Nine months is a really long time. Or at least it is when you’re waiting for your first baby. It seems like an eternity since we first glanced at that pregnancy test and saw those two happy lines on its window. Life since then has been agonisingly slow, and it seems to be getting slower every day. It must be worse for Liv, who’s stuck at home trying to keep busy while I get to be distracted by work. But actually, I’m not distracted by work – the baby is distracting me. Big time.
Normally at work I ignore my phone but now every time it vibrates I have to check. Today Liv called me about something random and said when I answered, “don’t worry, I’m not in labour!” As we reach the final days I am particularly on edge, knowing it could happen at any time.
The final weeks of this pregnancy have stressed me out way more than I expected. I’m sleeping terribly. Exhausted. Having odd dreams (the most recent: I bought a new car but got home and realised the car seat was still in the old car back at the dealer!) My right eyelid has been twitching. My tummy has been upset. People at work keep asking me if I’m OK. I nod and smile and say yes, yes I’m fine, but actually I don’t know if I am. I just can’t be bothered talking about it sometimes. It’s draining.
I haven’t heard anyone talk about how men deal with pregnancy, which is partly why I wanted to write this blog. When we first got pregnant, I expected that once we’d actually conceived, my job was done and I’d blissfully skip through the next nine months waiting for the big day. For the first 34 weeks-or-so, that’s pretty much what I did. But at about that point, I started to carry a mental weight that wasn’t there before.
I think it started with a little scare we had. Liv was worried that the baby wasn’t moving much, so we popped up to the maternity hospital and she got hooked up to the monitoring machine just to make sure things were OK. They were, nothing to worry about. And just to check, we got a growth scan done. It was at this scan we learnt our little guy was measuring 3-4 weeks ahead of average. So at 34 weeks, he was measuring what most unborn babies are at 37 weeks. I think the medical term for this is a Fatty Pants.
Because he was measuring big, we immediately jumped to the conclusion that he must be coming three weeks early. No one really told us this – in fact, the sonographer and our midwife both said gestational size doesn’t have much to do with when he’ll be born. However, we were stuck on that 37-week thing. Surely he’ll be here soon, we said.
Based on this incorrect assumption, I started expecting from 37 weeks that he could arrive at any time. This is true, as 37 weeks is considered full term. But it means that I’ve been on edge for three weeks, and that’s not good because I’m not super fun to be around when I’m stressed. If our boy is Fatty Pants, then I’m Grumpy Bum. And I have been pretty down lately.
There’s no logical reason for me to be down – pretty soon I’ll have a son! I should be stoked about that. But I’m more nervous. Not about being a dad or about the labour or anything like that. I’m nervous because I just don’t know when it’s going to happen. I’m someone who likes everything to be planned out and scheduled. I like to know what’s coming up and to be prepared for whatever that is, so when something’s completely out of my control, it’s hard for me to deal with.
We had another little scare last week – Liv called me about midday, as I was teaching. She was in tears, and said she’d had a car accident. I froze for a moment, and then asked if she was ok. She was – she’d rear-ended someone on the motorway at low speed. Ok, it’s all right. She assured me she would make it back home all right, so we left it at that and I went back to teaching my class, albeit a little edgier than before. But she called me again shortly after, saying the midwife wanted her to go to the hospital to go on the monitoring machine.
I felt pretty panicked. I told my students and colleagues that I needed to go and I pretty much ran out the school, worried about Liv and the baby and wanting to know that everything was all right. We got to hospital, got the monitoring machine going and everything seemed fine. And it was. But just to make sure, Liv had to stay hooked up to the machine for three hours. Better safe than sorry, they said. Obviously, we were relieved that nothing was wrong, but it was just another little thing to add to my ante-natal anxieties.
Our dog Rocko’s feeling it too, I think. He’s been acting weird lately. He’s shaking a lot, and sometimes not clinging to us like he used to. Like, he’ll actually stay put if we leave a room – previously he’d be at our heels with every step. It might be something else, but dogs are pretty intuitive. I suspect he knows something’s up.
So, pregnancy can be rough on dads (and dogs) too. I’m not going through nearly as much as Liv is, I know that. I am so proud of her for what she’s put up with, as this pregnancy has been awful for her. But we should also acknowledge that there is a pressure on dads, and they feel it. For some men it’s different – a colleague of mine, who’s also recently become a dad, said he felt an increased pressure that he was now the main breadwinner. Personally, that’s not bothering me, but it just shows that different men will experience different things.
In my last post I extolled the joys of antenatal classes and learning about pregnancy anatomy and the stages of labour. The last few classes, which I’ll cover here, actually were more mind blowing to me. The biggest topics covered were feeding; the interventions that are sometimes needed to deliver a baby; and where to birth. Oh, and I got to find out a little bit of what it’s like to be pregnant (hint: not that fun).
Some people got upset from my previous post where I commented that I hadn’t known exactly what the uterus or placenta were for. Well, as it says in the subtitle of this blog, I am literally clueless when it comes to babies, so that shouldn’t really come as a shock. But really, if it offends you that a guy doesn’t know even the basics of babies and birth, this probably isn’t the blog for you. I am absolutely as ignorant as someone could possibly be, but trying my best to change that, and that’s the entire point of this blog. As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Wearing the pregnancy belly
I’ll start with the fun bit: finding out what it’s like to be pregnant (well, sort of). Each week one man in our class had to wear the pregnancy belly. It’s just a big heavy bag (14kg precisely) of something with straps and you put it on and it’s supposed to simulate what it’s like to carry a baby in your belly. I tried it for one class, and it really was pretty tough. Liv was delighted: finally I got to experience the agony she’s going through! Here’s what you definitely can’t do while wearing it: tie your shoe laces; get up off the ground; roll over while lying down; pick anything up; stand in one place for longer than five minutes. So, it gave me an appreciation for how tough it is for women late in pregnancy, and made me extra vigilant about helping Liv with things like tying her shoe laces and picking stuff up off the floor.
I was a little apprehensive about wearing the belly because my back has been a bit dodgy lately and I didn’t want to put it out. Well, I put it out. The next morning, I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom and my lower back just jolted and spasmed and I had to get on the floor and get in the downward dog position because otherwise my back was cramping and it just hurt so much. I was like, ARGGHHH, I can’t go to work today! And Liv was laughing at my misfortune (in a loving way, of course). But honestly, I couldn’t move! It was freaky. And then I cursed myself for wearing the stupid belly because I KNEW this would happen and here I was on the floor wondering how the hell am I going to get up?
Eventually (after 10 minutes, so yeah not that long) I managed to sit up and then stand, and after a while it actually came right so I went to work in mild discomfort, but nothing major. Still, it was a good reminder to do the back exercises the physio has given me because I don’t want to be an old, unfit dad lying on the floor because he carried his son wrong, or something. I’m getting old, I guess.
One of the things that surprised me most about antenatal classes is how neutral they were. I expected a bunch of anti-medicine, pro-breastfeeding propaganda pushing the Ministry of Health’s line that Breast is Best and anything else is the devil (ok that last part I added on, but it’s how I perceive it). Of course, breastfeeding is amazing and the ideal and we all want that, but when feeding was covered in our classes, I was surprised and relieved at how balanced the information was.
Our educator started by giving us the basics on formula: what it is; why you might use it; how to give it to your baby; and what equipment you need to formula feed. Some of the reasons to formula feed included not being able to breastfeed (a relative minority of mothers); difficulties breastfeeding; and just not wanting to. All reasons are valid, and this choice wasn’t made out to be an inferior one. I really liked that our educator just presented us the facts and didn’t try to push us into breastfeeding. It’s nice to think that we can make an informed decision based on facts rather than having other people telling us what to do.
The second option is mixed feeding, where you give the baby some milk from the breast and the rest from a bottle containing breast milk. The argument for this is that it gives mum a break and dad can help out, but the argument against is that baby can become confused between teat and nipple and have problems feeding.
The third option is exclusively breastfeeding. We did spend most time on this, but mainly because it’s so complicated. I had no idea how technical breastfeeding is and how much you have to get it “right”. Firstly, it’s breastfeeding, not nipple feeding. The baby does not suck on the nipple – the nipple goes all the way inside the mouth and towards the back. Also, if it hurts, you’re not doing it right. Those are the main things I remember. In class, our educator got the mums to go off to another part of the room and talk about God-knows-what while she got all us guys – about seven of us – together to teach us how to breastfeed. The idea is that we would then teach the mums, and bring that knowledge home so we can help out a bit more when we haven’t got someone there to tell us what to do. I really liked this technique, because it makes me a bit more involved in a process I’m otherwise excluded from.
Personally, I like the idea of mixed feeding because it will give Liv a break, and give me some time to bond with the baby in this way. We know breastfeeding is the best option, but we’re also open to other options in the name of making life a bit easier for us. I also don’t think formula deserves the bad rap it gets. Many babies are raised on formula – myself included, save for a couple of weeks at the start – and don’t suffer adverse effects. As I suggested in a previous post, the pressure to breastfeed can place unnecessary pressure on a mum and cause mental health issues, so it’s best just to let people do what they want to do.
Where to birth
This was a big dilemma for us. We have two options: birth at our local maternity hospital, or have it at Middlemore Hospital. To help us make this decision, our antenatal classes included a tour of our maternity unit. We’re really lucky to have a birthing hospital in Pukekohe: it’s five minutes from our house; it’s not overly busy so you can stay a bit longer than the standard three nights if you want to; and the staff and facilities are pretty good (or so we’re told). We got a really good vibe from the place from the time we spent there – it’s kind of in a rural area so it’s super quiet and peaceful with sheep grazing in a paddock right outside the main building. It’s an interesting unit in that it’s also a rehabilitation unit and a hospital for the elderly. So you’ve got people beginning, and ending, their lives at the same place. They’re in separate parts, of course, but I appreciate the juxtaposition.
There are drawbacks to a maternity hospital, though, mainly to do with the lack of medical interventions available. If you’re birthing there and want an epidural, or need something more dramatic like a c-section, they have to whisk you up to Middlemore. That takes 25-40 minutes depending on the traffic, and Liv isn’t too keen on an ambulance ride if there’s something potentially wrong with the baby.
I love the idea of birthing at our local maternity unit. It’s a lovely place and it would be just so convenient to take a quick drive down the road when we know the birth isn’t far away. However, Liv’s peace of mind is the most important thing here – she is, after all, the one having the baby, and she must feel good about it. A full hospital like Middlemore provides the security of doctors and the interventions they can provide if needed. At the end of the day, that trumps convenience for us. We’ll still head back to our local maternity hospital once the baby’s born and Liv can recover there and learn to feed and all that. This could all go out the window if labour progresses really fast, of course, but this is our plan for now.
This section could also be titled ‘what could go wrong and the horrifying ways to fix them’. Yeah, a spontaneous, natural birth is ideal, but the reality (and the life-saving magic) of modern medicine means interventions are relatively common. Our childbirth educator took us through a bunch of things that might be used during the birth of our kid, and none of them are terribly desirable, to be honest.
First, I needed some statistics to reassure myself that an intervention isn’t likely, because ideally we wouldn’t need one. In 2015 (the most recent data available), 68.7% of women had a spontaneous vaginal birth; 16.3% needed the help of some sort of an instrument (not a saxophone – that probably wouldn’t help much); and 14.9% needed a c-section. Fewer than 6% needed to be induced. So, phew! Encouraging numbers. Here’s some of the options for intervention:
Induction: This is trying to get labour going if it hasn’t already started. One of the common techniques is to artificially rupture the membrane that holds the baby, breaking the waters and prompting contractions to begin.
Forceps: They’re basically huge BBQ tongs that the doctor puts inside the mum, up behind the baby’s head, and they just yank the baby out pretty much. They can leave some marks on the baby’s head (I was a forceps baby, and I still have a little dent in my head, but no big deal).
Ventouse: This is like a vacuum cleaner that attached to the baby’s head, and when it’s turned on it sucks the baby out.
C-section: They literally cut the baby out. This requires a few weeks of recovery, as opposed to a few days for a vaginal birth. If there’s enough time, they will give the mum an epidural and she can be awake for it, but if not they have to do an emergency one which usually involves her going under general anesthetic. This is a bad result because mum can’t experience any of her birth, and even dad has to leave the room usually.
These are some of the more common interventions mums will need, and our childbirth educator made a really important point about them: if you have one, in no way does it mean your birth was less successful or meaningful. As I said in my Supermums post, there’s a lot of pressure for women to birth naturally now. Some midwives even push the natural birth line to the extreme, avoiding interventions even when they would significantly decrease the suffering of the mother. These stances are unhelpful and belittle the experiences of women who must have interventions. I’ll never fully understand, but I like to think a woman can have whatever she needs to get through birth and not feel like it wasn’t a “real” birth. She should feel proud and accomplished no matter how it happens.
Basically, our birth plan is this: have a baby. I’ve been told many times to avoid having a rigid plan because babies don’t follow one, and the likelihood is it’s going to go out the window anyway. So being flexible seems like the best way to get through it, however it happens.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Listening to: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (2017 remix) by The Beatles
We did antenatal classes recently, and it’s a lot more fun than I thought it would be. And also a lot more informative. For example, I learnt that the baby goes INSIDE the uterus. And also that the baby does not, in fact, reside in the placenta at all. Who knew? We covered so much that I’ll write about it in two parts, so here’s the first one.
I’ll admit – I’m totally clueless when it comes to this stuff. Most guys are, I think. And perhaps it’s because we just don’t talk about it. At work the day after this particular class, I was filling my male colleagues in on my new-found knowledge about pregnancy anatomy, and my remarks were received with disgust by some of the men, and surprise by the women, one of whom said she’d never heard men talk about this before!
I don’t know how the other men at antenatal class felt about all this, but I was fascinated. My only concept of pregnancy was that somewhere inside my wife a small human is growing. That’s about it. I hadn’t even thought about what the umbilical cord is attached to! (Spoiler – it’s attached to the placenta, which comes out AFTER the baby is born).
Our instructor also got all the men to practice changing a nappy, and I learnt that when you’re changing a baby when they’re lying down, and you open the nappy from the front to see if they’ve done anything, you should immediately put the front of the nappy back over their bits because the cold air makes them wee. Awesome advice! So that’s how you avoid getting pissed on, apparently.
That was our first class. The second one covered labour, and it’s nothing like I thought. In my head I always imagine I’m at work when Liv goes into labour – I’m in the middle of teaching a class and my phone vibrates and I look at the text and it’s Liv saying COME HOME NOW THE BABY IS COMING and I tell my class Sorry guys, my son is on his way, gotta run! And they clap as I dash out the door and rush home and Liv is standing there with the bags ready and we rush to the hospital and the baby comes 10 minutes later.
Well, that’s pretty unlikely. Labour has stages and the average is 24 hours! Apparently in the beginning the contractions are really small and Liv will just keep on doing whatever for a while and have a bath or something until they start to get stronger and more regular. And that’s when I should come home – if indeed I AM at work – and we just potter around the house for a while (I imagine) until the midwife tells us it’s time to go. Our antenatal instructor said the stages of contractions are like waves at the beach – they start out being like Point Chevalier, tiny little irregular waves, then progress to Mission Bay, where they’re a big bigger and more regular, and finally graduate to Piha where they’re huge and violent and coming all the time. That’s a good way to visualise it, I think. Anyway, I’m happy just knowing a bit more about what we can expect, maybe.
To give us men an idea of what labour is like, we had to practice having contractions. This involved finding something in the room to lean on, and then rocking back and forth while making a mooing sound. Apparently this is what a woman in labour sounds like, according to our childbirth educator. Then we had to find a chair and kneel towards it with out heads down, again making the mooing sound. The girls all thought it was hilarious, of course, but it gave us a taste of what it might be like for them.
So, I’m really glad we took this class – this is all stuff I probably wouldn’t have bothered to find out myself and we’re with a bunch of other people in the same boat. I think it’s that there’s just so much information out there about babies and pregnancy that you don’t quite know what to believe, so you decide not to find out anything at all. That’s me, anyway. Other men have told me they found antenatal classes a bit boring and pointless, that is’ all common sense. Maybe ours was just different, but I loved learning more about what Liv is going through and what actually happens during pregnancy.
People are really intrusive when it comes to babies – even unborn ones. And I’m not talking about family here, I’m talking about strangers feeling like they can come up to Liv and comment on her belly, or even touch it. She hates it, and I completely get it. You wouldn’t walk up to someone with any other physical anomaly – like a missing leg, or something – and just start touching it, or even talking about it. You’d give that person the privacy they deserve and let them talk about it if they want to. But when it comes to pregnancy, all bets are off. It’s like Liv is wearing a sign saying, “Hey, I’m pregnant, feel my belly and ask me a million questions!” Most of this comes from other women, of course, and Liv’s often too polite to say anything, but it would be great if people could hold back a bit and give expectant mums a bit of space.
The bigger issue, though, is the pressure that comes from other mums. It’s a pressure to birth – and care for your child – in a certain way. These are the mums who think natural drug-free birth is the only option, and would never even utter the word “formula”. I call them “supermums”, because that’s the perception they’re trying to portray, I guess. A colleague told me that after she’d given birth via caesarean, some lady asked her if she felt like less of a woman because of it. That sums up the supermum mentality – it’s an underlying message that “I”m so amazing that I did the whole thing naturally and you’re shit because you needed help”. It’s so wrong.
Most people are great, of course, and we haven’t been subject to too much of this pressure directly. But it is there, bubbling away in certain circles and it has to stop. This pressure creates an expectation in mums – and their partners – that there is a “best” way to birth and anything else is a compromise. The worst thing is that this pressure comes from a minority – just a third of women are fortunate enough to have a spontaneous natural birth without being induced, or needing an epidural. Certainly most people we talk to have had some sort of intervention in their birth, sometimes to save the baby’s – or mum’s – life. Of course, a normal, natural birth is what we all want, but we shouldn’t judge women for needing – or wanting – an intervention to make things a bit easier. Obviously, I can’t even imagine the trauma women face going through childbirth, but I do know that pressure to do things naturally can be harmful.
There’s pressure to obey the “pregnancy rules”, too. Rules like no coffee, no sushi, no deli meats, no cheese, no shellfish, no poached eggs, etc. The list goes on forever and ever. Some women weigh up the risks and decide it’s actually not worth it – the risk is actually pretty minor and something like sushi is a small joy in an otherwise difficult pregnancy. If a woman wants to be cautious and avoid all of these things, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t then judge others for not doing the same. Liv has had this a few times, mainly when she’s eating sushi. Other women can’t believe it. She’s careful, and makes sure it has been made fresh, but they still freak out. What business is it of theirs, though? Unless a pregnant women is swigging Jack Daniels while doing lines of cocaine and smoking a pack of Marlboro reds a day, leave her alone.
Then there’s breastfeeding. Yeah, breast IS best, but at what cost? No one seems to take into account mum’s mental health here. I speak with absolutely no experience, of course, but I will find out soon. However, it’s the same as with the birth pressure – it’s a woman’s choice what to feed her baby and none of your business, actually. We were told that if we tried to mix feed – offering him a combination of some breast feeds and some bottle feeds using expressed milk – that he might get confused between nipple and bottle and not feed properly. But the evidence doesn’t back this up. And giving Liv a break and allowing me to feed him a bit seems like a good option. That’s the plan, and could change of course, but the principal is the same – don’t judge us for whatever options we choose.
The pressure to breastfeed can also lead to postnatal depression. A recent study showed women are more likely to suffer depression after birth if they had intended to breastfeed but found they couldn’t. It suggests greater support for breastfeeding mothers, although it’s a British study and as far as I know, we have excellent breastfeeding support here in New Zealand. But the main issue still stands, that if we build breastfeeding up to be an “all or nothing” option, there are bound to be negative consequences for some women. So instead of “breast is best”, how about “feeding your child is best”, and however you do that is up to you.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Reading: Babies by Dr Christopher Green and Einstein by Walter Isaacson