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This Father's Day, Remembering A Time When Dads Weren't Welcome In Delivery Rooms

Jun 18, 2017
Originally published on June 18, 2017 4:01 pm

At a childbirth class at Doula Love in Portland, Ore., a half-dozen pregnant women lean on yoga balls. Their partners are right behind them, learning how to apply pressure for a pelvic massage. Together, they go over the stages of labor, birthing positions, and breathing techniques.

Cole Cooney, who is expecting his second child, says he can't imagine missing the birth. Not just because he'd miss meeting his child, but because he'd miss the opportunity to help his wife.

"I'm certainly not a medical professional or anything like that," Cooney notes, "But I know my wife a lot better than any of the people at the hospital. And so being able to advocate for her is really important."

Dads in delivery rooms may be routine these days, but not that long ago, childbirth was an experience few American fathers were a part of. So how did we go from an age of men pacing smoke-filled waiting rooms to this modern era where they attend birthing classes and learn about pelvic massage?

Medical historian Judy Leavitt, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, traces the history of fathers and childbirth in her book "Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room."

"Traditional childbirth was really a female event," Leavitt explains. "The woman would call her friends and relatives together to help her, and they'd be all around the birthing bed. And there'd be the midwife." A male physician might come and go, she says, and fathers might be asked to boil water, but mostly it was a room full of women.

In the 20th century, childbirth moved from the home to the hospital. In 1938, half of American women gave birth in hospitals. Within twenty years, nearly all of them did. While there were advantages to medicalized births – having antibiotics and blood banks on site, for example – Leavitt says it was lonely. "The nurses are busy, going in and out, and the laboring women are laboring on their own. And they don't like it."

Meanwhile, some fathers weren't happy about being stuck in waiting rooms, nicknamed "stork clubs," especially when they were close enough to the labor and delivery wards to hear their wives cry out. Leavitt says doctors typically didn't want fathers present for the delivery any more than they'd want them around during an appendectomy.

But parents began to push back. The women's movement and the natural childbirth movement helped drive the campaign, Leavitt says. Women argued that they should have a say in who could be around during labor and delivery. Fewer drugs, especially at a time when sedatives were widely used in labor, meant women were more aware of who was in the room.

Getting fathers into delivery rooms didn't happen overnight, and progress across the country was uneven, Leavitt found. By and large, by the 1960s, fathers were regularly allowed in the room during labor. By the 70s and 80s, they were allowed to stay for the birth. Today, most do.

As Cole Cooney prepares for the arrival of his second child, he looks back in amazement at the hours he and his wife shared right after the birth of their first.

"We kind of have different memories of the experience, but ultimately the two memories kind of make it a whole," says Cooney. "It's just such a bonding experience, and it's such a special moment — bringing this human into the world."

Deena Prichep is a freelance print and radio journalist based in Portland, Ore.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this Father's Day, let's talk about that moment when men actually become fathers - when their children are born. It's a moment that can be terrifying and beautiful. But not that long ago, fathers weren't allowed in the birthing areas. Deena Prichep looks at the journey that men have made into the delivery room.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At a childbirth class in Portland, Ore., Doula Wendy Scharp has a half-dozen pregnant women lean onto yoga balls. And the soon-to-be fathers are right behind them learning their jobs.

WENDY SCHARP: We're finding the top of the pelvis. Then we're going to turn our hands. And we're going to push in and up. Could you do that for 60 seconds?

KHAATIM DE MARCO SMITH: Yeah. I got some time to get in the gym and like...

SCHARP: Yeah, sometimes. Yeah. So...

(LAUGHTER)

PRICHEP: Khaatim De Marco Smith and other prospective parents are learning about the stages of labor, birthing positions and breathing techniques. So how did we get to this moment when in, say, the 1950s, men would be pacing a smoke-filled waiting room instead of massaging their partner's sacrum?

Professor Judy Leavitt looked at the history of fathers in childbirth in her book, "Make Room For Daddy." She says to understand how fathers made it into the birthing room, you need to understand how birth itself has changed.

JUDY LEAVITT: Traditional childbirth was really a female event. The woman would call her friends and relatives together to help her. And they'd be all around the birthing bed. And there'd be the midwife.

PRICHEP: A male physician might come and go, and fathers might be asked to boil water, but mostly, this was a room full of women. But in the 20th century, childbirth, like a lot of medical care in this country, moved from the home to the hospital. And while there were some advantages, especially when antibiotics and blood banks came on the scene, Leavitt says it was also lonely.

LEAVITT: The nurses are very busy, and they're in and out. And the laboring women are laboring on their own, and they don't like it.

PRICHEP: And some fathers weren't too happy about being stuck in the waiting rooms.

LEAVITT: Sometimes the rooms were close enough to the labor or delivery room that they could actually hear women calling out, screaming.

PRICHEP: Leavitt says doctors didn't want fathers in the delivery room any more than they'd want them in the room during an appendectomy. But parents began to push back.

LEAVITT: The women were helped a lot by two social movements that were very important in this country. One is the women's movement.

PRICHEP: Which argued that women be able to choose for themselves who's around during labor and delivery.

LEAVITT: And the other is the natural childbirth movement.

PRICHEP: Which lessened the amount of drugs given to birthing women. And that, Leavitt says, in the pre-epidural days of sedatives and anesthetics, made women more aware of who was in the room at all. Parents race and income affected the pace of change and so did the size and location of the hospital. But on the whole, by the 1960s, fathers are regularly in the room during labor. And by the '70s and '80s, dads are there for the birth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Having fun finding my sacrum?

COLE COONEY: Yes.

PRICHEP: And now at classes like this one in Portland, it's a given that couples will enroll together. For many men, like Cole Cooney, it's hard to even imagine that it's ever been otherwise.

COONEY: I'm certainly not a medical professional or anything like that, but I know my wife lot better than any of the people at the hospital. And so being able to advocate for her is really important.

PRICHEP: And whether that means helping with medical decisions or just massaging through a contraction, the men in this room look like they're ready to be full childbirth partners and pretty soon, fathers. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'IMPERATRICE'S "VANILLE FRAISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.