Coaching the (Childbirth) Coach

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is pregnant and wants me to be her “labor coach” for the delivery. This is my first baby and I’m really nervous. What can I do to prepare?

A: Congratulations on your impending fatherhood! The very first thing to do is banish the word “coach” from your childbirth vocabulary. When things don’t go perfectly with an NBA or NFL team, the coach is the one who gets fired–sometimes right in the middle of a season. And someone else comes in to finish the job. Thinking of yourself as a coach puts way too much pressure on you. You’re the dad. You can’t be fired.

Next, learn about labor and delivery by attending childbirth classes with your wife, reading books like my The Expectant Father and The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year, and taking a tour of your hospital or birthing center. Then talk with your wife about what the ideal delivery scenario would look like. But resist the urge to create a written birth plan. Labor and delivery rarely go as planned, so lots of flexibility is essential. Here are a few discussion starters.

  • Many hospitals require constant monitoring (via a big belt and an IV), which could limit your wife’s mobility. Sometimes hospitals don’t let laboring women eat anything but ice. How does she feel about these policies?
  • In what circumstances would your wife want a C-Section, an episiotomy (an incision in the vagina to enlarge the opening), or assisted birth (forceps or vacuum extraction)?
  • Does your wife want an epidural (for pain) immediately or does she want an unmedicated delivery? If she wants to avoid medication, what other pain management techniques will she consider? How will you help her deal with the pain?
  • Who’s in the delivery room? Unless your wife specifically requests someone else, you should be the only non-medical professional there.
  • Atmosphere. Does she have a favorite song? Does she want loud, thumping music or a quiet setting with soft lighting?
  • Does she want to capture every minute of labor and delivery or wait until she’s had a chance to brush her hair before you start shooting?
  • Does she want to see the baby crown (when the head appears) using a mirror? Do you want to cut the cord?
  • After the birth, who gets to hold the baby first? Does your wife want to try breastfeeding right away? Do you want to bank your baby’s cord blood (check out cordblood.org)?
  • Pack a hospital bag for yourself, including a change of clothes, basic toiletries, a snack (for you, not her), and a swimsuit (she may end up laboring in a shower or tub and there’s no reason why you can’t be in there with her).
  • Unless there’s a clear medical emergency, don’t hesitate to ask what the nurse or doctor is doing and why. If something isn’t going the way you and your wife planned, speak up (she’ll probably be too exhausted).
  • Tell her how amazing she is. Labor and delivery are tough, and your support and encouragement will make a huge difference in her ability to cope.

Finally—and perhaps most importantly—trust your team. Stories about doctors pushing drugs and C-Sections may have been true a while ago, but not now. Unless you’re an MD or Labor & Delivery nurse, you’re probably not qualified to make medical decisions. If you can’t trust your OB to do (or suggest) what’s best for your wife, you really need to find someone else.

I Love You, Honey But Do I Really Have to Go?

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is six months pregnant and she just signed the two of us up for a childbirth prep class at the hospital where our baby will be born. The problem is that while she’s all excited about the class, I have no interest at all. Don’t get me wrong—I’m excited about becoming a dad and I want to be there to support her and everything, but I’ve heard from a number of my friends that they didn’t feel particularly welcome in the class and that the entire focus was on the mom-to-be. Should I just suck it up and go to the class, even though I don’t want to?

A: In a sentence, yes, suck it up. Your friends are right: the focus of childbirth prep classes is definitely on the expectant mom (more on that in a minute). And there’s a good chance that you won’t feel welcome. But there’s an even better chance that your wife will never forgive you if you bail on the class. In her mind, there’s a direct connection between how much she feels you love her and how much interest you have in being a dad. And while to you, your excitement level about your impending fatherhood and taking—or not taking—a prep class are completely separate issues, to her they’re one and the same.

Now, back to the focus of the class. One of the problems I’ve had with childbirth education is that it’s entirely too mom focused. No question, delivering a baby is something we, as guys, will never quite understand—and I’m okay with that. But the reality is that psychologically, your transition to parenthood is just as profound as your wife’s. Your life is going to be turned upside down as much as hers. In fact, one could argue you’re your transition is even harder—she has so much more social support than you do. Unfortunately, that important bit of information is too often overlooked. (That’s exactly why I wrote The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to Be, and did a DVD called “Toolbox for New Dads,” both of which focus on men and how they’re affected by pregnancy, birth, and beyond.)

The solution? First, slap a smile on your face and make sure you’ve cleared your schedule for the 6-8 evenings the class will last. You won’t be alone. In my research, most expectant dads who take prep classes with their partner do so for her. Interestingly, a recent study in Sweden reached the same conclusion. Second, sign up for a dad-only class. I’ve been teaching seminars for expectant dads for years and I can assure you that having a woman in the room completely changes the dynamics. Guys aren’t nearly as open about discussing the things they really want to know about, their fears, worries, concerns (which is why every time an expectant mom wants to sit in on the class, I—very gently—ask her to leave). If your hospital doesn’t offer a dad-only class, the DVD I mentioned is a good alternative. Third, read everything you can possibly get your hands on about labor and delivery. You need to know what labor looks like, how long it typically lasts, how you can best help your wife through it, what kinds of things typically go wrong (and there’s always something), medication options, who all those people are and why they’re running in and out of your room, and again, what you can do if there’s a Plan B or C or D.

High Anxiety and Expectant Fathers

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a first time father-to-be, and the entire pregnancy has been going very well for me and my wife. But about two weeks ago, I started experiencing anxiety which was pretty severe at times. I got very scared about me or my wife getting ill or having an accident and dying. My mind went into total freefall mode and I started thinking about all the terrible consequences this would have. Is it normal for someone to experience some pretty heavy anxiety about these issues? I’m over it now, but I wonder whether other fathers-to-be go through the same thing. Also, do you have any advice on how I can keep calm (or at least try to!) for the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy?

A: What a fantastic question. The short answer is that what you describing is actually quite common. The difference between you and most other expectant fathers is that they keep their worries to themselves—and that just makes things worse.

Almost all fathers-to-be have some kind of anxiety (and I believe that those who claim they’re worry-free are simply not paying attention). The most common concerns are financial security, changes in the marital relationship, the impending lack of sex, the loss of free time and personal space, and, as you pointed out, fears of danger to the mom, the baby, or the dad himself.

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Unemployed Expectant Parents

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m almost eight months pregnant but my boyfriend and I are having relationship troubles. We’re both jobless right now, which is a strain. Plus, I get the feeling that he doesn’t want the responsibility of being a dad and wishes he was still single. He denies it and insists he loves me and the baby, and I know he is actively looking for a job. But I’m afraid. How can I be sure he’ll stay with me and be a good and responsible father and partner?

A: I wish there was a simple answer to your question. Unfortunately, though, relationships don’t come with a warranty, and the truth is that there’s no guaranteed way to make sure your boyfriend will stay or, if he does, that he’ll be the “good and responsible father and partner” you’re looking for.
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