Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

An Exploration of Men's Experience and Role at Childbirth

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

An Exploration of Men's Experience and Role at Childbirth

Article excerpt

The attendance of male partners during the birthing process is a relatively modern phenomenon, and indeed until the sixteenth century men were actually forbidden by custom and law to observe the delivery process in England (Gurwitt, 1988). Labour was viewed as something to be endured by women under the control of other experienced and knowledgeable women from the family or close friends who assisted as midwives. Consequently, men were almost totally excluded.

It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that significant changes were heralded by a move away from home births toward hospital confinement. The motivation behind men being "allowed" to participate in childbirth during this transition period was that some women found themselves in a position where medical treatments, interventions, and procedures were carried out without their full knowledge and consent. The result was, in an endeavour to avoid litigation, a need for a witness to be present to protect all parties, the most natural being the expectant father (Odent, 1998, 1999). Consequently, the father was drawn into this arena not for his own sake, but for the protection of the medical profession. Within a generation, expectations have been radically altered. Both hospital confinement and the attendance of the male partner became the established norm at childbirth in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that fathers are now present at 80% of all UK births (Niven, 1992; Woollett, Dosanjh-Matwala, Nicolson, Marshall, Djhanbakhch, & Hadlow, 1995), yet there is little agreement as to the primary purpose of men's attendance.

It is possible to identify a number of roles that might be allocated to the male partner attending at childbirth. Healthcare professionals in the United Kingdom appear to promote two principal roles, that of "witness to proceedings" and that of "aide to communication," i.e., relaying and explaining important information (Niven, 1992). Antle-May and Perrin (1985) suggest that midwives see the men's role as acting as "teammate" or "supporter," thus, in fact, facilitating their own midwifery role. Here the male role is construed as a relatively passive one in which he reacts to his partner's requests for support and offers moral encouragement. This is one of the main motivations identified for most men in attending the birth (Vahvilainen-Julkunen & Liukkonen, 1998). Chalmers and Mayer (1996) identified the top three ranking motivations for birth attendance as "supporting partner," "curiosity," and "pressure." However, in terms of men offering support, they themselves initially feel confident in their ability to meet the demands of this role, yet they often find the support role more arduous than anticipated and become fearful of the outcome.

There is strong evidence that there is a gap between what men were prepared for and the reality of childbirth (Steinberg, Kruckman, & Steinberg, 2000), undermining or confusing the reasons for their presence (Barclay, Donovan, & Genovese, 1996). Two factors compound this; first, many men find the experience anxiety-provoking (Donovan, 1995), especially witnessing their partner in pain, which is likely to compromise the father's ability to help the mother (Vahvilainen-Julkunen & Liukkonen, 1998). Second, many men may be challenged by the need to offer support to their partner, as this may be the first time they have had this sort of emotional and physical responsibility (Dragonas, Thorpe, & Golding, 1992). Furthermore, the person the man is supporting is the very person who he himself often receives his own support from, removing from availability an important coping resource (Maloni & Ponder, 1997). All of which may impinge on their ability to fulfill their role expectation (Chandler & Field, 1987) and may adversely affect subsequent marital satisfaction (Hock, Schirtzinger, Lutz, & Widaman, 1995).

According to Antle-May & Perrin (1985), some midwives perceive the main purpose of the male's attendance is to witness the pain and discomfort of childbirth, hence increasing their understanding and appreciation of their partner. …

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