As more and more men have become actively involved in pregnancy, labour and birth (fact: now over 90% of men are now present for the birth of their baby in the US, UK and Australia), their roles have changed radically.
Initially, dad was just there. A bystander. Invited and welcomed in, but very much of the view that his role was not a hands on one. Rather, he was just there for the pure spectacle and to share the moment of birth with his partner while the professionals did their thing ‘for’ mum and baby.
Then gradually, men’s role at birth began to expand. We began to realise that men can in fact contribute more to the birth space than just their mere physical presence. Typically, men at birth were very emotionally, psychologically and practically separate from mum and baby.
With this shift, women began to pull men closer into the experience for more love and support. Men began answering the call. Couples began preparing for birth in a more connected way with a clearer, more defined role for men to play. That’s when ‘dad as labour coach’ was coined.
I can see the point and purpose in this expression. It’s a safe way for men to own their role and step into it by fusing the vulnerable space of birth with the more macho side of the masculine identity. This has been a great strategy used by childbirth educators to get dads on board by engaging them as a ‘labour coach’. It works and I’m all for it!
But dads are more than just labour coaches! Men’s contribution is much more than that of a coach and birth is of much greater importance to them than relegating them to that narrow role.
Here are 4 reasons why:
1. It's Not Always What Everyone Wants
Not every woman wants their partner to be a coach, and not every dad wants to be a coach.
If we limit the role of men at birth to that as ‘labour coach’, what happens when a women decides that she doesn’t want her partner to play that role? Likewise, what happens when a man feels, that for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to or can’t play it?
We need to acknowledge and make space for other possibilities. My take on this is that every woman should be at the centre of her labour and birth experience. So if she wishes to invite her partner to share that with her, then it becomes a question ‘in what role or capacity?’ Then, I see partners should have the right to accept or decline that invitation. This is my view on what’s ultimately best for the couple’s shared birth journey. Communication is essential. Everyone should be in clear agreement on who is playing what role.
This is when you might want to call a doula! Doulas allow dads to be supported as well so they can play their own unique role at birth.
2. Birth Is A Man's Only Real “Becoming Dad” Moment
That’s why being there matters to men so much.
Men’s experience of becoming a parent is profoundly different to women’s. Women grow and birth babies. With that, the experience is happening inside of them, while for men, everything is happening outside of them.
To add, men typically receive very little engagement about their own experience of becoming a dad. The focus is very much mother-baby and they’re on the fringe of the experience at best, or at worst, feeling completely left out.
The birth of their child is for most men, their first real and only ‘becoming dad’ moment. When it gets real for them. This is why it matters for men.
3. ‘Coach’ Doesn’t Capture The Emotional, Psychological Or Spiritual Contribution Dads Makes At Birth
When I think of ‘coach’, I see (and hear!) someone encouraging and motivating me. It conjures the sense of a more professional relationship and connection, rather than a deeply personal one. When I think of dad as labour coach, I see him with a whistle and adrenaline charged. It doesn’t scream Oxytocin — which is the key hormone present during labour, breastfeeding and acts of love — at all. Yet we now know that dads at birth can play a key role in boosting Oxytocin flow which helps labour to flow, contributing to an easier and more pleasurable birth experience.
Coach doesn’t do justice to capturing the role that men play in the birth space. Through their presence, connection and affection, men bring love, create safety and are the emotional, psychological and spiritual rocks that their partners can lean on during labour and birth.
4. We’re Holding The Evolution Of Masculinity Back By Sticking With ‘Labour Coach’
Modern masculinity is evolving. This is a great thing for women, children, men, families and communities. The ‘becoming dad’ experience is a rare gateway to access the heart of a man. It’s a reason for him to open up to being more emotional and vulnerable. The best reason he’ll most likely ever have.
We have to harness this. Including in the birth space. Not at the compromise of his birthing partner, but alongside of her also experiencing an empowered birth.
We have to encourage and support him to experience his individual and deeply personal moment of awe so that he too feels powerfully connected and bonded to his partner and baby. This is the opportunity for men, couples and families. To benefit from the gifts of having a man who is transformed by birth and becoming dad.
To make advances in the childbirth education and preparation spaces, we need to find ways to allow men more opportunities to engage with and embrace this part of themselves, their role and their journey. By sticking with ‘labour coach’, we’re not allowing or facilitating this important masculine evolution to unfold.