New Labour: is paternal presence all it's cracked up to be?

Paternal presence at a child's birth has become culturally expected. Should it be?

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He can't understand, so why bother?
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Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 22 December 2011 12:26

Although some may look back with rose-tinted pince-nez at natural childbirth in the home, the reality was often ghastly and traumatic for mothers, and while the post war hospitalization of the birth process reduced mortality rates in childbirth, the trend initially pushed the father out of the delivery room permanently, not that he was really there in the first place.

The establishment of the NHS accelerated the trend. Before that, births were at home and Dad could usually be found in the kitchen, boiling endless, pointless pots of water. He would never enter the birthing room, as midwives presided over births, many of which were far from easy.

“Childbirth always used to be women’s business,” says Odent. “Then something absolutely new happened in the late sixties, early seventies and within some years this became a dogma - that the father should participate.

"Now it seems women have forgotten how to give birth. What is interesting is how fast this happened and historically speaking, we cannot disassociate the concentration of births in large hospitals with the presence of fathers at births."

Under the Blair government, policy advisors on fatherhood - who were not necessarily fathers or medical experts - tended to advise policy from a quasi-anthropoligical point of view which favoured the wishes of the mother above and beyond any effect on the child.

So with little or no scientific study into a monumental change in the process of the human condition the wholesale involvement of the father in the process was viewed as firstly beneficial, then essential, and finally, by social dictate, compulsory. There wasn't even an Al Gore documentary.

However, what cannot be dismissed is Dr. Odent’s unprecedented experience in this field, nor his desire to air questions that are routinely ignored due to an atmosphere of political correctness that he clearly finds stifles debate.

“There are three important questions we should be addressing,” he says. “Firstly, does it make the birth easier or more difficult? Secondly, is there any effect on the sex life of the couple, and, thirdly, can all fathers easily cope with the emotional reaction that can occur to the wife giving birth. These are three questions that were never raised, but should be raised now.”

Of course, we usually only hear the voices of those who believe the birth was helped by the presence of the father. And certainly some mothers I spoke to researching this piece agreed in retrospect they'd rather their husband had not been present, but felt they couldn't freely express that view, either then or now. Should a mother wish to exclude the father, what might be the consequences? What might be the consequences should he attend?

One mother we spoke to bitterly regretted her (ex) husband being present precisely because he turned out to be an absent father.

Notwithstanding the social demand that fathers either attend or desire to attend the birth, did anyone ever ask 'do women really want their partners to be present?' According to Odent, and one would suppose any naturalist, mammalian instinct would say 'no'.

“Human beings, and women in particular, have two languages,” he says.

“The verbal language and the non-verbal and when women give birth we must listen to the non-verbal language.”

The list of anecdotes where the father leaves the room, and once he’s left, the birth takes place, is, he says, endless.

Peter Bruce is a marketing manager and has been at the birth of both his children. However he missed the birth of his first, “The labour had lasted a good six hours and there was a quiet period so I nipped out for a sandwich,” he recalls. “When I came back, some 45 minutes later, Annabelle had been born and I’d missed everything.”

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