Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2000

Role in labor room not man’s birthright

Notion of male involvment in pregnancy has gone over the top

September 23, 2000


So a male friend tells me on the phone, his excitement melting the wires: "Guess what? We're pregnant!"

What I say: "How nice."

What I think: "No, you're not. Your wife is."

Call me a stickler. But the notion of male involvement in the nine very long months of pregnancy has, in some circles, gone way over the top.

I don't suggest a return to the days when a man helped conceive and then did nothing until the child was born (and then doing a whole lot of nothing to raise the kid). Men should watch the birth of their child if they can without fainting. It is a right. And they should have real roles in child-rearing.

But haven't we gone a tad far in bringing men into a process that is, in fact, singularly female? There is only a limited role men can play, and pretending they have a bigger one falsely ennobles them and perpetuates the myth of equality in family-rearing and housekeeping. (You know: Men do a thing or three, women do thousands of others, and everybody calls it even.)

It's plain annoying to put men in a position where they think they are helping when they aren't. This was well demonstrated when my friend Lena was in labor with her son, in acute pain for a long time. As her kind husband patted her shoulder, she too exhausted to tell him to stop bit his arm. Message: Leave me alone. You can't help. Not with this. Let's not pretend you can.

Another friend, Peg, did stop pretending after fighting with her husband in the labor room over TV channels. She sent him out for a beer and a long jog, and she felt better doing her own thang.

Men can certainly be supportive during pregnancy. They can make dinner, help around the house. These are good things. And during labor, they can fetch the ice chips that laboring mothers like to chew. But trying to help us breathe? Thanks, but we've managed without much coaching since we were born.

The notion of husband as coach is another bad idea, especially when he urges his wife on like a cheerleader: "Push, push, push!" "Go, go, go!" As if labor is Monday Night Football. Quiet is often best in a delivery room, something women instinctively know.

For some men, it's not enough to help; they want to be the boss. They monitor what their wives eat. They stop drinking alcohol to be simpatico with their wives. They try to run the labor, offering opinions on when their wives need drugs to ease the pain. By being there through the process, men think they're toughing it out right along with the women.

To help in this pursuit, couples go to birthing classes, where they learn far more than most really want to know. I went, too. My favorite part: when teachers, trying to help men "experience" labor pain, tell them to hold ice in their hand for as long as they can stand it. As if that comes remotely close! My cousins laughed so hard they were expelled from class, but they successfully had babies anyway.

Women bear equal responsibility for putting men in this situation, expecting them to understand how it feels when their bodies change. It's just not a male thing. There are even women who ask their husbands to get involved by talking to their growing bellies, because they think, well actually, I don't have any idea what they could be thinking.

If you ask nicely, some men will tell you honestly that they don't know what women go through, and are happy not knowing. My buddy Steve was thrilled when his son was premature so he didn't have to attend another breathing class. Even Michel Odent, Europe's foremost childbirth expert, says fathers are disruptive during labor, that they interfere with a woman's mental state to the point where she can't concentrate on delivery, which has led to a rise in Caesarean sections.

I can hear wounded men saying, "At least we're trying." Well, try something else. Husbands and wives share lots of things: love, interests, household goods. But there are things they can't do for, or with, the other.

When a woman delivers a wonderful child and her husband wipes his brow and says, "Whew, we did it," all I can say is, "What do you mean 'we,' kemosabe?"

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