I’m currently developing baby number four, and I’m more excited for birth than ever. I now have enough experience under my belt to know exactly what I want and need for our February arrival, and I finally have the confidence and knowing to stand for it. I’ve experienced both hospitals and midwife centers. I also remarried between baby two and baby three, so I know what it’s like to birth with a partner lacking connection, confidence, and communication versus a partner with a strong sense of family and duty.
My experiences with pregnancy and childbirth have given me insights that I think every expectant father would benefit from. After all, happy mamas have happy babies, and that makes for happier papas too, so consider what this mama has to say…
Pregnancy brings about so many changes in the female body. Swollen aching limbs, loose joints, nausea, and the sleepless nights of giant bellies wear down our nerves. Labor is the icing on the cake; wonderful and welcome but taking discomfort to new heights. I’ve cast many angry glares at my snoring husband during the nights of the third trimester, and gotten very irritated over doing regular tasks that now require special accommodations thanks to a protruding belly. Women everywhere have voiced how they wish their men could live one day in their skin and understand what it’s like. Try paying attention to what’s bothering her and ask how her body is coping. Being on our feet for long periods, sleeping flat-backed, and washing dishes standing sideways aren’t the highlights of our day. If you can put some time into figuring out what’s bothering her, you can do things that will make her load 100x easier. This offers critical practice for birth when the challenges of pregnancy reach their peak.
Even the strongest of women are going to feel pain. While some may deal with it better than others, it’s still incredibly comforting to have our challenges (aka suffering) recognized. Acknowledging that you see what we’re going through and you know it’s not easy makes our challenges far easier to bear. And you can take even more of the load of our back by taking the time and care to get informed. Read up on pregnancy, and try to understand the process of growing and delivering a baby. Birth can be exhausting, and the pain continues on in the form of yet more uterine contractions and vaginal swelling. Put together a little care package with her favorite drinks and snacks to boost her energy with a little love and bliss, and do some research on healing plants. Bring along essential oils, teas, and herbal salves that can help ease the bleeding, swelling, and post-birth pains. Books like Birthing From Within, Ina May’s Guide To Childbirth, The Birth Book, Rainforest Home Remedies, and Jeyarani-based The Gentle Birth Method are all brimming with wisdom and advice. Yes, many women like being informed and taking charge, but join in on the reading so that we don’t feel like we’re alone in bringing this baby into the world. Do your part as a partner and father by making sure that YOU are addressing HER needs so that mama and baby are happy and healthy. You’ll lighten the load of pregnancy and childbirth and help ease all her frustrations, anxieties, and feelings of loneliness. Don’t underestimate the power and love in such an act. It’s huge.
Read Her Body Language
Papas everywhere have great intentions with their pregnancy and birthing contributions, but sometimes all the talk and “help” can be more irritating than helpful. Labor definitely isn’t the time for guessing games (not if you don’t want to get screamed at anyways), so work on “reading” that mama. Getting through contractions can take a lot of energy and focus, and she may be so deep into the birthing zone that she’s lost to her own needs. Look for subtle cues that will clue you in to where she’s at and how you can help ease the process.
Is she tense or grimacing in pain?
This would be a great time to pull out the massage oil and offer to rub her calves and feet.
Is she sweaty?
Present her with something cold to drink, find a fan, and get a wet towel she can drape around her neck.
Is she not in the mood to talk?
Ask her how she’s doing and what she needs from you, but without pulling her out of her “zone.”
Does she seem anxious?
This is not the time to leave the room or to have her talking with nurses or doctors she doesn’t have a familiar and trusting relationship with. Pull out her favorite relaxing tunes and scents and remind her of how far she’s come.
I know myself and other female friends rely heavily on non-verbal communication in everyday interaction. These subtle yet emotionally-powerful tendencies make it critical to be aware of mama’s vocal tone and body and facial expressions during the vulnerable time of childbirth. I know I tend to “say” more with tone, silence, and expression than I do with words, and I know many other women who are the same. Take the time to learn how to “read” your woman now so you have an idea of how she looks and acts in different situations.
Be Her Advocate
Even in warm and welcome birth environments at home or cozy midwife centers, uncomfortable situations can arise. In my case, I was going crazy being moved from one position to another. The room already had three midwives, but then two surprise birth attendees showed up mid-labor. While I was too focused on contractions to care then, the “pushing show” had me feeling like a circus animal. One position of everyone yelling at me to push was followed by me being led into yet another position where I was again yelled at to push. As distracting as the contractions and pushing were, I still felt embarrassed and resentful. I would have much rather been asked if I was okay with trying a position, or if I was okay with surprise guests and needed anything beforehand (ie. clothes as I was down to nothing but a bra after getting out of the tub). Yes, I was asked if it was okay for my mother-in-law and my sister to come, and yes, I nodded my head in agreement, but part of that was because I felt I needed to be agreeable and I needed to let things go. It’s true that part of me didn’t care, but I was still conscious of things and it had a negative impact on an already challenging situation.
A mama needs a birth advocate whatever the environment, but hospital births put even more pressure on papas. I got to experience a hospital birth with my third with an absolutely amazing Certified Nurse Midwife. She stood on the sidelines and let me run the show for an empowering birth, but things didn’t go as smoothly afterwards. Within the first hour of birth they came in to ask me some “basic questions” that took a good ten minutes. Not a big deal, but I found it rather ridiculous considering I had just gone through this huge physical ordeal and now had a baby to bond with. Having just dropped an 8lb mass out of my body, I really just wanted to be left alone so my husband and I could marvel over this long-awaited boy. There were also regular and constant checks following birth and afterwards. We had some great nurses that were very kind and meant well, but I’m an introvert that loves soaking up the symbolism and meaning of special moments, so I found even the sweetest nurses slightly intrusive and annoying. I wish my husband would have taken over the communication between us and the nurses and made sure I was relaxed and well-bonded before going along with hospital protocol.
Pain was another thing I wish my husband had noticed and stepped up for. The nurse’s were doing routine pushes on my belly that were more horrible than anything I’d experienced at the midwife center. I found out later through my CNM that only one pushing session was needed to address blood clots, and after that nurses only needed to gently touch my abdomen to check on the shrinking of the uterus. I’m sure that extra pushes for blood clots are encouraged as it covers liability and many mothers don’t notice thanks to a waning epidural, but their routine efforts were an assault on my traumatized uterus and the pain surpassed those of birth. I went along with it because I tend to be a heavier bleeder and I was too pooped from birth to exercise logic and question reason. My husband also trusted the nurses their routine, and understandably so, but it would have been wonderful if he had noted my pain and inquired as to what they were doing, why, and what would be a less painful alternative.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Nobody knows better than mama, and the intensity of labor can take a woman to a whole other level, so spare everyone the ugliness of poor and misinformed assumptions. Now, some women may prefer having you take on absolutely everything, but even this isn’t something that should be assumed. Reading her cues and trusting your own intuition will tell you a lot about where she’s at, but do everyone a favor by asking some simple questions. If it seems like she’s not wanting to talk, then ask her if she’s wanting a quieter environment. If she’s acting anxious, ask her how she’s feeling. Yes, some women find questioning annoying, but these sorts of questions show you care and you’re there to help. They address her current state at the current moment, and that offers you the opportunity to provide specific and critical aid.
Even when women may come across as tough and fierce with this “I can do it” attitude, that may not be how they’re actually feeling inside. When I labored with my first, I had double-peaking contractions that had me feeling scared, hopeless, and incredibly alone. Everyone assumed I was just fine as I voiced no complaints, but in my own mind I was losing it. I felt like I had the burden of the world on my shoulders, and I was completely helpless to the pain taking over my body. Had I been asked how I was feeling or what I needed, I could have felt support that may have completely shifted my focus. While no one wants to be interrogated, being asked how you’re doing and how things are going can spark some important conversation and requests. And again, it shows you care.
It’s also important to know that while we love our family, they may not be so welcome to mama. When my husband and I had our first (my third), It was a few hours after birth before I called a select few family members. I like having time alone and my family knows this, so this was completely acceptable. My husband’s family has very different dynamics though. They arrived as I was pushing and waited outside, but my husband ushered them into the room as I was lying in bed with nurses all around me, just minutes after birth. I had expected that I’d be done with all the medical prodding and we’d have time to gaze at our baby before we invited anyone into our space, but he comes from Africa where everything centers around relationships. Even funerals serve as elaborate community celebrations, so it was a given that father, mother, brother, brother’s girlfriend, and their dear family friend would be there as soon as my naked body was covered up. Their joy and enthusiasm certainly added to the happiness and meaning of this life-changing event, but I would have really liked it if I could have had the nurses change out my bloody padding and waddled off to the bathroom without an audience. Now I know better, as does my husband, but these are important things to keep in mind. My husband assumed all the rough stuff was over once the baby dropped out, so he invited everyone in as soon as I had been helped into bed. I would have really appreciated him asking the nurses what to expect after birth. Then I could have been saved the awkwardness of exposing my deflated pregnant stomach and naked bottom, and trying not to grimace through public padding changes and belly pushing.
These days, childbirth is looked at as some strange and foreign thing that women are helpless against. Because of this outlook, many women don’t realize that their bodies can communicate things that no doctor or midwife could ever know. Help your mama tune in to her body and the birthing experience. It’s important to heed the advice of your birth provider, but let’s not forget that the women actually in labor is feeling and experiencing things that are a direct result of labor. She’s feeling the entire birthing process, and there’s much to be communicated from this if she can stop and listen.
I had my first experience with trusting my pregnant body when I had my first. My ten pounder had an impressively large head that couldn’t make its way through my pelvis, and that led to my midwives getting me into all sorts of positions while stimulating my pushing reflex in hopes of stronger and quicker results. After about two hours, I was completely and utterly exhausted, and feeling bleak and hopeless. I was ready to collapse into a sobbing heap when they helped me stand up to try yet another position. This transition was put on pause by a strong contraction that made me standing with my eyes closed. As I stood there against the birthing bed, chin up and lost in thought, I was washed over by how drained I was and just wanted a rest. Just a little rest… As I repeated this thought in my mind I was suddenly hit with the overwhelming urge to lay down on my side. The comfort I felt just in thinking of this had me immediately drop down to the wood floor to lie down. The contractions that followed immediately eased in intensity, and the pushing I did there on my side had my daughter finally descending downward. As wise and knowledgeable as my midwives were, it was listening to my body that made all the difference.
Now, I wasn’t even familiar with the idea of trusting my body when I had my first, and that may be the case for your partner as well. The heightened sensations of birthing will make it easier to tap into our intuition and body awareness, but it will probably take some prompting. Rather than telling her what she needs to do, ask her if she’s interested in taking whatever suggestion or if she feels that something would be better. Ask her how her body is feeling and what she feels like she needs, and give her the time she needs to ponder this and connect. Encourage her to plug into the experience, and support her by believing in her ability to birth.
My natural birth experiences have taught me much about the connection that a baby offers a couple. It can be a very challenging time because of all the changes that the time brings, but there’s one thing that doesn’t have to change, and that’s your investment into your partnership. Do your best to love and trust your woman, and you can make this a beautiful time that you can both reflect on and grow from.
Thanks to all the natural papas who love their mamas so much they’d read this. You’re the best!
[About the author: Ash Stevens is a mother, writer, and a wannabe shaman. She loves health, gardening, simplicity, chocolate, and sarcasm. If she isn’t reading or writing, then she’s surely playing badminton with the kids. Find her on Twitter or Facebook and make a new friend!]