David Walsh: The trauma of antenatal classes for dads

'˜Are you OK, darling?' In the timbre of a whisper, it felt like my wife had shouted at me from across the room. I was inextricably engrossed in the scene before me, my face obviously betraying my horror at what was unfolding in front of us and the rest of the assembled group of expectant parents.

Men can sometimes feel a bit estranged from a woman's pregnancy. Picture: PA
Men can sometimes feel a bit estranged from a woman's pregnancy. Picture: PA

The midwife leading our antenatal class was busy forcing the head of a rubber doll through a model of a pelvis with mixed success – the mechanics of the grisly business at hand. Grinning, my wife reassuringly grabbed hold of my hand, my palm slick with sweat.

I can almost hear your cynicism now, dear reader. What could men possibly have to be anxious about when it comes to labour?

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The keenly-missed Victoria Wood broached pregnancy and childbirth in one memorable stand-up turn in the early 1990s. She described a similar demonstration to the one we were witnessing before relaying the more arduous reality from a woman’s perspective.

“Of course, when you’re in the middle of having a baby, it’s a bit like watching two very inefficient removal men trying to get a very large sofa through a very small doorway,” she noted. “Only in this case you can’t say: ‘Oh sod it, bring it through the French window.’”

By sheer virtue of physiology, the unenviable task of bringing new life into the world falls squarely on women. Conversely, it is a man’s lot to stand and flounder as their partner endures discomfort and pain for hours on end.

My brother-in-law – a father of two – told me recently that it was the most heart-wrenching experience standing on the sidelines, trying to do something to take away his wife’s pain but ultimately left wanting.

Pregnancy and childbirth appears to be, in most respects, an isolating experience for fathers-to-be.

Men – not fully appreciative of the changes the woman’s body is going through – delight in the in utero kicks and somersaults of their unborn child. They aren’t, however, carrying the increasingly heavier load day to day, feeling sick or nauseated.

Those particular ‘pleasures’ are reserved solely for women, who abdicate all control over their bodies. The duration of the pregnancy seems to be when most women mentally prepare and come to terms with the inevitable birth.

But is there any meaningful preparation for what lies ahead for men? Thus far, I’m unconvinced. Sure, antenatal classes are helpful from an informative point of view; learning your ventouse from your forceps and so on.

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What they can never hope to do is act like Peter Capaldi’s Tardis and convey you to a time and place in the future where you are waist-deep in a birthing pool with your screaming partner. They can’t describe how you’re naturally going to feel and how you’re intuitively going to respond.

Besides the series of NHS antenatal classes, we also attended a one-off yoga birthing workshop. While I initially felt awkward, I at least learned some potentially useful titbits to prepare for the delivery room goings-on – or to at least feel like less of a spare wheel.

A firm hand on the curve of my wife’s spine. Varying degrees of acrobatics to relieve stress, mostly employing walls, a Swiss ball, chairs, cushions or a combination of all four. Sending positive vibes through my hands. Hand-feeding her dates and grapes like a Roman deity.

Its perhaps best heeding the words of prolific father Rabbie Burns: the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.