Published in International Doula, Volume 17, Issue 4 2009
Recently I was at a couple’s apartment doing a private childbirth education class. We went through quite a bit of information that covered everything from pain management techniques to understanding the different stages of labor to how the mom’s partner can support her through the variations and complications that might arise during labor and delivery. Near the end of our session, I asked the couple, “How do you work as a couple in highly emotional or uncontrolled situations?” The father-to-be looked at me oddly and said “I think we work well together, but why are you asking?” I think this is one area that is not given much attention, but is really important. I am not trying to say that labor is innately stressful, but it is a departure from normal everyday occurrences, a situation where one part of the couple is going through an intense physical experience.
From my experience as a labor support doula, the un-laboring partner tends to get very uncomfortable seeing the other person in pain. One dad told me it was hard to see his wife become so primal and animalistic as she moaned and swayed her body around. Because of his discomfort, he was unsure of how to respond his wife’s needs. Another couple I worked with argued and bickered through most of labor. They had explained to me prior to the labor that when they get stressed as a couple, the wife gets snippy and the husband gets defensive. So even though I was a bit taken aback by their behavior, this was how they functioned as a couple. My favorite moment was a father-to-be telling me that he yells when he is nervous and stressed and would it be ok if he yelled at me? I answered very quickly: “No.”
I strongly advise that expectant couples take some time to discuss the emotional side of labor. One partner may become very withdrawn or feel the need to find control when feeling out of control within the situation. Does seeing your partner in pain make you vulnerable or even angry at that vulnerability? To be the best support person for a laboring woman, there needs to be an understanding of the emotional dynamic and the natural give and take of the relationship. One dad-to-be admitted that he was used to having his wife be the calm, grounded, organized one in their relationship; the reason they hired me as their doula was because he wasn’t sure he would be able to support her fully.
Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
1. Ask each other, when you are stressed or under pressure, how do you react? Do you feel the need to try to control the situation? Do you shut down or get talkative and anxious? Do you look for distractions? Are you a “people pleaser”, taking care of everyone else except yourself?
2. Tell your partner what helps ground and calm you. Is it looking at one another? Can the partner tell the laboring mom a story, or maybe just hold her?
3. Discuss what does NOT help. (Partners, UNPLUG! Put away the iPhone and tune into the mama! I had one mother angrily grab the phone out of her partner’s hand and hurl it across the room! )
4. What fears and concerns do each of you have surrounding the labor and delivery? Fear can slow labor down or even bring it to a halt. Several years ago I worked with a woman who realized after her birth that she was so overwhelmed by the reality of becoming a mother that she held her baby in and stopped dilating. It was a very tough labor for her both emotionally and physically.
5. Who might you want in the room with you? It is often helpful to have more than one person there. This way, the support system can tag-team and do food runs, bathroom breaks or just get a breath of fresh air. This should NOT include the nurse, doctor or midwife. They have other people to attend to and cannot give the laboring mom undivided attention.
Knowing that the two parties have already discussed the emotional side of labor can bring great ease and comfort to the mother-to-be. She will be reassured that her partner understands the best way to support her through this incredible challenge. A talk like this can bring the couple closer and help them deal with issues before they occur.