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Ode to the Fathers (and a case for their support)

June 19, 2016

I work with dads on a regular basis in my childbirth classes and as doula clients. I usually use the term partners for inclusivity and to honor the many forms families take. I am grateful for this diversity in my classes. Since most of the people in my classes are couples, partners are usually dads or other mothers (or choose a preferred noun). While partner is more inclusive, it rarely captures the intimate connection, profound identity shift and weight of this role. In this writing, I speak specifically about dads because of Father’s day and the cultural expectations associated with the label, though a lot of what I say can be applied to other mothers and birth partners.

When I teach, the most common question fathers have is how to be most helpful or supportive. 

I can talk to them about the unfolding of the labor process and birth etiquette, demonstrate massage techniques like counter pressure and hip squeezing, practice breathwork. We can explore their beliefs about birth and strategize ways to communicate with their helpers in order to get what they want. 

I can answer questions and provide a space for them to connect with their partners, babies and the process, while validating the importance of their roles and acknowledging that they will be going through their own initiation to parenthood. 

However, I know that just by their presence, by showing up, that they have what it takes and are already there in terms of helpfulness and support. 

It am saddened when they are told to suck it up or that it is not about them. Or when they are asked to take a back seat in order to let the professionals do their work, when they experience vicarious trauma from the helplessness of observing a process that doesn’t involve them or take them into consideration, that ignores or even belittles their experience, concerns, questions.

In most cases, dads have only been involved in the birth room for two to three generations. Yet their presence is often paramount for the birthing mothers and increases bonding with their babies. While it is in some ways empowering, they have had this new role thrust upon them — sometimes with little preparation, high expectations and oblivion to their needs or level of comfort in it. 

They must cope with exhaustion, the overwhelming experience of watching their partners cope with intensity and pain, worry about their babies health and stressful situations that provide few outlets (doulas and sometimes nurses, midwives and other caregivers may fill this). They may still be treated as outsiders in what is often a female dominated environment.

I have known dads to vocalize/breathe/tone through every wave of contraction with their partners for hours on end, hold a mother’s leg up while she pushes until his back aches, go several nights without sleep, skip multiple meals, develop a UTI from not going to the bathroom and sit at his partner’s head through a Cesarean surgery and birth.

Following a birth, there is little support for dads even though they have also experienced a major life-altering event. Fathers can also experience postpartum depression though the rates are much lower for them. More often, while paternity leave has become more generous at some companies, new dads are expected to return to the real world relatively quickly despite additional responsibilities at home and often a desire not to miss out on time spent being a new family.

As helpers, we have a responsibility to involve and nurture fathers and partners. They are an intrinsic part of pregnancy, birth and early parenting as well as other life events, processes and crises. They have their own experiences beyond just helping and being supportive which deserve to be honored. Meanwhile, by tending them, we enable them to be more helpful and supportive — invariably benefitting mothers and babies.

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