I was talking with a great guy today who'll officially become a great dad any day now. He told me they had a bunch of meals in the freezer for after baby arrives, directions on how to mix up mom's favorite protein drink on the fridge so anyone could make it for her after baby arrives, they'd gone to their childbirth classes and practiced the exercises. His face was beaming with pride and excitement about his upcoming role as Head Labor Support Person, and then Dad. Then he looked down, looked back up and I saw that familiar dad/partner-glimmer. The glimmer of the slightest hint of a touch of apprehension The "um, this is huge and I hope I really am ready" look. Birthing moms get this too, but there is something even more unique about this look from partners.
They know that any minute now they could get "The Call." It could come at a great time, like at the end of a really easy day of work or, even better, it could be at 7am, before the coffee's even finished. Or it might come during rush hour and the common fear of missing the birth.
They know that once "The Call" has been received, they need to be sure to do all the things that were discussed, do them perfectly and anticipate all of mom's needs, though who knows what those might be now that this is "it," the "real thing." They know that they're not allowed to crack, no matter what, because they know that they're supposed to be the rock, the unshakable, completely solid one person Mom can truly count on no matter what else happens.
They know that they may have a very smooth, easy, repetitively quick birth, or, as is the case for many first time moms who let labor begin on its own and choose "physiological," unmedicated, normal vaginal births, it may take a day, maybe closer to two. And they don't get the hormones of labor helping them to get through the birth. I will never forget one of my favorite birth room memories of gently nudging Dad awake as Mom pushed. It had been a very long labor, even for a first time Mom and Dad had gotten little sleep in the past two days. He was one of the most devoted labor partners I've had the honor to work with, but he was just so tired! It can be a challenge, to say the least, and birth partners know they need to be ready for anything.
And they know the very hardest thing. The very hardest truth about birth. Sometimes, for some women (truly, some, not all, I've seen painless births), sometimes birth hurts. Sometimes it is pain beyond any reckoning. And for birth partners who love and care for this Birthing Mom, watching the faces she's making is like a knife twisting in ones' chest. I've had the privilege of attending the births of several friends, and I admit, my eyes welled up with tears and several of them, because, frankly, it sucks to see someone you love hurting. And I was just a friend. I do not envy the position of Partners to see their beloved endure this. But, and here's one thing I love about being a doula, there is a difference between this intense experience (call it pain or don't, intense works for me, personally) and suffering in agony. This is pain with a purpose -- it informs mom what to do, how to move, to get up and change positions, to get a snack (yes, surprise, surprise, eating in labor in most cases can be very helpful to keep Mom going! And yes, there is scientific research to back this up.), to take a little walk, to get a drink, to moan or sway or sing. And therein lies the rub. What I, as a doula, have come to see as one of the most difficult parts of being the partner/spouse of Birthing Mom.
I get paid to hold Mom's hand, rub her back, get leaned on, occasionally cursed at, far more often invoked to do something NOW or stop that same ting a second later NOW. I get paid to make suggestions, show options, remind Birthing Mom of her wishes and requests. I share this amazing, miraculous moment of birth, hang out a while, then I go home to my own life, my own family and check in a few days later. Partners and spouses, they have the distinction, the duty of doing all those same things, without pay, and with the added responsibility of living with Mom and Baby forever after (or something similar to that in most cases). Even if the Birth Partner is actually Baby's Grandma or Auntie, there is an expectation of a life-long bond. There is something akin to a two sided coin here. On the one side, if Partner/Spouse messes this up, there could be years of fall out, and there's a heck of a lot of pressure to get it right already without considering on-going repercussions On the other side, there is this unbelievable possibility of getting it all right and this transformative experience of birth becomes transformational for the relationship between the parents/partners.
This may be a little to “touchy-feely” for folks who opted to get epidurals or planned cesareans, or for folks of previous generations who were offered “twilight sleep,” scopolomine, a drug which erased the memory of the whole birth experience. However, just for a moment consider this. A new human being is entering into the world. A woman is being born into motherhood with this child, a man is born into fatherhood. This is major stuff. This is a big huge deal. This is not a medical procedure, this is the work of the divine, however you may perceive that. This event is happening all over the world as you read each of these words, but this is no common place event. This is the event, the moment Baby meets Parents, the moment so long awaited. This is the only time this child will be born, the only time this Mom will birth this child. All bets are off after this moment in time, but right as this Mom is giving birth, giving light, this is all that matters in this microcosm. So here is the coin of birthing. It is transformational, it could be nothing less. How it transforms, who is transformed, what the transformation impacts is as unique as any one given birth, any one given Mom or Dad or Baby or Birth Partner.
And this is why I encourage Moms and Birth Partners to take time to talk through what it is they want for their birth experience. So much of birth is beyond the control of the care provider, or the Mom, or especially the Dad/Partner. But sometimes it is the little things that make the difference. The kiss on the forehead that I saw one Dad give to a Mom going into the OR with a breech baby. Handing Mom the chapstick just when she needed it. All these little things can add up to a meaningful, deep, loving environment, calling Baby forth into a world that awaits with such joyful anticipation.
For me, personally, laboring with my first child was like stepping into sacred space. My partner was there for me helping me through every single contraction as I went into transition. As I was getting ready to throw up, there was the pan. When I needed a sip of “Laborade,” there was a cool bottle in my hand, straw poised before my lips. There was eye contact when I began to doubt myself. We breathed together when I was tense and that helped me to calm down. While it sounds so strange to so many in our society, of all the parts of my pregnancy and birth, labor was my very favorite with both of my children. Both of my birthing times were precious and amazing in their own ways (like my kids are now), but the difference with the first one is that my partner and I bonded in a way no single positive event has ever bonded me to anyone before or since. And thank goodness for that, because those postpartum days, the months of nighttime parenting, the difficulties we had later on with breastfeeding... all of those stressors were mitigated for me by thinking about how much having my partner truly there for me meant. And how my every need was anticipated, my doubts and fears allayed, my nervousness calmed... for me it was the best 36 hours of our relationship. It was participating in a moment of divinity's work. And through it all, we were doing that work together.
So, as that soon-to-be great Dad looked up at me with that look today, I told him to be solid, to be confident and tell her how great she was doing, no matter what. You can fall apart on your own time later, but be present with her. This is what I want to share with you, because I think it is better to wax poetic in a blog than in real life.
Birth Partners, Dads, Spouses, Partners... be that rock, be sure she knows you have her back. Don't worry about tomorrow or ten years from now or ten minutes from now, just be with her in the moment and let her know you believe in her (even if you're not sure about all the details). Let her know you love her (even though you know she's going to want to dress the baby in that horrible outfit and she sucks her teeth too much). Let her know that it is all going to be ok (even if you're not entirely convinced of it at any given time). Because if you have her back like this, you're building your relationship to be stronger and more solid than ever. Put yourself aside for these birthing hours and be selfless to her and Baby. This side of you can open new possibilities for all of you. This is your strength, your power. Stand in it and shine!
As my doula trainer, Therese Hak-Kuhn said, “No every woman having a baby wants 'a birth experience.' But, every woman having a baby will have an experience.” It is up to you, the Spouses/Partners/Dads/Birth Partners to encourage Mom to explore her options fully during pregnancy, to work with her to find her best birth, to support her in her decisions, and, most importantly, to work with her during Birthing Time to show her how much you love and care for her.
One more “secret,” get a doula. For a long time, I described my work as a doula as “providing educational, physical and emotional support to birthing mothers.” Now I am as likely to describe it as “providing educational, physical and emotional support to spouses and partners so they can shine in the birthing room and get mom what she needs.” Doulas are the paraprofessionals of the labor room. For first time parents, especially, I highly recommend at least meeting with a couple of doulas and talking the possibility over. It takes a lot of pressure off of Dad. I have a couple of fathers with whom I've worked who have said things like, “You call the doula and for the next thirty minutes you keep it together until she shows up. Then you excuse yourself to the bathroom, let it all out, pull it back together and breath again.” Far from standing between Mom and Dad, doulas often are the Dad's best friend. In those moments when Dad doesn't know what to do, a great doula will simply check out the situation and hand Dad the water bottle, or the chapstick or make rubbing motions out of Mom's sight line so Dad can step in and be truly helpful. Again, there's a lot of pressure on Dads today. They are expected to be in the birthing room, but it isn't like they've been raised practicing the role they are to have there. And while it would be great if we start raising our kids this way, it may be too late for the folks who are about to become Dads any day now.
So, just to summarize, the two biggest things: Be there and let her know you are there for her, and Get a doula. And, as always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I am always happy to talk with folks about these topics. And to that soon-to-be great Dad... I wish you, and Mom the best of all wishes for a smooth, joyous and beautiful birth.