Dads have Birth Stories, too—and some of them are pretty rough. Maureen Campion unpacks the birth trauma no one else is talking about.
These days most babies are born with daddy in the room. Whether husband or boyfriend or that guy that knocked mom up and will be her partner in parenting only—he is expected to share in the birth experience. Many times, dad is the person in the birth room least prepared for the mess that can happen.
From the 70s, dad has moved from the waiting room to the delivery room. First men were allowed in the room, now they are pressured to be there. Partners are expected to be the coach, the support person, and when things get complicated, an advocate for their partner’s health care choices.
In a simple birth, perhaps you feed her ice chips, rub her back, time contractions and cheer her on until that amazing moment you get to step in, catch the baby and cut the cord. Witnessing your child’s birth is an amazing experience and powerful for bonding. Sometimes birth gets tough and goes in a direction no one is prepared for.
Testing the relationship
Birth tests relationships. When building partnership, you deepen the trust and connection by leaning on each other, being there for each other. We biologically bond to our partners, we find their presence comforting and fear losing them. Nobody makes us as crazy as the people we love. Because of this, most fights that couples have are around not feeling safe, not being certain that their partner has their back. When we feel connected and safe, we cut each other a lot of slack. Without that security, every little thing becomes a trigger.
Women go into birth extraordinarily vulnerable. Just like primitive cave people, women need their partners and their tribe most from late into the pregnancy through the nursing years. A mother cannot fend for herself or go hunting or travel alone. She must be protected and for the sake of our species, the tribe has continued by protecting its most vulnerable members. This vulnerability can be emotionally uncomfortable. Our culture values independence and strength. It sees connection as needy.
In our primitive primal community, women are vulnerable and need connection for safety. To some extent, fear of abandonment is biologically programmed for survival. In this same tribe, men are protectors, our hunters, our warriors. Men were vulnerable when they showed any sign of weakness. His value was set by his ability to protect and defend and if he showed weakness, it put his partner and their children at risk. A weak man in the tribe might be turned out, his family taken by a stronger warrior. This leads modern men stuck with some caveman feelings that don’t fit our modern reality. Biology programs them to resist criticism, to show no weakness, to never ask for directions, apologize or admit mistakes. (Ok, maybe men aren’t programmed not to ask for directions but maybe there’s a connection.) Many men experience criticism as a threat to their attachment. They want to feel safe to be loved without risk, we want to be safe to be loved without loss. I find it helpful to consider how we can carry these cave people reactions, these impossible expectations with us into modern, complicated relationships.
It is risky to bring primitive instincts into the delivery room. This may be the most vulnerable a woman has ever felt as an adult. Even if their relationship is long and secure, they have lived without deeply relying on each other in such an intense way. On the other hand, birth is a place where men often feel under prepared, incompetent. They are asked to be emotionally responsive and available. They are asked to defend and protect in an arena where they have little power.
Traumatized by birth
Approximately 15% of women, nearly 200,00 American mothers a year report feeling traumatized by birth. Apparently, no one has even asked fathers. As women begin to explore the world of birth trauma, it is important to acknowledge that fathers have birth stories too. The day that you witness the birth of your own child, the day you watch the woman you love go through a life changing event, the day that your partnership is stretched and tested and strengthened is a distinct, personal, beautiful and sometimes traumatic story.
You may experience birth trauma:
-if you become emotionally overwhelmed talking about the baby’s birth or avoid looking at pictures or discussion of the birth
-if you continue to feel that something bad is going to happen to your partner or the baby
-if there are things about the day that you haven’t told your partner
-if you dismiss your own feelings about the birth and have to keep telling yourself that you’re fine, that as long as everyone is ok, you are fine
-if you have a hard time listening to your partner’s experience
-if you obsess about the details of your birth and find it intruding on your thoughts a traumatic birth
What trauma leaves us with
Psychological trauma is damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. Trauma is a wound to your spirit, to your emotions, to your sense of yourself. You can tell it is trauma when, over time the story continues to feel unfinished. A traumatic memory feels alive, raw or stuck. When there is trauma, you can’t just shake it off or get over it. You can manage the pain, ignore the pain, face the pain but you can’t just make it go away.
What we know about psychological trauma comes from ERs and war zones, too. The part you can’t see and that doesn’t always heal on it’s own.Working through a traumatic birth story begins with simply being willing to tell your own story.
You have a story—a very personal, unique story of the amazing day your child was born. Find a way to tell that story. Journal or write a letter. Be brave and bring it up with your partner. Tell someone you trust. Tell it again and again until it starts to feel whole. Consider asking other dads how the birth was for them.
Consider how much more we have to learn about fatherhood and birth because no one even considered asking men- “So how was the birth?”