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Dads And Birth Trauma

Dads have birth stories, too—and some of them are pretty rough. Maureen Campion unpacks the birth trauma no one else is talking about.

These days most babies are born with Daddy in the room. Whether husband, boyfriend, or that guy that knocked Mom up and will be her partner in parenting only—he is expected to share in the birth experience. Many times, Dad is the person in the birth room least prepared for the mess that can happen.

Since the 1970s, dads have moved from the waiting room to the delivery room. First men were allowed in the room; now they are pressured to be there. Partners are expected to be the coach, the support person, and, when things get complicated, an advocate for their partner’s healthcare choices.

In a simple birth, perhaps you feed Mom ice chips, rub her back, time contractions, and cheer her on until that moment you get to step in, catch the baby, and cut the cord. Witnessing your child’s birth is an amazing experience and powerful for bonding. But sometimes birth goes in a direction no one is prepared for. Sometimes it gets tough.

Testing the Relationship

Birth tests relationships. When building a partnership, you deepen the trust and connection by leaning on each other, being there for each other. We biologically bond to our partners. We find their presence comforting and fear losing them. Nobody makes us as crazy as the people we love. Because of this, most fights that couples have are about not feeling safe, not being certain that their partner has their back. When we feel connected and safe, we cut each other a lot of slack. Without that security, every little thing becomes a trigger.

Women go into birth extraordinarily vulnerable. Just like primitive cave people, women need their partners and their tribe most from late in the pregnancy through the nursing years. A mother cannot fend for herself or go hunting or travel alone. She must be protected, and for the sake of our species, the tribe has continued by protecting its most vulnerable members. This vulnerability can be emotionally uncomfortable. Our culture values independence and strength. It sees connection as needy.

In our primitive community, women are vulnerable and need connection for safety. To some extent, fear of abandonment is biologically programmed for survival. In this same tribe, men are protectors, hunters, warriors. Men were vulnerable when they showed any sign of weakness. A man’s value was set by his ability to protect and defend, and if he showed weakness it put his partner and their children at risk. A weak man in the tribe might be turned out, his family taken by a stronger warrior. This leaves modern men stuck with some caveman feelings that don’t fit our current reality. Biology programs them to resist criticism, to show no weakness, to never ask for directions, apologize, or admit mistakes. (OK, men might not be programmed not to ask for directions, but maybe there’s a connection.) Many men experience criticism as a threat to their attachment. They want to feel safe to be loved without risk; we want to be safe to be loved without loss. I find it helpful to consider how we can carry these cave-people reactions, these impossible expectations, with us into modern, complicated relationships.

It is risky to bring primitive instincts into the delivery room. It’s a moment that may be the most vulnerable a woman has ever felt as an adult. Even if a couple’s relationship is long and secure, they have lived without deeply relying on each other in such an intense way. On the other hand, birth is a place where men often feel underprepared and incompetent. They are asked to be emotionally responsive and available, and to defend and protect in an arena where they have little power.

Traumatized by Birth

Approximately 15 percent of women—nearly 600,000 American mothers a year—report feeling traumatized by birth. Apparently, no one has even asked fathers. As women begin to explore the world of birth trauma, it is important to acknowledge that fathers have birth stories too. Fathers, the day that you witness the birth of your own child, the day you watch the woman you love go through a life-changing event, the day that your partnership is stretched and tested and strengthened is a distinct, personal, beautiful, and sometimes traumatic story. You may have experienced birth trauma:

  • if you become emotionally overwhelmed talking about the baby’s birth or avoid looking at pictures or discussion of the birth.

  • if you continue to feel that something bad is going to happen to your partner or the baby.

  • if there are things about the day that you haven’t told your partner.

  • if you dismiss your own feelings about the birth and have to keep telling yourself that you’re fine— that as long as everyone is OK, you are fine.

  • if you have a hard time listening to your partner’s experience.

  • if you obsess about the details of the birth and find it intruding on your thoughts.

What Trauma Leaves Us With

Psychological trauma is damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is a wound to your spirit, to your emotions, to your sense of yourself. You can tell it is trauma when, over time, the story continues to feel unfinished. A traumatic memory feels alive, raw, or stuck. You can’t just shake it off or get over it. You can manage the pain, ignore the pain, or face the pain, but you can’t just make it go away.

What we know about psychological trauma comes from ERs and war zones, too. You can’t see it, and it doesn’t always heal on its own. Working through a traumatic birth story begins with simply being willing to tell your own story.

You have a story—a very personal, unique story of the amazing day your child was born. Find a way to tell that story. Journal or write a letter. Be brave and bring it up with your partner. Tell someone you trust. Tell it again and again until it starts to feel whole. Consider asking other dads how their kids’ births were for them.

Consider how much more we have to learn about fatherhood and birth because no one even considered asking men, “So, how was the birth?”

This essay is adapted from Maureen Campion’s book Heal Your Birth Story: Releasing the Unexpected.