Dads at Birth: What have we learned in 40 years?

by John Hoffman

We take fathers’ presence at the births of their children for granted now. But it was controversial when it first started 40-odd years ago. So, I salute the pioneers, the dads who pushed to be in the delivery room, and the many women – mothers and childbirth activists who helped get them there.

It was one thing to get Dad into the delivery room. But it took awhile to figure out what his proper role was. The original role was “coach.” That’s how I thought of myself leading up to the birth of our first child in 1984. I can even remember our childbirth class instructor referring to us guys as “coaches,” even though she referred to the women as moms.

Contrast that with the experience of Rob Beaton, who became a first-time father in December of 2014.  Nobody told him that he was supposed to be a coach. He didn’t hear the word even once during prenatal classes.

I think that’s good.  A coach is supposed to be an expert, the person who tells other people what to do. Fathers, especially first time dads, don’t have anything like that sort of experience or expertise.

Here’s a telling example of my coaching “prowess.”  At our first birth, not long after we got to the hospital (and after many hours of contractions at home), I was coaching Holly to do the ultimate breathing techniques. These were ones we were supposed to save for the last hour or two before the birth. Then a nurse came in to check on Holly and breezily informed us that she still wasn’t even in active labour!  At that point my confidence was shot. Me a coach? I needed a coach!

I totally rejected the role of coach after that. I thought, “I’m a participant. I might need a bit of support myself at times.”  Fortunately, we had much better support from health professionals for our next two births and I was far more comfortable in the role I played.

I was glad to hear how positive Rob felt about the role he played in the birth of his son, Everett. “I really just expected to help Erinn stay calm and be a squeeze toy for her during contractions,” he says. “And I felt like I was able to help her a great deal.” Rob also felt validated and supported by the professionals in the room. “I felt like an active participant. The doctor, the nurse and the midwife included me and supported me all along the way,” he says. Nice.

Sure, there were some difficult moments. Erinn was in tears a couple of times. And the birth didn’t go exactly as they had hoped.  She got stuck at five cm dilation and ended up having a caesarean section (“little” Everett weighed over 11 lbs.!)

Rob says that when they got the word that it was going to be a C-section, his role changed from birth partner to butler. “It was a mad scramble to gather up all our stuff, get my gown on and move everything down to the delivery room,” he says. “I was afraid I was going to miss the birth.”

But he made it on time and he was very pumped that he got to cut the cord. He still talks about the experience in glowing terms.

I’m not sure what we can conclude from contrasting Rob’s experience with mine a generation earlier. Families’ birth experiences are very diverse, and the exact role that a father plays depends on a lot of variables. But I do think we may have figured out a more appropriate role for fathers in birth. And that includes recognizing that, while labour and birth isn’t about them, dads need some support of their own.

But let’s take it down to a more individual level. I think there are a couple of lessons here for fathers-to-be. One is don’t expect too much of yourself, and the other is expect – or at least be prepared for – the unexpected. There are so many variables involved in birth, you can’t possibly anticipate all of them, no matter how well you prepare yourself. You may read about average lengths of labour and times between contractions. But in reality there is an incredibly wide range of normal in the world of labour and birth.

I can still recall the wise words that one father said to me some years ago about supporting his wife through labour, “You can’t speed it up. You can’t save her from the pain. But she’ll appreciate what you did for her for the rest of your life”

I’d just like to add that, while it’s true that you can’t control the pain of childbirth, your presence and support can make it little better.  And a little better makes a bigger difference than we sometimes think. Just keep telling yourself that if the going gets tough. Because it’s almost certainly true.


If you’re a dad looking for practical ideas on how to support your partner during labour and birth check out these articles on the Dad Central Ontario website: Fathers at Birth. How mothers say they helped and Fathers at Birth. Being there – for her and for you.


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