I was having a conversation with my close friend Becca about Offspring a few weeks ago. We were deliberating whether Nina should choose Leo or Thomas (we went for Leo, of course) and the conversation turned to the rarity of male midwives, with me wondering aloud how I would have felt being looked after by a man.
That’s when I learnt that Becca’s daughter was delivered by a midwife called Nicolas. I had so many questions for her that I felt guilty of sexism; after all, while we celebrate women in traditionally ‘male’ roles, it’s still somewhat common to express surprise at the choice of a traditionally ‘female’ role by a man.
Hannah Dahlen, professor of midwifery at the University of Western Sydney and national spokesperson for the Australian College of Midwives, says that “men represent about 3 per cent of the midwifery workforce, though many go into management”. She feels it’s important that we discuss male midwives, adding that “surely in today’s world it is simply important that women feel looked after in the best way, regardless of gender”.
The word ‘midwife’ itself can give people the wrong idea, too, she says: “It is from Old English, ‘mid’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘wife’ referring to the expectant woman.”
Hannah says that for some women, the presence of a professional male can be a comfort, perhaps due to sociological conditioning. This could account for the high number of men in obstetrics, with many women actively choosing a man to oversee their journey.
But the role of an obstetrician and a midwife is quite different; while they may perform the same vital checks in the nine months of pregnancy, only a midwife will go through breathing and meditation techniques, and be with you throughout labour to guide and support. This point was brought home to me by a friend, who said of her well known male obstetrician, “He waited in his office until the very last minute, arrived for the moment of glory to officially deliver, then left again, hardly getting his hands dirty.”
There is an intimacy between mother and midwife, and some may imagine that men aren’t well equipped for the heightened emotions of a pregnant or labouring woman. But Hannah Dahlen says, reassuringly, “The male midwives I’ve worked with are extraordinary human beings. To survive and survive well in a woman’s world takes the development of some amazing characteristics.”
My friend Becca admitted that she wasn’t happy with the prospect of a male midwife taking over when she was 5cm dilated. “I panicked and said ‘No, I don't want a man! Don't leave!” she remembers. However, her initial worries proved unfounded.
“He walked in and made me feel at ease very quickly with his kindness and humour, which continued throughout the whole labour. The room was very relaxed yet I felt he was in complete control,” she says. “This was my first natural birth after a previous c-section; a c-section had been planned for that morning but my waters broke early, so I decided on a natural birth and was labouring without much preparation. But he was very calm and kind and kept reminding me what a privilege it was for him to be sharing this amazing day in our life with us.”
Privilege is a word that comes up again and again when researching this subject. The current issue of Australian Midwifery News has a 20-page spread on the subject, profiling midwives and their patients. Becca believes that being a male midwife “takes a very special breed of man”, which is certainly borne out in AMN; Pete Malavisi, a registered midwife, commented, “To be honest, I see myself as a midwife first and man second. It feels very special to have the ability to practise in this profession.”
Mark Benson, a registered midwife, draws on his roles as husband and father to better understand how to connect with women at the crucial time – all while not forgetting about the other man in the room, who can often feel overwhelmed. “It can be very positive for expectant dads to have another male in the room,” he says. “One of the very social moments after the birth is grabbing Dad’s hand, sometimes with tears in both our eyes, saying ‘Congratulations mate!’”
The birth, though central, is only one aspect of the whole journey to into motherhood; once safely delivered, there is the issue of feeding to be tackled.
After coming home with her newborn son, Rohati mistook her community midwife for the mailman. “He was in his late 50s, which made me think he must have been an early pioneer of males choosing midwifery as a career, and I admired that,” she says. “It did feel a bit strange at first, that he was such a breastfeeding expert, but then again, no one blinks at the thought of male gynaecologists.”
Donovan Jones, a lecturer in the midwifery program at the University of Newcastle, enoucrages any man who is considering going into the field. “Do it! Use the passion that drives any good midwife to be with women,” he says. “Don’t worry about gender stereotypes – if you truly want to do midwifery, the difference you can make in the life of birthing women is invaluable.”
So, as well as barracking for Leo in the love stakes, let’s acknowledge the great work that he and his real-life counterparts are doing for a marginal, but slowly expanding group of vitally important healthcare providers.
Julia Cahill is a mum of three gorgeous boys, and a freelance writer when they allow it. She blogs about life at juliacahillswords.com.