It's 3am on 22nd April 2010, and I am by my wife's bedside in the labour ward of Warwick Hospital, watching as she writhes in pain on the sterile sheets. This particular bout of pain, it turns out, isn't a contraction: I've accidentally leant on the TENS machine and pretty much cranked it up to full power. Essentially, I'm electrocuting my wife.
I realise my mistake and quickly turn the dial back down to a pulse that doesn't make my wife spasm like a fish out of water.
She turns and gives me a glare that could shatter glass, before a contraction comes along and her face contorts in pain. Feeling incredibly guilty, I shuffle a little further away in my seat (out of arms' reach, you see) and offer soothing words of comfort and support while maintaining a safe distance.
To the untrained eye, I must have looked incredibly uncaring, even though nothing could have been further from the truth. The fact of the matter is, my wife hates being touched when she's in pain – in fact, she hates any kind of interaction. I, on the other hand, think I'm doing the right thing: I stroke her hair, clasp her hand, and then wonder why I get a swipe to the face.
During the birth of our first child, I broke a Digestive into quarters and laid them on the pillow by her head. I'm not entirely sure what I was trying to achieve – perhaps I thought that Jess could simply turn and gobble up a segment whenever she felt like it without having to even use her hands...I don't know. After the birth, she told me that what I'd done pretty much infuriated her. I still can't see the logic in that: if someone laid food by my face as I lay in bed, I'd be ecstatic.
Regardless of whether I am a help or a hindrance, I have been present at the births of both my children – and it seems I'm not alone. A recent study by Oxford University surveyed 5,300 recent mothers, and found that their partners had attended the birth in 89 of fathers were present at the birth of their child. In fairness, it was a different ethos back then, and many men who actually did want to be present were probably manhandled out of the room by a brutish midwife who sported a menacing scowl and revolting tufts of facial hair.
I'm a firm believer that it is important for the father to be present at the birth of his child. However, there are some who disagree. Take Michael Odent, for example: this leading obstetrician argued a couple of years ago that a dad being present during childbirth was actually a big mistake. He stated that having the father in the delivery suite presented a distraction to the mother, as well as making her more anxious, leading to a slower and more painful delivery. He even cites his friend, who stated that watching his wife go through labour began a chain of events that ultimately led to divorce.
But this is not the only reason for men being absent from the delivery room. Some men may choose not to be present simply because they feel it will be too overwhelming. They perhaps feel that a midwife's time is better spent tending to the mother going through labour, instead of peeling him off the floor as he passes out for the fifth time.
I should clarify something at this point: although I believe that the father being present is important, I fully respect any dad who decides not to enter the delivery suite for whatever reason, unless it's to run away and never look back. If a father knows he is going to be more of a hindrance than a help, and makes the decision not to jeapordise the smooth running of labour, then he cannot be faulted.
So what is the role of the father as he sits in the delivery suite, screams echoing off the walls and nails digging into his hand? It can be summed up in one word: support.
Dads: hold her hand, if she'll let you. Tell her when she's distressed that everything will be fine, and remind her of the amazing finish that this struggle has. Fetch her water, or food, or another pillow if she needs it; and stand up for her if the midwives are pushing something which you both wanted to avoid. Your role is simply to be there for her; that's all you can do.
Nine out of ten fathers in today's day and age attend the birth of their child; and I'm willing to put money on the fact that nine out of ten mothers are glad they are there. Yes, it might hurt; you might scream; you might even need stitches, if the cuts are really deep: but you're a man. You can take it.
Ben Wakeling is the author of Goodbye Pert Breasts: Diary of a Newborn Dad.
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