Feeling Her Pain

(Illustration by Peter Zierlein For The Washington Post)
By Ranit Mishori
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

"Terrified and slightly sick the whole time" is how Alison Schafer, a District journalism professor, remembers her husband, Matt Herrington, at the birth of their first son. "I hated having him there."

Herrington admits prenatal training courses and birth movies did not adequately prepare him for the real thing: the blood and sweat, the smells, the agony. "The pain and chaos was way beyond the movie."

But Herrington, a lawyer, toughed it out -- not just one time but twice more over the next three years. "God forbid something went wrong," he says. So he forced himself to "be there to be an advocate for Alison and the baby."

Witnessing firsthand the miracle of childbirth, perhaps even cutting their babies' umbilical cords, is supposed to be a privilege for dads. These days, being present is also the only politically correct choice -- a litmus test for commitment to both mother and child: "Nowadays, any self-respecting father has to be there -- blood, gore and all, standing there smiling," says obstetrician David Downing, who delivers babies at the Washington Hospital Center.

But what if all prospective dads just aren't up to it?

"Some men are freaking out," says Judith Leavitt, a professor of science and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who explored fathers' delivery room experiences in a 2003 journal article, "What Do Men Have to Do With It -- Fathers and Mid-Twentieth-Century Childbirth." "I think men are beginning to feel there's too much pressure," she says, "and they need help." Some hospital administrators evidently agree and have begun to offer prenatal classes more geared toward men.

Downing concurs that watching the childbirth experience can be traumatic for the uninitiated. "Just the nature of this situation -- seeing your partner half-naked and bleeding profusely," says Downing, "it's not a situation that many people are at ease with. . . ."

Two to three decades after men began entering the delivery room in large numbers, there is still relatively little research on their reactions. Among the few studies that have explored the subject was a small 1993 survey published in Maternal-Child Nursing Journal. The study found that 41 percent of the 44 dads questioned reported negative feelings about the labor experience, including helplessness, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty about what to do and difficulty with seeing their partners in pain.

Similar reactions showed up in a small qualitative study in 1997 in the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery. The 14 fathers interviewed "experienced many emotions, such as acute fear and anxiety when they could not alleviate their wife's pain," wrote the authors.

Not every man can tough it out as Herrington did. A Chevy Chase stay-at-home mother of three, who asked that her name be withheld to protect her family's privacy, recalls how her husband "fainted and ended up on a gurney next to me, with me reassuring him" during the birth of their first child. By the time their third child came along, he had opted out of the delivery room.

And that was for vaginal birth. As more women schedule their child's birth by Caesarean section -- 29 percent of U.S. newborns were delivered this way in 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- hospital staffs are routinely inviting men to attend full-blown surgery.

"Imagine if you were watching somebody stick a knife in your wife's belly," says Downing. For most men, he says, "that's a horrible thought; it is a horrible sight."

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