(Photo: Courtesy Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)
I can’t remember whether it was the second visit to the midwife or the first session with the doula when I began to feel a visceral empathy for Hillary Clinton circa 1992. At some point during my wife’s (even now I hesitate to say ‘our’) pregnancy, it dawned on me that “this must be what a political spouse feels like” sitting on a dais, or in my case a chair, almost always positioned somewhat askew from the interaction between my wife and a prenatal caregiver. There I would sit, smiling and laughing and gesturing supportively in all the correct places, feeling highly scrutinized yet invisible, and realizing my only chance of becoming a full participant in the conversation would be by asserting myself in a way that might come across as overstepping, pushy, or even militant.
Don’t get me wrong, the highly skilled and compassionate professionals who helped us along the path to parenthood were always happy to engage me on a serious level. But I always felt as if an unspoken burden of proof lay with me to demonstrate my co-parenting competence to a phalanx of doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, and even staff charged with tasks like managing birth certificate production and social security number applications.
Guidebooks devoted exclusively to fatherhood mostly were packaged under the premise that men require the crutch of sports language and metaphors to understand the miracle of life.
Whether this perception was accurate or not, I often suspected that folks were slowing down their cadence a beat to placate dear old dad. This was especially true when it came to serious conversations about interventions during labor. At one point maybe six centimeters and 75 (yes, that’s a correct figure) hours into my wife’s arduous labor, I wondered if I wouldn’t make everyone more comfortable by stepping away from the action and starting up a rhythmic and plaintive chant of “Hodor!” Instead, I redoubled my efforts to calmly-but-insistently deploy the “BRANDS” checklist of pre-intervention questions I learned from our doula. Benefits? Risks? Alternatives? Necessary? Delay? This tack may or may not have had any affect on our birth process, but my wife later told me it made her feel safe and supported during a time when all her energy was channeled toward keeping herself and our baby calm and focused.
On paper and in person, I profile suspiciously close to “the man,” so it’s been my great fortune to have avoided any direct or even covert sexist/racist/homophobic treatment. So I found it ironic that as I navigated the natal industrial complex, I discovered myself an outsider in a woman’s woman’s woman’s world.
In attempting to support my wife as a fully-engaged “birth partner” during the arrival of our first child, a healthy baby girl I might add, I ended up experiencing the subtle-but-sinister sting of residual gender role prejudice.
So I became determined to “flip the script,” or even “infiltrate from the inside,” like any bright and determined member of a marginalized group might. (Bear with me, I‘m pushing this metaphor much farther than it really should go.) I devoured high, low, and middle brow pregnancy and birthing books. I followed along with arched eyebrows through What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I marveled and even wept through the stories in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth and I benefitted enormously from the most helpful book (to fathers) of the lot: uber doula Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner.
Meanwhile the guidebooks devoted exclusively to fatherhood mostly were packaged under the premise that men require the crutch of sports language and metaphors to understand the miracle of life, or that we must have such awkward and mysterious information ladled out to us with liberal heapings of jocular hunting and camping imagery.
I never encountered a “Child birthing and infant care is hard” Ken Doll, but I could see his amiable smile from where I was sitting in the birthing suite. If 1992 Hillary reminded us that she was interested in neither staying home and baking cookies nor passively standing by her man like “some little woman,” then 2014 Brian was equally determined to avoid the equivalent fate of a disengaged-but-breadwinning father-to-be, walking on taciturn eggshells around wife-and-mother-in-law, keeping his distance, and finally passing out cigars to the boys after news of the birth arrived over the tavern rotary dial.
Of course, Hillary’s submissive little woman was a deliberately constructed straw woman … as is my straw man in the grey flannel suit. Both archetypes are long gone as dominant cultural norms, and yet images like these maintain a residual-if-waning unconscious influence.
Neither did I want to be the dad passively fretting in the waiting room thanks to a fear of blood or a draconian hospital policy banning or discouraging fathers’ presence in the birthing room. (Yes, this was a real practice only a generation ago, and a widely accepted protocol before the rights movements era.) Listen to Dr. Kyle Pruitt, a founding father of fatherhood studies:
I got into this field by watching men bring their children in for [doctors] visits in the early 1980s and late 1970s, when so many women were going back to work and men were picking up some of the childcare whether they wanted to or not. Some pediatricians and nurses wouldn’t talk to the father. They’d ask for the mother’s number. This invisible parent syndrome was the reason why I got interested in fatherhood, as well as my personal experience as a father. I had to get written permission from the head of OBGYN to be present at the birth of my first child, who is now 41, at the very hospital where I had been delivering babies six months before. That was a jaw dropper for me.
The reigning cliched birth father champion is still the well-meaning-but-comically-out-of-synchrony lamaze buffoon. Quick, associate these two words: “birth” … “husband” … what do you picture? I rest my case.
And finally, we have the “partner-as-punching bag” narrative, which, easily, 40% of our friends warned us with some snickering variation of “she’ll be cursing your name and kicking your shins come delivery time.” (For the record, my laboring wife didn’t utter so much as a ‘gosh darn’ toward me, and this after I’d mentally prepared myself for a perfect storm of devastating invective and savage clawing.)
Broad caricatures and personal anecdotes aside, here is some quantifiable evidence of the subtle undermining I felt: As recently as 2005, a meta analysis of 514 child development academic studies discovered nearly half of these papers completely excluded fathers from consideration even as control factors.
To sum up, becoming a father has not only gifted me with a luminous baby girl, but with the sense of having walked a mere tenth of a mile in shoes that handicapped my grandmothers, caused my mother great pain, afflicts my wife with manageable-but-ongoing discomfort, and that ideally my daughter will be able to wear lightly or not at all.
And if I have any advice to expectant fathers, it’s “stand by your woman and child, but don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself as a co-parent.”
Your new family member will be watching closely.