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.