Giving birth

Doulas and dads

Does professional labour support diminish the father's role? Many couples find it's just the opposite

By Matt J. Simmons
Doulas and dads

My wife and I never did find a doula. Late in her pregnancy, we moved to a small town in northern BC and were unable to locate one. Instead, I stayed up late every night, reading books on what a doula actually does, desperately trying to retain as much information as possible. On the big day, I did my best to mimic the actions I had read about. While I managed reasonably well, I can’t help but think I was somehow doing the work of three people: dad, partner and doula. I would have been more than happy to share some of that responsibility.

Why a doula?

“I was really scared with my first child,” admits Annie Thompson. “I didn’t know what to expect.” Most first-time mothers share Annie’s fear of the unknown. Births aren’t always straightforward and, leading up to the event, the amount of information you have to take in is quite daunting. In prenatal classes, Annie and her husband, Cam, learned about the role of the doula and made the decision to include one in their birth plans. Connecting with one was easy in their case: Their prenatal instructor doubled as a doula and agreed to take them on.

A doula offers an expectant mother knowledgeable support — she’s seen it all before. It goes back to a more traditional style of birth when the women of a community were more closely connected. However, a doula’s support is just as valuable in a high-tech hospital birth as in a home birth, perhaps even more so. Research shows that births with a doula tend to have shorter labours and fewer interventions, and result in a greater sense of satisfaction for the moms.

What exactly can couples expect a doula to do? Simple: anything they want. If all they need is for someone to pat them on their backs while they get on with the task at hand, a doula can do just that. Alternatively, she can be hands-on, coaching mom every step of the way. Or, and this is probably the most likely choice, she can be somewhere in between. “My one piece of advice to expectant parents,” says Barber, “[is] to be sure that your doula is clear on the role you want her to take.” For Cam and Annie, Barber’s role was on the sidelines, advocating on their behalf and continually reminding them what they were there for. Her vision was to help both partners through the birth experience.

Where does dad fit in?

But what about dads? Do doulas supplant dads in childbirth? In this era, fathers want to be involved, and the idea that doulas are a replacement for them is a common worry.

Tom Lehar initially questioned the value of including a doula in the birth of his first child. “I guess at first I thought it seemed like an invasion of privacy,” he admits. “But very quickly I let that go.” As Annie Thompson points out, in a hospital birth it’s not as if the couple is alone anyway. A doula actually provides a buffer between the couple and the hospital staff, if you so choose, minimizing unwanted intrusions into your intimacy. “I didn’t really care what other people were up to,” continues Lehar. “I was focused only on Kate. I guess that’s the idea behind the whole doula thing. I didn’t need to worry about details; I could just be with Kate.”

A dad’s emotional stake in the birth can quickly cloud his judgment and cause him to forget what he’s learned from books and prenatal classes. “It is an emotionally charged event,” agrees Cam. “No matter how well you prepare, you still don’t know what you’re going to go through. I’ve never felt so out of control as I did when my kids were being born.” It’s natural to react when you see your partner in distress; it’s natural to want to make it stop. What’s hard to remember, in the heat of the moment, is how to help.

Because doulas know what to expect in a labour, they take the pressure off partners — especially first-time dads — who would otherwise constantly wonder, “What’s happening now?” Doulas complement the help dads give their partners, working together with them to create the most comfortable atmosphere possible. Shawna Barber supported Cam and Annie through their first birth. “I have met with a few expectant fathers who were a bit resistant in the beginning, before they understood fully what the role of a doula is,” she acknowledges. But by working with the couple before and during labour, Barber helped Cam feel better equipped to support his wife. “I felt like I had somebody there with experience,” Annie says. “She was there the whole time, reminding Cam how to help me.”

As Doulas of North America (DONA) explains in its report on the relationship between dads and doulas, “a father may not understand a woman’s instinctive behaviour during childbirth and may react anxiously to what a doula knows to be the normal process of birth.” Anxiety breeds tension, and tension is decidedly unhelpful in the delivery room.

Cam had just this experience. “Annie was in the bathroom,” Cam recalls, “and I was thinking, ‘Holy cow, Annie just lost her mind!’ He explains that Annie’s fear of what was happening to her body suddenly took over, and that, in turn, scared Cam. “But Shawna just said to me: ‘This is transition.’ That was a big help.” Barber then suggested that Cam help his wife out of the bathroom and back into bed, which he did. “That one sentence made a big difference overall,” Cam says.

While a doula may initially be a stranger, she can quickly become a friend. Prenatal coaching and planning for the birth can be as important as the birth itself, as can postpartum assistance. Cam says meeting with Barber several times before the birth made him more comfortable with the idea of having her there. “We got to know her,” he says. After the birth, Barber stayed with the new family to help with breastfeeding and, before she left, she made sure that the couple had everything they needed. “We had several visits after Lily was born,” Barber says, “and I am fortunate enough to still have contact with them six years, and several moves, later!”

The pairing of doulas and dads is a winning combination. As Barber says, “Moms feel looked after; dads feel functional and needed. Everyone wins.”

Making it work

For all a doula’s benefits, you are still bringing a stranger into an intimate family event. The following tips will help ensure it’s a great experience:

• Meet with your doula several times before the birth to get comfortable with one another.

• Talk with your partner — and with your doula — about the role you would like her to take. For example, will she be very hands-on with your partner, or would you prefer she coach you to do most of the comforting?

• Remember to ask questions and don’t keep misgivings to yourself. This is an important experience for everyone and the less uncertainty there is, the better.

• If possible, meet with your doula after the birth. The labour and delivery of your child is not the only challenge facing new parents; your doula can help you through those first few months as you adjust to life with a new addition to your family.

Where to find a doula Doulas of North America (DONA) offers information and advice on doulas, as well as a list of contact details for registered doulas in Canada and around the world. The Doula Service Association is a doula referral service based in BC.

This article was originally published on Apr 05, 2010

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