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Research Blog - May

'Stories of Birth - Mother, Father, Midwife'

May 2012

A midwife with thirty years’ experience in practice told me recently that she could not recall a single birth she’d attended in which the father, if present, did not shed a tear. Not one incident in thirty years...

As part of this research examining how fathers’ participation in childbirth has changed, we need of course to turn to the perspectives and practices of medical staff. And at centre stage is the midwife. For many parents, the way they feel about the whole birth experience will depend to a large extent on the relationship with their midwife. Some parents simply don’t like the approach their midwife takes, and often midwives are so hard-worked and stretched across busy maternity units that a positive relationship is impossible to properly develop. But of course many parents feel incredibly pleased with the work of the midwife who looks after them – this certainly has come through in responses to my online questionnaire about childbirth.

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Three leading midwives I interviewed recently, including Cathy Warwick, General Secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, all recalled a wide range of experiences and reactions of fathers and partners to childbirth. But all pointed to something bigger – essentially, I was left questioning whether we perhaps put too much emphasis on the birth in itself. What about the whole pregnancy, and the weeks and months of getting to know your baby that come afterwards?

All three midwives felt that an unthinking obedience to ‘hospitally’ rules and regulations was a problem in this sense. There’s a lot of focus on involving men in the birth, which is a positive development for many couples and families. Cathy Warwick, for example, highlighted that there had been a move towards more positive encouragement of men’s involvement – shown in the Royal College of Midwives’ recent publications for example. But she, and other midwives, felt that more was needed in terms of including men in the whole pregnancy/birth/infant care process.

Many parents, kindly sharing their birth stories, felt the same. One wish stood out for a number of parents giving birth in the last ten to fifteen years – that fathers were allowed to stay for longer hours in postnatal wards. For many, bad luck in terms of the time of baby’s arrival meant that Dad was thrown out very quickly after delivery. Amber, who gave birth to her baby in 2008 highlighted how ‘alone’ she felt, and that she would have loved for her partner to stay and help her, particularly as she had initial trouble breastfeeding. Another mother who gave birth at a similar time was ‘gutted’ that her husband’s visits were so restricted, and stated ‘I'd love to see family rooms in hospital so the whole family can be together after the birth’, highlighting that if she had another birth she’d do so at home to secure that family bonding time. Hospitals that have experimented with allowing overnight stays for dads, such as the Royal United Hospital in Bath, have had very positive results, and many leading midwives support such a move, as it helps the women they care for, encourages fathers to bond with their baby, and relieves pressure on hard-worked midwives and medical staff.

What’s emerging from these stories, from men, women and midwives, is that, rightly, a lot of energy is focused on the hours of labour and moments of birth. A crucial time of course! But perhaps, in the light of the shifting history of men’s involvement in the birth itself, we now need to move towards considering men’s participation in the whole process from conception to childcare.