As with many other aspects of pregnancy, labour, birth and parenting, the choice around who should cut the umbilical cord is exactly that – a choice. Lately, however, an increasing number of expectant dads that we meet in our BabyNatal classes are telling us that they feel that they are expected to cut their baby’s umbilical cord.
And this may be great for those dads who are genuinely excited to do it and want to do it, but what about the dads who, for whatever reason, don’t? What about the mums who would actually prefer to cut the cord themselves but feel that they might upset their partners if they ‘take this away from them’? What happens, in general, when we don’t want to or feel able to conform to the (in this case ‘unwritten’) norm?
We might feel bad.
We might feel inadequate.
We might feel like we are letting other people down for not feeling the way we think we ‘should’ and for not doing something that we think is expected of us.
Well, let us say this again. In circumstances where all is well with Mum and Baby, whether Mum or Dad or another birth partner or the midwife cuts the baby’s umbilical cord (or whether the cord is cut at all!) it is entirely the choice of the mum / dad / parents. There is no written (or unwritten) rule anywhere that says that dads have to cut the cord if they don’t want to.
But let’s take a step back and try and understand when and why cutting the cord has seemed to become assumed as the Dad’s job.
The ‘giving Dad something to do’ argument
Dad cutting the cord is a relatively new and ‘modern’ phenomenon, which has become ‘in fashion’ in the last 50 years or so. In a world where much of the focus during pregnancy, labour and birth is on Mum, asking Dad to cut the cord is certainly something that allows dads to feel more involved during the birth of their children.
But is it really true that dads can’t do anything else during the birth? They may not be physically giving birth, but let’s not forget that they can play a huge part in the process! You just have to pick up a copy of The Expectant Dad’s Handbook or The His and Hers Guide to Pregnancy and Birth, and you’ll find that we discuss a range of important roles that a Dad (or birth partner) can assume. From advocate and protector of Mum’s choices and preferences, all the way to offering moral and physical support and comfort, there is plenty that Dad can do to feel an involved party in the birth process. And in fact, we’ll go as far as to say that implying that cutting the cord is one of the few tangible things that a dad can do during labour and birth, can actually be considered limiting and disempowering. A dad can definitely do SO much more and still feel involved and needed without cutting the cord if he doesn’t want to!
The ‘rite of passage into fatherhood’ and the symbolism arguments
There is definitely a strong argument to support the symbolism of Dad / partner cutting the umbilical cord. Once the cord is cut babies start their independent life earth-side. They are no longer attached to the placenta, which had been created during pregnancy within Mum’s womb to nourish and grow the baby. So, in a way, the physical link which makes Mum and Baby ‘one’ is now cut for the first time. Cutting the cord certainly marks the start of life outside the womb, outside Mum, where Dad can start to get involved and physically parent the baby – hold, comfort, nourish and bond with the baby. It’s certainly the start of something new. It’s a way to mark and celebrate a baby being born, a family being born or a new addition welcomed into an existing family. It’s a great honour for Dad.
But are we saying that a dad doesn’t really become a father if they don’t cut the cord? Or that they’re not a dad before they cut it? When does fatherhood begin? A mum is a mum the minute she becomes pregnant – everyone seems to agree with that. Isn’t a dad a dad the minute their partner becomes pregnant? If a mum doesn’t need a baby in her arms (yet) to be a mum, why does a dad? Clearly fatherhood begins well before the baby is born, and well before that cord is clamped / tied and cut (or not).
And equally, if we are ready to recognise the symbolism attached to cutting the cord and severing that very physical link with Mum, why isn’t Mum the best placed to mark this important milestone? Mum grew, carried and nourished the baby. Her body went through enormous changes during pregnancy, labour and birth. A pregnancy shapes and changes a woman’s body and mind, and it’s safe to say that that changes a woman forever. ‘Making a baby’ is a job like no other. And one day that baby may be ready to be born and that pregnancy may well be over, but that woman continues to go through an enormous amount of changes. Should she feel expected to offer the privilege and honour of cutting her baby’s umbilical cord to someone else if she doesn’t want to? If she physically can and feels up to do it and if she strongly feels that she wants to cut the cord herself, shouldn’t she feel free to? If this idea that dads have to cut the cord wasn’t so engrained in our culture and expectations, wouldn’t more mums consider cutting their baby’s cord? Wouldn’t more mums want to do this? Wouldn’t they want to claim this amazing gift for themselves instead of handing it over to their partners?
And if you look at it like this, it’s hard to justify why a midwife or medical professional (with all things being well with Mum and Baby and in the absence of a medical emergency, of course) should be the ones doing the honours at all!
The dad who doesn’t want to do it
Believe it or not, some people (mums or dads alike) don’t like the look of the cord. When we discuss the umbilical cord in our BabyNatal classes, most parents are presented with a photo of a cord for the very first time. It’s not generally something you see on TV / in the media / books and magazines – it’s not something we’re generally used to seeing and familiar with, so it’s only natural that some people won’t like it. We are all human beings with our own individual feelings, worries, likes and dislikes after all, and it’s ok for people to feel nervous or not up to doing something that doesn’t feel nice or right for them!
So if you’re a dad and you don’t like the look of the cord, or the texture of it when the midwife assumingly hands you the scissors and you start trying to cut it, or if you are simply worried about doing something wrong or hurting the baby (remember that the cord has no nerve endings, so it won’t actually hurt the baby), what does this expectation do to you? What if you don’t want to admit that you’d rather not do it? What if you think it may upset Mum, and so you haven’t even discussed this with her? Assuming that any Dad will want to cut their baby’s cord can be harmful, especially for a dad who doesn’t feel up to doing it. Assuming that any woman will want their partner / their baby’s father to cut the cord can be harmful, especially for a mum who’d rather do it themselves but won’t mention it to their partner for fear of hurting their feelings and taking away a ‘job’ that is meant to be theirs.
A choice is no longer a choice if we don’t challenge expectations
Ultimately, the decision of who cuts the baby’s umbilical cord has to be a conscious and informed choice made by the parents. If it’s just assumed that Dad should do it or wants to do it and that Mum wants Dad to do it or doesn’t want to do it herself (or doesn’t have a preference about who does it), we may miss an opportunity of making an informed choice about something that we deem important and we may later regret.
So talk about it! Make sure that you discuss this during your pregnancy, and if it’s something that you both strongly feel you would want to do, perhaps there’s a compromise to be reached there, and a conversation to be had in advance of the birth. This will certainly help you reach an agreement and remove the risk of creating misunderstandings or regrets and resentment afterwards. You know what they say about assumptions after all…
So tell us your story…
What did you do when your baby was born – who cut the cord? How did you feel about it? What are you planning to do for your baby’s birth? Let us know how you feel and what you think about this – we definitely think that this is an expectation worth challenging, so have you and your family challenged it, or would you?