With Father’s Day being celebrated this Sunday, Certified Doula David Goldman shares his experiences as both a birth doula and expecting father, as he ponders the role birth professionals and health care providers have in welcoming or marginalizing the partner during pregnancy, birth and early parenting. The role of men at births has been questioned, mocked and celebrated over the years. Read and hear how David has been able to experience it from both sides. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager
My head was spinning with joy, fear and uncertainty as I walked into the birth room for the first time as a doula. I squatted to the side as I acclimated to the calm energy and slowly made my way toward the laboring mother. A nurse walked in and with unexpected excitement shook my hand and smiled deep into my eyes as she walked passed me. My doula mentor stepped in to explain that I was not the dad but was the doula. I laughed to myself, having once again forgotten the rarity of men, especially those in non-medical roles, in the birth room. Since then, I carry a shirt in my birth bag that reads, “Nope, I’m not the Daddy, I’m the Doula” to avoid the confusion and the awkward and misplaced, but well intentioned congratulations. I also wear the shirt because once the staff knows I’m a birth professional, I’m often accepted as part of the ‘real team’ rather than just a ‘bystander’ who might get in the way and needs to be looked out for.
As we are likely well aware, the history of childbirth in North America has included discrimination, sexism, misogyny and other forms of oppression against women. Birth communities have become a source of strength and have collectively fought and won major battles including public breastfeeding, rights to options and evidence-based care in childbirth and so much more. But as with all forms of oppression and marginalization, we can’t bring one person up by bringing another down. As one of a very small handful of certified male birth doulas in North America and a birth professional who has completed a Lamaze International approved childbirth educator workshop on the path to obtaining LCCE status, I feel honored to work among thousands of strong women who are pushing the boundaries every day to make childbirth and parenting less traumatic and more empowering for all birthing women.
As a birth professional, I have worked with many amazing dads who glowed at least as bright as their pregnant partners. At most of the births that I have attended, the tears coming from the eyes of men overwhelmed with joy and relief at the birth of their baby have been just as wet as those of the mothers. I am not trying to equate the experiences of becoming a father with becoming a mother. However, I do hope to shed light on how birth professionals’ communication with fathers can influence the pregnancy and childbirth experience not just for fathers but also for mothers and babies. Like many birth professionals, I have worked hard to support the whole “client family” and honor the role of each person involved. However, now that I find myself in the role of the client family for the first time, I am quite surprised by my experience.
The presence of a father, birth partner or family member can help to improve women’s birth experience by providing emotional support and reassurance during labour and delivery. While unexpected emergencies may arise, for many couples, birth can be a very positive experience. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Currently, my partner and I are halfway through a pregnancy and, as you can imagine, I now have the opportunity to see things from a whole new perspective. As a birth professional who has taken many courses, attended conferences, read piles of books, shared dialogue via various internet forums and participated as an active and founding member of the local birth professional group in my community, I feel relatively empowered and knowledgeable on the topic of pregnancy, labor, birth and postpartum.
I’m surprised, however, by how marginalized I feel being the partner in the pregnancy and that I feel less and less central in the birth of our baby as we include and add professionals to our team. Providers make little eye contact with me and ask for decisions almost exclusively from my partner. People frequently ask where she will be birthing and whom she has chosen to attend. I’m finding that images in advertising and instructional materials with partners in primary support roles are not as common as those with birth professionals at the center. Many online birth communities are specific to “Mommas” and a large group that had once made an exception (not at my request) to include me as a birth professional recently removed me from the group now that I am a “Dad-to-be” reducing my access to the very support that I had previously offered to many new families. Overall, while we often intend to honor the role of partners, I’m seeing that we are missing the mark throughout the field.
If a well-trained and experienced birth doula and an active part of the local birthing community is feeling disempowered, how must partners who are brand new to birth feel? After all, we may hold knowledge and experience but as we have all seen, a sweet smile or a kiss from a partner can be an amazingly effective medicine for a birthing mother. We already know that the experience of women and babies is improved by continuous care during childbirth. (Hodnet, 2012). What can we do as birth professionals to better support partners in being fully present and connected?
One of the most significant things that birth professionals and health care providers can do is to welcome partners with mutual respect and honoring their challenging and important roles. By doing so, we can likely improve the experience overall and help foster attachment between the parents and with the partner and the baby even before the birth. The bonds, attachment and successes fostered in childbirth are likely to be a great springboard into future parenting experiences.
In order to improve the likelihood that partners will feel central in the birth team, we as birth professionals must include them from the beginning. We can frequently make eye contact, ask for their opinions and check in to see how they are feeling about decisions. In our prenatal discussions, we can help partners address any barriers they may feel to fully supporting the birth. We can create communities that include partners to seek advice, support and dialogue. Just as we reassure birthing women throughout the process, we might provide acknowledgement for the hard work and endurance of partners. Discussions that promote collaborative dialogue between partners can be encouraged when decisions are needed. Childbirth educators can offer suggestions on how to ask care providers to include the partner more substantially and role-play scenarios with couples in class.
Birth professionals should stop applying the standard stereotypes that have been around for ages, and are continually propagated through the media, assuming fathers are bumbling fools who are being dragged to childbirth classes, panic at the first contraction, don’t know their way around a newborn, just might “pass out” at the birth and who are easily excited and unable to contribute anything positive to the experience. This is just not the truth. Today’s father is often researching right along with the mother for best practices, exploring choices and celebrating each milestone in the pregnancy. During labor and birth, many fathers want to be the main support and fully share the experience with their partners.
We want the professionals we have chosen to participate with us on this journey to recognize the unique roles and needs that each parent has. Their very actions and choice of words can help fathers to feel more involved and respected or can marginalize the father to a spot on the edge of the process. Welcome us as an equal player, celebrate what we bring to the table, share resources and information sources that are specific to our needs as fathers and partners in creating this life. Have office and classroom spaces filled with diverse images celebrating the amazing role that we are honored to play as partners. Use posters, films and activities that highlight and honor the special place we hold. Allow us to grow into the role of father, feeling secure, supported and respected by the professionals who are helping us to birth our baby.
As childbirth educators, do you often make light of the lack of information and experience that fathers bring to the birth experience. Do you make assumptions about the dads in your classes? Have you perpetuated any of the longstanding stereotypes by the media you use, activities you conduct or your choice of words? Can you share what you are doing in your class to be as inclusive as possible and to help the couple to moving into parenting by setting them up for a labor and birth filled with connection and support? Let us know in the comments. – Sharon Muza
Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, Sakala C. Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD003766. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub4.
About David Goldman, MAEd, CD(DONA, PALS)
David P. Goldman, MAEd. CD(DONA, PALS), was trained as a birth doula six years ago at the Simkin Center, Bastyr University and has become one of the very few male certified birth doulas in North America. He has been an educator working with students of all ages for over fifteen years and has completed a Lamaze International approved childbirth educator workshop on the path to obtaining LCCE status. David works with the WISE Birth Doula Collective in Bellingham, WA as well as Open Arms Perinatal Services in Seattle, WA. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org