I am an advocate for normal birth. I am an advocate for every woman being at the centre of her own birth. I am an advocate for healthy masculinity. Undeniably, masculinity has much healing to do. I believe in the gifts and strengths of men AND women. I believe that the expectant and new fatherhood space is one of the greatest untapped opportunities we have for positively transforming masculinity. I believe that this transformational opportunity can play an important role in facilitating and supporting advancements toward normal birth. – Darren Mattock, Becoming Dad
Last Friday, I made a presentation at the University of Western Sydney’s 2013 Mothering Conferencethemed ‘Opportunities, Advancements and Future Directions Toward Normal Birth’ on the topic of ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’. This blog post is an open share of the essence of my work – past, present and future – that I hope will inspire and provoke thought and discussion about what the opportunities, advancements and future directions are for dads in the birth space.
It has been my experience and observation that much of the discussion on ‘the dad factor’ around birth engages the issue in a typically masculine way: it’s mostly focused on what dads can and should ‘do’ at birth. This is helpful dialogue, information and education for dads, the women they are supporting, babies and birth professionals, but in my view, if we are going to make further advancements and shape positive future directions for dads in the context of normal birth, we need to be exploring opportunities and shaping future directions beyond this limited and ‘surface’ approach to involving men in maternity care.
In developing and delivering my presentation, I made the conscious decision to take more of a macro approach to engaging with the issue of ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’. My rationale being that understanding the context of the expectant and new fatherhood space and masculinity are vital. Also, when contemplating the issue, I could not separate ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’ and ‘How Can We Make A Difference For Dads?’.
If we are to tap into the opportunities that exist within the expectant fatherhood space to make advancements toward normal birth and create better outcomes for mums, dads and babies, a significant area of focus needs to be on the systemic constructs that exist around the birth space presently limiting father involvement in maternity care.
Understanding the Context of the Modern Expectant Fatherhood Space
In exploring ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’, my perspective is that we need to take a more holistic approach to examining masculinity and fatherhood to engage more fully with expectant dads. Understanding the context of the modern expectant fatherhood space is a sound place to start as it provides insights as to what a dad brings to the birth space.
Presently, due to a gross lack of father-focused and male-friendly engagement, education and support for expectant dads as they prepare for birth and fatherhood within both society and the mainstream ‘system’ within which birth happens, these contextual factors are typically overlooked and often ignored:
The Rite of Passage
The rite of passage of fatherhood has become chronically diluted in our culture and society. The birth experience is typically the only rite of passage experience a man will have, so it matters to men when they are invited to be present for the birth of their child.
Men being present at birth is still a relatively recent shift and phenomena in our modern culture. This means that most men of our current generation cannot draw from the experience or masculine wisdom or their father or other elders about their experience/s of birth because they simply weren’t there. This has created a generational gap.
Dads at Birth
In Australia, it is expected that around 90% of men are now present for the birth of their child. This is why this matters. However, policies and practices have not evolved to reflect the upward trend of father-involvement in maternity care. Therefore, there are profound gaps that exist that need to be filled if we are going to encourage and support dads to make a positive difference at birth.
Masculinity & Modern Fathering
We have come from a period when a ‘deficit perspective’ pervaded the masculine space. Masculinity was viewed as a destructive and negative force and men were seen as absent fathers and perpetrators of abuse. Masculinity is crying out for healing, and this calling is coming from the hearts of men who want to be better men, fathers and partners than those that came before them.
Modern masculinity is evolving in parallel with modern fatherhood. The ‘becoming dad’ journey is a rare gateway into the heart and soul of the man and one of the greatest untapped opportunities that we have to positively transform masculinity. Modern expectant dads are (typically) driven to be more involved and emotionally connected. We are also open to embracing our nurturing side and exploring how to do this in a masculine way. The birth space is a critical window for the evolution and maturity of masculinity that we need to reach further into to meet men there with encouragement and support using a strengths-based approach.
How Can Dads Make A Difference?
We now know from experience and research that dads can make a difference in every facet of the birth journey – positively or negatively, including:
- Pregnancy health and wellbeing
- Birth choices
- Labour duration and experience
- Birth outcomes
- Postpartum recovery
Rather than dedicating valuable presentation minutes to engage with the issue in the typical way by focusing on the ‘doing’ role of men at birth, I didn’t spend much time on this. (It’s also a blog post on its own, which I plan to write in the near future).
The key here is that dads do make a difference. We know this. The future direction toward normal birth is the capitalization of existing opportunities and advancements in engaging, educating and supporting dads to ensure that the difference is a positive one.
How Can We Make A Difference For Dads?
For dads to make a positive difference in the birth space, it is critical that we make a greater difference for dads in preparing them for the experience of being present with their partner at the birth of their child. We need to take a step back from simply prescribing ‘jobs’ for dads and giving him ‘tools’. These are vitally important elements of the education process for dads, but on their own, it is too little. The differences that we can make for dads are much bigger than this. They exist at a systemic level. Essentially, we are being called to transform the expectant fatherhood space by investing more time and resources for expectant fathers as they prepare for birth and the role of fatherhood.
Of equal significance is the fact that as men typically are under-engaged, under-educated and under-supported on their becoming dad journeys, anyone that comes into contact with an expectant dad to a play a role has an enormous influence on his experience. As we work towards creating ‘more’ for dads, the greatest difference that you can make for dads now is to give him what you can in the space and with the resources you have. Believe me, this can and will make a difference!
In the absence of opportunities for expectant dads in the public sphere, men are turning to the private sector where ‘social innovation’ has begun to fill the need. Birth professionals on the front-line outside of ‘the system’, such as childbirth educators and doulas, have learned from their experience that dads make a difference. In response to demand and also capitalizing on opportunity, they have begun seeding educational and support services that are father-inclusive and focused.
Here are some areas that I perceive as real opportunities that can facilitate advancements and shape positive evolutionary future directions toward normal birth:
We need to broaden birth-related and focused research studies to include dads, including their experiences, thoughts, feelings, health outcomes, psychological outcomes, and more. By doing so, we can learn more about the needs of men at birth and how to meet them for the benefit of women and babies, as well as the men themselves. Further, by increasing the pool of data about dads at birth, we can begin to draw correlations between this data and birth outcomes, therefore illuminating ‘how dads are making a difference’. Most of what we know is presently anecdotal and we need to expand this knowledge base if we are to make advancement and shape future directions in an informed way.
We can also explore opportunities to undertake purely father-focused research studies in the birth space, such as the one currently being undertaken by Pamela Harnden, PhD candidate, Southern Cross University (Australia), who is working on a study titled: Australian men’s evaluation of being with their partners during childbirth (results to be published in 2014).
One passionate belief that I share often is that is dads need more opportunities to be engaged, educated and supported in father-focused and male-friendly ways. It is my experience that childbirth education in the public healthcare system has not evolved to meet the needs of men preparing for birth. We need to explore opportunities to make advancements that reflect the importance of their role at birth and invest in broadening childbirth education and maternity services to adequately and effectively engage, educate and support expectant dads.
There is a lot to learn from the human services sector (at least in Australia) where a lot of work has been done developing models for ‘working with men’, namely The Father-Inclusive Practice Guide and Introduction to Working With Men and Family Relationships Guide. There is perhaps a need for professionals who work with expectant dads to receive some specialist training in the areas of working with men and engaging men in maternity care if we are to make a real difference.
Underlying these proposed changes that I am advocating for are some principles that we should consider embracing and adapting within our practices when working with expectant dads:
- Implementation of the Father-Inclusive Practice theory where opportunities present
- Review our educational programs and resources to create more opportunities for dads to be engaged, educated and supported in father-focused and male-friendly ways
An initiative that I would welcome is the development of a ‘Dads Pack’ for expectant fathers that contained a comprehensive range of dad-focused information and educational material that was focused on him as a man, father and partner.
This is an example of a policy from the UK that I am advocating be developed and implemented in the US and Australia. This a real opportunity and advancement that we should and could be taking toward normal birth by making a difference for dads. It would require a committed investment by policy makers and funding bodies to ensure that it exists as a ‘living document’ and flows through to practice and the dads it is intending to benefit.
I’ll now take the opportunity to redirect you for a moment to the words that open this post. This is the context and the lens through which my ideas, views, experiences and vision for ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’ is shared. I am just as passionate about making advancements toward normal birth as I am about involving fathers in maternity care. I simply see this an untapped opportunity and potential future direction that we can facilitate that will make a positive difference and create better outcomes for women, babies and men.
In my next blog post, I will share details of the two case studies that I included in this presentation that focused both on the questions ‘How Can Dads Make A Difference?’ and ‘How Can We Make A Difference For Dads?’ in the context of normal birth.