Have you ever heard your dad talk about the day you were born? He may be able to describe the weather or the big story on the television news. Chances are, though, he can't talk about your actual birth. Back then, fathers were often barred from the delivery room. While your mother was pushing, your dad was probably in another room, worrying and looking at his watch.
When you talk to your kids, the story will be different. You'll be able to describe the look on their faces when they entered the world. You'll be able to tell them how you felt watching them being born. And you'll be able to recount their mom's heroism. She did all the hard work, but you were right beside her. And that's pretty heroic, too.
What's my job, anyway?
If you've never been in a delivery room before, you may feel uncertain about your job. Are you supposed to be a cheerleader, a coach, or an unofficial nurse? It's usually a little bit of everything. Your partner will need you at every stage, from the first contractions to the delivery and beyond. You can prepare ahead of time by taking a birthing class with her or talking to other dads about the experience.
Above all, you should ask your partner to talk about what she wants and needs. She'll let you know. It's a good idea to discuss with her what she thinks she'll want from you during labor. It should be your job to make all the arrangements for getting to the hospital. You should also be the one to keep in touch with the rest of the family and screen phone calls while labor is in progress.
During the first few hours of labor, your main job is to be a distraction. Ask her if she wants her back or feet rubbed. Put on some music and walk around the room with her. Encourage her to do anything other than lying still and dreading the next contraction.
As contractions become stronger and closer together, your role becomes more and more important. If you attended a birthing class, now's the time to put all of those lessons into action. If you didn't go to a class, ask the nurse for tips.
At this point, your main job is to help keep your partner focused. She shouldn't give up, and she shouldn't panic. If she starts acting restless or agitated during a contraction, make eye contact with her and encourage her to take a deep breath. Hold her hand and tell her she's doing great.
But be prepared for the possibility that your encouragement may not be well received at times. One San Francisco doctor recalls a dad whose wife screamed at him to shut up when he told her -- in mid-contraction -- that she was doing great. Between contractions, you will be your partner's caretaker and servant at the same time. If she wants some ice chips, you'll be getting some. Pronto. If she wants a back rub, you'll be rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.
This is the big moment, an event you'll remember for the rest of your life. And here's the tough part: You must STAY CALM. Try to save your tears and hysteria until after the baby is born. Your wife needs your support, figuratively and literally. You'll be giving her encouragement with every push, and you may also be supporting her back so she can push comfortably. If you're up to it, you should also take a few moments to watch the actual birth. When you get your first glimpse of your baby's head, you can reassure your partner that she's almost done.
Men often have two impulses after watching their child being born. First, they cry. Then they grab a camera. As your partner holds your baby for the first time, you'll be firing the flashbulb. After a few good shots, you'll want to put down the camera and pick up your baby. Hold him close and let him study your face.
If your baby goes to a nursery while your partner recovers, go along and keep him company. When he drifts off to sleep, you can make the first round of phone calls to friends and family. And don't forget to check in with your partner, too. If she's awake, she'll want to hear the very latest on the baby's condition. She'll also want to hear how great she was.
When the unexpected happens
You and your wife should already have a detailed birth plan. You should know what kind of interventions she wants or doesn't want, and you should be ready to remind doctors and nurses of her wishes. But once labor starts, you have to be prepared for the unexpected. If the labor isn't going smoothly, your wife might need an intervention that she hadn't signed up for, such as pain medication or even a cesarean section.
If there's a decision to be made, your cool head will be essential in helping her make it. And when your child asks about his birthday, you'll really have a story to tell.
National Center for Fathering. 1996 Gallup Poll on Fathering. http://www.fathers.com/research/gallup.html
National Center for Fathering. Tips For The Childbirth Coach. http://www.fathers.com/about/bio.html
University of Iowa Health Care. A partner's labor guide. September 2004. http://www.vh.org/adult/patient/obgyn/laborpartner/
Nemours Foundation. Becoming a Father. May 2005. http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/father.html
Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Stages of Labor. http://www.pamf.org/pregnancy/labor/stages.html
PDR Health. What to Expect During Labor and Delivery. http://www.pdrhealth.com/content/women_health/chapters/fgwh26.shtml
American Pregnancy Association. Creating Your Birth Plan. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/planningandpreparing/birthplan.html