Dads in scrubs: now assisting in a delivery room near you!

Today’s guest post is from Judith Walzer Leavitt, author of the recently released Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room. In her book, Leavitt follows the history of how expectant fathers, over the course of the twentieth century, gradually shifted from twiddling their thumbs in the waiting room to coaching breathing exercises in the birthing room. In this post she introduces us to fathers whose own lives are enriched by their active presence as their children enter the world. –ellen

As Father’s Day approaches, it is good to think about one very significant part of fatherhood that has changed a lot in the last 75 years, and that is men’s role in childbirth. One of my lectures about the history of birth is titled, “What do men have to do with it?” Although some recent films that feature the “bromance” of male buddies contain the story line of men running away from the responsibility of family and fatherhood, I have found in my research that many men have persistently committed themselves to take part in the drama and details of childbirth by their presence and in support of the mother of their children. They did this in the name of making a place for themselves not only in hospital rooms and spaces during childbirth, but as a way to get more involved in the lives of their children.

My book Make Room for Daddy tells the story of men’s journey from their ostracism from women’s world of labor and delivery during the 1940s and 1950s when they sat in distant waiting rooms, into the labor rooms in the 1960s, and by the 1970s and 1980s into delivery and birthing rooms in full participation. Theirs is a story of legal struggle, cultural transformation in popular media, TV, film, and books, and gender relations. From “I Love Lucy” to Thank you Dr Lamaze, men and women together redefined “what men had to do with it.”

Men had a lot of help in making their journey. First of all, their partners, who in the middle of the 20th century found themselves alone in labor, wanted them there. Second, the natural childbirth movement, most significantly the relaxation methods of Grantly Dick-Read and the breathing techniques of Fernand Lamaze, gave many men the job of coaching their wives through labor contractions. Also, the women’s movement’s concern with women’s right to choose their labor method and attendees supported the men’s presence. But the men wanted to be part of childbirth for their own reasons as well and were active and vocal in pursing their interests. While there was significant push-back from physicians who worried about the presence of laymen, the movement of the men did not in fact challenge medical authority. Rather, both men’s role as head of the household and physicians’ role as medical authorities were enhanced when the pro-science, pro-medicine laymen entered hospital spaces from which they had previously been excluded.

The stories men tell of their birth experiences have a poignancy and urgency that are worth repeating and remembering on Father’s Day. Donald Sutherland insisted that “childbirth is not for mothers only” as he joyously related his story. Another man wrote, “It is difficult to recapture in words the thrill, elation, awe, mystery, and sense of the miraculous I felt all in one wave of emotion when I saw my daughter actually born.” Another man put it this way: “While the doctor was holding our baby, the cord still attached to my wife, I felt tears rolling down my face. . . . I felt closer to my wife than ever before. The birth of this child has touched me as nothing before ever has.”

Just like new mothers, new fathers gain a new and valued human connection from participating in childbirth. Their roles continue to evolve; their presence matters.

Judith Walzer Leavitt
University of Wisconsin-Madison