I had the pleasure of being a guest on Woman’s Hour today (Tuesday 29th January 2013). The discussion was around Fatherhood at birth and in the early days, and we were considering some of the research which Tina Miller has recently highlighted in a piece for the Practicing Midwife.
The majority of Tina’s initial conclusions, I wholeheartedly agree with – and I am delighted that someone is once again bringing this subject to attention. She highlights the fact that expectations of men’s roles have not kept pace with support for them to fulfil these roles. She questions what needs to change in maternity practices in order to make sure that men are supported. She highlights some of the key issues around men also suffering birth trauma, but there being a lack of services designed for them to be able to debrief what they have experienced or get support after the birth.
Reading all of this makes me shout YES very loudly, as anyone who has been reading my blog, attended an event where I have spoken or come to one of my classes will know, these are key topics I feel passionately about.
The debate today was interesting though – to be honest I was expecting more agreement than debate – but from the small amount of time which we had, what was clear was that there was A LOT up for discussion!
Men at Birth
Tina Miller did suggest at one point that at birth men often feel displaced due to the fact that they see their role as to make sure the birth plan is stuck too, and that when that doesn’t become possible that men often feel they have failed in their role. Her suggestion was that perhaps men need more realistic expectations about their role and ability to influence the birth plan. I didn’t get an opportunity to come back on this point, which is probably for the best as it is such a complex subject, we could have spent hours debating it. But her viewpoint is contradictory to one I hold. I don’t believe that the way to make sure that fathers do not feel like failures in the birthing environment is to lower their expectations and suggest to them that they have little influence over the birth plan. I don’t believe this at all, and I teach the opposite. Men are advocates of the birth plan, HOWEVER, it is important they understand how to do this, when and what the limitations are. Yes, if men expect to be advocates of the birth plan but have no idea how to fulfill this role, they have been failed in their antenatal preparation. The reality is that too many couples write birth plans, not understanding that the plan begins BEFORE the birth. There are steps/actions/choices which often need to be considered before labour or birth are even underway – not doing this, makes fulfilling a birth plan later on incredibly difficult and sometimes impossible.
Men have a key role in acting as advocate for their birth partner, and making sure that key wishes of the birth plan are understood. This does not mean that every point on a birth plan will necessarily become a reality, but in this case, if they understand why and what their options are instead so that informed choices can be made at that point, that father will still be empowered as the birth plan can be adapted in the new circumstances. Amending details of the birth plan involves empowering the parents with informed consent, which is very different from the idea of the birth plan ‘going out the window’ and the parents having no voice in a change in direction of care.
I am not saying this approach will negate all instances of sense of guilt if things don’t go to plan, there are no guarantees, but I know from our feedback and case studies over the years, it does make a difference in the vast majority of cases.
The point is should we be disempowering men in the birthing environment or empowering them? It is certainly easier and quicker to minimize their role and disempower them, but of greater personal and familial benefit to empower.
One of the most interesting points we disagreed on at the end of the piece, was the offhand generalization which Tina Miller made about the fact that ‘men are keen to get back to work after paternity leave’. I challenged this as not being true of all men, as again through my work and research, this has not been demonstrated to be at all true. I was shouted down by the fact that the dads who come to DaddyNatal are ‘different’ to which I once again tried to explain that I was not referring to just those dads.
This point alone has stimulated many comments via Twitter, Facebook and email.
Some of these, from fathers themselves (who have incidentally NOT attended a DaddyNatal class):
The only reason I was keen to try and keep things going with work was the fact that I was (and still am) self employed but that’s it. I was willing, able and keen to be thoroughly involved with looking after my son and given the lack of family locally to help it was a necessity. – Martin
I am a Stay @ Home Dad and Freelance trainer since we had our first child, now have 3 (3 yrs, 19 mths and 11wks)! – Andrew
Some of these comments from mums, who do not recognize that attitude in their partners:
My partner didn’t want to rush back to work as he is very involved with childcare. He booked time off so he could have more much wanted time at home. Current maternity and paternity packages are outdated and sexist. – Jenny
I didn’t hear the piece on the radio but my husband hated going back to work and apologises to me every morning that he has to go. He would love to stay at home with us. He just makes the most of what time he does have at home. – Hannah
This piece written about a dads perspective of going back to work, would also make interesting reading for the ladies on the Woman’s Hour panel:
(and no, he didn’t do DaddyNatal classes either!)
And what about this evidence?
Statistics released just this month show that men now make up 10% of the full time carers at home. This is a significant rise – clearly these men are not desperate to get away from home!
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission found that 53% of fathers with children under 1 say they don’t spend enough time with their children and that Dads are twice as likely as mums to feel that they want more time at home with their kids.
A YouGov survey (Work-life balance: working for fathers? – Working Families 2010) found that 55% of fathers take their full paternity leave. Of those who haven’t, 88% would have liked to but could not afford it 49% or felt that they were too busy or their employer would not look favourably upon it 19%
Yes, I don’t doubt some men do look forward to a return to work, but to stereotype the fact that MOST men do is not only wrong, but it is harmful. It is a continuation of the inherent bias within the maternity system, which is continues to alienate men – which highly ironically, flies in opposition of what the study we were discussing today recommends.
The question, whether looking at men at birth, or early fatherhood at home is HOW can we expect men to be more equally involved and fulfilling these new societal roles and expectations, if the assumptions and stereotypes held about them not being capable or wanting to be involved don’t ever evolve? Statements like ‘dads only role is really be present at birth’ or ‘dads cant wait to get back to work after baby arrives’ are not innocent statements. They are loaded with assumption, bias and prejudice. Imagine you heard someone saying that about YOU, what underlying message are they conveying? It’s certainly not a positive one?
There IS a shift. Dads want to be involved. But guess what? If we keep reinforcing stereotypes that men are not interested and engaged, then it is made impossible for them to be.
If dads are to be truly empowered, then it has to be with no limiting-assumptions by those in the professional arena around then. We have to just expect that men will want to join in, this is the only way it can be made accessible to them.
When I set up DaddyNatal 4 years ago, everywhere I went I was faced with people who openly laughed in my face and told me it wouldn’t catch on. Even just in those 4 years, I have seen a shift, less people laugh and more people recognize the difference a properly supported dad can make. My inbox today is full of emails from people who heard the Woman’s Hour piece – many write saying how the DaddyNatal approach is so needed in their place of work (which are on the whole, maternity units), or individual parents writing to tell me their stories and asking for support. A lot of these emails are sensitive and confidential, so I won’t share them here, but the reality is that times are changing. It is still a slow uphill climb, but through our work at DaddyNatal and of course BabyNatal, we will continue to call people on their stereotypes and assumptions.
Dads are not a joke, not incompetent, and not to be humoured. Dads are parents just as much as mums are – its time they we were treated with the same respect.