Amanda sat opposite me cradling her gorgeous three week old baby. As a Relationship Counsellor, debriefing a birth was one of my favourite things to do.
We're up to here: "What was Mark doing at this point?"
Amanda shakes her head and laughs: "he was useless."
This is not the first time I've heard this. In fact, I've heard it a lot. Some women say it with a laugh, others with shoulders slumped. Saddest are the times a woman describes feeling "abandoned" by their partner at a time when she need him to be there for her.
I have also spoken with these women's husbands or partners and discovered there are very good reasons for this. Some said they were worried they were getting in the way. Others deferred to the authority of the professionals in the room or didn’t have enough knowledge to make an informed decision.
Some stood back because they were scared. In shock even.
The fallout from a disappointing birth experience can mean months of counselling for a couple. Blame and resentment need to be worked through so new parents can pull together and begin their new co-parenting journey. But then again, there's this:
Some couples' birth experience leaves them more in love than ever.
The very same birth-room vulnerability that can cause harm for a couple's relationship has just as much, if not more, potential to bond them.
Love and gratitude (and overwhelming relief!) flow toward a caregiver when a birth goes well or a crisis has passed. When combined with oxytocin, it's a powerful mix. Partners are care-givers too.
The sharing of such an intense experience, the sense of coming through it together, can stay with a couple long after the event. With this beginning, the benefits for a new family are immeasurable.
Birth isn't just an event - it is the beginning of a couple's co-parenting journey.
So, if you're expecting, you might like to discuss with your midwife or doula some ways your life partner can be your birth partner too. If you're a birth professional you might like to discuss these with your clients.
Five ways to welcome baby as a team:
1. Information processor
Best case scenario, dad or partner knows mama’s wishes because he has read her birth plan, or better yet, helped her draft it. Ideally he has attended antenatal appointments and birth/parenthood classes with her and they have been asked to discuss things together afterwards. If not, dad can be briefed at the last minute, or along the way. Informed Partners can ask questions on mama’s behalf, check how she’s coping and slow things down for her. A big contributing factor to the psychology of birth trauma is a sense of things escalating too quickly and spiraling beyond control - dad can help with this.
It might not mean standing in front of her, legs firmly planted, arms crossed and with a warning glint in his eye, but dad can protect mama from unnecessary interference so she can get on with the task at hand. Whether it’s well-meaning relatives turning up at the hospital in the middle of labour or fielding visitors/calls that intrude too soon afterwards. Partners can be a go-between, checking that if a doctor approaches with a silver tray, that mama is aware, prepared and consenting. I have heard mothers say, even when birth plans went out the door and they ended up with an emergency C-section, that they were grateful for their partner’s support. Because of this, it was a positive birth experience.
If dad/partner is there, there’s a giant oxytocin generator standing in the birth room! When couples have space and dad or partner feels comfortable to be freely affectionate with mama, this can help her relax during labour, open up during birth and feel bonded afterwards. Birth professionals can help partners to become familiar with the rhythms of labour, show partners where and how to massage mama for comfort or apply acupressure for pain relief. She will be forever grateful. Different birth positions can be discussed, and how he might be able to support mama (eg. if she wants to stand so gravity can do it's job, dad can stand behind her). She can, literally and figuratively, lean on him. Mama is also likely to be grateful to her birth pro for coaching her partner, relieved that she doesn’t have to do it herself and leaving her to focus inwards.
I learned from my friend Sarah Buckley that one of the important things to do in the third stage of labour (after baby is born but before the placenta comes) is to keep mama warm. Perfect job for a partner, especially if they're willing to jump in to bed and cuddle her while she’s holding the baby! Dad or partner can also provide skin to skin with baby if Mama is not available for any reason.
At the Istanbul Birth Academy, Obstetrician Hakan Coker and psychotherapist Nese Karabekir work together with a midwife/doula as a birth team to help Turkish women (Turkey has a 51% and increasing c-section rate) to naturally “Birth Without Regret”. Hakan describes himself as “sometimes obstetrician, sometimes midwife” and his role as “a guide and healer for all the babies going to be born with love, trust and bonding”. Nese uses brief psychodynamic therapies during labour to “clear the stuck-ness in the process”. When I asked her if fathers or partners were involved in the birth process they facilitate, her answer: “oh yes, they are the hero”.
What a great start for a new family!