Advocacy vs. Abandonment - 3 pitfalls for partners to avoid when using a birth plan and how to get it right.

I'm not going to lie, I felt a little scared about my son's birth. As much as I knew that birth can be an amazing experience there is also all that uncertainty and potential risk and the underlying essence of the thing which was that a baby was going to come out of my wife. Out of her. 

What the chuff is a birth plan?

We had thought quite a bit about the birth, how she wanted it to be and how I could support her best. We were encouraged to put together a birth plan - basically some ideas of what we did and didn't want, preferences and hopes that we could share with the midwife who came to the birth. We found it a helpful experience but a word of warning - it's not a Christmas list, things don't always go perfectly and I think it's important to not cling too tightly to the perfect birth. 

That said, Abby (that's my wife, to the uninitiated) was pretty clear on what she wanted in birth, to be at home if at all possible, to have the environment clear and relaxed, with soft lighting and music - trying to create as calm and peaceful an experience as possible. To describe birth in these terms might sound ridiculous but it really can be possible. 

(birth)Plan B

There's ALWAYS a relevant Clipart - An artform underused since 1997, we're bringing it BACK.

There's ALWAYS a relevant Clipart - An artform underused since 1997, we're bringing it BACK.

We were also both realistic about the possibility of having to go into hospital to give birth and although Abby was not at all keen on the idea of certain pain relief or having a C-section we were aware that things don't always happen as you hope so we ensured we also had something of a plan if this happened too. We also decided that if things didn't go as planned then it would be up to me to try and make sure things went as positively (I.E. as Abby would want it) as possible. With so many different possibilities that felt like quite a responsibility...

Despite my underlying uncertainty I felt OK about helping Abby with the birth, comforting, encouraging and supporting her through. But I knew that when it came to the advocacy and support side of things with the birth plan I was less sure. What if she wanted one thing and the midwives were advising another? What if she was so focused on the birth she was unable to engage with what she wanted at a certain point? Lots of what if questions. As it turned out we were very lucky and the birth went pretty much entirely to plan. But since the birth, and especially since setting up The Dad Course, I've spoken to a number of people about some of the more extreme pitfalls that birth partners fall in to when interacting with the birthplan. Here's what they said (the names are my own!):

The Zealot

This is the birth partner who treats the birthplan as if it is holy text, to be adhered to under any circumstance and never to be deviated from. "What's that love, the pain's too much for you and you want some pain relief? NO YOU CANNOT, THE BIRTH PLAN DOESN'T ALLOW IT". It's important to remember that a birth plan is exactly that - a plan. Although it indicates what your partner wants there needs to be some flexibility in it, and if your partner wants something else don't forget that sometimes plans go out the window.

Birth partner key skill - LISTEN TO YOUR PARTNER.

The Flake

Ah The Flake. Childbirth is the place where a good partner can make a massive difference. It's a totally crazy experience, by far the most beautiful but extreme of my life. When the going gets tough The Flake finds it all too much and simply wilts into the background, distancing themselves from what is happening, abandoning the birth plan to let 'the professionals' decide and taking flight. One doula even told me of a dad who once excused himself for a number of hours to the distress of his partner with no warning because it was all too much for him. Wow! Although there may be times when you have to let professionals take charge it's important that you are able to put forward what your partner wants when it is appropriate. The Zealot fights but The Flake freezes or flies. The key to not being a flake is to prepare yourself for what is coming and remember that this isn't really about you. As my parents used to tell me: your actions may not be perfect, but you can only do your best. It is an emotional experience and if you're worried that this could be you then take the time to talk it through with both your partner and people you know and trust before the birth.

Birth partner key skill - PREPARE YOURSELF AND BE THERE WHEN YOUR PARTNER NEEDS YOU.

The Fighter

I think it's fair to say that birth exerts a fair bit of stress on your partner's body. This is not a game of badminton in the park, after all. It's not uncommon, under this stress (or perhaps even not under stress) for your partner to become angry, irritable, upset - anything. A midwife told me that she has received some of the fiercest anger from the normally most mild-mannered women. That's OK. If you interact with your partner and she doesn't like it, deal with it. If you try to engage her in conversation or she tells you she wants something to happen in a way you don't appreciate, get over it. The fighter though is not one to be beaten in verbal jousting and won't be told, and rises to the occasion with equal retorts, bringing their own anger and unyielding certainty to the table. This midwife also said there were occasions where she has had to ask partners to leave the room because of the anger/argument they are bringing to the table. That's not OK. You might be sure you're right about something - that doesn't really matter here.

Birth partner key skill - IF YOUR PARTNER INSULTS YOU OR DOESN'T TALK NICELY TO YOU, DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.

You

Ultimately what your partner needs from you is to be there to love, encourage and support her. You need to be ready to stand up and make sure the birth plan isn't forgotten about when things are going contrary to it because sometimes it is possible to do things the way you want to, it just takes a little more work. But you also need to be flexible, roll with the circumstances, prepare yourself for all eventualities and above all to listen to your partner.  

Things change and it's important to give your partner the birth she wants, rather than the birth she wanted beforehand. That might mean any number of things you hadn't foreseen - don't turn it into a fight, or represent the birth plan above your partner! As I previously said your birth plan is only a plan but no matter what happens you have the ability to choose whether you make the birth easier or harder for your partner by the way you interact with her and the whole experience - the choice is yours!