THERE’S a recurring line of conversation at many post-natal gatherings and it goes something like this.
“Yes, my partner was at the birth, but a fat lot of good he was, sitting there reading his newspaper and saying ‘remember to breathe’ like he had the faintest idea what I was going through.’ ”
It’s a bit of a competitive sport, to be honest, with every new mum producing another exhibit in the case for male gormlessness. My favourite involves a husband who insisted on playing “soothing” tunes on his flute. As his partner’s contractions progressed from manageable waves of discomfort to a steady continuum of pain, she snatched the instrument from his delicate musician’s fingers and hurled it so hard across the labour suite, it bounced off the wall.
I suppose, given the circumstances, a degree of hostility is forgivable. Forget gas and Tens machines, there’s no more effective analgesic than lashing out at the person next to you, particularly if they are responsible for you being there in the first place. I’ve joined in the communal whingeing, but secretly always felt sorry for men in labour suites. In the hubbub surrounding the woman, the beeping of monitors and to-ing and fro-ing of doctors and nurses, they are largely ignored, their views on whether their partners should have an epidural or not, treated as an irrelevance. While the woman is engrossed in her own agony, the man has time to absorb the room changing from sterile box to abattoir. Stuck at the messy end, he confronts substances like vernix caseosa, meconium and placenta – sights that may lodge in his brain forever. And if something goes wrong, he is the one standing helpless in the midst of all the gore, unsure if his partner is going to live or die.
Last week, the scale of the trauma suffered by some male partners during complicated labours was acknowledged for the first time in a study carried out by researchers at Oxford University. They interviewed dozens of men who told harrowing stories of being left alone in hospital corridors while their wives underwent emergency procedures such as hysterectomies. One said he suffered flashbacks of looking back through the hospital doors and seeing the placenta lying on the table after his wife was taken in for an emergency caesarian. “I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “That was the most traumatic moment for me because I didn’t know if the baby was dead or alive and then two nurses came out with an empty incubator and didn’t speak to me.” Some of the men suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and could no longer work.
The timing of this research was apposite because, just days after its publication, Praveen Halappanavar stood on the steps of Galway County Hall after the inquest into the death of his wife Savita and spoke of his own horrendous experiences in the maternity unit of the city’s University Hospital. As Savita suffered a protracted miscarriage which eventually led to her death from E coli and septic shock, Praveen was her fiercest, perhaps her only advocate. And if he ultimately failed to secure her the abortion that would have saved her life it was only because his pleading proved powerless against the forces of a state that places an already dying baby’s fluttering heartbeat above the life of a fully-grown woman.
When I first read Praveen’s account of the tragedy, I kept imagining what it would have been like for Savita if he hadn’t been there holding her hand, fighting her corner, demonstrating that, to him at least, her well-being was the top priority. Without him, she would have died alone at the hands of a system which treated her as little more than a baby receptacle.
In the weeks after the story broke, when Ireland was on the defensive over its portrayal as a cultural anachronism, Praveen’s credibility was questioned. Some suggested Savita had not asked doctors for a termination; others denied the phrase “this is a Catholic country” – which has become a damning shorthand for Ireland’s regressive abortion law – had ever been uttered. There were racist overtones to this scrutiny; as if, because Praveen was Indian, he might have misunderstood what was going on or not been socially attuned to the country he called home. The inquest gave the lie to all that. It demonstrated his testimony was accurate. Hopefully, as a result of the coroner’s recommendations, Savita’s death will lead to clarification of the circumstances under which an abortion can be granted. But if Praveen hadn’t been steadfast, how much would we ever have found out about the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death? Maybe nothing.
His experiences are at the most extreme end of the spectrum. Still, the researchers are right: it’s time we acknowledged the important role men play in the delivery room and started treating them as full partners in the birth as opposed to inconveniences to be tolerated and swept aside when things get tricky. While it is impossible to make a delivery room a trauma-free zone, the anguish of male (or female) partners could be eased simply by staff remembering they’re there; by making sure they are kept up to date with what’s going on and including them, where possible, in the decision-making process. If men have got to take their place in the viewing gallery for what can be a very grisly spectator sport, and then put up with being the butt of women’s jokes afterwards, then that’s the very least they deserve. «