I was caring for a young woman from an African country that is steeped in paternalistic notions and demoralizing and sometimes inhumane treatment of women. She had not been in the
In her home country, childbirth and anything pregnancy related was women’s work; men keep out of such things. The women support each other during labor and with child-rearing, and expect that the men are not involved. Perhaps they don’t want the men involved, I’m not sure. But this young woman I was caring for brought along her father-in-law and a friend from her neighborhood.
The friend was known to be the woman to go to when in labor. She was essentially the local doula in their culture. She was also very “Americanized”, and acted as the liaison for the laboring women in the hospital. She helps these women through this very modern medicalized American way of birth, and helps the woman’s voice be heard in this foreign environment.
This particular father-in-law was there because his son, her husband, had to work and so he said he was her transportation. He sat in the corner of the room not making any effort to engage himself. When we would talk with the young woman, and sometimes ask her what she wanted to do, she turned to him and asked what she should do. The father-in-law would say something quickly and turn back to the TV. She would then answer us, presumably whatever he said. They spoke to each other in their native language, so I can only guess this was the case.
Soon this young woman’s labor became very active, and to my surprise, the father-in-law came to life. He helped her into different laboring positions, encouraged her to walk, and then walk some more (he was very big into walking during labor), to get on the birth ball, to breathe, and they prayed together. When she started saying she couldn’t do this any longer, get her an epidural, he spoke to her in a soft tone. She nodded to his words, and continued with the walking, the birth ball, and later sat on the toilet for some time.
The friend told me that the father-in-law was telling her that she was a strong woman just like the women of their village, and was going through her labor just fine. An epidural, he said, was not natural.
When it was apparent that it was getting close to the time she was ready to push, he laid his hands on her belly and performed his own version of Leopold’s maneuvers. He announced that he wasn’t sure the baby was head down and in the right position, but we assured him that in fact the baby was head down.
When the baby was born he was one of the first to hold him, and pronounced him healthy and vigorous. Later, after the birth, my preceptor and I spoke with him and the friend. We learned that back in their home country he was actually very involved in childbirth, and many of his family members called upon him during labor. He caught several babies himself, and learned to watch for signs of danger. He had no formal training, other than what he learned during his own experiences. I was impressed with his knowledge of labor support, and I’d imagine he could catch a baby with mom in non-hospital like positions (squatting, hands and knees) better than some professionally trained birth attendants.
I guess the argument can be made that perhaps he was involved in childbirth to further keep control of women in his culture, but given that it was the actual culture that dictated men stay clear of such womanly things, I think he was probably taking risks in such a venture. Our culture dictates that men (namely the father) should be involved in childbirth, yet I’ve never seen an American man so knowledgeable in labor support and the benefits of non-pharmacological measures. I’m sure there are some out there, I’ve just never crossed paths with one yet.