There is an oft-told story in my family about my father ending up on the floor of the delivery room when I was born. Through a series of miscommunications, the nurse came to believe he was a doctor, suited him up in scrubs and brought him in for the big finale. But his credentials are academic, not medical, and he fainted as soon as he witnessed what was happening. The next thing he knew, he woke up in the waiting room in a wheelchair.
It wasn’t the norm for fathers to play any role in a baby’s delivery in the 60s and early-70s, and my dad wasn’t prepared for the visuals. Of course, it’s different now. We expect men to take an active role in the delivery of their children. In fact, men who refuse to show up are generally considered cowards. (I’m looking at you, Gordon Ramsay! The famous chef missed all four of his kids’ births, claiming his sex life would be damaged “by images like something out of a sci-fi movie—skinned rabbits and conger eels coming at me from everywhere. I’d rather be stark bollock naked in a steam room with 50 vegans.”)
However, a recent British study claims that not all men should be present in the delivery room—and that some may actually make their partners’ pain worse, not better.
Researchers from the University College London, King’s College London and the University of Hertfordshire recruited 39 couples and gave the women moderately painful pinpricks with a laser, while an EEG monitored their brain activity. The women then had to fill out surveys with their levels of pain, and also do a separate survey about the levels of intimacy in their relationships. (All I can say is I hope these women were well-compensated.) The findings were published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal.
The study found that, in general, men don’t do much to relieve their partner’s pain. In best-case scenarios, partners had only a neutral effect on the expectant mother’s pain levels. Interestingly, the women who had the highest rate of avoiding intimacy were the ones who felt the most pain with their partner present. I guess this makes sense. If you don’t feel that close to your partner, or you fear getting truly intimate, then maybe you don’t want him there when you truly expose yourself in a myriad of emotional and physical ways. And this anxiety can heighten your pain levels.
Lead researcher, Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou, says: “Overall, this study suggests that partner support during pain may need to be tailored to individual personality traits and coping preferences.”
It’s no picnic in a delivery room. I know from experience that it can be embarrassing, stressful and annoying to have your partner there, and each person has a different way of coping with unpredictable situations. In retrospect, did I really need to have my husband standing around with a latte in his hand while I was in pain? Did it make me feel more humiliated while I was yelling like a bovine?
Yes and no. Sure, the epidural was more effective when it came to pain relief than my husband’s attempts at making me feel better. This is hard for me to admit, but my husband wasn’t just there for me—he was present for a life-changing moment and to be part of our child’s life from the very beginning. And I can’t imagine having it any other way.
Originally published in January 2015.