Being the non-pregnant partner in your relationship, you may assume the role of protector, guardian and provider for your partner while she's pregnant and giving birth.
In relation to childbirth, some common assumptions the woman's partner may have include:
- Birth is a natural process, therefore she will be able to cope fine without extra support
- As her loving partner, I'm perfectly capable of being her support person without the ‘interference’ of anyone else
- Midwives and/or a doctor will be by her side, and will provide everything she needs.
Often I receive messages or see discussions where mothers-to-be express a strong desire to have a doula (a trained and experienced birth support person) present with them during birth. However, they don’t know how to fully express this need to their partner, who doesn’t believe the extra support, or perhaps the expense of it, is necessary.
Usually, but not always, this is the case with couples who are expecting for the first time.
After the birth of their first baby, many partners realise what a big difference it would have made having extra support for the birth – and not just for the woman, but for themselves as well.
“My husband’s attitude on having a doula was not good. He felt it was a statement on his effectiveness in the birthing process. He literally told me, ‘I would be very offended if you had someone else there'.” — anonymous
Supporting Women To Get The Support They Need
Having trained as a doula in 2005, which was two years after launching the BellyBelly website, I've had the opportunity to hear a substantial amount of stories from women, and their partners, about their experience of birth – and how they felt about it.
Everyone seems to remember how they felt during the birth process, even if they can't remember all the small details. But they do remember how they felt, especially when it comes to support (or lack of it).
A woman shared her story in BellyBelly's Forums, after she mentioned to her partner that she'd like to have a doula:
“I spoke to my husband about the possibility of using a doula – the idea did not go down well. He said that from what I described, the role of a doula is what the midwives will be doing for me anyway. I’ve explained the differences about 10 times and now and he is just angry. I think he’s confused – maybe this is why he doesn’t feel the need to really prepare because he thinks the midwives will do everything.”
She continued, “Having a doula truly sounds wonderful, but it doesn’t look like this will even be an option for me. I don’t think I am being selfish wanting a doula. More than anything I just want to set up a situation where things can run as smoothly as possible for BOTH of us. He later admitted that he felt like I was giving away his ‘job’ and he thinks the doula will take away something he obviously wants to provide on his own. He also said the experience is meant to be just the two of us and not with a third person. I really just wish he didn't take it so personally because I don't see it as a reflection on him at all.”
Doulas – A Valuable And Much Needed Addition To The Birth Team
Many women innately feel drawn to a trusted, experienced woman by their side, as part of the birth support team.
It's simply not true that a doula will replace you – her role is to add to the team, not take something away. No-one could ever replace the loving connection that only a partner can provide.
From the earliest of days, before there were hospitals or obstetricians, women in labour were supported by and gave birth in the presence of ‘wise women’. These women were knowledgable in all things birth, and had given birth themselves.
Times have now changed, and there are several types of professionals who are involved in childbirth – mainly doulas, midwives and doctors.
Doulas are not medically trained, but they are trained in the art of birth support. They provide continuous care throughout the labour, without shift changes. A doula can give you a break if you need it, reassure both of you, and suggest changes to help with comfort or for the birth progress well.
Hospital-based midwives (nurse midwives in the US) monitor the progress of labour, take observations, perform medical procedures if necessary, arrange drugs and medications, and will catch the baby. They work in shifts, so you may end up with around three different midwives over the duration of your labour, who have several women assigned to them.
Doctors only make an appearance at the birth if there are problems or if he or she happens to be nearby and comes in for a quick check. But mainly, if you've chosen private health care or if you've had complications, you'll see the doctor when it's time to catch the baby, if they make it in time. And they can be just as busy as midwives.
“Last time I felt things were out of control, and although I had choices, I felt like things were happening around me that I couldn’t control. I know that by having extra support apart from my husband would help me to focus on the labour and work through it, rather than be distracted by the worries that were happening during labour. My husband also felt out of control with what was going on, and there were numerous obstetricians and midwives coming in and doing internal exams and discussing what was going on, without too much communication other than pleading for a caesarean section. He got scared and confused. My husband thinks that this time having someone focused on the bigger picture and assisting with communication will help him focus on me better.” — anonymous
Just Like Our Health System, Midwives Are Under A Great Deal Of Pressure
Responding to an article where a midwife spoke of being so busy juggling three births, she had no time to change her sanitary products and leaked through her scrubs, an Australian midwife shared:
“Some nights I'd give anything for ONLY three births. Recently I had a 12.5 hour night shift from hell! Consisting of 7-8 births (I lost count and one of those was on the toilet floor of our assessment centre), 3 x cat 1 emergency caesareans (all pre-term and high risk), assisted at a few vacuums, a couple of PPH's [post partum haemorrhage], an ice addict stealing our personal items needing security involvement, a woman with a very rare metabolic disorder that needed medication our tertiary hospital didn't have, and all this while I had a high risk patient all night. This was just me, the rest of the staff were just as busy as I was. I didn't get to even think about a break and I can't remember if I had an opportunity to pee either…”
Another midwife I know confided that she is saddened to see what she believes is the demise of the traditional midwifery role, going down the path of a nurse, simply monitoring machines and providing observations. She said, “If you want any support during birth, you pretty much have to get your own.”
One father shares his experience of arriving in hospital anticipating the birth of his first baby in a large Melbourne hospital:
“When we arrived in the delivery suite, we were assigned a trainee midwife. There was not much I could actually do at this point, my first question was “have you been busy?” The midwife replied, “We are grossly understaffed today and are rotating our patient duties more than normal”. This didn't make me feel any better. We got a swap of midwives every now and then, so I would ask questions to the other midwives and get answers from them, which I then relayed to the trainee nurse. It was frustrating but the only way we could find out anything.”
Men Are Important – But Are Usually Not Experienced With Birth
Sometime in the 1970s, men were allowed to be present in the room while their partner was in labour – but it wasn’t really until the 1980s that they were encouraged to support her through words and touch.
This was a wonderful progression, however men were now in a role that wasn’t traditionally theirs… and it was one they knew nothing about. So this brought both benefits and challenges into the birthing room.
Untrained and inexperienced birth partners or support people may not expect to feel uneasy, confused, anxious, fearful and panic-stricken at times, when their partner is giving birth. I've supported some very confident and hands-on partners, and I have also supported partners who looked green or stood with their back against the wall the whole time. Many doulas have supported partners who have passed out!
Wanting to ‘fix' the pain or not knowing how to deal with their labouring partner in pain (aside from suggesting drugs, which might not be what she wanted) can be a challenge. Having an emotional attachment – in a relationship sense – to a birthing woman is wonderful, but it can make it difficult too. No-one likes seeing loved ones in pain or not coping, and our instinct is to want to make it stop. Unfortunately, pain is part of progress during labour.
If a partner or support person is freaking out or even anxious (and trust me, a labouring woman will pick up on it) she has no ‘rock’ to lean on when feeling vulnerable or frightened, when she desperately needs confident support and reassurance.
Women may be more likely to opt for pain relief or interventions to escape an anxious or insecure situation, in an attempt to have some control.
Today, many women are spending most of their labour alone with just their partner – someone who is not familiar or confident with labour and birth. Partners usually don’t know what it feels like or what it takes to get through a labour, and don’t have the power of knowledge or experience.
The greatest thing about having our partner with us at birth is obviously being able to share that beautifully intimate connection with our lover, with whom we conceived this amazing, tiny being. No-one else possibly can give us what our partner can, in terms of a deep loving connection. But it's not unreasonable for a labouring woman to need a little more than her partner's support and loving connection.
Partners Often Face Unexpected Challenges
If you haven't been through something before, it's difficult to know what you need to prepare for and what you might have to deal with.
This is one of the biggest reasons why partners who have experienced the care of doulas usually turn into raving fans.
One father explains his unexpected challenges supporting his wife on his own, “You can be in a situation where you are completely petrified and not have a clue about what you are supposed to do. My wife had a very long labour, she was exhausted and ‘out of it’ due to the pain relief. The midwife and obstetrician came in and said ‘xxx’ could be a problem and I think you should have an ‘xxx’ procedure done to avoid it. I didn’t understand fully what had been said and I felt that I had to make an important decision not knowing what I was agreeing to. I didn’t have any medical knowledge so I had no idea if there were any alternative things we could try or if what he was telling us was truly needed. I didn’t even know if this was what my wife wanted or not. I just froze and agreed to whatever the obstetrician told us.”
He continued, “My wife wasn’t in a state to think for herself and it was one of the scariest things I have had to do. We had no resources behind us and at that point I wished we had someone else to help us, in a position where they had our best interests and birth plan in mind – even if what the Obstetrician was asking us to have done was needed, we would have felt much better at the time knowing that it was an informed decision and we were making the best choice for us.”
One woman said:
“I realised that I had made a mistake asking a child-less friend to support me during labour. During a contraction when I was groaning in pain, I reached out for her hand for support and she looked at me as white as a ghost and as if I might die! Her heart was in the right place, but she didn’t know how I was going to get through it and felt helpless, which made it hard for me to focus on what I was meant to be doing. What I really needed was someone to be strong and confident enough to get me back on track.”
There's SO Much In It For Partners
Partners can enjoy huge benefits too.
Support for YOU: A doula will support you no matter how much you want to be involved. If you only want to be present at the birth and not hands-on, the doula will help your partner as physically and emotionally as required.
A stronger relationship: Studies have shown that after using an experienced attendant for birth, not only did mothers show greater satisfaction with her partner’s role at the birth, but the father was also pleased to have had that support there for himself, which enabled him to feel more satisfied with his role too.
Less medical intervention: From epidurals to forceps and c-sections, in many studies from around the world, doulas have shown that they can have a major impact on birth intervention rates, even helping with a shorter labour. Being able to avoid an unnecessary c-section means avoiding major surgery, six weeks of recovery, mother-baby separation and so much more.
Someone to advocate: A doula knows your birth intentions (birth plan), and her best interests lie with you. She facilitates and encourages communication between staff members and yourself and your partner. A doula helps you make your own, informed decisions based on facts, and helps you keep informed about what is going on, without all the jargon.
Someone you can trust: A doula is someone you can trust, having been through birth herself and having been part of many births before. She knows what it takes to get through a labour, she knows how hard labour is and this can be a great reassurance. You also can trust her knowledge of the birth process; we often forget what we have been told in pre-natal classes, but your doula will know it all too well. You can trust her when it gets tough.
She thinks of the little things that matter: I make sure I steal the camera away from the partner every now and again so I can take some precious pictures of the birthing couple working together, the partner cutting the cord, and pictures with the new baby. If I'm able to, I especially love catching the facial expressions right as the couple see their baby for the first time. Often the emotions of the moment take over, and the things you’ve been planning to do get forgotten.
Advice From A Father
I thought I would finish this article with some feedback from a father, who has been through birth both with and without a doula.
“After going through two births with my wife — one with and one without a doula — I would thoroughly recommend having a doula for the entire labour. I found I could concentrate specifically on my wife and be right by her side through the whole labour. Any running around was handed over to the doula — refreshing hand cloths and warming up heatpacks, leaving the room to consult with the midwives and playing traffic cop with any other visitors.
After advising our doula of our birth preferences and how we saw the whole process going from the beginning, there was no need to worry about others being informed about how we envisioned the birth — the doula took care of it all, and left us to immerse ourselves in the experience totally.
For those men who are unsure about having a doula for your baby's birth, know that the presence of a doula allows you both to focus on each other and the baby, without worrying about anything else in the process.”
The best way to make an informed decision is to do your research. If you'd like to interview some doulas to find out if more support is right for you, check out the BellyBelly Marketplace.