Fathers' role at the birth and in early parenting needs to be supportedPublished 11 May 2004
Contrary to some people's opinions most men are keen to be involved in the birth and early parenting of their child and midwives can play an important role in supporting that, a PhD study at Southern Cross University (SCU) by Kay Burton has found.
Ms Burton, who has been a clinical midwife within hospitals for 35 years, carried out the research called 'The midwives' role in the father's lived experience of birth and early parenting', over five years through SCU's School of Nursing and Health Care Practices.
“My original idea was that a number of fathers would be very grateful for an opportunity to bow out of what was traditionally seen as women's business,” Ms Burton said.
“I quickly had that idea obliterated. Most fathers are very keen to be involved. If midwives can support them in that crucial early stage around the birth and early parenting then often they'll take off really well and become very involved.
“I think the father believes he's important, but if it's reinforced to him that he is not, by people's attitudes of ignoring him, or not encouraging him then he can become discouraged. His efforts with the new baby, which can be quite clumsy at first, need to be supported.”
Ms Burton came to the conclusion that both midwives and fathers needed to be involved, informed, supported and respected.
“Midwifery practice should ensure that fathers' needs are met, she said. It is also important that fathers have an understanding of the role of the midwife. When the needs of both the fathers and midwives are met, the needs of the mother and child will be well served.”
There had been a big change in society's and hospital staff's attitudes to fathers' involvement in the birth and early parenting since the late '60s-early '70s.
“My experience goes over that whole change, from when fathers were considered to be out of line if they wanted to be involved, to now where they’re judged as unusual and uninvolved if they don't want to be present at the birth and are reluctant to handle the new baby.
“I found there was a wide range of midwives' attitudes to fathers. Some to this day see their role with the woman and the child as being paramount, and that birth is primarily women's business, while others are totally inclusive of the father.”
Mothers could also sometimes be exclusive, perhaps because they were feeling insecure themselves, Ms Burton said.
She felt midwives had a brief window of opportunity where they could help support the family's new relationships, which she felt was especially important in these days of high divorce rates.
“The benefits are to the fathers themselves who derive enormous satisfaction as they gain confidence, and to the mothers since fathers can be a fabulous assistance to the women practically and emotionally. I feel it can also be of benefit to the parents' relationship and to the father-child bonding, although I didn't examine that.”
Ms Burton interviewed fathers at least six weeks after the birth over about a year, as well as midwives during that time. The fathers ranged in age from 24 to 50, with many being first-time fathers. They came from different walks of life, including one father having a PhD through to one being unemployed. The midwives ranged in age from 21 (student) to their late 50s. They were mostly from the Bendigo area in Victoria.
“There's a fair bit written about fathers and there's quite a lot written about midwifery, but not how one impacts on the other,” she said.
While some fathers felt fustrated at being ignored, others had a very positive experience with the midwives and were grateful for their caring attitude and skills.
“Occasionally quite a dramatic experience occurred, such as an emergency caesarean, and they remembered vividly when the midwives included them and gave them information and respected their anxiety and their fears,” Ms Burton said.
Ms Burton also talked to some home birth midwives about the men's experience. “It was a little different, because the home is their environment and the midwife is an invited guest, whereas in a hospital it's our environment. One father commented that he was offended that they had made the hospital room their place, but the midwives felt free to intrude.”