Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week, Jenée Desmond-Harris and Joel Anderson discuss Prudie’s response to: “Audience of One.”
My spouse and I are expecting our first kid. It’s still pretty early, not yet the second trimester, but we’re having some tension about what delivery will look like. I know that you can only prepare, not plan, but no matter what happens or what birth looks like, I want my spouse (and only him) there with me. He’s been a great source of comfort and support through the pregnancy, but he has some trepidation about being “the person in the room.” He comes from a country and culture where the husbands usually stay at home during the delivery or at most hang out in the waiting room. He’s shared a cocktail of thoughts that all combine to affect his thinking: he’s not sure how he can help, he’s afraid of getting paralyzed and ending up doing or saying something counterproductive, and has hinted a little at witnessing the “grossness” of it (using far more tactful words, though this aspect does sting a little, as we are both “love is letting your hair down in front of them” people).
We have many more conversations yet to come, so I was hoping for some outside perspective about how to navigate them. While I realize that the considerations of the birth partner matter, I also have this critical little voice in my head saying that this is a profoundly vulnerable and challenging event in a birthing person’s life. Can’t the partner put aside their preferences to support the birthing parent in whatever is going to make the process more comfortable and supportive for them? How do couples balance things when the needs feel mutually exclusive?
Jenée Demond-Harris: I figured why not have my own husband/father of my child (and also Slate colleague) reflect on my advice eviscerating someone else’s husband for being a bad father. I think we both know exactly how this would have gone over in our home. But what do you think? Was I too hard on this guy?
Joel Anderson: What a potential minefield. Sheesh. And yes, I know that I’d be co-parenting from my own one-bedroom apartment if I’d proposed this sort of arrangement.
So, let me start off very gingerly here: I have some information about the expectant father and his beliefs here and not nearly enough about the mother’s. And what I want to hone in on here for a second is her comment that her partner comes from “a country and culture where the husbands usually stay at home during the delivery, or at most hang out in the waiting room.” So, what sort of culture or country does she come from? Was she clueless about her husband’s background or that he felt this way before pregnancy? I would have a hard time believing that.
Jenée: Also, I’m guessing most countries and cultures where dads stay out of the delivery room don’t have super high expectations for their involvement in day-to-day parenting. This is fine if that’s what she’s signed up for, but it sounds like she hasn’t—at least not intentionally. I guess what really stood out to me in the letter, and what I can’t let go of, is I don’t think this is a stand-alone issue. I think it will go hand in hand with other stances. I don’t see a guy who is weird about being there for the birth being super comfortable with diapers. I just don’t.
Joel: One important thing to not forget is that she didn’t say the guy had made up his mind here. But it’s a real inflection point here for the two of them: She needs to know what kind of parent he’s prepared to be, if she doesn’t already know the answer to that. The delivery room moment is important but, like, small potatoes in the scheme of their lives together… And it seems like she knows a lot less about what sort of future they envision together than you’d like, with a baby on the way. She needs to have a series of very serious conversations—maybe even a few with a therapist—to get a sense of what she needs to do going forward.
The dad himself? Bruh, if you’re reading this, let me tell you: You want to be there. I haven’t met a dad yet who missed that moment of their child’s birth and didn’t later regret it.
Jenée: OK he hasn’t decided but—here I go being mean again—he’s going to put that indecisiveness and stress on his pregnant wife? I feel like someone whose stance was “I am an equal parenting partner” would be working through his insecurities to try to figure out how to manage and how to be helpful. Rather than waffling on the very idea of being present. Which, yes, he should want to be.
Joel: That’s fair. But she’s asking us (well, not me really but you know what I mean) what to do. Being mean, obviously, isn’t going to get her where she wants to be. She wants her husband there, not her mom or a doula. And to get that, she’s going to have to do the emotional labor of asking him to do some, which isn’t fair. But, again, I can’t believe this is the first time this issue has come up in their relationship. I fail to believe he hasn’t behaved in some way in the past that makes what’s happening here totally impossible to see. She knows this guy or thought she did. So now she’s got to reconcile what she knew about him with this allegedly new information.
Jenée: I saw you type and delete that she could enlist mutual friends to help motivate him.
Joel: Hold up. You’re not allowed to do that. I can’t even change my mind midway through a thought???
Jenée: This is my chat and I thought it was a good idea!
Joel: Well, the reason I deleted that is that might actually make things worse.
Jenée: Say more.
Joel: Well, he might feel betrayed by her secretly rallying their friends against him. He might feel bullied or pressured or whatever it is that’s supposedly making him anxious about this whole deal. She’s got to win him over. Not their friends. Think about it? She should absolutely encourage him to ask his/their friends about this particular experience.
Jenée: You know this is related to something we talk about a lot, which is that there really aren’t many groups or communities for fathers and you have to piece together your own. A mom would be able to post in any one of 20,000 Facebook groups “I’m nervous about this childbirth related thing” and get 799 ideas and 26 resources.
Joel: You are a fascist! You’re deleting another one of my responses but fine… Anyway, yeah, you also know that I’m a little ambivalent about those groups and pages and what-not. I think there’s some support but that it also drives a lot of anxiety—that’s obviously for another chat. But it’s true: Men don’t have or do the work of cultivating communities for fathers in the way that mothers do. So, it kinda leaves us ass out, and a lot of us are flying solo when we need some help and real insight into being a supportive partner and parent. He might not even know that he’s being unreasonable, according to his wife’s country and culture.
Jenée: *Editor’s note: The response I deleted was too personal, even for the Slate Plus family—also it made me look insane.
I like how you said men don’t do the work of creating communities instead of acting like dads are disadvantaged. This kind of perspective is another reason you’re not coparenting from a one-bedroom apartment.