How to support your wife through childbirth
A primer on the dos and dont’s for first-time fathers with babies incoming.
Childbirth is the most feminine of feminine things. This is foreign territory for men, and in most cultures men are not present during childbirth. I think it is creationally appropriate for a man to be present at the birth of his children (who do you think helped Eve during childbirth?) but you must understand your place there. You are there because you and your wife are one flesh—so when she is at her weakest, you must make up the lack with your own strength. It is important to understand what this does and does not mean…
You don’t have to control everything
You are not required to be both the managing director and battlefield general of Operation Childbirth, Inc. Micro-management is not necessary nor desirable.
You don’t need to understand all the medical aspects. A detailed grasp of what is happening and when is not necessary for you to help your wife. You can always ask midwives, nurses or doctors.
You don’t need to make every decision (especially on the spur of the moment). The midwife is there to manage these things, and there are doctors available.
You don’t need to somehow make everything ok. You cannot vicariously bear what your wife suffers in childbirth, nor can you ease every discomfort, nor serve her solicitously enough to make it not suck.
You don’t need to do everything for her. In many cases, it is better for the midwife or nurses to deal with the various mundanities of childbirth. They are much more experienced than you, and you don’t want to get in their way.
You do have to control your guys’ “inner world”
You must be the rock against which the storm can beat, able to absorb whatever your wife is going through without being shaken, while shielding her from anything unsafe.
You don’t have to understand everything that happens, but you do have to let it hit you and not fall over. This is true regardless of how out of control she feels, or even how out of control anything else becomes. It is understandable for her to groan and complain; not you. She needs to rely on you to remain stable for the both of you. (This is only really possible, of course, if you are firmly planted on the greater Rock, knowing that whatever happens, he is in control of it all, and does not mean to destroy either of you with it, but rather build you up—Romans 8.)
You do need to be prepared to stand between the world and your wife. All mammals need to feel safe to give birth, including women mammals. Your wife needs to know she can trust you to keep her safe, and that you know what this means. Common things would include: not carelessly leaving a door or curtain open so people can see her; not making fun of the noises she makes; not taking or sharing photos you haven’t agreed to; not letting anyone into the birthing (or recovery) room that she doesn't want to be there; not blaming her if there are complications with the birth; not forgetting to bring critical items like car-seats; not letting doctors take over in the heat of the moment and do something you guys don’t agree with; etc. You need to be able to say no when it is important to say no, or slow things down by asking for an explanation, so you can make a decision.
You do need to be ok with not being ok. You can’t make everything better, but you are there for her—so being able to put aside your own discomfort and selfish tendencies matters a lot. Anticipate what your own needs will be and plan ahead. Be ready to say, “Well, too bad,” if you didn’t foresee something. Whatever inconveniences you will suffer are small potatoes compared to what she has to go through.
You do need to be prepared to do anything for her. One second she might want a backrub, and the next second she might scream at you not to touch her. Give of yourself according to what she needs to cope in the moment, expecting nothing in return. You are probably going to be confused, frustrated, annoyed, and even hurt by some of the things your wife does. Stay stable. Your ego just isn’t part of the childbirth equation. If she wants to be left alone, that’s not a rejection. If she suddenly finds your wonderful massages intensely irritating whereas before they were all that kept her alive, that’s not a rejection. It’s just labor.
Knowing the lay of the land
If you haven't done this before, labor seems mysterious and daunting. It helps to understand the main stages:
Stage 1 is early and then active labor. Nothing happens here that you haven’t dealt with before. Your wife will cramping, uncomfortable and in pain, mildly nauseated, and often tired. None of this is new, so think about it in advance. What have you done in these situations in the past that has worked well? What does she need? Figure out your standard operating procedure here, and follow it during stage 1, unless she tells you she wants something else.
Does she prefer company, or being left alone?
Does she want backrubs, or not to be touched?
Does she want distraction, silence, a hot bath, a hot wheatie bag, ice chips, a dark room, a TV show?
Be proactive about readiness. E.g., take time to try out different massage techniques and backrubs in advance, so you are prepared with a gameplan; make sure you have charged all the devices you might need; make sure you have any music she wants to listen to; pack a birthing bag that you can pick up and go without having to run around finding anything; etc.
Stage 2 is when your wife actually starts having to push. You will know this is happening because the midwife will talk a lot about being in transition (between stage 1 and 2), and your wife will probably start screaming. Labor really starts to suck hard here, and it can be rather volatile. This is new territory, and there isn’t much you can do to prepare because you don’t know how your wife will be. Don’t overthink it. Be ready to do whatever you need to, without becoming so hyper-attentively fussy that you freak her out. Stay calm and relaxed, and listen much more than you speak. Don’t say nothing; silence implies that you have shut down. Just limit your talking to periodic encouragement, without constant questioning. She will let you know if she needs something.
Stage 3 is once the baby is born. The placenta still needs to come out, but this is generally not a big deal and you can all calm down a bit. However, at this stage your wife will be exhausted, and there will be a lot more that you can do to help her, because there will be a baby to take care of. She is unlikely to be able to clean, change, or dress the baby. That will fall to you. She is probably going to need you to help with many things. The first night is generally very challenging. It is important that you are there, both to help and support her, and also to learn about the new baby together in a place with support from midwives. Day 3 after the birth is when postpartum hormones kick in. This can make your wife weepy and emotional. Be ready to support her, and keep an eye on it. If it persists for many days, it could be postpartum depression, and you should talk to your midwife about it.
Getting ready together
You are going to have much more confidence, and your wife will feel much safer, if you prepare together beforehand. By covering logistics and expectations now, you will both have a better foundation for action and communication later. Talk about everything with her.
Work out the major action items. Does she want you to cut the cord? Take photos? Bring music? Get in the birth tub with her, if she’s having one? Catch the baby? Update family and friends during labor? Make a list for the things you need to do, so you can check them off instead of relying on your memory, and free up mental space for other decision-making at the time.
Anticipate possible big decisions and make them in advance. For instance, if there is some medical reason your wife and the baby need to be separated, do you plan to stay with her, or go with the baby? Or, if she doesn’t want an epidural, but then changes her mind partway through labor, how far should you encourage her that she can do it before you page the anesthesiologist? (One possible way to manage this is to decide on a safeword for, “Yes, I really mean it now,” so you’re not both second-guessing every time she says it hurts.) Again, make a list of these decisions so you can consult it if you need to.
Labor can be very long. Bring lots of snacks for both of you. She may not feel like eating them…but she might. And breastfeeding is likely to make her hungry and thirsty. Snacks. Lots of snacks.
Two final things:
Firstly, men are often traumatized when they see their wives brutalized by the curse on Eve. Stay stable. You should watch some childbirth videos beforehand so you have a basic idea of what to expect. Newborns also look quite alarming sometimes—covered in gunk, purplish-blue, sometimes with a “conehead.” Forewarned is forearmed.
Secondly, don’t circumcise your baby if you have a boy. Modern circumcision is not like circumcision as given by God to the Jews. It removes far more—including highly sensitive nerves that can never regrow—and not uncommonly causes sexual dysfunction. It is a tragic irony that Christians today are performing an extreme mutilation which was invented by Rabbis in the early days of Christianity, literally for the purpose of making it impossible for Christian converts to reverse circumcisions.
Credit to my wife, Smokey the Magnificent, for laying out many of the ideas that ultimately became this article.