Tuesday 12 December 2017

Deliver us from having to be there at the birth

Father-of-two Tom Sykes welcomes new research that gives dads-to-be the chance to opt out of the main event

Stepping up: An expectant
father forces himself to
attend the birth of his child
in hit comedy Knocked Up
Stepping up: An expectant father forces himself to attend the birth of his child in hit comedy Knocked Up

Tom Sykes

As a father of two children aged four and three, I envy my male forebears whose responsibilities when their wives were pregnant were limited to two important tasks.

They had to put the cot together, and they had to make sure that the motor car was filled with petrol in case of an emergency late-night run to the hospital. And that was it.

But since the 1960s, when just 5pc of men attended the birth of their children, the notion that men should be there for the great event has become such an article of faith that 95pc of births are now attended by the father.

Now, however, new research has appeared giving males an opt-out from the nonsense of being forced to attend antenatal classes and birth.

According to Dr Jonathan Ives of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, men who are obliged to attend antenatal classes and be present for the birth of their children can actually become "deskilled" at parenting.

Dr Ives is working on a treatise named The Moral Habitus of Fatherhood, but let's not hold that against him, because the rest of what he says makes eminent sense. He describes the dogma of "equal involvement" in childbirth as, "false, modern rhetoric", and argues that men who feel a sense of duty to become actively involved in pregnancies are left disenchanted and self-doubting as they realise that they can offer little more than passive support to their partners.

In short, he seems to suggest what many a hapless father could have told you: that being a useless spare part in the delivery room whilst your wife and various nurses yell abuse at you for standing in the wrong place is not the ideal start to fatherhood.

I wish I had had Dr Ives's report on hand when my time came, first in 2006 and again in 2007. But I fear it would have made little impact anyway, because awaiting the joyous news that your offspring has indeed sprung in a pub down the road is no longer a socially acceptable option for men.

Even though I feared it might put me off sex for life, I acquiesced, and took the advice proffered by my traumatised male friends ("It was a train smash," one told me darkly) to stay up the top end.

My wife still believes the reason I came to the delivery suite was because I was eager to witness the miracle of birth. It was not. It's just that I know better than to argue with a heavily pregnant woman.

But if the idea of husbands at the birth is absurd -- and both empirical evidence on the increase in caesarean section rates in the last 50 years and common sense point to the fact that panicking men in scrubs are an unhelpful addition to the delivery room ambience -- then the insistence that men attend antenatal classes is positively ridiculous.

We were living in New York when we were preparing for the birth of our first child so there was no escape for me. The antenatal class was held in a posh hotel suite on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.

In we trooped, couples all of us, and sat through a grisly two-hour explanation of the mechanics of birth.

Then we were invited to watch a video of a child being born. I couldn't help wondering, as I watched with terrible fascination the unfortunate woman on camera groaning in agony, how any of this was relevant to me. I was, after all, a man. Frankly, I'd have been much more use at home putting the cot together.

At the end of this gruesome film there was a question-and-answer session. The women asked millions of questions about something called Branston Hicks contractions.

Finally a man stuck up his hand -- and asked if there was valet parking at the hospital (there was). Transport, I was reminded yet again, is indeed the appropriate area of responsibility for the expectant father, and the one where we feel most comfortable.

Of course, if a woman insists that her husband be present at the birth -- as mine did -- then he must be there. During the 40 weeks of pregnancy, the intelligent male knows that caving in is the only appropriate response to all disagreements.

But it is certainly time to decriminalise the expression of male doubt on the issue, for surely even the most radical gender theorists would be forced to concur with Dr Ives -- and me -- that giving birth is something that women are better at than men.

Irish Independent

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