Fathers and Childbirth

Presentation1In 1957, a BBC Panorama documentary on natural childbirth showed a five second clip of a woman giving birth, the first time a baby being born was televised in Britain. While newspapers at the time questioned whether the controversial scenes should have been shown, today thousands of viewers tune in as the entire labour process is captured on the award winning documentary One Born Every Minute. Indeed, there have been a number of changes to childbirth since the 1950s, including a move from home to hospital births, the natural childbirth movement and the increasing presence of men in the delivery room to welcome their child into the world. Estimates suggest that the number of men present at birth rose from around fifty percent in the late 1970s to over ninety percent in the 1990s.

Prior to 1970, only a minority of men would have attended the birth of their children as cultural expectations deemed it inappropriate and ‘umanly’. Thereafter, men began attending birth in increasing numbers, and although it was considered beneficial both as a support to their partners and as a way of strengthening the father-child bond, fathers-to-be were still required to ask for permission from a doctor or consultant in some hospitals. In contemporary Britain, the presence of fathers at childbirth is now considered the norm, if not essential; only one in 20 fathers are not present. Why did this transformation take place? Historian Laura King has recently investigated just this by exploring the ways in which British men have been involved in childbirth since the 1950s. The project ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord?’, examined both the causes and consequences of this shift for fathers, mothers and children. As part of my research into the representation and experience of fatherhood in Scotland, I will also be exploring men’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth since the 1970s and specifically what it meant to become a dad in modern Scotland.

Although fathers involvement is now deemed a normal and significant part of the birth experience, men’s presence in the delivery room is still able to cause considerable controversy. In 2009, obstetrician Michel Odent claimed that men would be well advised to stay away because not only is their presence unnecessary, it also hinders labour. Odent argues that male presence causes longer, more painful and more complicated labours for women and may cause ‘perfectly well-balanced men’ to develop mental disorders. Recent articles in The Telegraph have also debated ‘Is it OK for men to wait outside the delivery room?’ and ‘Why dads should keep their distance from the delivery room.’ In the latter, a self-declared ‘four-time veteran’ discusses why he is happy he will never to have to ‘suffer’ in there again, claiming that the majority of men who do attend are ‘wishing they could check the score in the World Cup’ and would be better placed ‘at home in bed…or playing golf or watching cricket.’ Another recent Telegraph piece titled ‘Keep Daddy out of the delivery room’ divided fathers into four categories:

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Source: ‘Keep Daddy out of the Delivery Room’ The Telegraph March 18, 2013

While ultimately the decision of who attends the birth will be determined by what is right for the individual family, these everyday discussions of men and childbirth still powerfully stereotype fathers as either useless or disinterested. Yet for many men, attending the birth of a child is a life changing and emotional occasion. Part of my research will explore men’s reactions to pregnancy and childbirth in Scotland from the 1970s to the 1990s, when this dramatic transformation took place. Whether they attended childbirth or not, what were men’s expectations and roles during labour? How were they viewed by hospital staff? What are their memories of seeing their child for the first time?