For centuries childbirth was a woman-only event. The ladies shut the door and took complete control. Men were as likely to see a birth as they were to see the far side of the moon. Over the last few decades this has all changed. Now, according to the Fatherhood Institute, 93% of men who live with their partners and 45% who don’t will attend their baby’s birth. Far side of the moon? Now it’s about as common as a trip to the Isle of Wight.
Throughout the 1950s attitudes were very traditional regarding fathers attending births. Society as a whole and medical staff did not approve of it, though there could be exceptions.
Fred and Pat had three children during the 1950s and though Fred was absent from the birth of his first child, he managed to see the birth of their second in 1956. “It was a home birth and we had our own place so it didn’t matter what the family thought” Pat said.
“It was a magical event!” Fred added. “The midwife was Nurse Daniels, who went to our church, so that helped with getting me in! When it was over, I had to take the placenta down the garden and burn it in our incinerator. I missed our next baby’s birth because I was fishing though.” Neither can remember any criticism of Fred for breaking the taboo. “We had a very supportive family” commented Pat.
The 1960s were a decade of change that saw men starting to get into the delivery room.
Peter and Heather’s first daughter was born in 1961. “The hospital did not welcome fathers” Peter said, “And Heather and I agreed it was no place for a man.” Peter stayed outside the delivery room, and only went in when it was over. “The baby was messy and covered in blood, but the delivery was over.”
Their third daughter, Mandy, was born in 1965. This time Peter was even less involved. “Four or five days before the due date, Heather went to hospital with high blood pressure. I visited that evening. The next day, I couldn’t find her. When I asked a nurse, she replied ‘Don’t you know? She’s had her baby!’ I was a bit peeved that no-one had told me.”
By the time their youngest, was born in 1971 things were changing. This time Peter was invited in but he declined. “We knew that some fathers were attending births, but we didn’t know of any who had done it.” Peter has no regrets though. “I would have gone in if Heather had insisted, but under duress. Anyway, she didn’t want me there; I suppose it’s the way we were brought up.”
In contrast, Kevin and Jan did want to break with tradition when their eldest, Joe, was born in 1966. “Lots of friends were talking about whether dads should attend births,” Kevin said, “It was an inevitable development.”
“We knew it was a new thing, but we were young, we wanted to do the new thing” Jan added.
Kevin, though, missed Joe’s birth, despite it happening at home. “The midwife felt that things weren’t going well so I was sent to call a doctor,” Kevin said, “As we didn’t have a telephone, I had to go to the phone box down the road. By the time I got back it was all over. The doctor arrived far too late!”
Kevin also missed the birth of his daughter, Rosemary, in 1970, this time in hospital. “They thought it would take a long time so I went home at about midnight” Kevin said. Soon afterwards, things started moving. “The staff offered to call Kevin” Jan said, “But I thought that he would have just got to sleep, so I told them not to. I still don’t know if that was the right decision!”
Kevin did see the birth of two more sons though. “It was great to be there. The staff made me very welcome. We had friends who had chosen not to be present at their children’s births and regretted it, so I’m glad not to have missed them all! I got tearful talking about them afterwards; a very emotional experience.”
During the 1980s and 90s it was accepted that many fathers would be present at their children’s births, but as there was no rights to paternity leave, men had to depend on the goodwill of their bosses.
Joseph recalls being at work in 1992 when his wife, Christine, phoned to say she was in labour. As he left, he heard his colleagues cheering him enthusiastically. Joseph spent the day supporting Christine but not much was happening – he even had time to eat the packed lunch that he had brought from work!
Eventually it was decided to perform a caesarean, and Joseph was ushered into a nurse’s rest room. “I wasn’t given a choice; my priority was to not get in the way. I might have been disappointed to miss a natural birth, but not this,” Joseph said. He first met his twins, Alex and Katherine when they were put in the special care unit. “They went there as Christine was under a general anaesthetic. I felt a fraud as they were twice the size of the other babies there!”
Most fathers want to stay out of the way. Alistair, whose children, Blaine and Bryony, were born in 2005 and 2007, said “The staff made me feel very welcome, but I definitely stayed out the way. I trusted the experts! I felt like a spare part, but I did get my hand squeezed very hard and I cut the cord at the end.”
Now that women no longer repel all men at the door of the delivery room, cutting the cord has become a rite marking new-fatherhood. Society expects men to be more hands-on in the family and while they have always treasured their child’s first words and first steps, now they can treasure their child’s first breath as well.