerable, confused and trying to navigate a new kind of relationship with our son and with each other – this was all made so much harder by him being out of the house 12 hours a day, 5 days a week.
Conversely, after the birth of our third baby, my husband lost his full time job. This should have been one of the worst things which could have happened – there was a lot of stress at losing our main income. However, for us, it was one of the best things which ever happened. Having him around helped me bond deeply with my baby. I had so much more emotional support. I had so much more practical support. I had a wonderful experience of breastfeeding with no bottles or pumps in sight. We had so much more time to adjust to life as a new family dynamic. He had time to focus on his unique relationship as a dad with his new son. He gave me and my newborn son the space, opportunity and time to bond in a way which I hadn’t had with my other two children.
Was my husband ‘destined’ to be this kind of supporter? Is he just ‘different’ from the rest of the men on the planet? No – as said, this wasn’t the experience we had during and after the birth of our first baby, and those who have heard either of us speak about that time, will known in even greater detail what a completely different experience it was. But what DID happen, was he was given an opportunity – something which many seem to want to take away from men now. His role as a father was valued rather than minimised. He had the opportunity to learn how to be the best birth partner he could be. He had the opportunity to be hands on with his babies.
My husband being a great dad, does not detract in any way from my role and abilities as a mum. I do not need to degrade him or criticise him to build myself up. I am not ‘lesser than’ for wanting and needing his support and company. He cannot be a mum, and I cannot be a dad. Parenting is not a competition, and while we certainly should not be perpetuating any ‘mummy wars’ we shouldn’t be trying to stir up battles between mums and dads either – this is completely contrary to building strong families.
There is a very special and unique relationship between a mum and her baby. This is indisputable. It is not a given though that a dad being around undermines this unique relationship – in our case, I found having him around enabled me to really give myself over to that relationship, in a way I hadn’t been able to with my other children. I would lose myself in that relationship, while everything around me was sorted out by someone I innately trusted to be in my space at this special and hugely intimate time.
By all means if as an individual family it is more appropriate that dad is not at the birth, or takes much paternity leave – that is a choice which is open to them to take. We need to better support families to understand their range of choices and without judgement. But trying to argue limited paternity leave for everyone is in mums’ best interests, or that men ‘shouldn’t’ be allowed in the birth environment, you not only disempower men, you also limit my choices and disempower me, as a woman and a mum.
And what about the dads themselves? By promoting this assertion that men are not required, we continue to build a cultural belief which becomes a self-fulfilling property. If men are continually told they are superfluous, they will become more distanced from what is happening at a crucial time in their family – not through choice, not due to what is actually right for their family, not due to their actual ability – but due to a cultural expectation. Is that what we want? Do we really think it is acceptable to tell dads they are not important antenatally, don’t have a place at birth, and are better off out of the home in the early weeks? Then we think it is ok to criticise them for not knowing how to change a nappy, or when their children take a nap – and then poke fun at them when they refer to themselves as ’babysitters’ rather than parents? This is a dreadful disempowerment and tearing down of the potential positivity of fatherhood.
Our fourth baby is due in a couple of months. I am planning for another intimate birthing and babymoon experience. It is an incredible and unique time, and one in which I need to have support, love and trust. Thank you in advance to my wonderful husband – there is no one who would be able to do this for me and our baby as well as you.
Steph is co-founder of antenatal & parenting programmes MummyNatal, BabyNatal and DaddyNatal.