Call the midwife ‘Dad’
Men are expected to be at the birth, but need antenatal care too
Daniel Oakes, who is a midwife, with his three sons who were all born at home – Arden (2), Oran (5) and Finnian (7) – and his wife, Heather, at home in Dundalk, Co Louth. Photograph: Alan Betson
Being at the birth of his first child was a life-changing experience in more ways than one for Daniel Oakes. His Californian wife, Heather, had opted to give birth at their home in Dundalk, Co Louth, in the care of an independent midwife.
With the midwife making antenatal visits to their home, he was more involved than fathers in the hospital system usually are. “My only experience of pregnancy and childbirth was seeing the midwife,” he says.
By the time the baby was born, they had built up a relationship with her.“I knew how I was supposed to act; the midwife was very calm and not saying much except ‘You’re doing really well’ and I kind of followed her lead.”
Due to his bond with his wife, he says, he knew instinctively what she wanted him to do.
Eye-openerHe was with Heather in the birthing pool in the kitchen and recalls how “the whole process was a big eye-opener for me. I don’t think you realise, until you’re there on the day, and there’s this little baby . . . ”
Witnessing the birth of Finnian in August 2006 had such a profound effect on Daniel that it sowed the seeds for a dramatic change of career.
When the former construction foreman was laid off two years later, he applied to study midwifery at Dundalk Institute of Technology and last year became the first male graduate of the four-year course.
As well as assisting hundreds of hospital births during his training, he has seen two more of his own children, Óran, who is now five, and two-year-old Arden, enter the world at home and with the same midwife.
Just a generation ago, Daniel would more likely have been in the pub than in that pool for his babies’ births, he says.
The pendulum has swung from fathers being kept out of the delivery room to being expected to be there, as one Co Donegal family’s experience illustrates.
Ann’s father was not at her birth, nor at those of her siblings, and he was appalled, she says, at the idea that she would “take a man away from his work” when the time came for her to have her own babies, but her husband was there for all four births.
However, she is expecting their fifth child this month, and she and her husband have agreed that if she goes into labour during the week when he is away at work – at least a four-hour drive away – he won’t try to get back for the birth.
He made it the last time, three years ago, only because the midwife wouldn’t break her waters until he was in the hospital grounds, she says, and she would rather not go through that again. Nor does she want to have to worry about him driving back in a hurry.
“I won’t know whether he is in the ditch or he has just lost coverage,” she says about the prospect of him being uncontactable for updates en route. “The chances are he is not going to make it, and I don’t see the point.”
Although she’s happy with their decision, other people are giving him a hard time, insisting he should at least try to be there.
“I don’t really mind what other people think,” says Ann, who asks for her real name not to be used to spare her husband further pressure. People who know him, she adds, should be a bit more understanding, “because he’s not an uncaring person”.
Up to the coupleIt is up to a couple whether or not a man should attend the birth, says Susanne Daly, parent education midwife at the Coombe Women and Infants’ University Hospital in Dublin. However, in her experience, “most people want their partners there and most partners want to be there”.
It is good to be at the birth, she says, but if a man says the prospect frightens him to death, not being there “is not necessarily a reason for divorce”.
The caricature of the man hanging around by his pregnant partner’s side not knowing what to do no longer applies, she says.
“I see men in their late 20s and 30s and they are incredibly natural about it. Their dad may not be a role model but they have confidence to seek support and they will ask questions.” To the men, she says: “The focus is not on you; you are the support team, but a good support team is really, really important.”