"Not all that long ago, dads weren't expected—or even welcome—to attend the births of their children," says Armin Brott, writer of six critically acclaimed books on fatherhood. "Today, though, any guy who isn't jumping up and down at the idea of being in the delivery room is generally considered an insensitive Neanderthal!"
While this may be the case, a recent British study suggested that fathers who attended childbirth were often more of a hindrance than a help. The original idea was that dads should be present so they could offer emotional and practical support to their wives. But in a survey of 1,000 mothers, almost half said that their men had been no help and had actually got in the way frequently.
The reason for this abysmal failing at delivery room etiquette is rife. Some dads—especially new ones—are not prepared for what they encounter in the delivery room. To see someone he loves dearly in extreme pain, sometimes for hours on end, can take its toll on a father-to-be.
Because of this, experts agree that dads should be educated on exactly what is expected of them in a delivery room so they can help to calm the mother, instead of aggravating her. And the majority of mothers say they want their partners there with them during the birth process—but only if those partners know what is expected of them.
According to Brott, also known as Positive Parenting's, Mr. Dad, it's nice that times have changed, but the problem is that too many people don't realize there's a difference between encouraging dads to be involved in their partners' pregnancies and pressuring them to do things they don't feel comfortable doing. "The bare truth is that not every man has the same level of interest in watching his children come into the world. In fact, for some guys, a hospital delivery room is the very last place they belong," he says.
"There are all sorts of reasons why an expectant dad might not want to stay in the delivery room the whole time," Brott explains. "Maybe he's the kind of guy who gets squeamish during routine medical procedures. Or he might have been scared stiff by the childbirth-prep videos in prenatal class and he's worried that he'll fall apart, making things even harder on his partner."
However, fatherhood as we know it is experiencing changes as more and more men are opting off the fast track at work to spend more time with their kids—and they're starting with the delivery room. Dr. Ron Klinger, a family psychologist and founder of the Center for Successful Fathering, says today's dads face much more pressure in the workplace, and that can conflict with their desires to be good fathers.
"Like it or not, a characteristic of our society is that men make more money than women. So there's pressure on men to spend more time at work, more time advancing their careers,'' he says. "The good news, though, is that men are already spending more time at home and less at work—and they're becoming highly involved dads—in every sense of the word."
"I insisted on being in the delivery room for the birth of all three of my sons, the first being in 1985," says Bill Millar, a work-from-home executive dad from New York. "Back then, I guess it felt just a bit like being a pioneer, although no one did anything to prevent my participation. What was rather noteworthy was that all of the nurses seemed to be making a fuss saying things like, 'Wow, it's really great to see a father who wants to be involved in this.' Fortunately I wasn't squeamish at all, possibly due to my avid participation in Lamaze classes. I pretty much knew what to expect," he says.
For fathers who are still hesitant about the delivery room experience, Brott has a final piece of advice: "If you're somewhat less than completely enthusiastic about being an active labor and delivery participant, don't beat yourself up too badly or allow yourself to feel like a failure. You're certainly not. Everything you're worried about—and any other reasons you might have for not wanting to be there—are absolutely normal. In fact, as many as half of all expectant fathers have at least some ambivalence about participating in the birth of their children. So hang in there—you're not alone."