When Danibel Hiraldo was preparing for the birth of her first child six years ago, she knew she would be relying on her mother for support during labour rather than her husband of four years.
“From the minute we found out I was pregnant, my husband was adamant about not being in the room,” the 36-year-old recalls. It wasn’t that Hiraldo’s husband was unwilling to support her or wasn’t excited to become a father. But he knew that his tendency to become overwhelmed and panicky in medical situations would make him more of a liability than an asset during the birth.
At first, Hiraldo was apprehensive—after all, it’s virtually unheard of for a modern-day father to skip the birth of his child—but she knew her husband was right. “I initially wanted him to be there because I knew I would be scared, but ultimately my mom was the better choice,” says Hiraldo. “She knew what to do, and I didn’t have to worry about anyone else but myself and my labour.”
When it came time to have the baby, Hiraldo’s husband drove her to the hospital, waited for her mother to arrive and spent labour pacing the halls. When the baby and placenta had been delivered and Hiraldo’s doctor had medically cleared her, her husband came into the hospital room. “He came right in and held our son, skin to skin, and profusely thanked my mom for being there,” says Hiraldo. “It was the best decision for us. No regrets.”
When their second child was born three years later, the couple followed the same strategy. As more mothers-to-be begin to realize that they can choose birth plans that are right for their families, for some, that means not having dad in the delivery room.
Challenging the new norm of delivery Before the 1960s, fathers in North America were rarely present at the births of their children. However, social norms around childbirth have changed dramatically in recent years, and now partners of both sexes are expected to play an integral supporting role during childbirth. For some couples, this is a wonderful dynamic, but for others—perhaps more than care to admit—the expectations can result in pressure for the partner and anxiety for the birthing mom.
Judith Leavitt, a medical historian and author of Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, says that men in Western societies have always been somewhat involved with childbirth but traditionally stayed out of the birthing room. When births began taking place primarily in hospitals from the 1930s to the 1950s, anxious dads were left in the “fathers’ waiting room” with little to do. By the 1970s, the women’s movement and natural birth movement catapulted fathers from the waiting room to the delivery room, and a partner’s presence at births became more mainstream, she says.
It’s hard to find data on what percentage of partners attend the birth of their children, but experts agree that in the West, it’s the majority. A 2013 study out of England found that nearly all partners attend births and ultrasounds, although birth attendance was highest among white couples with planned pregnancies in higher socio-economic brackets.
Despite this, not everyone is convinced that the near-universal presence of partners in the delivery room is a good thing. The most prominent critic is French obstetrician Michel Odent, who caused a stir back in 2009 when he said, “The ideal birth environment involves no men in general.” Odent stuck by these claims in his 2013 book, Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens, arguing that there are physiological reasons why a partner’s presence slows childbirth, including that the partner is a distraction to the labouring woman and their stress hormones can cause the mother-to-be to become anxious.
“No matter how much he tries to smile and appear relaxed, he can’t help but feel anxious,” Odent wrote in The Daily Mail, “and the release of adrenaline is contagious.” He believes that a partner’s influence on a labouring woman can lead to birth complications.
While Odent’s views may be extreme, it’s certainly true that having a partner present for birth isn’t the right choice for all couples. Leavitt says that, although a partner’s presence during birth has become mainstream, not all couples will—or should—follow this trend.
Yet, the option of a partner sitting out for a birth isn’t often talked about today. Many couples feel pressured to have their partner in the delivery room because a partner’s involvement and support during delivery is often seen as proof of their commitment as a parent and significant other.
“Nowadays it’s seen as the norm that a ‘good partner’ will be there and be hands-on, but that’s not the best situation for everyone,” says , a California-based author and doula (a birth coach). Some moms, including Hiraldo, worry about what others will think about their partners not being present for the birth. “I thought my mom friends would judge [my] and think that he didn’t want to be there for me,” she says. “I thought my mom friends would judge [my] and think that he didn’t want to be there for me,” she says.
Too emotionally attached Gaddis estimates that the second parent hasn’t been in the birthing room at half of the births she has attended. This isn’t typical of births overall, but Gaddis says that people who don’t plan on having their partners in the birthing room seek out other support, like doulas. In some cases, the decision was because of estrangement or because the partner was unable to attend the birth due to travel or illness. But she says that many of the couples she works with have decided that it’s not in their best interest to have their partners in the birthing room.
“For the partner, it’s really hard to hide emotions, especially if there are complications,” she says. “That can increase a mom’s anxiety when she sees how much her partner is affected by what she is going through.”
I knew exactly what Gaddis was talking about. When my water broke with my first child, the liquid was thick with meconium—something that can indicate that the baby is in distress. I knew we needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible, but I wanted to spare my husband the panic, so I kept this fact to myself. As he sped toward the hospital and I began moaning through labour pains, I took time between contractions to assure him that I was just fine.
“Women going through birth feel so vulnerable, and they want to feel that their family is solid in every way,” says Gaddis. Oftentimes, that can be expressed as checking in on or mothering their partners and even their birth professionals. “They just can’t help but take care of everyone around them,” she says. “Those maternal instincts really flare up, but they also really distract from the focus on the birth.”
In addition, partners are having their own emotional experiences knowing that they are about to have a child. This can make it hard for them to support the labouring woman as much as she needs. “It’s so much harder for a partner to provide the kind of support a mom needs because they’re so incredibly emotionally attached,” says Gaddis. “It’s often easier for someone who is a little more impartial, like a friend or doula.”
Finally, birth can be difficult for a mom’s partner to watch. Partners see their loved ones in pain, knowing that there is nothing they can do to alleviate the suffering. They also see the blood, the needles and the mess of birth, and it can be entirely overwhelming. While some partners will gain a whole new level of love and respect for the birthing mama during the ordeal, others may process it differently and not be able to handle the often-frightening situations.
Right after my daughter was born, all I noticed was that the pediatricians quickly whisked her away. But my husband saw much more gory detail: a cord tightly wrapped around her neck and a baby so blue and floppy that he was sure she’d been born dead. Even years later, he talks about how terrifying that moment was.
Birth FOMO Although no one questioned the decision to her face, Hiraldo’s mother tried to change her husband’s mind, even as Hiraldo was labouring. “She thought he would regret not being in the room when his son was born,” says Hiraldo.
This is another prevalent idea around partners in the delivery room: that the moment of birth is when a family is formed. It’s no wonder that many people feel that partners who are not present for birth are missing out on something significant. However, Gaddis says that this is a romanticized view of childbirth. “That bond isn’t created during the birth but right after, when the parents meet the child together,” she says. “That’s when I see the first spark of the family.”
Not for everyone Forty-eight-year-old Tim Dambacher was present only for the birth of his youngest of three children. He said that being there for the moment of birth had no impact on how he felt about his children as infants or in the long term.
“It didn’t make a difference to me in how much I was bonded with them,” he says. When his first child was born, Dambacher wasn’t in a relationship with the mother, and she didn’t want Dambacher in the room. That was fine with him. In 1991, he and his then-wife were expecting their first child together and he told her that he wasn’t comfortable being in the delivery room.
“I’d seen enough animal births to know that there’s a lot of stuff involved,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in there. I thought I would just be in the way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of watching her in agony.”
His ex-wife’s friends told her that he should be present for the birth, but she was willing to do whatever he was comfortable with and wasn’t bothered about him not being in the room. “She was nice to me and didn’t push it on me at all,” he says.
Dambacher’s ex-wife ended up needing a Caesarian and it was against hospital policy at the time for partners to be present for the surgical procedure, so it wasn’t even a choice in the end. But he had no regrets about missing the birth of his son. Ten years later, when their second son was born, his wife was adamant that he be present for her scheduled C-section, telling him that times had changed and his presence was expected. Although he did attend, Dambacher says that the birth was not a transformative experience in the same way as his early interactions caring for his son. “I was kind of ambivalent,” says Dambacher. “Of course, I told her it was wonderful and everything.” Dambacher rejects the idea that attending a birth makes someone a good partner. “There are better ways to show how committed you are to your wife and child,” he says.
Despite attending more than 400 births, Sara-Chana Silverstein, a New York-based doula and mom of seven, agrees that the birthing room isn’t necessarily the place for family bonding. “I don’t think the birthing room is that great connecting place,” she says. “I haven’t seen it work so much.”
Silverstein had her first child in a hospital, with her husband present. For the rest of her births, she delivered at home with midwives. Her husband waited nearby but outside the birthing room. “When I [give] with just with my doula and midwife alone, I can allow myself to do whatever is needed to get the baby out,” she says. “With husbands and close friends, I wouldn't let my guard down as much.”
Like Gaddis, Silverstein has seen that a partner’s apprehension can slow down a woman’s progress during birth, especially during the intense transition phase of labour that comes just before pushing, when the pain from contractions peaks. “Men really panic when women get into these desperate states,” she says. “They get overwhelmed if women lose it. But birth isn’t that love-peace-orgasmic experience that people like to think it is.”
Of course, many couples mutually choose to have both parents present for the birth. This is a wonderful option but shouldn’t be considered the only path forward for happy and healthy families.
Before my daughter was born, my husband insisted that he would be staying back, by my shoulders, but during the birth he was more involved than he thought he wanted to be. His descriptions of the birth afterwards made it clear that the experience was very intense for him, to say the least. Four years later, he still fumbles for words when describing what he saw, and he talks about the panic of seeing our baby in distress while I was oblivious, just glad she was out.
When we decided to have a second child, I wasn’t entirely sure my husband would want another front-row ticket. Early in my second pregnancy, I decided to give him the option to choose how and when he would like to meet our next child. “You know,” I said tentatively, “if you don’t want to be there for the birth, that’s something we can talk about.”
We’re now late in the third trimester and he plans to be there for the birth once again. “Oh man, I’m not looking forward to that,” he recently said about the drive to the hospital. Yet, despite his reservations about the intensity of the experience, he sees it as one we’re in together. As for me? I recently dreamed I had the baby home alone, with no one to worry about but myself and our newest addition.