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The Dad Factor

By Patrick Houser

Fathers make a world of difference to a child’s life—but what about at birth?

While no one was looking, the very foundations of our society, our culture and our families have undergone a metamorphosis. Fathers are attending the births of their children and supporting mothers during labor. There’s really no longer any discussion about whether fathers “should” be in the delivery room. This debate was held years ago; common practice shifted and now approximately 90 percent of fathers are with their partners during the births of their children. The more pertinent question today is: Should fathers be better prepared for attending and supporting birth?

Dr. Robert A. Bradley was a mid-20th-century obstetrician in the United States, and an early innovator in bringing fathers into the birthing room. The emphasis of his birth philosophy was that women know how to give birth naturally. He believed that the presence and support of the father during labor and birth was important to the mother’s success in achieving a natural, normal birth. Dr. Bradley presided over 20,000 drug-free hospital births in his career, with fathers present. His parents took classes he designed, and the births involved fathers supporting their partners. For the most part, they had successful and satisfying outcomes, physically and emotionally.

A delicate balance of elements is required for a mother to have an optimal birth experience. These include elements in her physical environment: calm, quiet and a sense of safety. In addition, the people who are present, a lack of interference, and even her personal emotional history are important. Putting these pieces together for a modern hospital birth can seem daunting, but it is also quite simple.

Part of the subtle biology of birth relies on oxytocin, a hormone the mother’s body produces that triggers the onset of labor, as well as its continuation. Oxytocin is also known as the “hormone of love,” as it is a significant component during lovemaking. Adrenaline, however, can counteract or neutralize oxytocin. Fear is a primary trigger for an adrenaline response. Anyone in the room at a birth—doctors, midwives, fathers, relatives, doulas, and even the mother herself—can stimulate potentially harmful adrenaline production.

Men are typically underprepared at a birth. This is an important issue that society needs to address, within the context of humanity’s current perception that birth is to be feared rather than embraced as the joyous expression of life that it can be. But any midwife can testify that a father can either make or break a birthing environment. A father needs to feel safe himself, and be well-informed about how to act at the birth and what beneficially supporting his partner actually looks like.

A well-prepared father can provide a tremendous sense of security for his partner. A birthing mother can easily feel overpowered by the depth of the experience she is having. In addition, for most mothers and fathers, the unfamiliar and often intimidating environment of hospitals can cause concern. And yet the medical community has largely ignored the possibility that the intimacy of a couple’s relationship is a strong asset available to a birthing mother and her caregivers.

Men produce oxytocin, too, and can also contribute to a woman’s production of it—remember, it’s the hormone of love. Many couples will testify to this through the stories of their labor and birth, and how they felt like they were doing it together, and how the mother felt strengthened by the father’s support. There has been little research on this, possibly because it is more a qualitative experience than a quantitative one: Try to measure love. Attempt to create a scale and observe where a couple’s experience of love lands on it at any time, much less during a peak experience like birth. Also, the birth of each child is a one-time-only event, impossible to repeat, replicate or control. Birth can be a very sensual and intimate experience between a man and a woman, if allowed to be. It is an extension of the sexual experience that began this phase of a couple’s life together.

Being present at the birth of a child can kick-start a new father’s parenting instincts like nothing else. Men have increased hormonal activity at this time, albeit in smaller doses than women. This will help trigger their own nurturing and protection instincts.

The foundations of the family are laid during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. When a father is properly included during this irreplaceable time, and the experience of the whole family is acknowledged and supported, it establishes a unique bond between family members that will last a lifetime. Fathers who feel welcomed and included are more likely to stay. Fathers who feel abandoned, alienated and excluded will tend to leave, or disappear. Disappearing can look like overworking, drinking, drug use, infidelity, spending time away from the family, and, ultimately, separation and divorce. This is the current trend in society. I have never professed that all fathers should be at the birth of their children, but personally, I have found it an immensely rewarding experience. Many other fathers report the same. I think that fathers who miss their child’s birth are letting a big opportunity pass them by. The event carries a profound potential to enhance the relationships within the family.

A father’s participation in the very womanly event of birth is unique to our current time. What a couple decides, regarding the birth of their child, is very personal. But rather than gender-specific logistics, what our culture is missing are skills development and support. This issue is at the core of parents’ choices during the time of their family being born; it’s crucial to our social development and evolution as a culture. For the vast majority of mothers, an important ingredient of a successful pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding is the quality of care she receives from the father.

Fathers do make a world of difference; it’s time for society to better support our children, mothers and fathers.