You might have seen the blog post we published a few weeks ago about why we, at The Natal Family, believe that we should stop laughing at the videos of labour simulation for men. Judging by how popular that blog post was, and all the questions people raised on social media, we have decided to dig a little deeper into the implications of how dads are often portrayed in the media.
And if you read our previous post, you won’t be surprised to hear that we think there’s a much deeper message hidden behind their entertaining façade. So why do we think that ridiculing dads all the time is so unhelpful? We asked Steph Beaumont, co-founder of The Natal Family and BabyNatal programme and founder of the mindfulness-inspired MummyNatal programme.
“The first issue I have with the simulations of labour for dads, is that despite the intention, it doesn’t necessarily help dads relate to what mums really go through. For a start, the muscles being affected in these simulations, are different to the muscles which contract in labour! But furthermore, something we explore in our MummyNatal classes, is that labour feels different for different women. While some might primarily experience it as tightenings, others will say that for them it was sensations of pressure. Others might feel sensations in their back. Some women feel a lot, and some woman don’t. For many women, the sensations they feel in labour change as it progresses. Labour is as unique as our babies are, and these simulations do not, and cannot reflect all of those potential differences.
Plus, is it all about physical sensation? My partner being given electric shocks (or seeing someone else get them) does not help him necessarily understand the wide variety of emotions and thoughts I might have, my birthing instincts and needs, my wishes for labour and birth.
Furthermore, the aim of the simulations seems to be increasing the current that passes through the men’s abdominal muscles until it is painful, and this is also a problem in itself! While some women do experience labour as painful, there are also many who do not describe it that way. One of the biggest issues we have in modern childbirth is the assumption that it will hurt, which in turn causes immense fear, which leads to physiological changes in the body, which then DOES make it hurt. And can even lead to potentially unnecessary interventions. Showing videos of men in pain, to represent how it is for women, perpetuates this viewpoint that it hurts. It perpetuates fear and therefore can lead to more women experiencing more negative birthing experiences. There is no benefit to women in that!
Unsurprisingly though, my issues with some of these videos, don’t stop there. Something else which I think is important to recognise is, that they don’t help me relate to my partner or understand his feelings as a dad-to-be. And not just his feelings, but also his instincts, his concerns, any birth trauma he might have, and his own worries about his abilities as a birth partner or a dad!
Aren’t all these things important too? Where there are two parents, surely parenting and birth must also be about how we can bring two people together, to understand and support each other better, so they can build the strongest family unit possible together. Putting all the emphasis on one parent (the father) having to identify and understand the other, doesn’t help achieve this in my view. And this is something we really stress in our latest book The His and Hers Guide to Pregnancy and Birth – it’s not a coincidence that this book was written by myself and my husband Dean together, and it’s addressed to both parents.
When I think about pregnancy and about what the partner of a pregnant woman goes through, personally, I can’t begin to get my head around it. How it must feel to watch her literally transform before your eyes – in body shape, emotional state, behaviour, priorities and worries. How it must feel to want to be there for her, but to find that you still always seem to do the ‘wrong’ thing. Dealing with your own changing hormones as a pregnant woman can certainly be tough, but trying to deal with them as a partner, must be nearly impossible at times!
During pregnancy women get months of gradual changes, which although are often not easy, help us transition and adapt to the idea of motherhood – we feel our bodies change, our thoughts change, we feel our baby move, and so on, on a daily basis. Men (or partners) don’t get this in the same way… and then suddenly one day there is a baby! Their baby!
And then there is birth. Which is all about women’s parts. Often birth takes place in what are labelled as ‘Women and Baby units’. And there may be breastfeeding. More women’s parts. Often dads are not even included in breastfeeding education sessions – those are for women.
What does this say to dads? I can’t imagine how much, at times, men must be left feeling displaced, distant, alien or uncertain. And how difficult it must be to deal with those feelings when this is your baby too. As a pregnant woman and a mum, I wouldn’t want to swap my role for his at all. I certainly don’t see one as easier than the other, or that the emphasis should just be on him understanding my experience.
Mums and dads face different challenges and changes on the way to parenthood, and it’s really important that both are acknowledged. As a pregnant woman, do I wish I could sometimes give my husband a real insight into what being pregnant, having SPD*, morning sickness and giving birth feels like?
But I also remember that he has been there. When I went through a difficult and painful birth, through nearly losing a baby, through being admitted to hospital through severe sickness, through post-birth complications and depression. He was there when I found breastfeeding difficult with my first two babies. He was there when our fourth baby arrived before the midwife. He was there when my SPD was so bad that he had to literally carry me to the toilet. He has witnessed me experiencing those things, and he doesn’t need a ‘simulation’ to help him have some empathy for how difficult they were or how much strength they took from me. A simulation also doesn’t help me understand what he went through, when he went through those experiences either.
Are some men naturally more empathetic than others? Of course. But in that case, will an unrealistic simulation really make any difference? Something we explore in our classes at The Natal Family, is how often the barriers which men put up (the root cause often for them being less than empathetic or involved), are created through their own fears, lack of knowledge or feelings of being excluded or unimportant. So again, how would these simulations help that? They don’t, they compound it.
Just because a man doesn’t talk about something, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think about it. Or that it hasn’t affected him. No matter how it can seem on the surface, I try to always be mindful that dads are experiencing their own feelings, changes and challenges. Parenthood isn’t all just about my point of view or experience – as much as at times I might want it to be! But it’s about us understanding each other, to be stronger together as parents”.
We are very grateful to Steph Beaumont for these powerful words and honest insight into her own experience.
And now we’d love to hear your thoughts about this. As a pregnant mum, do you / did you often try and empathise with your partner? As a partner to a pregnant woman, do you feel able to talk about your own feelings, emotions and concerns?
*SPD – Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction. During pregnancy, swelling and pain of the ligaments that connect the two pubic bones can make the joint (called symphysis pubis) less stable.