Daddies, there must be no checking of phones or watches during labour, the midwife leading my antenatal class warned in a thick Swedish accent. Giving birth is extremely hard work and while it may seem boring or slow to you at times, you can be sure that’s not how your partner is experiencing it. I’m paraphrasing obviously, but that was more or less it. She went on to say that any signs of boredom, apprehension or anxiety exhibited by those around her, can cause a woman in labour to become nervous, which in turn may prolong the birthing process as well as make it more painful. This, in part, is the premise upon which leading obstetrician Michel Odent argues that childbirth should be free of male counterparts. He claims that aside from the potential for childbirth to become more painful and complicated, having the father in the delivery room can have more long-term effects, such as post-natal depression (for him), deterioration of sex and intimacy and possibly even relationship breakdown.
There is no doubt strong empirical justification for these arguments and I am not going to argue with world experts.
And yet, in my humble birthing experience, far from feeding off the potential anxiety emanating from my partner, I have to say I was ultimately pretty oblivious to what was going on around me. In fact, I’m fairly certain my eyes were closed for about 95 per cent of the 8 hours that passed between my first contraction to the moment A was born. As long as I could shout a command – Rub my back! Chocolate button! Gas and air! Juice! No students! – and what I demanded immediately materialised, I wouldn’t have known if those around me were anxious or not.
In my case, this was indeed a good thing. After my due date came and went, the Doc and I were left twiddling our thumbs for eleven days that may as well have been two years. The snow fell heavily outside, we felt frustrated and housebound and the prospect of me being induced on Christmas Day was creeping dangerously close. The Doc asked if he could meet his friend for some drinks – Of course, I replied; there was no need for both of us to be plagued by the unbearable tedium of waiting. So out he went and I remained at home with my mother, eating chipolatas and watching The Other Boleyn Girl. Perhaps it was the agony of enduring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman portray English royalty, or the thought of childbirth under 16th century conditions that triggered my insides into horrific cramping activity, but at 2am that night, I went into labour.
As I lay in bed, terrified at the unexpected intensity of my first contraction, a loud, toneless singing floated through the window from the street below. A contradictory sense of abject annoyance and comic predictability hit me, as I realised that the dreadful singing was the sound of my incomprehensibly inebriated partner, meandering his way home. Sure enough, a moment later, I heard the struggle of keys, the inconsistent steps shuffling into the flat and the clanging of kitchen appliances. I crept out of bed into the living room and saw the Doc making toast while his body lurched sideways, half his clothes already torn from his body and strewn on the floor. With some trepidation, I informed him I was having contractions. Oh shiiiit, was his bleary-eyed response. Do I need to take you to hospital?
To his unending credit, he held my hand throughout the entire process and even managed to whisper words of earnest encouragement in my ear when I felt like I wanted to give up, all the while desperately stifling his need to vomit. When the midwife asked if he wanted to cut the umbilical cord, he respectfully declined for fear he might be sick all over his newborn daughter. And after quietly sitting through the gruesome ordeal of the afterbirth, he briefly held his baby, then quietly excused himself and duly ejected his insides into a nearby toilet.
Despite that experience, the Doc was far from traumatised. In fact, so easy did he find it all that he is convinced we can do again several times over. I have of course attempted to set him straight on this, that birth was certainly not easy for me. As for sex, no I don’t think birth has affected that. Nor has it affected most couples with children I know. My midwife even told me the unsettling story of one of her clients having to ask the midwives to keep her sexually rampant husband away from her; her delivery only hours prior clearly wasn’t a hurdle for him.
But it isn’t as if the discussion of whether or not the Doc should be in the delivery room wasn’t had. We did have it. And for a period, he seemed to be of the opinion he shouldn’t be there. My father probably didn’t help, by telling him it was really ‘girls’ business.’ I let him continue along that trajectory for a period, only because ultimately I knew he would want to be there.
There is often a great deal made of these discussions between a couple in the lead up to birth. Every aspect seems an inordinately huge issue. After the delivery however, these things fade into some blurred background that all seems rather inconsequential. I suppose it’s a choice couples have to make for themselves, but ultimately you need to go with what feels right at the time – plans can often very quickly become redundant. For me, I can’t imagine the Doc not being part of that utterly unparalleled occurrence, but only because I quite literally cannot imagine an alternative scenario; it could have just as easily have been my mother there with me, while the Doc lay back home in bed in an alcohol-induced coma. Yet even though the vodka-soaked smell of his breath got up my incredibly sensitive nostrils and made me gag at times, there is no where else I wanted him to be, other than right next to me, kindly lying to me through all the revolting indignities of childbirth.