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In A Feminist Birth, What Role Does A Male Partner Play?

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This past spring, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, witnessed the birth of his third daughter, Tiana Gia Johnson, and wrote a touching post on his Instagram account about the experience. “ I was raised and surrounded by strong, loving women all my life,” he wrote, “but after participating in baby Tia’s delivery, it’s hard to express the new level of love, respect and admiration I have for @laurenhashianofficial and all mamas and women out there.” Pictured doing skin-to-skin care with his baby daughter, he was embraced as the perfect feminist birth partner.

Johnson went on to say, “Word to the wise gentlemen, it’s critical to be by your lady’s head when she’s delivering, being as supportive as you can, holding hands, holding legs, whatever you can do. But, if you really want to understand the single most powerful and primal moment life will ever offer — watch your child being born. It’s a life changer and the respect and admiration you have for a woman, will forever be boundless.”

Birth can be daunting for anyone, but a lack of resources aimed at educating partners in the birthing process means this life-altering moment can be confusing. So how does a supportive partner assist in birth?

In The Final Weeks Before Birth

The American Pregnancy Association recommends routine perineal massage to create greater elasticity in the muscles of the perineum and to prevent perineal tearing during vaginal births. Giving perineal massage to their pregnant companions in the last two months of pregnancy is a way for partners to begin a hands-on involvement, say proponents of the practice.

Clara Thomas Nollkamper, who has delivered nine healthy children, four of them at home, tells Romper that her husband does perineal massage several months prior to the births of their children by incorporating it into foreplay.

It isn't always so clear what role a partner should take.

The involvement of Tierney Stephens’s husband, who gave her perineal massages in leadup to the birth of her children, and hypobirthing support and massage during, was crucial, says Stephens. “He is what I hope all women have at their sides while birthing their child.”

Over the years, it has become standard for men to participate in a birth class, and learn the back rubs, hip squeezes, and breath-coaching techniques that might help during childbirth. However, I knew traditional birthing classes weren’t the right fit for me as a millennial mama who is more apt to lean into traditions and techniques rooted in meditation, energy work, and birth altars.

So for me, a “Yoga for Birth” intensive workshop with my husband was the right fit, and despite my husband’s die-hard aversion to yoga he happily attended. My husband took his role as my birth partner very seriously and that set me at ease. It was our second birth, and we knew what we wanted and what we didn’t. But it isn't always so clear what role a partner should take.

In Early Labor

Blasting away the idea that men cannot handle birth, or don’t want to participate, Portland-based dad Chris Carter set up the birthing pool, laid out supplies, and got the room prepared early in labor. Later on, he applied counter-pressure to alleviate labor pains, and relished being actively involved in the birthing experience. “Emotionally I was very close, nurturing and protective. Being thoroughly engaged in the birth gave me a closeness to the process that I cherish,” he says.

And of course, he was there for the much-hyped moment of birth itself. “It was a tough experience and was very physically draining on me, but it got her through to the finish line," he recalls, adding that, "when the time came to catch I was right there!”

Many couples are aware that the prostaglandins in sperm can help ripen the cervix when a woman is full term, and men are participating in new ways to help induce or hasten the birth, whether that means making out with their partner during contractions to release feel-good hormones throughout her body, or stimulating her nipples to assist in increasing the intensity of her contractions.

Ina May Gaskin, the founder and director of the Farm Midwifery Center, located near Summertown, Tennessee, is an advocate of making out during labor as a form of both connection and to assist with labor pains.

“First, kissing or other intimate acts do help produce the love hormone oxytocin,” she told Daily Parent. “This helps strengthen uterine contractions and relax the body. Of course, being with one you love and feeling relaxed enough to be intimate helps the birthing mom feel safe in her environment. This is incredibly helpful in birth and pain control.”

Advocating During Labor

The stereotype of the fainting dad in the delivery room isn’t entirely fiction — birth is a major event and can be intimidating for birth partners — but for Alexa Baker-Sepulvida, a mother of six from Portland, Oregon, a medical condition, preeclampsia, forced her and her husband to get over their squeamishness around birth.

“I was feeling somewhat [...] intimidated by the fact that he'd be present, and there was a good part of me that, almost, as much as I love him, didn't want him to be present. I didn't want to be vulnerable with someone new in that way, since he had never been present for a vaginal birth before,” she tells Romper. But “when things unexpectedly turned medical, I couldn't imagine not having him there.”

Beyond physical assistance, birth workers say partners need to create an emotionally supportive space during labor. Fotolia

For Alisha Stamper, a mother of five, a woman’s empowerment in the birthing suite comes down to having feminist — and preferably female — care providers. “Women are gaslighted to the point that they praise their care providers for manipulating them. I truly believe that by and large, feminist birth must essentially have female care providers that will support the couple as they welcome their baby into the world.” A woman’s partner, therefore, needs to be an advocate during the birth process, she says, and gate keeper of that space.

“Respect the birth space and put down your phone,” she tells Romper. “It does not need to be a party with lots of attendees if she doesn’t want that. It is highly unlikely that your mom [the partner's mom] needs to be in that vulnerable space with your wife.”

Stamper’s husband was present at her home births, which were overseen by midwives, and she says the most important effect he had was to offer encouragement and support.

Eva Lucero/YouTube

And a partner’s involvement can be empowering not just for the laboring woman, but for the partner. An EMT, paramedic in training, and father of four children, David Sheard, assisted his wife during her labor and had the transformative experience of delivering his youngest child. Since the birth of his son, Sheard has used any opportunity he can find to tell his colleagues — and even his instructor — about the importance of being actively supportive during the labor and birthing experience.

His wife Cheryl Sheard has found herself enamored by her husband’s actions “I love that he has become such an advocate for new and expectant parents!” she tells Romper.

Catching The Moment — And The Baby

While we all know the hilarious trope of the husband holding the camcorder while his partner is birthing, now there are Facebook groups like BirthTUBE devoted to live-streaming your birth on social media.

Paige LoPinto, the founder of BirthTUBE, tells us that the goal is to support other women through shared experiences. “Each woman to stream her birth live gives us all an opportunity to learn,” she tells Romper. “On BirthTUBE, we come together to support, encourage, and uplift each other”

And yes, that means someone has to hold the camera.

Other partners are captured onscreen with the laboring mother. In a video entitled, "The amazing home water birth of Lucca" on YouTube, dad has his arms in the tub as mom delivers, and looks ecstatic as his son is brought to the surface.

It’s also important to understand the limitations of a birth companion — to know when to bring in additional support and to assist the birthing partner in getting the resources that she wants and needs.

Birth is an emotionally transformative experience for partners, who deserve to be prepared and empowered to participate, say advocates. Fotolia

Stamper says that a doula can be an excellent individual in providing some additional support in the birthing experience, “Get a doula. For real. Understanding that you have limits of knowledge and experience and giving your wife/partner the gift of a trained support person is major. So many women never get one because their husband doesn’t think it is worth the cost. It is worth the cost. “

After The Delivery

Adam Yasmin, a millennial dad of one, tells Romper of his role in supporting and witnessing the birth of his daughter at his home in Los Angeles. “I was essentially a doula to my partner along with other loved ones and professional doulas, midwife, and midwife’s assistant.”

When his child was born, Yasmin stayed with his partner, and let his godmother perform skin-to-skin with his daughter. His focus, he explains, was on his partner, and being there to witness and support the birth transported him. “Emotionally speaking, my participation in the birth was utterly earth-shattering. I felt like I was living in one world and then I had clearly entered another.”

Like many dads, he felt out of his depth going into the birth — but then again, so do many women.. “Looking back, the experience was so new and a complete dive into the unknown that the moments of fear were relatively few and very humbling.”

I remember once we had both mom and baby in bed I went to a different room in the house and completely broke down in tears, trying to begin to comprehend what had just happened.

The research supports this effect. A metastudy published in Midwifery found that skin-to-skin contact performed by the father with the baby had positive impacts on the baby's behavioral response, temperature and pain levels, and on the father's attachment. Recently, a dad made the news for chest-feeding while his partner was in the ICU following birth.

Yasmin found his role witnessing the experience of birth and taking an active supporting role to be somewhat sublime. Still, he notes that it comprised an emotional experience and level of vulnerability that men in our society are too rarely given room to explore. “I remember once we had both mom and baby in bed I went to a different room in the house and completely broke down in tears, trying to begin to comprehend what had just happened. There were also tears of joy and gratitude for the unbelievable women present in the house that were the foundation and support system," he says.

"I will carry the whole experience with me forever.”