contact

Last night was the second meeting of our natural child birth class (which will meet eight times). So far, I think we’re both learning a great deal. The facilitator is deeply knowledgeable, sweet, and compassionate. Though she doesn’t always use inclusive language, I usually feel included. The other couples are all heterosexual, but they’re also all interesting and open. It’s sometimes painful (as discussing the details of childbirth sometimes triggers flashbacks to the trauma of birthing Emmett), but overall I’ve enjoyed it tremendously, and I’m glad we signed up. I think it will help prepare us for Rabbit’s entrance into the world (whether or not that birth looks the way we’d like it to).

But last night’s material included a long discussion about the importance of skin-to-skin contact, and it solidified some concerns I’ve been having about this culture’s treatment of non-gestational parents. I’ve said here before that J being pregnant has made me feel newly sympathetic to dads. Newly offended on their behalf. Newly connected to them. This is a concrete example of what I mean.

I should say first of all that I LOVE the attention skin-to-skin contact (or Kangaroo Care) has gotten of late. Birth has been far too (forcibly) medicalized for far too long in this country, and it’s thrilling to see us return to (and lend credence to through research) some common sense notions, such as the idea that babies are advantaged by proximity to their parents right after birth. This is a lovely thing if parents are able to do it.* We know now that skin-to-skin contact helps babies regulate heart rates and breathing. We know that it reduces respiratory distress. We know that it helps to facilitate both breastfeeding and bonding. This is all good stuff. I can’t remember my own experience of being born (as I was, you know, just born), but I can imagine that entering the world is some tough, scary business. How lovely to think about dimming the lights. About slowing down the frenetic pace of post-birth processes (like the vitamin K shot, and weighing in, and cleaning up). And I cannot imagine a more joyful sight in all of the world than this little boy in J’s arms. The two of them touching. Her holding to her chest what for months she will have held within her body. I get emotional every time I imagine that moment, and I’m so grateful to be surrounded by medical professionals who advocate for and support it.

The problem is that (so far anyway) I’ve never heard anyone talk about the importance of skin-to-skin contact with non-gestational parents (not of their own will, anyway; only when I’ve advocated for it). Indeed (and I hope that all of you have evidence that I’m wrong on this), I fear that very few people in the childbirth community are advocating for non-gestational parents (most of whom, of course, are dads) at all. And because the.birthing.of.babies is treated with a mysterious sort of reverence (a fierce insider/outsider dichotomy wherein if you haven’t done it, you’re always already less than someone who has), dads seem to feel silenced. If they have an opinion about how they’d like to experience meeting their children, they don’t say so. They don’t seem to think it’s their right.

Even in this open, loving, progressive birth class, the handout we were given about this moment says that moms should focus exclusively on bonding with their babies – that no one should “disturb” them during this critical time (even their partners or co-parents) – but that dads should spend these early moments advocating for moms. Making sure the cord pulses for long enough. Making sure the birth plan is followed. Not bonding, but doing the WORK that the moment requires. Staying busy. Providing for their family as (of course) dads have been expected to do for…well…always (at least in the U.S.)? Nowhere on this otherwise extremely helpful handout does it even mention that, perhaps, non-gestation parents might also want to take a moment to gaze at their new baby. To touch him or her. To kiss him. To connect as a new family. A whole family. The message here is clear: dads are extraneous, or, if they are useful, it is only for their ability to make sure that mom and baby are well.

And what’s worse: NGPs are told that they’re at risk of being an impediment to this intimate moment. When I asked our facilitator about non-gestational skin-to-skin contact, she said that that’s fine, but not until baby and mom get a good latch, and that can take hours. And she warned me not to break a latch just to get to hold our son. This was a hurtful moment. I would NEVER break my son’s first latch with his mom’s breast. Nor, I suspect, would any of the dads in this class. Our presence in that room makes apparent our deep desire to help, in any way we can, as our partners labor to bring our children into the world. We feel helpless. We feel left out, but we’re mostly okay with that. But warning me that it would hurt my child if I separated him from his mom (who he needs, this warning makes clear, much more than he needs me) is a way of letting me know my place as an outsider.

What worries me is that I’m the only one in the class so far who has mentioned that there is (for all two-parent families) a third person in the situation. That it’s actually GOOD for NGPs to think about bonding. That we, too, have waited and waited to meet our little one. That our lives have utterly changed in that moment. That, lacking the benefit of carrying, the benefit of breastfeeding, we might need advocacy in those critical first moments too. That those moments of bonding between NGP and child might be important to consider alongside such physiological concerns as heart rate and temperature.

That the relationship between NGP and child is actually as important as that between GP and child; thus the benefit of bonding should be shared.

This exclusionary tendency makes me intensely sad. Lots and lots of children have absent fathers (dads who leave, dads who stay but don’t participate actively in child-rearing). We fault them (hello: the phrase “deadbeat dad”), but we forcibly create distance that must be (for some fathers, at least) incredibly difficult to overcome. We act as if mothers are naturally closer to their children than fathers, but, even in our most thoughtful spaces, we cultivate that as a reality. We make it so, and then we criticize it.

And it doesn’t need to be that way. When I asked about this at our first Meet the Midwives meeting, most of the midwives at our clinic (ours wasn’t there) said skin-to-skin contact needed to be with the bio-mom, that all of those regulatory benefits work much much better with her. That I shouldn’t even think of holding our son until an hour after he’s born. “Okay, an hour,” I thought. I cried. I adjusted. I can do an hour. Our facilitator last night said the same thing – J’s body will be much better for Rabbit than mine – only she said I shouldn’t even think about it until two hours, and then only if he’s already nursed. But here’s the thing: the research I’ve done indicates that dads (there’s no research on non-bio mamas) can give their babies almost as much benefit. Really: as much benefit in almost every way. That NGPs can facilitate temperature and heart beat regulation. That NGPs can even facilitate breastfeeding.**

Yet our plan to do an hour of skin-to-skin contact with J (longer, obviously, if at the hour point Rabbit is nursing), followed by an hour of skin-to-skin contact with me, has most often been met with warnings and hesitation.*** “Sure,” most professionals seem to say. “You can do that. But later. But don’t be selfish. Don’t put your needs out there too much. This isn’t about you.”

But isn’t it? Rabbit has two parents. Isn’t it in his lifelong best interest to have connected with both of us in these early hours? I think that – in our well-needed realization that babies don’t benefit from being whisked away and cleaned up immediately – we’ve gotten a bit of tunnel vision. We see birth moms now, and we see babies, but we’re blind to NGPs. And I resent that, not just for me, but for dads. None of the fathers-to-be said anything during the class (or when I asked about this issue and mentioned my concerns). But after class, one of the dads came up to me and said that he’d never thought of any of this before. When the facilitator said that two+ hours of skin-to-skin (exclusively with birth moms) was best for our babies, he was upset. He’d been assuming he’d hold their baby right away, and having this dismissed as unhealthy for his baby (with no acknowledgment that he might want to share in the experience, that his baby might benefit from his presence) was jarring. I’m sure he wasn’t alone. But neither he nor the other dads stopped and asked the question. I think this is because they’re told they are outsiders to this experience. That their job is to support, not just during labor (when supporting is obviously all they can do), but after, as well.

It doesn’t need to be this way. It’s great that we’re beginning to understand the importance of so many of the systems we disrupted when we started over-medicalizing birth. But there must be ways of doing that without telling NGPs that their role at birth is akin to that of any other birth partner: someone who’s there to support a mom through labor, but whose child isn’t being born. Because if we have studies suggesting that skin-to-skin contact is a powerful tool for one parent, shouldn’t we talk about using it for two?

* Of course, these early moments are a luxury altogether. If we’re blessed with adopted children, we won’t have them at all, and we’ll have to mourn that (for ourselves and for our children, who would no doubt have benefited from this early intimacy). Just as I’m already planning for ways to bond in lieu of breastfeeding, we’ll have to be creative to overcome the loss of this time. And we’ll do that with gratitude and joy. So though I know this post is shortsightedly birth-centric, it’s where we are now. And it’s how lots and lots of parents become parents, so it feels important to talk about.

** If you’re interested in the research I found on this, please let me know!

*** Our midwife has never offered these warnings. In fact, she brought this up a few appointments back, saying basically: “You two do whatever you want. He’s your child. You’ll make the right choices for him.” We super love her.

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13 thoughts on “contact

  1. When I was born, my parents had been reading Frederick LeBoyer’s book *Birth without Violence* (1975), which advocates a parent, typically NGP, giving a bath to the baby, once it’s nursed or made initial contact with the birth parent. My dad did that for me, and apparently I loved it. It gave us time to bond, which is what he wanted. I don’t know if the LeBoyer bath is used anymore, but it’s worth asking about. That could be one way you and Rabbit could have some skin-to-skin time.

    Another thing: your experience as an NGP has gotten me thinking about my own relationship to my NGP. He still tells about the day I was born, when, after exiting the birth canal with eyes wide open, I looked straight at him as soon as I heard his voice. I knew who he was. Rabbit knows who you are, too. When he is born, he will know who his mama is–he’s been listening to you for months. :)

  2. I’m less patient than you are, and I was the gestational parent. Of course my wife should hold the baby, right away! I was, frankly, a little busy with birthing the placenta and my own shock from a freight-train labor (1.5 hours from first contraction to delivery) and the loveliest moment I ever had was coming back into my body to find my wife by my side, stroking my face and rocking our daughter. It was in our birth plan that if, for any reason, the baby needed to move away from me after birth (and she did, due to my shock and her shock because apparently being born too fast is not actually good). I think you should ignore all of what you are being told. It is rank nonsense. Hold your baby, for heaven’s sake, and don’t wait a flipping hour. You are her MOTHER.

  3. I think the same thing about fathers, btw…don’t let anyone marginalize you at that moment. No reason, frankly, why you shouldn’t catch the baby in most births.

  4. I feel compelled to respond, hopefully to put you at ease a bit. I had two natural births — one in the hospital and one at home. With the hospital birth, I think I got to hold Owen for maybe 10 minutes (at most) before they took him away for the regulatory procedures. Greg actually spent more time near him than I did. They brought him back to bf for a bit before carting him off to the nursery for further things while I bathed, etc. I wasn’t upset about any of this (though I had concerns about parts of it later) — I actually welcomed a little time and space.

    With the home birth, there was no mention of 1 hr. + of skin to skin contact with me before Greg should/could hold the baby. In fact, if I recall correctly (which I might not, as it is all a bit blurry), Greg got time with Linden while they were taking care of me — before I was even physically ready to be in a position feed or cuddle with our new baby. Then, I got to hold and feed her (the feeding was maybe 15 minutes or so in duration) before I gave her to Greg again to hold and see. Within that first hour, my parents and Owen also got to spend time with Linden. I can guarantee that she was/is sufficiently attached and had no issues with nursing.

    I totally get the importance of skin to skin contact and am impressed by your research, though I would absolutely work with J to formulate a plan that is inclusive of both of you (within the first hour or heck, the first 10 minutes of Rabbit’s life). Women who have c-sections often have to wait and hour or more before they can even hold their babies and evidence suggests that their bond is just as strong as that of other mothers and they have equal success with breastfeeding (a very good friend just proved that for me two weeks ago). You holding your baby shortly after the birth absolutely won’t cause any harm at all. Don’t think for a moment that it will.

    In my experience, you will likely be needed to be an advocate for J during the labor (which, I will maintain, is mostly about the woman in labor because it is so darn hard and you just can’t think straight), but once that baby enters into the world, it is about all three of you. You should have ample opportunity to make your post-birth preferences clear before the moment arises (i.e. rejecting the vitamin k, waiting to cut the cord, or whatever you decide), so in those first moments, you can both enjoy being parents and revel in your little baby. Further, I honestly couldn’t imagine spending the whole of the first two hours with my baby — I was exhausted, mentally drained, and in need of a little time and space to recenter myself before I was fully ready to be anyone’s mother. If our experience is anything like yours will be, you will get plenty of time with your little fella and it will all be okay. It might not be the perfect birth experience, but I suspect (or at least hope!) it will be better than you imagine.

    • Erica, I’m so glad to hear you say that you couldn’t imagine being required to spend the whole first two hours holding the baby. Me neither. I’m so glad, for instance, that he was with my wife while I got stitched up. Watching them together is one of my favorite memories.

      Our big, bad hospital birth actually did a great deal to promote bonding with the NGP; I think she spent more time holding him early on than I did. Certainly she did once we were home, as I was pretty wrecked, physically. And while we did have some breastfeeding problems, they were due to his size and my various ailments, not to any bonding failures.

      The larger point you address here is really important. The principle reason I can’t stand the Rachel Pepper book is her insistence that NGPs are lesser and only ruin bonding between baby and “real” mother. Bad enough this nonsense is perpetrated against fathers; can’t we queers be more thoughtful than that?

  5. Briefly setting aside your larger concerns, I liked this quote: “Though she doesn’t always use inclusive language, I usually feel included.” It’s an important point that language alone does not mean inclusion, and that inclusion does not rely solely on language.

    On the bigger picture, I remember feeling exactly this conflict, between a deep desire to connect physically with our child, and the messages that came in from so many sources saying “Be careful. Don’t mess everything up. Don’t be selfish.” Some of it comes from a pressure to “do it right” (which is especially strong as queer parents), but remember that “right” was defined without looking at us. And by “us” I don’t just mean queer non-bio-moms. I mean dads too.

    As far as birth itself, things are so intense after birth that no one is looking at the clock. When Leigh was born, once everyone finally cleared out of the room and we had a moment of peace, I took off my shirt and snuggled up skin-to-skin with our daughter. She had been crying, and bless, her, she quieted and snuggled right into my chest.

    With Ira, I had complications after birth, so after a half hour or so, he was with Gail. Knowing he was with her, I had none of the difficulty with separation that some women report in such circumstances. He hadn’t latched before I had to leave, so she was actually the first to nurse him. I felt very peaceful knowing he was with her.

    I’m reminded also of a side point, about the pressure to “advocate” and “protect.” Birth can be HARD as the NGP. That role was grueling for both of us, in part because of that pressure to “be strong.” Make sure you have some support lined up for YOU so that you can be there for J, OK?

  6. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. My partner and I are hoping to switch roles with our second kid, and so I’m thinking a lot about what it would be like to be the NGP this time around.

    I echo Lyn’s comment that it’s super important that you have support for yourself during the birth. We had a doula, and that ended up being very helpful. Roo really needed to know that she could step out of the room for a minute to catch her breath if she needed to, without leaving me completely alone.

    I absolutely agree with you that you are an important part of this new family of 3, not someone to be kept out of the way of the “real” action happening between baby and biomom. Your roles may be different around breastfeeding, but loving and snuggling and holding your little one is something you are both equally capable of.

    For what it’s worth, as several other folks have mentioned, the baby spending 1-2 hours after birth solely with bio-mom may not be practical for all sorts of reasons. In our case, there was a lot of meconium in Tadpole’s amniotic fluid, so shortly after birth he was whisked off the the nursery to be given antibiotics and observed. My partner went along, and they had a chance to bond. And I was SO glad that at least one of us could be with him during his first few hours in the world. At one point Tad started fussing, but he settled as soon as she started singing one of the songs she had been singing to him in the womb. Your little Rabbit will recognize and need you too, whatever the circumstances of his birth. (Entertaining side note: we were delivering at a Catholic hospital, so the hopital bracelet Roo was given to allow her access to the nursery read “father.”)

  7. I don’t know much about the process of physically having a child or the discourses around it, since we adopted our son (and met him when he was 1.5 days old at the hospital). But it kind of sounds like bullshit to me. Like a branch of the completely ill and hetero-centric ideology that babies ultimately need to have a primary bond in their early months with one parent, “the mom.” I mean seriously, even if a study or two or more backs up this conclusion, is this the world we want to be reinforcing or do we want to be making a world that’s more balanced and egalitarian, including in the intimate ways we bring children into our lives?

    I say go with your parental instincts, of course balanced with your partner’s needs and feelings, and whatever practical issues arise in the time after the baby is born. Soon enough, you will be in the crush of constant baby need, and I’m betting you’ll both find yourselves busier than you ever imagined and more bonded with your child than you ever thought possible.

  8. P.S. Your post also had me recalling the alternative world of adoptive families, in particular the hours and hours of parenting instruction that is required by state law for any couple attempting to foster or adopt. At least from my experience, there was a HUGE focus on attachment and bonding, likely because so many children adopted internationally and through foster care domestically. We learned about the studies of children with attachment disorders…and we were told again and again about the importance of skin-to-skin contact, infant massage, “wearing” your child as much as possible, and getting up every time they cry in the night to comfort them no matter what. I was trying to recall if there was a gender bias in the way instructors discussed these issues, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear messages that the adoptive moms and not the dads should be the ones to step in.

  9. I’m going to echo a lot of what other people have already said.

    After The Bean was born, they didn’t give him to me right away. I was induced because of size concerns so he was taken to the other side of the room to be seen by the pediatric specialist right away. Allison went over with him so she was closer to him directly after the birth than I was. I was getting stitched, delivering the placenta, etc.

    To be honest, I’m not quite sure when Allison held him for the first time, but he was brought over to me and given to me to nurse once they determined everything was okay. However, we were moved from the labor room to a post-natal room within an hour and because there was only one bed, Allison took The Bean out of his bassinet and brought him between us in the bed we shared. It was wonderful to have him there with both of us in the bed…just as close with one as with the other.

    I was so wrecked after the delivery that I never would have thought to do that. I’m so grateful that Allison did because it is one of the best memories that I have of not just my time with The Bean, but also my time with Allison.

    At home, Allison would have skin-to-skin contact by removing her shirt and wrapping him against herself in the moby. She would also take him into the shower with her as well as lie with him on her bare chest and stomach. Because I was pretty rough after birth, I’d bet he was against her more in the first few weeks than he was against me.

    On a side note, we discussed beforehand that if something happened and we all had to be separated, Allison was to go with the baby as far as she could. (And, her hospital bracelet also said “father.”)

    We took a pre-natal class recommended by our midwife collective. The woman who ran the class made it a point to say that skin-to-skin contact was important for both parents, not just the birth mother. I remember it so well because she said something to the effect of “babies don’t care if your chest is hairy.” So, your experience is definitely not happening everywhere, but we are in Canada and sometimes there are surprising cultural differences between two countries that can look so similar.

    I’m sorry to hear that it feels like the NGPs are getting the shaft but it’s definitely not like that everywhere and NONE of our midwives or the (highly regarded) woman running the pre-natal class ever said anything about some sort of time constraint on the child being against the birth mother. You should do what feels right for both of you and your baby.

    During our pregnancy and afterwards, Allison did notice differences in how she and I were treated. People were more likely to congratulate me directly than to congratulate her. I got hugged a lot more often than she did. Even cards (from her friends or co-workers) would list my name before hers. To some people, these might seem like unimportant things, but I do believe they show a biase – if only unconsciously so. After noticing things like this, We make a bigger effort to make sure we give equal affection and attention to both parents.

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  11. I know I’m late in commenting on this, but I just wanted to express my outrage over this nonsense. I have grow mighty tired of the exclusion of fathers/NGP’s in their children’s lives, from birth through all stages of parenting. One of my fondest memories of my first birthing experience was seeing the nurse hand my daughter over to my wife. They way she looked at her and held and kissed her was magical. And I laid right there in my hospital bed snapping away so I could capture those first moments on camera. I love that I was able to do that.

    And this time around, I am excited to imagine my wife curled up, skin-to-skin with our new baby and I want my 3 1/2 year old to hold her skin-to-skin too. From the very beginning. They are as much a part of this as I am. You and J will know what is best for your needs and your family. If it feels right, then do it. It will be impossible to plan out how those first moments or hours will go after the birth. You will just have to trust in your instincts and rhythms as parents to guide you without letting these 1950’s notions dictate how you should behave.

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