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How Did Men End Up in the Delivery Room?

Although women carry the fetus for nine months and do the hard (and often painful) physical work of labor and delivery, important and relatively recent changes in fathers’ roles have revolutionized the experience of childbirth for men and women alike.

In 1938, half of all American babies were born in the hospital; by 1955 it was 95 per cent. Yet along with professionalized medical care, an expectant mother now found herself “alone among strangers” on a kind of conveyor belt moving from admissions to a prep room, where she was shaved and given an enema. Then she was moved to the labor room, where she stayed, mostly alone and sometimes sedated, during the long hours while her body got ready for delivery. She then was taken into a separate, sterile delivery room, indistinguishable from an operating room, where she actually gave birth, and then went on to the recovery room. She awoke in a maternity ward room, where she stayed for as long as two weeks before going home with her baby. During the long hours of labor and delivery, the men were segregated, kept away from the action, and relegated to an all-male waiting room, where they fidgeted, paced, smoked cigarettes, and anxiously awaited news of mother and child.

Beginning in the late 1940s, many men began to find this isolation intolerable. As they wrote and read comments in “fathers’ books” that many hospitals provided as semi-public diaries, they took action, as one father put it, “[to] grab hatchets and chop through the partition” separating them from their laboring wives. Fathers joined with the natural childbirth movement, childbirth educators, and the emerging women’s movement to revolutionize hospital birth and make it less impersonal. The men contested the separate hospital spaces and the exclusionary routines of medical authority to find a place for themselves and, in so doing, created unprecedented new masculine domestic roles while enhancing the birth experience for mothers.

In the 1950s and 1960s men succeeded in entering labor rooms with their wives. Here, “alone together,” couples shared intimate moments, holding hands, reading out loud together, playing cards; husbands often rubbed their wives’ backs during contractions. One woman in labor said, “It made me feel peaceful and confident, somehow, just his sitting there.”

The experience of easing labor soon led to its logical conclusion: being present in the delivery room. In the 1970s hospitals and physicians gradually relented and permitted men to be in delivery rooms, where they were positioned at the head of the table and could encourage laboring women in their work. The men were happy to be there. One wrote, “While the doctor was holding our baby, the cord still attached to my wife, I felt tears rolling down my face. … The whole delivery was beautiful beyond words. Not pretty, but beautiful in the sense of a God-given natural beauty.” Couples shared the event, strengthening their bonds, and the men made a meaningful start to fatherhood.

With women’s encouragement, men continued to press for change in hospital policies and practices. Some fathers felt out of place in delivery rooms, which remained medical territory. In the 1970s and 1980s, bowing to couples’--consumers’--wishes, hospitals opened birthing rooms, combined labor and delivery rooms, which were decorated more like home bedrooms than operating rooms. Despite criticisms of these frills as mere window dressing, men felt much more comfortable in them and more a part of the birthing process. One wrote, “The whole time I felt I was right where I should have been.”

The birth experience and men’s shared role are still evolving. Fathers continue to trade their stories, now online, and many are trying to get doctors and nurses to address their specific needs as fathers-to-be.

Historically and today, fathers made significant changes in hospitalized childbirth and helped open the doors for a wider range of partners, friends, and family members who now routinely populate labor and delivery rooms. Today laboring women share their profound experience, derive emotional and physical comfort, and give birth with the help of people they love.