Fathers changed birth story — and parenting

Fathers who pushed to be included in their children's births beginning in the 1950s have brought real change to the modern birth, according to historian Judith Walzer Leavitt's 2009 book Make Room for Daddy.

Buoyed by changing perceptions of how men should function in society, fathers have created "unprecedented new roles for themselves in a traditionally women's event"  and have "helped to make hospitals more flexible in how they handled birth," Leavitt writes.

Dads' participation in birth has helped to break down the "mystique of modern medicine and further opened the world of obstetrics to lay participation and interpretation," she writes.

Fathers often report that witnessing a child's birth is one of the best experiences of their lives.

"It was better than any game I've played or any big hit I've had," said Ian Desmond, the Washington Nationals' shortstop who recently took advantage of Major League Baseball's new paternity leave to attend the birth of his son, Grayson.

However, the journey has not always been easy for men, who in their public lives often are far more in control than they feel attending the birth of one of their own children.

Leavitt quotes the writer Stephen Harrigan, who wrote in Reader's Digest in March, 1979, about attending the birth of his son. Before the birth, Harrigan worried that he would be no more than a spectator metaphorically holding out Gatorade to his wife, the "athlete who would finish the race."

Harrigan found the experience to be more profound and involving than he expected, but some other fathers feel "at sea, abandoned and out-of-control" at birth, Leavitt writes.

Some fathers cringe at the idea of watching their wives in pain or perhaps fear the experience will damage the desire they feel for their wives. Fathers attending birth are now so ubiquitous that a reluctant dad may well feel pressured to go.

Nevertheless, men's foray into the birth process, which may begin with their attending prenatal classes, has led to their increased participation in their families' lives and experiences, compared with those 1950s dads who began the process, Leavitt writes.

Dads who don't attend their children's birth lose a crucial opportunity, according to researcher Jessica Weiss, who goes so far as to say they risk having "missed the boat of shared parenting."

Dads enter the American childbirth picture

American fathers began making their way into the childbirth picture in the 1950s, according to Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, historian Judith Walzer Leavitt's 2009 book. Birth had migrated from home to hospital by that time.Make Room for Daddy

Two developments helped bring dad into the birth process, Leavitt writes — the growing influence in this country of British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read's 1933 book Childbirth Without Fear and the "natural birth" movement it helped launch; and the development of regional anesthesia for childbirth.

Dick-Read's book inspired couples to begin exploring ways to experience childbirth together. The introduction of regional anesthesia meant that women were conscious during birth, but often alone for long periods during labor.

Women asked for their husbands to be allowed to attend their births, and doctors and hospital officials eventually realized that the fathers' presence could make birth safer and more satisfying for mothers.

The phenomenon of fathers attending their children's birth was not just new, it was news. For the June 13, 1955 issue of Life magazine, photographer Burton Glinn snapped reporter John Stouffer gaping in amazement at the birth of his son at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.