When my first wife was 20 weeks pregnant with our first baby we went along for the scan – excited expectant parents like everyone else. Then we had that classic silent moment, where you know something is wrong. We went round to see my wife’s consultant and he explained that they thought they had found something wrong with the heart. He told us that there wasn’t anything we could do until the birth but they would run tests to investigate the extent of the problem. Throughout the remainder of the pregnancy, the hospitals looking after my wife and baby couldn’t do enough to make sure we were fully informed, answered every question we had. At 38 weeks they induced my wife, scheduled a theatre and had an ambulance on standby. When our son was born she had enough time to look at him before he was rushed off. I followed behind and got to the hospital with enough time to have some paperwork thrust at me to sign before he was taken into theatre. When they brought my son out of theatre and I got to see him properly for the first time I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: he was covered in tubes and wires. Despite how awful it all was, we felt prepared and were able to cope with it. I really have nothing but praise for the hospitals.
Three babies later and despite what we’ve been through, me with my son and losing our first daughter, Claire and I were happy expecting another daughter. She had an easy pregnancy and we had no reason to think anything would go wrong. As she got to the late 20s Claire had started to track her Braxton Hicks. She didn’t get them often but they were quite strong and regular when she did. She even had an overnight stay because of them. So at 31 weeks when Claire went off to B&Q with her dad and a notebook and pen to write her Braxton Hicks in, we didn’t really think much of it. After an hour I got a call saying to get myself ready and be waiting with her green notes.
Claire had had a scan that morning and had been having contractions during the scan which staff said were nothing to be concerned about, so we did not think they’d be too worried. They sent us around to the waiting room and gave her a sample pot. After Claire cried out during a contraction, one of the midwives came around and said “was that your pain?” and she got us straight into a delivery room. Even strapped onto the monitor, with a drip set up to stop the contractions and steroids already administered we didn’t think anything would come of it. We were laughing together, I’ve never been forgiven for coming back from the shop with a coat full of chocolate and drink and opening it as (Claire describes) like a dodgy watch salesman and asking if she wanted anything followed by “Oh you can’t can you? You’re nil-by-mouth!”
After an hour the doctor came back to examine Claire to see if anything had changed. He just calmly said “we need to get this baby out now” and suddenly the room was full of people. Claire had her nail varnish cleaned, her jewellery removed, her drip capped off, three consent forms explained to her which she had to sign and her clothes changed for theatre, all at the same time. Neither of us really knew what was going on and, as it was a crash and she was having a general anaesthetic, all I could do was sit outside with her mum. I saw our daughter in passing as she was wheeled past on her way to the neonatal unit. They took a long time to do the operation and Claire took a long time to come round but no one explained what was happening or why things had gone like they did. Really my son’s birth should have been the hardest of the two, but the lack of information in this one made it the hardest.
Claire went on to have another section under similar circumstances but slower and things felt better having already been there.
Then Claire got pregnant again and she decided as it would be her last she was going to get a Doula and she would try VBAC. The team that Claire was under were brilliant, they were very supportive and came up with a plan that we were all happy with. We met some lovely people along the way who agreed with our decision and Claire felt confident going into the birth. Sadly on the day we had a team who were determined she wasn’t going to get the birth she wanted. There was a lot of shouting, they forced her into stirrups which she knew was bad for her because she has pelvic issues. The midwife and doula tried to stop them but they were yelling at me to hold my wife still. It’s very difficult as a man when you see the woman you love in distress but being told by medical staff that you need to do something that is going to make her worse. I wish I had understood better before the birth why she kept saying “Mark, remember, stirrups bad” because for a long time it has been a source of guilt for me, even though Claire says it’s unnecessary. Our daughter was born APGAR 9, pink and screaming after 6 minutes of unaided pushing.
I know I could have done things differently to support Claire better and I think that would have helped how I felt afterwards, so here is my advice to expectant dads:
1. Take an interest, there’s a good chance she knows why she is saying what she’s wants.
2. Memorise her birth plan, get her to tell you what is non-negotiable, what you need to know about any health issues.
3. If you can, get a doula, as they’re an extra brain to remember these things and it’s their speciality anyway so it comes naturally to them. If you do get a doula, attend antenatal sessions with her too, you can work as an amazing team to support your partner if you do.
4. Don’t be scared to question the staff, if there genuinely is no time you will know it, but make sure they explain to you both afterwards. Don’t be scared to tell them no either, practice your best authoritative voice saying “She said no. She does not consent to that!” It is always the mother’s word that goes, even in birth and if she doesn’t want something done to her that’s her decision.
I learnt a little acronym that helps: TBRAINS
- Time/ Talk: do we have time/ can we talk?
- Benefits: why do you want to do this?
- Risks: what could happen if you do that?
- Alternatives: what else can you do?
- Instinct: what does my instinct tell me (or hers, she even has the say over you, sorry)?
- Nothing: what if we do nothing and just wait to see what happens?
- Smile! It’ll help keep you calm, the staff are more likely to listen to you and calmness is good for a birthing mother as adrenaline can complicate the labour.
I highly recommend antenatal classes too. Claire dragged me to one when she was expecting our youngest. I’ve had 6 babies before, what can I learn from an antenatal class? Actually I found it really useful.
The last thing to remember, debrief afterwards, especially if the birth was particularly difficult. Whether that’s down the pub with your mates, your Doula, or you make an appointment to see a Supervisor of Midwives (amazing people, if doc says no, ask the SoM!) Don’t try to hide it from your partner either, you are in it together not separately, you don’t have to be strong for her, you need to be with her.
Support group links
Birth Trauma Association – http://www.birthtraumaassociation.org.uk/weblinks.htm