When Duncan was expecting his first child two years ago, he had heard several “horror” stories of what transpires in the labour ward. These stories were enough to make him craft an ‘exit’ strategy and avoid accompanying his wife during childbirth.
“I was told of how I will take lonely walks in the corridors of the hospital just wearing off floor tiles,” he recalls in amusement. “I was also told that I would hear screaming women in various stages of labour, cursing the one who made them pregnant. I was told of how my wife will grip my hand to the point of breaking it. I dreaded the moment.”
These, and many other short stories surrounding childbirth have made some prospective fathers shy away from the labour ward.
Duncan admits that though he finally overcame his fears and resolved to be there for his wife at her hour of need, it was not the easiest time for him.
“The waiting was the longest I have had in many years. My greatest fear was that my wife and baby may not come out. I was also alone, with no other family member except a doctor I knew well who checked on me periodically,” says Duncan.
Fortunately, for Duncan, all went as planned and mother and baby are doing well a couple of years later.
Another man who had accompanied his wife to the hospital during the same time as Duncan did not have an easy time either.
The couple had left their home for what the doctor had assured them would be a “straightforward” process. After his wife was wheeled into the delivery room, the man was told to wait in an adjacent room.
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However, he was later told to wait outside the ward as doctors worked on his wife. He could sense that something was not right. The ‘normal’ process had quickly turned into an emergency.
“I found him banging the door of the ward after he was refused entry. He was hoping for a normal delivery, but the wife had to undergo an emergency operation. The man was weeping uncontrollably. So here we were, two men not knowing how to comfort the other,” says Duncan.
David Muli recalls the psychological agony he went through as a first time dad after he accompanied his wife to the labour ward.
“I got there with a vow that I would stand by her side all through and accord her all the moral support. Then, that moment arrived. I started screaming like a baby as I watched all what my wife was going through. I even wondered why the doctor wasn’t doing anything about the pain. Finally, my mother-in-law as well as the doctor threw me out of the labour ward as I was becoming obsessively the problem,” confesses Muli.
“I did rounds on the corridor for almost an hour. I was so traumatized as I had no clue what was going on in that ward. I thought something would go terribly wrong and I was there crying to God to work His miracles,” he goes on.
According to a study by the National Library of Medicine – National Centre for Biotechnology Information - Fathers’ attendance at childbirth has changed over the past 40 years, with approximately 96 per cent of fathers in the developed world now being present during birth.
This change has coincided with an evolution in the perceived role of the father. According to the study titled The Paternal Experience of Fear of Childbirth, 21st century fathers are viewed of as being providers and protectors who take a proactive hands-on role with their children in addition to giving practical and emotional support to their partner It cites that prospective fathers are relied upon by their partners for support and assistance during pregnancy, childbirth and in the raising of their children.
According to the report, the incidence of paternal perinatal depression and anxiety is assessed to be approximately 5 to 10 per cent and 5 to 15 per cent, respectively. A pathological fear of childbirth (FOC) is estimated to effect approximately 13 per cent of fathers-to-be.
It is argued that after witnessing their partner go through that intense moment that brings with it fear related to the health and life of their wife and child, men never want their partners to ever get pregnant again.
And while pregnancy and delivery is a collective duty between a man and his partner, many men, especially in Africa view it as a woman’s thing. In rural Kenya, men hardly accompany their wives in seeking antenatal care and they are hardly present during delivery.
Childbirth, according to medical experts, is one of the periods when a woman is most vulnerable. It is also one of the moments when men, who are supposed to be protectors find themselves helpless.
A psychologist said the “maleness” factor means men must be strong, self-confident and not communicate their fears despite any adverse circumstances.
Their machismo attitude aside, first-time fathers such as those described on the outset still exhibit stress, anxieties, and to an extent, depression.
And despite the tonnes of research that has been done on childbirth, there is no respite for men who still approach the event with a measure of apprehension.
Volume 35 of the Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology says men are little-prepared for one of the most important events in their lives. It says that the role of men in the delivery room has never been straightforward despite their partners’ preference that they [men], be present.
“Bringing a baby into the world, however, is arguably one of the most life-changing events that a man will experience, yet little attention has been paid to the consequences, positive or negative, for men of the blanket expectation to be there at birth,” says the journal.
The publication went on to describe what could be at the root of many men’s aversion to being present during the delivery of their babies.
It said: “The thought of being present at birth for some men fills them with fear and anxiety. That fear can be triggered by many things – of the unknown, of the sight of blood, of seeing their partner in pain and feeling unable to act effectively.”
According to the journal, many fathers accompanying their partners to the delivery room may have expected to be treated as part of a “labouring couple” but become bystanders in a process they can do nothing about.
However, they soon find out that that they were relegated to a supporting role and despite their initial fire in their bellies to support their wives, “they found that labour was more work than they had anticipated”.
But should men though be scared of the “horrors” of the labour ward?
Dr Simon Kigondu, an obstetrician gynaecologist, says such fear in men is normal with several factors attached to it.
“It is normal for a human to fear something he cannot control,” he says. “It could be the trauma associated with childbirth. Actually, some of the stories such men may have heard including women screaming are true and part of the women’s mechanism of coping with pain. But without the pain, a child will not be born, at least the natural way.”
However, Kigondu says such fear in men could be so paralysing that some have vowed “not to have sex with their partners for fear that they might get pregnant and end up in the labour ward again”.
In addition, Kigondu says that even the women giving birth go through similar phases of fear but have no choice as they still have to deliver. “In the end, it comes down to how well the labour process is managed. There are pain relief medical procedures that can be used in the labour ward including epidural anesthesia.”
Locally, some hospitals have sessions where expecting couples are taken through the process of childbirth and what to expect in the labour ward or delivery room.
James Muriuki, a father of two says that were it not for the sessions, he too would have been consumed by the morbid fear that surrounds childbirth.
According to Muriuki, the sessions included going through the exercises that are needed to relax a woman’s muscles in anticipation of childbirth.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there as many new parents do not anticipate what will happen in the delivery room. There are so many stories that go around and some are shrouded in mystery. Even women who do not know how to push are fed many horror stories. The sessions helped us see that the pain is there for a reason. It actually helps push the baby,” says Muriuki.
Among the virtues of a good father extolled by modern parenting included being present at the labour ward during the birth of his children. However, it is obvious that man’s presence in these hallowed grounds has never been so straightforward.