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."

Childbirth vs. baseball

Where do you stand on this? It probably depends on how seriously you take your sports.

The baseball season was only a few weeks old when a sports blogger lambasted Texas Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis for missing a game in which he was scheduled to pitch, in order to attend the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth Grace.

Colby Lewis

Colby Lewis

Lewis, 31, was the first player to go on Major League Baseball's new paternity leave list. A player can be on the list, and off the roster, for up to three days for the birth of a child.

"Baseball players are paid millions to play baseball," Richie Whitt wrote in a post for the Dallas Observer sports blog. "If that means 'scheduling' births so they occur in the off-season, then so be it. Of the 365 days in a year, starting pitchers 'work' maybe 40 of them, counting spring training and playoffs.

"If it was a first child, maybe. But a second child causing a player to miss a game? Ludicrous."

Twitter and blogosphere lit up with sputtering rebuttals: Fatherhood trumps baseball any day, buster.

The Rangers' pitching coach, Mike Maddux, said he supports the new list.

But baseball writer Rob Neyer waded in on Whitt's side of the fracas for SB Nation:

"I'm going to be honest here, as I have been since the first time this came up, some years ago (official paternity leave is new, but players taking a game off to attend childbirth is not)," he wrote.

"As a human being, I think this is fantastic. As a baseball fan, though? If my team's in the playoff hunt, I'm sorry, but I don't want one of my starting pitchers taking the night off. We're not talking about some guy who works on the assembly line for the Integrated Widget Corporation. We're talking about one of the most talented pitchers on the planet, not easily replaceable. What if your team finishes one game short of the playoffs? Was it really worth it?

"Or as a sage philosopher once observed, The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

"And last I checked, there were many fans of the Texas Rangers."

Well, it's not just the Texas Rangers anymore. Several other players have already gone on the list, including the Oakland Athletics' catcher Kurt Suzuki, Washington Nationals' shortstop Ian Desmond and New York Mets' left-fielder Jason Bay.

“Teams were basically granting [leave to attend births] anyway, but they ended up playing short, and that really wasn’t the goal,” Peter Woodfork, a senior vice president with Major League Baseball, told the New York Times' Tyler Kepner for a story about the list. “[The paternity leave list] leaves no gray area. Neither side feels like, ‘Well, we really want you to stay.’ There’s no guilt, and it helps both sides.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons