Tolstoy: Great writer, useless birthing partner

Here is a quiz which gets to the heart of what it means to be human: when witnessing a fellow human being in intense physical pain, do you:

  1. try to support them, even if you can’t take the pain away?
  2. try to support them, and to inject them with hard drugs, if available?
  3. shrug, say “there’s not much I can do”, and leave, on the basis that frankly, this whole “pain” thing is making you uncomfortable and might make you look at the victim in a different way should you want to shag them later?
  4. go for Option 3, but also call the victim’s mum, just to show you’re not a complete bastard?

So, which did you pick? As you might have guessed, this is actually a stupid quiz. There isn’t a “right” answer. They’re all context-specific.

For instance, if you were an army corporal and your best buddy had had his arm blown off, you’d probably be there for him, at least until the enemies were too close at hand. If, on the other hand, you were an army corporal but your wife was in labour, you’d be justified in running a mile, even with no enemies at the gate. It’s all just a bit … uncomfortable.

Today’s Daily Mail  includes a piece arguing that for many couples, having the partner (or “husband”, as they so quaintly insist) present at the birth of a new baby is a Bad Idea. To put this point across, they don’t just use the examples of various couples who tried it once and didn’t like it. Oh, no, this is also what the experts recommend. For instance, here’s what one has to say:

The ideal birth environment involves no men […] The best environment I know for an easy birth is when there is nobody around the woman in labour apart from a silent, low-profile and experienced midwife. No doctor, no husband, nobody else.

Thus speaks Michel Odent. A childbirth expert who also happens to be a man and who therefore, by his own definition, cannot ever have witnessed an “ideal birth”. But hey, ladies, he just knows. Shouldn’t we all put our trust in him?

Of course, you might not be able to get a “silent, low-profile and experienced midwife”. Not to worry. Guess who the Mail recommends? Your mum! That’s right, your dear old ma! And to be fair, I’m not having a go at her. She’s probably ace and may well provide you with much-needed support. But whom you have as a birthing partner is a very personal choice. And personally I cannot think of anyone I’d like less than my mum. She wouldn’t faint or anything but do you know what she would do? She’d tut. That’s just what she does, all the sodding time. And in this situation, I wouldn’t know whether it was disapproval at labour for being painful, or at the midwife for not being good enough, or at me for being in labour in the first place. Or possibly all three. Tut, tut, tut. That’s what it would be like. And eventually I’d find myself begging for Michel Odent.

Naturally if a couple agree that it would be better for Daddy not to be present at the birth, that’s their choice. Or rather, I think it should be the choice of the person who’s going through labour, really. It’s the least she deserves. But I can’t help thinking that men such as Gordon Ramsey and those featured in the Daily Mail article, who publicly and loudly declare themselves unable to face seeing their partners give birth, are in no way making a declaration of weakness. On the contrary, it’s pure bloody-minded machismo. I’m so hard, I’m leaving my partner to cope with labour without me. I’m off to shout at some trainee chefs! Labour’s for girls!

I was once in the pub with some medical student friends, way back in 1999. There were five of us – two heterosexual couples and me. One of the couples were in the middle of rotations in obstetrics. Thus they were describing, in vivid detail, the miracle of giving birth, or to be more specific, the fact that some women shit themselves during the process. “I’d never be there to watch my wife give birth – the whole thing would disgust me”, announced the male half of the couple, smugly. And everyone nodded in agreement. Everyone except me. I tried to object as best I could, but I was hampered by the fact that a) I was the only one who hadn’t seen a person give birth (and potentially shit themselves, which was the main thing), and b) I was the only single person, i.e. I couldn’t even find a man, let alone one who’d be willing to stay with me after I’d shat myself in front of him. Well, fast-forward 13 years, and Couple Number 1 have split up. Couple Number 2 have four children, and the father was present at all of the births. As for me? Well, not only was my partner present at both our children’s births, he even delivered no. 2, on account of there not being anyone else around. For a while we pinned the birth notes to our kitchen cupboard, since we liked the fact that it said “Delivered by: Dad in the car park”. After a while, though, we took it down, as that page of the notes also contained other details. We’re an open household, but I don’t think people need to know about my vaginal tearing when I’m offering them a Rich Tea.

I don’t think fathers should be present at the birth of their children if both they and their partner believe it’s the wrong thing. However, there’s a difference between this and claims, reported in the Mail, that “seeing female biology in an entirely different light can destroy the intimacy between a man and a woman”. I mean, what the fuck? Isn’t it about time the sheer greatness of female biology gained proper recognition? Proper recognition which doesn’t include women having to forgo all future shags so as not to upset the general balance of things by making men feel a bit cringe? This is, surely, where we should be.  And if women feel that they’ve been seen “in what you might call an undignified state”, there is a real issue with our priorities and our understanding of what dignity really is.

Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina features a character called Levin, who is unable to look at his wife Kitty in the same way after she gives birth. According to the introductory notes in my Penguin translation, Tolstoy modelled Levin on himself. This (and the over-use of that rubbish quote from the start – you know the one – “Happy families are all alike blah blah blah”) has led me to think Tolstoy was a bit of a tosser. It’s the reason why I’ve never read War and Peace. Hey, you could use this reason, too!

PS If you’re wondering whether I shat myself when I gave birth well, I might have, the first time. There’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding what my partner may or may not have seen, so it’s not an incident I’m going to investigate any further.


2 thoughts on “Tolstoy: Great writer, useless birthing partner

  1. My husband was at both my births. When the first was going horribly wrong they kept making him walk round the business end to get them things. I don’t think he has ever forgotten it. He won’t talk about it. When discussing plans for the second, I would have preferred him not to be there in case it all went wrong again and I didn’t want him to go through that again but he wanted to be there and in the end he was the most wonderful support ever by bloody pinching my hand really hard at the height of contraction- it really hurt but worked by taking my mind of the bad pain as my brain couldn’t cope with processing two pain signals. Plus this time he didn’t keep shouting “Push out a poo” like all the midwives were when Oddler was horribly stuck and it was just grim! When I was initially down to have a C-section with #2 the husband was going to refuse to be with me, he found the idea of the C-section something he couldn’t cope with but vaginal birth was okay. I wanted him at the C-section more than I wanted him at the birth but it all worked out in the end. I would never have my mum or my mother in law either, although when I was down to have my section and LordCurd was refusing to be there I did ask my mother in law to be at the section. Part of my reason for going for a vaginal birth in the end! haha!

    1. God, my mother-in-law would be worse than my mum! Actually, perhaps that’s a labour visualisation coping strategy. Imagine the worst possible person there, and it won’t be as bad as that.

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