One of the men on my team has just returned from paternity leave – here in the UK men get two weeks off for the birth. Trying to be a good manager, I took him to one side and asked him how it went, and if everything was alright at home. He launched into a pretty full-on account of the birth.
It struck me that it was a bit of a shame for him that I was a woman – he really needed to be telling his story to a man who had been through it all himself. As a woman, even though I have given birth, I am on the wrong side of the experience. Men and women often seem to avoid talking directly about childbirth to one another – plenty of times I’ve found young mothers swapping birth stories in the kitchen, while their partners are just as absorbed in the front room, sharing their own tales of horror from the maternity ward frontline. The experience of the two genders is bound to be different, and it is not always easy to share stories across the divide. After all, plenty of women feel that unless you experience the actual pain, you have not really “had” the experience. And plenty of men don’t feel able to admit to their partners just how scary, boring and ridiculous some of the experience was for them.
I can’t see how a man’s account of his experience can be dismissed as invalid – it’s just different. For some men it is cleary quite startling and can be traumatic, especially when things do not go according to plan. It may be a young man’s first experience of a hospital, of witnessing someone in severe pain, or of quantities of blood. On the positive side, it is usually the partner, not the woman, who can actually see the emerging baby – and is sufficiently alert and unaffected by pain and drugs to fully appreciate the miracle of birth. It is a hugely emotional experience, and for first-time fathers it may also mark the start of a rapid psychological journey, catching up with a partner who may have spent a good part of their pregnancy adjusting to motherhood.
Watching young men becoming fathers, even as a rather distant observer, it is obvious the change it makes in them. Of course birth and parenting have an immense and lasting impact on women, but it is easy to ignore the changes that they make in men.