Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to make a baby. But sometimes a father can feel his role becoming hazy in the nine months between conception and birth. While the mother-to-be skips off to regular check-ups and immerses herself in a world of breast pumps, 000 clothing and mother's groups, dad can feel left out.
But it should be a shared experience, with the father offering plenty of support, says Anne Hollonds, of Relationships Australia. "There is a vast gap that emerges; the woman becomes very educated and the guy feels left out, so one of the most important ways to support your partner is to stay involved and to find ways of being connected with the pregnancy". She adds that the more the father knows and understands, the more he will be able to comment on, ask questions and participate.
When father-of-two Peter Ford found out his partner Leslie Arnott was pregnant, he was very excited about the prospect of becoming a dad. A few months later when questions arose about what sort of birth Arnott wanted, Ford took the proactive approach of talking to Arnott and her caregivers about the questions he had. "What I have learnt is that the state of a woman's mind is very important, so if she is clear in what she wants, that needs to be upheld and supported. I am very much guided by what she feels." The couple now has two boys, aged four and two, with a third child on the way.
How to educate yourself
Arnott, who is also Acting President of the Maternity Coalition, says the best way a father can alleviate concerns is to talk to his partner's caregivers about the pregnancy and birth options. However, she feels it's not necessary for a man to attend every clinical appointment with his partner. "If the woman has appropriate care, she should be forming a strong relationship with that caregiver, built on trust, and that is often done without the partner present."
Hollonds's advice to men is to buy male-specific books on pregnancy and fathering. She adds that attending some clinical appointments, such as the first ante-natal appointment and ultrasounds (if you choose to have them), can afford men the opportunity to ask their own questions and enable them to bond more with the unborn baby.
"Providing support is the best thing a partner can do; support in decision-making, in doing extra things within the household and emotional support", says Arnott. "Women, when they are pregnant, have a cocktail of hormones surging around in their veins and they can experience heightened emotions so you really have to go with it."
Showing an interest in your partner's day-to-day life and trying to understand what she is going through is equally important, says Hollonds. However, she adds that many men also face challenges and fears during this time, so it is important that both partners nurture each other. "Both partners need to be attuned to each other and a lot of the attention does go to the pregnant mother, but I think she needs to also stay attuned to his life", says Hollonds.
Keeping the lines of communication open, and realising this can be a time of intense stress is important. Arguments and concerns about things like finances and each others' futures can cause great worry, especially if they are not talked through.
What routine tests your partner might expect
The first ante-natal appointment is usually when the majority of blood tests take place:
- Blood group and antibody screen
- Full Blood Count (FBC) or iron and platelets
- Rubella antibody status
- Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C
A urine test to screen for certain bacteria is also done around this time.
Ultrasounds to confirm pregnancy and foetal age are becoming standard practice. However, many midwives and caregivers feel there is still not enough evidence to rule out possible harmful effects on a foetus in the long-term. Therefore, this test should be researched and thought about in-depth by expecting parents before going ahead with it.
At about 20 weeks, an ultrasound is conducted to check the position of the placenta, assess the baby's growth and his/her risk for conditions such as Down's syndrome. Again, expecting parents need to decide if they want to go ahead with this ultrasound, and to think about how they might respond if the test indicates abnormalities with the baby's health.
Women who are Rhesus negative may have another group and antibodies test now, and again at 34 weeks. Anti-D injections will be offered to these women now, and again at 34 weeks. A Glucose Tolerance Test is often conducted to check for gestational diabetes.
Often a vaginal swab is taken (up to 37 weeks) to screen for Group B streptococcus.
Planning the birth
Fathers can help prepare for the birth by attending parent education classes, says NSW Midwives Association Secretary Hannah Dahlen. "Fathers can hear the options of birth that are available, they get to talk to other fathers and ask questions", says Dahlen. "This way, they get a lot of the knowledge needed to make an informed choice with their partner. Ultimately, it is the woman's choice but men need to know they are an important part of that birthing process."
Dahlen adds that men who don't feel comfortable being involved with the birth need to be honest with their partners. "There are still plenty of men out there who want to stay in the corridor while their partner is giving birth. That's okay, but they need to be honest so the woman can find someone who will be a willing support person."
Help her stay motivated
To maintain good health during pregnancy, offer to exercise with your pregnant partner, or be proactive in cooking healthy meals, but be careful what you say. "A woman is going to feel terribly vulnerable and there is nothing worse than a partner who says 'you are getting a bit chubby'", says Dahlen. "Be careful how you go about it, and reassure her that she is still beautiful and you think she is amazing producing this baby."
Arnott says that bringing a third party into the equation can often help. While she may not be intent on listening to dietary and exercise advice from her partner, she may give it more credence if it comes from another source or her caregiver. Don't forget, too, that a certain amount of weight gain (in areas other than the abdomen) is to be expected during pregnancy, and especially in cases where mothers-to-be experience oedema, or swelling. Your caregiver is probably the best person to advise.