A qualitative study involving 61 fathers in the UK has examined their experiences of a traumatic birth. The work was carried out by a team at Bournemouth University, led by perinatal mental health campaigner Dr Andrew Mayers. There has been little research on fathers’ reactions to traumatic births compared to mothers’ reactions. The team reported a variety of experiences and reactions, some of which are highlighted below, and made recommendations for maternal healthcare practice.
Many respondents described loss of control and/or lack of involvement.
“I wasn’t involved. Merely a passenger.”
“I knew I had no control and I did not feel involved. I didn’t think it appropriate that I was involved to be honest.”
“Felt I had no control at all as there was nothing I could do to fix the situation. Just had to wait for the doctors to sort things out.”
“I felt mostly like a spare wheel to be kept out of the way.”
“My presence was often not acknowledged, let alone my feelings.”
“A man’s role in the birth is nothing to talk about really. Be quiet and man up, etc.”
Being able to care for the woman was described in positive terms by one respondent.
“I did not feel in control at all, but I did feel very involved in looking after my partner’s welfare.”
Some respondents described the need to be strong and not show feelings.
“I remember feeling very emotional and almost breaking down when they wheeled her off, but quickly pulled myself together as I knew she still needed me to be strong and upbeat.”
“I never would have brought it up to anyone, even my wife. How could I possibly tell her how traumatised I was, when she’s the person that had the ordeal of having a baby.”
“I chose not to think about it for some time. As a man, it does feel churlish to go on about your trauma when the female involved has this harrowing experience happening within her own body.”
Reports of staff support ranged from good to less good.
“The midwives and consultants were extremely calm, clear and communicated at every stage with us.”
“[The surgeon] calmly explained what was going on and what should happen. Not much of what he said went in, but his calmness was infectious.”
“I remember receiving very little support. Can’t fault them too much though – they were busy saving my partner and baby!”
“I would have liked to have had someone stay with me or at least pop in regularly to see if I was okay and to tell me what was happening with my wife.”
Some respondents described longer-term negative impacts on them.
“Upset, distressed and unable to cope very well.”
“I had flashbacks that seemed so real it was like I was there again….going back to the maternity wing of that hospital caused me great anxiety….The sound of a heat rate monitor sets me off even when it’s on the TV. I can’t watch things like Call the Midwife or One Born Every Minute….”
“I regularly have flashbacks and see the number 61 on the heart rate monitor in my mind.”
“We don’t talk about what went on that day. Each birthday is very difficult and not a celebration.”
Some respondents reported weak postnatal support.
“We had some follow-up care for our daughter and two discussions with doctors regarding the delivery and what went wrong. These were minimally informative.”
Respondents made suggestions for better postnatal support, for example, a debrief session or peer support from other fathers. (Other research, however, has shown that debriefs are not necessarily effective at addressing the negative impacts of traumatic birth.)
The researcher team made two recommendations for healthcare practice:
- An opportunity to talk about the experience, combined with signposting to other sources of support, both those provided by the health service, and those provided by voluntary or charity organisations.
- Full recognition by health professionals of fathers as primary parents, so they can receive the necessary support.
Daniels E, Arden-Close E & Mayers A (2020), Be quiet and man up: A qualitative questionnaire study into fathers who witnessed their partner’s birth trauma, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 20
Header photo: Jim Renaud. Creative Commons.