This week we are grateful to Antonia Wise-Stewart, founder of Mumvoice (uniting mothers using the power of writing and blogs), for sharing her story of deciding to birth without her partner present, and how doula support made for a fantastic second birth experience.
“I am the only one of my friends that has ever chosen not to have my partner in the birthing room whilst I give birth, but I now think it is a choice that more couples should openly discuss. I think the current Western social norm for Fathers to be present doesn’t suit a great many of couples for a great many of reasons. It is a relatively new phenomenon in our world history for men to be present at birth. Birth used to be women’s business and still is in many cultures. The Father was sent away, and may even leave the village/ town and would come back hours or days later. Is there a reason that this was our historical norm for thousands of years? Are women used to being coached through birth by women? Are there some benefits to this?
Before I’d had my babies, I had like many modern women assumed my husband would want to be there for the births. That is what my Dad did and that is what I saw on TV, in films and in magazines. It was always a happy montage and I didn’t even question it.
Eventually my husband and myself talked about the birth plan. I always knew I wanted my Mum there but when I asked my husband, Andy he was shocked. At first, I was terribly hurt by the idea he didn’t want to be there. Had he not bonded with the idea of having a baby? Did he not love me enough? But he reassured me that was not the case and gave the following reasons
- He’s a very visual person and he didn’t want to visually see anything that would upset our sex life later on. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to erase the image of a baby coming out of my vagina. This absolutely was not a joke but a very serious concern for him. He had only ever viewed my vagina in a sexual capacity and did not want to add a new perspective. As he put it, he did want his interpretation of my vagina to change from a sports car to a family car.
- The other point he wanted to make was that mentally he didn’t know how he would cope seeing his partner in a ‘traumatic’ circumstance (I don’t see birth as traumatic, he does – which is funny because he’s not the one going through it). He thought that professionals who deal with birth all year long are better at helping me through birth and he didn’t know what he was going to add. He honestly worried that he might be traumatised by seeing me in that sort of pain. He wanted to remain level headed should a serious decision need to be made.
I understand his reasons are controversial to some but I really understood them and was grateful for his honesty. Initially of course I was shocked and had some feelings of rejection that we had to resolve. Eventually though I fully understood his reasons to the point that I started wondering why so many men wanted to be present at birth and whether they were best placed.
I asked Andy what his ideal scenario would look like. He told me he’d like to be with me in early labour, come with me to the hospital and then when things got ‘serious’, he’d prefer to wait outside. He would absolutely be at the birth should I want him there but his preference would be to wait outside.
After much discussion and me correcting a few of my long-held beliefs, we agreed this was a good idea for us both. I needed people in the room who were going to take responsibility for themselves, be unshockable, be controlled and calm at all times and possibly even enjoy the experience. Andy didn’t fit any of these criteria.
I went into labour at midnight one day at home. My waters went with a big ‘whoosh!’ and a few hours later we were driving to the hospital with regular contractions. My Mum arrived early on and initially labour was gentle. I was able to talk and tell my husband to rub my back and so on and he was very supportive and calm. He reminded me about my hypnobirthing tracks on my iPhone. But a few hours later in the delivery room things switched up a gear and I started moo-ing. Funnily enough, I remember looking across at my husband over a bed I was leaning on, and we both smiled and nodded and agreed it was time he left.
It was a bit of a relief when he went. I felt that I didn’t have to worry about fluid dripping down my legs or my unshaved muff, or if I smelt of body odour, or if (my BIGGEST fear) …. I pooped (I did and it didn’t matter one jot)! Natural labour is so primal, I just really wanted to embrace my primitive side and let it all out. I didn’t give my husband another thought until the baby was born. Andy was only outside the room and he was thrilled to hear baby’s first cries. He came in immediately. I was still slightly shocked to see he wasn’t in the slightest bit emotional looking at his first child. In fact, he still looked hugely unsure and a bit pale. I still needed to deliver the placenta so there were midwives ‘at work’, blood being measured, my stomach being palpated, umbilical cords and so on. In hindsight, he came in too soon, but I felt like a superhero and I wanted to show him my creation of the past nine months. I couldn’t wait a moment longer.
When I became pregnant second time around, we discussed a lot more of this upfront. I was under no illusions and knew he didn’t find pregnancy and birth ‘beautiful’, he was far too practical for that. It was not a reflection of his love for me and the baby, he just wasn’t wired the same as me.
When it came to discussing birth partners second time around I again asked my Mum. I gave Andy the option again but was relieved when he said he’d like to wait outside again. With my first birth I had some complications with delivering my placenta and it made me realise that you can’t prepare for every eventuality and that you are vulnerable at such a time. I wanted an extra layer of support. I truly believe in hypnobirthing and supporting the woman and I believe that making the woman feel confident and calm will bring about more positive birth outcomes. I really wanted to bond with another woman who I knew would be at my birth in a professional capacity; someone who was not a family member and would bring a fresh dynamic. Nowadays you don’t know which midwife you’re going to get so having a doula was the perfect option for me. I could talk openly with the doula about who I was and introduce her to my Mum. We discussed what I wanted to do to prepare for my birth and also what I wanted to do during the birth. My doula, Zara was a great source of strength and wisdom. She gave me massages and laughed and joked with me over cups of tea and cake in the weeks preceding the birth. We bonded well in those weeks; I had someone to share my honest fears with and someone for advice in those last few weeks of pregnancy. Having those conversations with a doula and a woman of great personal and professional experience was liberating and empowering. My doula and my Mum fully supported my birthing ideals and I felt utterly confident going into labour.
Second time around my husband drove me to the hospital and again waited outside. I had my Mum and Doula present throughout the birth. I was even lucky enough to have two of the most amazing midwives I’ve ever known. It was four women and me at dawn, the sun rising outside. It was a beautiful circle of women and trust. THIS was what birth was meant to be for me. I felt utterly primal and basic. I felt we were replicating the scene played out over thousands of years. I had the mature and experienced midwife explaining things to the younger and newly qualified midwife. I had my Mother with her Grandmother hat on and I had my Doula who was my friend and confidant. Every time I felt a wave of uncertainty I reached for one of them and they lifted me back up. They gave me verbal and physical support. They told me I was doing a wonderful job, that everything was going perfectly, that I was amazing. They were so calm and just waited for my body to do its job. They felt like my guardians in this hospital setting. They Mothered me. They brought me water and checked on me. They ran the bath to the perfect temperature and added hot water as it cooled – they did it all without me even needing to ask. They didn’t need reassuring, I didn’t have to think of anyone but myself and the baby. I could completely tune in to what I needed to do. I manoeuvred shamelessly and nakedly around the room. Squatting, lying, bending. I just kept moving and dancing and breathing, trying to get a sense of which position the baby was in and what position I needed to get into to help baby out. I moved into the contractions to try and get them to work more effectively. Eventually I said, ‘I think baby is stuck. I don’t know what to do!’
The experienced midwife said ‘try kneeling with only one leg up’. I thought that sounded like a daft idea but I was all out of ideas and positions so I tried this kooky angle. Immediately baby dropped down, suddenly I was set to push a baby out. The midwife was absolutely right. I just needed to nudge my pelvis a little. Incredible!
As the head crowned I remember asking the midwife if I could feel it. She guided my hand to the top of my son’s wet head. I could feel a warm and beautiful baby’s head covered in hair. I was doing it! I felt like a Goddess being in control of bringing life into the world, my body pulling apart to let forth a child – my child! The midwives helped me guide him out perfectly. It was so controlled, it was like landing a fighter jet on a moving ship. We were a team.
This time I didn’t try and wipe vernix off his face. I was protected in my tribe. I was naked and covered in poop and blood and sweat and I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to clean up for anybody. I was going to take this time to soak in the moment. To congratulate myself, to look at my baby, to RELAX. I took out a boob and let him start to suckle. The placenta came out beautifully all in one piece. I remember my husband sticking his head around the door once I’d given birth just to check me and the baby were ok and then he left pretty swiftly afterwards until I was on a bed and all wrapped up and had finished delivering the placenta.
I know we have a cultural norm for Fathers to be in the birthing room. My Dad raves about my birth and says he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But my husband is entirely different and I think it’s ok to discuss this honestly and openly. I felt it has helped our sexual relationship as my husband is incredibly visual and I’m relieved he’s not seen my vagina in such capacities. I also don’t ever want my husband witnesses me as primal and raw as I am when I’m giving birth. I cannot be everything to everybody. I need to be a sexual woman, a loyal friend and a wife to my husband and I need to be a roaring and potentially pooping lion in birth. I am a different person giving birth. I am reaching in to my deepest assets of womanhood to bring forth a child. I do not want any aspect of sexuality to contaminate the experience. I do not for a second want to feel I need to cover up, or change, or think of someone else. I want to surrender to the experience. I have chosen my husband for specific reasons. I’m attracted to him spiritually, to his personality and sexually. I myself cannot put a hold on that sexual relationship whilst I give birth. It is just part and parcel of my relationship with my husband, it is a sacred part of our relationship that we both felt would have been compromised had he of witnessed the birth.
I felt like I had total privacy in that room. That whatever went on in that room stayed in that room and I was totally unjudged.
Andy and I are forever shocking people when we say he didn’t want to witness the births. What? Why not? Did you feel let down? Did he bond with the baby? Were you upset with him? Of course we had to talk and talk some more about it. But it has been a wonderful choice for us. He has a fantastic relationship with the kids. I felt a part of my sexuality and womanhood was very much retained and within my power, safe and ready for when I felt ready to reconnect with my husband in the coming months after the births.
What happened if we created a new cultural norm where fathers were commended and seen as supportive if they stayed OUTSIDE the birthing room? If by waiting outside the delivery room the husband is seen as giving their wife privacy, supporting her decisions, protecting her sexuality and allowing her primal femininity to flow as she births in her sacred space. I think that would be also be healthy.
I think because we live in a nuclear family where it is often just two parents raising children in relative isolation it has become the norm to rely on your partner. In the absence of extended networks we rely on our partner for so many more things than we used to, not only are they a friend and sexual partner, they are sometimes our financial support, our emotional support, our cleaners and cooks, our travel companions, our gym buddies, therapists, our confidants. It is understandable that we now expect them to be our birthing companions, they’re who we trust implicitly. But I think more friends and family should re-enter the birthing process – offer support, experience, love and attention.
I also think looking at hiring a doula is a fantastic option. If you want to improve your chances of having a positive birthing experience I can’t recommend it highly enough, and the statistics back this. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about saying to your husband that you think he might not be the best person to be a birthing partner. There is also nothing embarrassing about a partner saying he thinks he might not be the person to be there. It is not a reflection of the strength of your relationship. It can be a sign of strength in your relationship that you can discuss these topics calmly, openly and without prejudice. You might be grateful later on that you had this discussion whilst you still had time to find other birth supports.
Is there a reason why midwives are predominately women and even given the name midWIVES? Men and women and physically different and this affects what we are good at and our best placed roles. Are we expecting too much from our male partners? How can we expect them to understand what it feels like to create life within their bodies and then go through the transformative process of bringing forth life? With any life experience, we seek out those who have already been through the process and can provide wisdom and guidance. I truly think that women giving birth need supportive and kind women around them.
I know many women have been so grateful to have their husbands at their births, but is that because it was better than having no one other than the midwife? If these women had met doulas, could afford doulas, or felt more comfortable about friends or family attending their birth would that have changed their decision? If they had attended births of their family and friends would they have felt differently? If your Mother had discussed your births as a time where she was utterly supported by her best friend, sister, Mother or Grandmother? If your Mum’s best friend could recall the day you were born and holding your newborn body in the dawn light? Those are powerful social stories that change norms – that could change birth.
I think we need to make more time to make connections outside of our primary relationship with our partner. Birth is a very bonding time. You would never forget the memory of your friend or your daughter birthing. I think more women should reclaim this and make time to attend their friend’s and family’s births. To learn what it means to really support each other, to see a woman at her most vulnerable and powerful all at the same time. It is only a day out of your life, we could all manage to find the time should it become more expected of us.
These are my thoughts anyway. I very much hope to witness friend’s and family’s births. To offer unconditional and non-judgement support, to protect a woman’s space. I think it would be a very rewarding experience and something I would happily do for someone I loved. I actually think a great many women would do it if they were asked to.”
Click here to watch Sophie’s recent video blog on Dads and Doulas