"It's the worst day of your life. The worst day of your whole life! And then it turns into one of the best ones too." If a man asks my husband what it's like being at the birth of a child this is his answer. It's always said with pride, with a little smile on his face like he knows he's a warrior for getting through it. And maybe he is - maybe all men who attend the births of their children are warriors because there are a growing number of professionals who think that childbirth should return to being strictly 'women's business.'
Of course the bulk of the work of childbirth is done by a mother - I wouldn't suggest that men deserve a special prize for just standing there to witness the pain and effort their partner has to go through to bring a child into the world. (I know what it's like. I've done it twice.) But with growing numbers of men suffering from postnatal depression when they become fathers, it is worth looking at all the reasons why they are affected, even if we don't agree with them.
Michel Odent is an obstetrician who is a strong advocate of 'natural childbirth' - but he claims that natural childbirth fails to understand that birth should be a natural process with as few interferences and interventions as possible. Men being present are an interference, they shouldn't be there, and it can have some serious and negative affects on a father's mental health. It can also, controversially, affect their physical wellbeing.
I recently wrote a book about postnatal depression in fathers and came across a few stories about fathers being taken ill after their child was born. According to Odent the effects can be physical and can be varied, ranging from a kidney stone, to a flare-up of an existing condition or, occasionally, something more serious. While there may be physical effects of a father attending the birth of their child it is more likely that there will be psychological effects - namely postnatal depression.
Depression in fathers can be difficult to spot - men tend to become withdrawn, removing themselves from family life, perhaps drinking too much or working too much - all things which aren't necessarily linked to their mental health. Fathers aren't really acknowledged after the birth, by healthcare professionals or by families, and so any changes to their mood can go completely unnoticed.
It's important that we recognise that some men will not benefit from being at the birth of their child. For some people this would seem like a step backwards, the exclusion of anyone based on their sex, from anything, will always be seen as such, but we must remember that a father's mental health is important too. Mothers and fathers will be part of the same parenting team once the baby arrives. The mental health of either parent can have a negative effect on the other, not to mention the negative and long-lasting affects that depression can have on a child who grows up in that environment.
Some fathers will be at their partner's side and cut the cord and be absolutely fine. Others will not, and it's vital that we realise that all men are different. Just as no two births will be the same, no two fathers will be the same either and react in the same way. If a father does attend their child's birth we mustn't forget that they were there too - we can ask the simple question "how are you?" and listen to the answer. The acknowledgement that maybe they won't be ok will go a long way in reducing the number of men suffering postnatal depression in silence.