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Men in the birthing room: to each their own.

Suzanne Barker Agustyn

Recently, an article quoting Michel Odent made the rounds among my birthy friends on Facebook – fellow doulas, childbirth educators, pregnant women, and recent moms. In it, Odent, a well-known French obstetrician, didn’t say anything he hasn’t said before, and the article itself turned out to be 2 years old, but it seems like every time someone stumbles across him in a major media outlet again, people can’t help but talk about his views. Namely, that men have no place in a birthing room.

Odent is well-known as a leader in the “gentle childbirth” movement, had a cameo in the popular documentary, The Business of Being Born, and has written and contributed to several books. I’ve read some of them and while I agree with many of his ideas surrounding childbirth, I just can’t get behind this one.

Partly because I feel his sweeping generalizations about fathers-to-be are incredibly sexist, as if men are a homogeneous group that can be so easily stereotyped. And partly based on my own personal experience giving birth to my first child.

I simply can not imagine having done it without my husband’s support.

Odent’s views on the topic are strong. He’s cited as saying a male presence can do everything from increase the length and level of difficulty of labor to ruin marriages and cause mental illness.

Wait, what?

Most of his assertions are based on his belief that men are nervous creatures who will bring anxiety into the birthing environment, thus influencing mom’s mood and increasing her levels of adrenaline, which then leads to physical changes and complications.

While I can get behind this to some degree, I refuse to accept the fact that because some dads are nervous and perhaps even detrimental to their partner’s well-being in labor, it is a huge leap to thus label ALL men as such and then go on to lobby for men staying out of the picture all together, for all women.

Let me just tell you, Odent would have had to come to my house personally and pried my fingers off my husband’s forearm with a crowbar during labor with my daughter. And had he tried, I very well may have climbed right out of that birth pool mid-contraction, taken his crow bar, and whacked him over the head with it.

The other side of Odent’s arguments that leave me frustrated are when he discusses the influence of men’s presence at birth on the sexual relationship between a woman and her partner. From the article linked above:

Odent said that men witnessing childbirth can ruin the sexual attraction between a couple and lead to them becoming just good friends and then getting divorced. Some men end up suffering from a widely-unrecognised male equivalent of postnatal depression, he added. Others end up playing golf or computer games – or even walking out and never returning – as they try to avoid their new reality. A few end up with schizophrenia or other mental disorders, he said.

Suddenly developing schizophrenia because he’s witnessed childbirth? Oh, come on. And even if this has happened to someone at some point, I think it’s safe to assume it’s incredibly rare.

And as far as men’s sexual attraction to their partners being ruined because they witnessed the horror of childbirth, I can’t help but say “suck it up, dudes.” While you are busy being scarred by what you saw, we’re busy physically recovering, and after 6 weeks or so, we’ll be expected to once again view our (hopefully healed) birth organs as a means of sexual pleasure. If we can manage that, you can certainly get over your hang-ups.

Now, all of my arguments here are not to say that all men should be required to attend the birth of their children, nor to suggest that they should be required to be active participants. Each family has to make the choice that is right for them and I refuse to resort to the same type of broad stereotypes that Odent does on this topic.

Some men (and women!) are not comfortable with childbirth, for any number of reasons. Some mothers may not want their male partners at the birth, preferring instead to welcome female supports like a doula or a mother or a friend – or all of the above. And some may just want to be left entirely alone. All of these are valid needs and, as a doula, I’ve worked with mothers whose birth teams fell across the spectrum of possibilities.

Come February, I plan to be surrounded by a small group of beloved women as I give birth to my second child: my midwives, my doula, a dear friend or two, and, yes, my husband.

In the meantime, he’s gone into birth partner overdrive. He’s reviewing books from our Ina May library, reminiscing about the moment he caught our daughter, Poppy, and discussing the logistics of catching our next child with our midwives at each prenatal visit. In recent weeks, as Boo’s birth draws ever closer, he’s become my biggest cheerleader. When the baby was breech two weeks ago, he was researching our options alongside me and reassuring me that we’d get him/her flipped back over with ease. And now that I’m in my final weeks and feeling it, he's constantly reminding me of how great our first birth was and encouraging me to view the upcoming one with excitement and optimism. He's also picking up more and more of the housework as my ever-expanding bump is making it harder to do simple tasks, and forcing me to sit down on the couch with my feet up each night while bringing me heaping bowls of ice cream.

I realize all of this may make me among a lucky few, but I can’t imagine it any other way. In a few short weeks, I'll be in the throes of labor once again and he'll be there, by my side, just where I need him.

Did you have a male partner/husband/boyfriend present at your birth? What was his role -- was he a passive participant off texting in the corner, an emotional support sticking close to the upper half of your body, diving right in in whatever way he could, or something else all together? If currently pregnant, are you and your partner on the same page regarding his planned participation in the process?


Follow Jo on Twitter at @outtajo or visit her personal blog, Outta Jo, Onto You.