Dads Matter: The Many Ways for Husbands to Be a Part of Pregnancy and Birth
One of my favorite ways to be a support in the birth room is by helping the father to have an involved role in the birth of his baby. I think it's really important that the members of the birth team, whether it be doctor, midwife, doula, nurse, or other support, never interfere in the healthy relationship between man and wife as they meet that wrinkly-faced embodiment of their love. To the extent that the mother is comfortable, of course, it's an amazing thing to witness a man claim his fatherhood and honor the work of his wife in an intentional and hands-on way. What a powerful witness to the sacrament of marriage it can be to have a husband involved in birth.
In fact, Pope St. John Paul said this when talking about the birth of a child:
"In this mutual influence which will be revealed to the outside world following the birth of the child, the father does not have a direct part to play. But he should be responsibly committed to providing attention and support throughout the pregnancy and, if possible, at the moment of birth."
That's my guy. The reality is, though, that many men have no idea what that means in a practical sense. That's one of the reasons I have a whole chapter on fathers and birth in my book. For many in this culture of ours, their experience of pregnancy, birth, and even being around a baby begins when their own wife becomes pregnant for the first time! Now, of course, every man is different and personalities and temperaments differ and relationships between husbands and wives differ. So there is not one-size-fits-all when talking about how a husband should support his wife and baby during birth. Every relationship is different and that will, of course be reflected in their birth as well. But as much as is possible, given a healthy marriage,* we can encourage fathers to be involved in birth in some way that best fits their unique temperament and marriage and which will then strengthen not only his relationship with his child but his marriage as well.
So what are some of the ways that a husband can provide his wife with that "attention and support" before and during birth?
The prayers of a husband over his wife and unborn baby are especially powerful. As that child grows in his wife's womb, he can develop a relationship with that baby and bless his wife and baby with holy water every day. He can pray over her in his own words or with pre-written prayers. He can initiate novenas, a daily prayer for the health and birth of the baby, the Rosary, or any number of ways to draw from God's grace for his wife and baby during pregnancy. If a priest or deacon is not available, he can even perform the official rite of blessing of a mother before birth and/or the blessing of a child in the womb for his wife and baby!
One very powerful way he can spiritually support his wife is through some sort of fasting. How powerful it is when a husband makes the choice to enter into the trial that pregnancy and birth can be for his wife and unite with her spiritually through his own self-denial. Perhaps in some mystical sense, he can even take on some of that pain and suffering for himself.
During the birth itself there are also a myriad of ways he can pray with and over his wife and baby. Whether it's through spontaneous prayer during the birth, praying words of Scripture over her, a memorized prayer like the Rosary or a Divine Mercy Chaplet, perhaps through a litany of saints, or his own words of prayer whispered in the quiet of his heart, those prayers of a husband have authority and strength like no other.
2. Physical support
During pregnancy and birth a husband's physical support can be a huge help to his wife and baby. In pregnancy, he can take over chores that she can no longer do, help with nesting, offer himself in the form of massages, foot rubs, and making healthy (or not so healthy ;) meals, or send her to nap while he takes over with older kids. When it comes to birth, his physical strength can be a huge help to a mom in labor. Whether it's through providing counter pressure on her back or doing strong hip squeezes or taking her weight and holding her while she sways through a contraction. Husbands are especially helpful for those because they often have more physical strength than the doula or midwife. Maybe his physical support is just through simple head rubs or a massage during labor or before a cesarean. For some men that want to be very involved, sometimes their physical support means that they're the ones catching the baby or cutting the cord. In whatever way is best for his wife, he can offer his very body during labor to support his wife and baby.
3. The "Behind the Scenes" Guy
Very often fathers are really good at "behind the scenes" labor and birth support. They're the designated "tub guy" or making sure the tank is full, or are or doing last minute tasks like arranging childcare or taking care of getting bags into the car. For many women, those things are just as important to their being able to feel safe and supported during birth as others! With my third birth, I had a ridiculously detailed handwritten "labor list" for my husband once I went into labor. Listed in chronological order were all the things I was hoping he would take care of behind the scenes...things like setting up a sound machine outside the older kids' door, wiping counters, filling up the tub, making orange juice for during and after labor. They sound trivial now but knowing that those little things were being taken care of meant that I didn't have to worry about it and that made me feel safer and able to enter into the work of labor without distraction. Plus, it empowered him to know what he could do to take care of me.
4. Comfort Measures
A husband is usually the one in the birth room who knows his wife best. He can talk with her beforehand about her how she thinks she will be most supported and comforted during the birth, no matter what kind of birth it is. He knows that she'll be more comfortable if the lights are off or if it's quieter or if certain music is playing. He knows that she'll want her favorite warm socks or that certain smells will irritate her or that he's going to have to keep the nurse's chatting to a minimum. He knows that she *hates* having her feet touched but loves having her hair brushed. As mentioned before, he can be doing hip squeezes or letting her hang from him and sway during surges. He can be the one bringing her a glass of juice for energy, drawing the bath, fixing the delicious meal afterward, helping her in the shower. While obviously preferences and wishes can change during labor and birth, a husband can avail himself and seek to serve his wife and baby in ways little or big as that baby is born.
5. Encouragement and Empowerment
Another very powerful way that husbands can very practically help in the birth room is through verbal encouragement and a confident presence. If he believes she can do this very hard thing, than she is much more able to believe it herself, especially when things get very difficult, the fears rise, and the doubt is strong. He can be a powerful strength for her to draw from, voicing how beautiful she is, how strong she is, and what a great job she is doing. Not only is this powerful for her but it is important for him to be remembering these truths and recognizing how amazing his wife truly is. When his wife reaches that point in labor that almost every woman experiences of "I can't do this anymore" he can be the one encouraging her and speaking truth to her heart that he believes in her strength and that "yes, you can."
6. Advocating for His Wife and Baby
A father's voice is especially poignant when it comes to advocating for birth plan choices and care for their baby. His natural role as husband and father is to protect his wife and baby especially when they are most vulnerable. A woman in labor or during a cesarean should never have to worry about fighting for her rights or advocating for her desires for birth to be respected. The husband can and should protect his wife and baby by knowing their plans for the birth, advocating for her and the baby, and making sure their wishes are respected. If a nurse isn't working well with mom or a doctor not respecting something that was previously agreed upon, he can be the one to approach the nurse's station and request a new nurse or be assertive with the provider. In fact, while a doula can help remind them of what their plans were and empower them to know their rights and talk through decisions, she can not speak for them to the staff. But a father can and (sometimes as wrong as this is) his voice and authority is often more respected by staff than even the mother's.
7. Learning About Birth and Making Choices
Of course, in order to advocate for his wife and baby and the birth that they want, he has to be informed and learn about birth and all the choices out there. A husband can and should attend any birth classes with the wife so they're receiving the same information and can process it together. He can attend appointments as he is able to have a share in the growth and health of his baby and learn more about what his wife is experiencing and concerns she has. He can read books and learn about birth itself as well as ways in which he can support his wife during her unique pregnancy and birth. He can inform himself of the many many choices when it comes to birth and their baby, the risks and benefits of different choices, and talk through them with his wife so that they can come up with a birth plan together. At the very least, even if he is not super into birth classes and books and understanding all the whys, he can know what her plan is and ensure that it is followed as best as possible.
As mentioned, all of these ways should be tempered to the unique personality of both husband and wife. A woman in labor may not want her husband even close to touching her but may want him actively involved in prayer. Another may not care at all whether he's involved in making choices as long as he's the one holding her all through labor and doesn't dare leave her side. And he should, of course, respect whatever way works best for his wife and baby. He should view himself as the servant of both, her support and rock, available and willing to serve in whatever way she needs as she does the work of bringing their baby into the world.
*Of course, if a relationship is unhealthy, in turmoil, or for some reason the husband cannot or should not be present for the birth, that must be respected. If a husband cannot be there because of awful circumstances such as death or deployment, the Body of Christ can and should step up and help in whatever way makes sense for that situation to alleviate *some* of that burden on the mother.