Men who choose not to attend the birth of their child are in the minority

Men who choose not to attend the birth of their child are in the minority

John Barnes is a Jamaican-born former soccer manager and Liverpool legend who is widely regarded as one of the best wingers in the history of English football. Understandably, he really likes his footy, so much so that he opted to watch a recent Liverpool-Chelsea match rather than see his child being born.

Barnes, who was commentating for Sky Sports at the time, heard about the birth during the first half, when his colleague Richard Keyes announced it on air. When Keyes asked Barnes whether he fancied heading off, Barnes replied: "I'll stay for the second half."

If you're properly prepared it's less likely to shock you 

The child, a 3.3-kilogram boy named Alexander, came out just fine. However, Barnes took a flogging, with some online pundits - obviously not Liverpool fans - branding him a lowlife. While there was some suggestion that Barnes's decision had won him major "man points", his widespread censure was a potent reminder of the current orthodoxy - indeed, the absolute expectation - that a man be present at the birth of his child.

But this expectation is increasingly under scrutiny. In 2008, veteran obstetrician Michel Odent risked ridicule by suggesting men should be barred from the birthroom, claiming their presence is not only unnecessary "but also hinders labour". For Odent, who has overseen more than 15,000 births - he popularised waterbirthing in the 1970s - the presence of a highly stressed man prevents the woman from entering the "primal, unthinking" space necessary for an optimum delivery and can actually stop the release of oxytocin, the key hormone in childbirth.

Odent suggests that when it comes to childbirth, the best place for a bloke is anywhere but the delivery suite.
For most of human history women gave birth either alone or in the presence of other women. Obstetricians only came on the scene in the 1750s, when a "man midwife" or "barber surgeon" might be called upon in case of trouble.

"It was then that the notion of childbirth as a medical emergency began to take hold," the president of the Australian College of Midwives, Dr Hannah Dahlen, says. "From then on, childbirth became increasingly technical and medicalised. In the 1950s and '60s intervention reached an all-time high. Women were being induced, knocked out, episiotomied and delivered with forceps."

Husbands were not part of the process. "Childbirth was a lonely experience for women. It wasn't the best for men either, who were left with a changed partner, someone they couldn't relate to because they didn't know what they'd been through."

In the 1970s, however, a corrective wave of "childbirth activism" humanised the process: among other things, men were brought into the delivery suite, where they could provide encouragement and support. Generally speaking, Dahlen regards this as a change for the better. She cites research from far north Canada, where pregnant Inuit women had traditionally been shipped out to cities to give birth. Then, about 15 years ago, local birth clinics became more common, as did the presence of men during delivery. "They found an associated drop in domestic violence, because the men felt a much stronger connection to their wives," she says.

The majority of births that Dahlen sees these days have men involved. "Even Middle Eastern men, who used to be more reluctant, are coming in," she says.

Some men, she concedes, can be traumatised. Celebrity chefs seem particularly vulnerable. Gordon Ramsay is famous for missing the birth of his four children, saying that he thought his sex life would be damaged. "I don't want to see something coming out of a sort of sci-fi movie," he told the Sun. "I don't want to see a skinned rabbit or skinned pigeon coming out of [my wife's] ninny and then get excited and hold it. Give it to me when it's all nice and sort of clean and ready to go."

Part of the problem, according to Dahlen, is that men are not incorporated into the process early on. "If you're properly prepared it's less likely to shock you," she says.

"But certainly, if men don't want to be there, it's dangerous to force them. Men can often be quite impatient to 'get results'. But childbirth is one thing that has to happen at its own pace."

Fact file

- Medical intervention in childbirth started with "man midwives" and "barber surgeons" in the 1750s. The level of intervention peaked in the 1950s and '60s.

- In the 1970s, "childbirth activism" brought about many changes, including welcoming fathers into delivery rooms.

- Men who choose not to attend the birth of their child are in the minority, despite some commentators believing that the presence of the father hampers labour.