It's no secret that there's a host of postpartum issues that can plague brand-new moms. From childbirth trauma to postpartum depression, the fact that childbirth can bring very real lasting challenges requires sensitivity and resources to handle. What we don't often think about is the way fathers can be affected by a particularly traumatizing birth — and that has to change.
Sport Relief, a fundraising event in the U.K., is shining a spotlight on perinatal mental health with the hope to further destigmatize it. That includes the people we often spare very little for by way of acknowledgment or sympathy when we talk about childbirth trauma and perinatal mental health issues — the fathers.
Raise the issue, and you're very likely to be met with scoffing. What do men have to be scarred or traumatized about, after all? Women are the ones who experience the pain and occasional gruesome complications of childbirth. Utter the acronym PTSD, and you might even be treated to reactions of disgust and disdain.
The dads who find themselves having nightmares and flashbacks, insomnia, an uptick in depressive behavior or even an overwhelming phobic avoidance of repeating the experience (forgoing sex for fear that pregnancy could occur) are often told they're being childish or instructed to suck it up.
But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that this isn't about misplaced entitlement or an aversion to seeing a vagina in any way that isn't sexual. It isn't even just "men being men," which is just a lazy way of approaching ingrained sexism surrounding childbirth. Childbirth-induced PTSD can affect lesbian partners as well or really anyone who witnesses the traumatic birth.
When Oxford researchers spoke to the partners of women who experienced serious complications during birth, they found that while these cases are rare, they are legitimate. It makes a lot of sense. If you were to watch someone you care very deeply about writhe in pain and hemorrhage, all while understanding that not one but two lives of grave importance are at risk, wouldn't that affect you?
That's what appears to be at the heart of most cases of PTSD in partners. Take Brian's very detailed recollection of the birth of his daughter, for instance, as told to The Telegraph:
“I was holding one of my wife’s legs, with a younger midwife holding the other one. The doctor pulled the baby in a way that looked unbelievably hard and then cut my wife as the head emerged. I will never forget the snapping sound the skin made or the scream that came from my wife. It was such a scream of utter shock and pain beyond imagining. As I was right there, holding her leg, I saw the whole thing.”
Or Mark, who described the moment he thought his baby had died after glimpsing his wife's placenta on a surgical table to researchers:
"I didn't know what [the placenta] was. 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, but didn't speak to me. That's the moment that keeps popping into my head."
This isn't "childbirth is icky," and we can't in good faith continue to wonder at the body's capability to undergo something as herculean as childbirth, as bloody and fraught and loud and sometimes very terrifying as labor, while simultaneously dismissing the partners who also see it that way.
Even if none of these experiences cleared the bar for an official diagnoses, is it really OK to dismiss them outright? Our partners watch us give birth in a way that we just don't have the perspective for. It doesn't need to be a competition or a zero sum brawl. Just an acknowledgment that watching a loved one experience trauma and pain from a place where you are helpless to intervene or even soothe them might have lasting effects. Those effects include everything from resenting the child the brain now associates with "harming" a spouse to a pervasive self-loathing that stems from feelings of failure at a perceived inability to protect the person you love. That's very real, and it's very painful to experience.
Offering support and resources to men who experience childbirth-related trauma needn't require taking them away from moms. We could do more, and we should. Men should absolutely prepare themselves wholly for the risks and reality of pregnancy, which could help avoid traumas like Brian's. We could put an emphasis on self-care for both mothers and fathers and stop asking either sex to keep it down when they talk about the ugly side of giving birth.
It might sound crazy, but we might even try not telling fathers the same tedious and toxic thing they've been hearing since they were little boys: "Man up." There's nothing to lose, after all. Support for parents is support for children, full stop.
When we encourage parents to step forward and receive resources they need when they're struggling, their children benefit. Since when have parents not included dads?
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