Today’s fathers are pretty much expected to attend the births of their children, so it would be a surprise if Prince William wasn’t at Kate’s bedside this week. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether he should be there or not.
William’s presence wouldn’t exactly be traditional. His grandfather didn’t attend his father’s exemplarily ‘modern’ birth in 1948, for example (he was playing squash at Buckingham Palace). But, for better or worse, Prince Charles’ birth wasn’t that ‘traditional’ itself.
For millennia, babies were born at home with female family members and midwives in charge, but with fathers around, too.
Sometimes they actively supported their wives, like my grandfather who helped deliver my mother and her siblings in a Missouri farmhouse. Sometimes their jobs were more peripheral – to keep fires burning, tend other children, fetch food. Sometimes they actively prayed for the safe delivery of the new member of the tribe. But in every case they were invited, and expected, to be close by. And aristocrats were the most likely of all to be right there at the birth – being the most vested in ensuring their succession.
Then childbirth moved to the hospital, under the care and control of doctors and nurses, and men and women of all classes were relieved of many of their responsibilities. Women were drugged numb or unconscious and babies were delivered more often with the help of forceps than their own strength. Men were told to go to the pub (or the squash court) and not get in the way. Both the mother and father often had to wait to admire their new babe for hours after they were born. The child would be cleaned up, fed and handed over as a neat package to take home… easy, right?
Even if the intentions behind this were good, it disempowered both partners, taking over the “messy and hard” parts for them, when in reality the journey of a birth creates the sense of accomplishment that readies new parents to take on the challenge of raising a young human being.
In the 1960’s and 70’s couples began to push back. Childbirth classes taught women how they could stay awake and take an active role in their births, with or without medication. Men began to ask – and even fight – to stay in hospital rooms with their wives, sometimes literally handcuffing themselves to the bed so they couldn’t be evicted.
Today, we expect men to not just be present but in most cases to be the sole support, the “birth coach”. And having a partner who knows you better than anyone else in the room can be immensely reassuring and comforting to a woman… until it’s not. Too often, unfortunately, men are expected to “coach” a high stakes game they’ve never even practiced for.
My friend remembers her husband in exasperation and exhaustion telling her, “You have to get an epidural because I don’t know how to help you!” The BBC, meanwhile, reports that 1 in 3 men feel left out of pregnancy and sidelined at the birth of their child. Celebrities like chef Gordan Ramsey have argued the case for not even attending the birth of their kids. Just last month, Kanye West publicly announced that he wasn’t planning to support his pregnant girlfriend Kim Kardashian in labor.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.
To go back to the question: should William, Kanye, or any man, be present at the birth of their child? Well, they certainly shouldn’t be forced to. But can they make a massive, positive difference? In almost all cases the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’
But they need to be prepared; to get some books and read them; to take a class and take it seriously; to be familiar with what can help a laboring woman feel better. They need to be ready for a long, challenging marathon, even amid all the relief modern medicine can provide, and to give emotional support and reassurance that whole time.
Sure, William and Kate should consider also having a woman there to help, as mothers have for most of human history: a trusted friend, a sister, or doula.
She’s not a replacement, though. She’s another member of a team with a twofold aim: to bring a healthy new child into the world AND to help cement the relationship that will be raising the child for the rest of his or her life.
So if William’s having any last minute doubts this week, here’s my advice: Know yourself, do your homework, and then do whatever you can to support the woman you love in this moment you both will remember for the rest of your lives. Take it seriously, be prepared and you’ll do amazing job!