Giving birth for the third time was a surprisingly relaxed affair for Sacha Marling.
After a leisurely breakfast at home in East London, by 9am she was in bed on the maternity ward calmly having her hair braided by her equally calm birth partner, ready for a planned caesarean section.
She had her carefully packed overnight bag and some healthy snacks for energy. What Sacha, 32, most definitely hadn’t brought along was her husband, Mark.
He wouldn’t be attending. Everyone had decided, after what happened the last two times, it was much better for all concerned if he simply went to work as usual. Sacha’s mum, Cheryl, 62, would be her birth partner.
Sacha and Mark Marling with their kids Amelia (10 months), Freddie (seven years old) and Oliver (five years old). After struggling to cope with the first two births, Mark decided to stay away on the third
‘We did think about him being there,’ says Sacha. ‘But then we discussed it and I said: “Actually, when you were at my previous birth you were a bit of a pain.”
‘I basically told him I would be better with my mum. He took it on the chin and in the end he said: “Yes, I agree, maybe I shouldn’t come.” ’
While it is now an established trend for fathers to be there throughout labour and delivery, Sacha and Mark’s experience is not as uncommon as you might think.
As a recent survey revealed, as many as one in eight — 12 per cent — of men miss their child’s birth. Of course, a significant number of these are due to circumstance, but it would seem there remains a small group of men who stay away through choice.
Sacha and Mark have had three very different experiences with the births of their children Freddie, seven, Oliver, five, and Emilia, ten months.
After Sacha told Mark he was ‘a bit of a pain’ at the birth of their second child and far from ideal company at the first, they decided he’d steer clear of the delivery of Emelia (pictured)
Mark, a fleet manager, and bank clerk Sacha were determined he’d be present for the birth of Freddie but events did not go as either had planned.
Mark’s first taste of his wife’s fiercely ‘independent’ attitude to childbirth was when — after a day spent walking (she was determined her son would arrive on his due date) — she insisted on finishing her roast dinner before going to hospital.
Sacha, mum Cheryl and Mark drove to the hospital, but by the time midwives realised Freddie was in breach position and Sacha needed an emergency caesarean, poor Mark was already feeling woozy.
‘I’d always seen myself as a dad who wanted to experience the whole childbirth,’ he says. ‘But I’m not very good with doctors and nurses. Then one of the doctors took me outside and said: “If we don’t get the baby out now, we could lose mum, and or baby…”’
Sacha says: ‘He came back in the room, completely white, with his eyes glazed over and said: “I don’t feel good.”
‘The anaesthetist was like: “You’re not coming in the room.”
‘I was crying because I was worried about Mark, he was crying because he was worried about me and Mum was the go-between.
‘In the end Freddie was fine and healthy. Mum got the first cuddle, then Mark, then me.’ Two years later, things were different again at the natural birth of Oliver, five weeks prematurely.
‘Mark was adamant he was going to be there,’ says Sacha, laughing. ‘But while I was in labour he kept rubbing my leg, touching my arm and telling me it was going to be OK and really got on my nerves. I’m pretty sure I swore at him a few times.
‘The midwives had to tell him to sit in the corner because I was getting the hump with him rather than concentrating on having the baby.’
Or as Mark puts it: ‘I’m quite an affectionate person and I thought little things like back rubbing would help, but obviously they didn’t. At one point she had her fingers embedded in my cheek, like a psychopath.’
The delivery room tension was soon forgotten with Oliver’s safe arrival. But by the time Emilia was due last year, Sacha was certain that she would cope better without Mark’s support.
‘Compared to my previous deliveries, it was a lot calmer. I feel really cruel saying it, but it was less stressful him not being there,’ she says.
Mark still has twinges of regret — although not about the arrival of his daughter, who he did not meet until she was nine hours old.
‘My eldest son was held by my mother-in-law before me, and he is a nanny’s boy, he still runs to her for everything,’ says Mark. ‘Everybody talks about that unique bond you create at birth and I still feel I’ve missed out on that.’
But Sacha says: ‘In all aspects of labour you get judged. When people asked about the birth a lot of them found it a bit weird that he wasn’t present, but for us, in the long run, I think it was the best decision.’
Alisa Gomez, 21, and Ali Solomon, 22 and their son Aiden, 15 months, at their home in Sutton.Alisa dreamed of a water birth with Ali in the pool, but he is so scared of blood that he couldn’t go to hospital with her
Not so long ago, the delivery room was a predominantly female domain. In the Sixties only about a quarter of men in the UK attended the birth of an infant and only as the Seventies progressed did all hospitals even allow fathers in the room.
More recently, efforts have been made to get men more actively involved in childbirth, to make the ante and postnatal experience more inclusive.
There are facilities so men can stay with their wives in hospital, while antenatal classes include sessions dedicated to the male perspective.
There is also an increased emphasis on the importance of the ‘shared’ experience and it has become common for men to describe seeing their child enter the world as the best moment of their lives.
Indeed, it has become so much the norm for the father to be present that making an alternative choice can be fraught with difficulties.
One professional couple said there was a huge stigma associated with their decision for him not to be present at the birth of his child two years ago.
Ross and Sophie Jones, a couple in their 30s, were thrilled to discover she was pregnant.
Mr Solomon’s son (pictured) was born without her father present as he is too frightened of blood
But as Ross says: ‘Even from the start I began to feel a sense of dread and fear — I didn’t think I could face being at the birth, but how on earth was I going to tell Sophie that?
‘As the months went by it just got worse — I cannot stand the sight of blood or body fluids and knew I would be a nervous wreck at the birth. When I finally told Sophie she thought I would just get over it. I didn’t.’
Sophie , meanwhile, assumed her husband would come round to her way of thinking, so much so that it was only when she was seven months pregnant that they addressed the issue.
‘We ended up talking to our midwife about it and it was then I realised that Ross was deadly serious,’ say Sophie. ‘I was really angry with him at first — he was supposed to support me and be there for me.
‘But I came to realise that trying to force him to be there wasn’t right for him and also risked messing up my birth — all that anxiety and fear in the room can be “contagious” and I might just end up worrying lots about him or getting angry.’
The birth went smoothly, with Sophie’s midwife and her sister, and the decision did not impact on their relationship.
Some husbands say their decision to steer clear of the birth of their child was met with confusion and hostility
Ross says: ‘I felt a lot of guilt but also an incredible relief when I knew I wouldn’t have to be there. I came back just as Sophie was settled into bed, feeding our new baby and having some toast.
‘It was wonderful to see our new baby boy and I was so proud of Sophie. I didn’t feel I had missed out — it would have been a disaster if I had been there.
‘But the reaction from friends and colleagues was dreadful. I knew beforehand people might not approve but hadn’t realised they would decide this meant I was a terrible dad and a wimp. The stigma was, and is, just overwhelming.’
The couple may have another baby but Ross has already decided that he most certainly will not be at the birth. Midwife Claire Chaubert agrees that being the man who isn’t there is not an easy choice.
‘I think for the majority of men, it’s a really positive experience. But I have seen it be an absolute mess because the guy doesn’t want to be there, and effectively feels he has to be.
‘We have come full circle from not being there to now that if you are not there, then there is a huge amount of judgment.’
Adequately prepared, she says, most men can cope but in cases where a husband can’t deal with the experience, the impact on the birth is stark.
‘Stress and anxiety transmit very strongly to a woman in labour. That can lead to the release of adrenaline, a direct antagonist of oxytocin, the hormone which helps the uterus to function.’
The result, she says, is ‘longer and more difficult births’.
One midwife we spoke to said she had seen a patient request an epidural, not for her own benefit, but for her partner’s. The mum-to-be felt she couldn’t put her husband through the agony of watching her in pain, even though she felt confident she didn’t need the painkiller.
Alisa Gomez, 21, had a complicated birth lasting four days, with a failed epidural ending in a painful ventouse delivery — yet she still wishes partner Ali Solomon, 22, had been with her for the birth of their son Aiden, now 16 months.
Alisa Gomez and Ali Solomon with Aiden in Sutton after Ali was unable to attend a water birth because of his fear
Ali, a government accounts agent, is a hands-on father who will happily change nappies and delights in his son, but says he was ‘too squeamish’ to face the birth.
Alisa admits she probably had unrealistic expectations when she told her midwife that her ideal plan was ‘a water birth, with him behind me, supporting me’.
She says: ‘When Ali said that wasn’t possible, because he didn’t even want to be there, it was a shock. I knew he was squeamish but I thought this was one of the moments where he would put that behind him and be with me.’
With hindsight, she admits she was probably ‘naïve’. ‘If he cuts himself he can’t look, I have to clean it up for him. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I thought this is an amazing time in our life, our child is being born.
‘I thought he would man up and be in the moment with me.’
There were tense conversations in the months before the due date. Even after the final decision was made and Alisa enlisted her sister as her birth partner at eight months, she continued to ‘pray every night he would be there’.
Ali , meanwhile, says that he wrestled with his decision, knowing how important it was to Alisa.
‘I thought about it really hard,’ he says. Meanwhile, he admits both his mother and Alisa’s gave him a hard time.
In the end, the birth was so gruelling that Alisa admits it was probably the best decision.
‘I think he would have fainted — it would have been too much for him.’
She is not the only woman to feel more confident and able to cope alone. A study of 1,300 mothers revealed one in four had found their partner more annoying than helpful in the delivery room.
What Alisa didn’t know until this conversation was that Ali nearly did attend the birth.
He actually got as far as putting his shoes and coat on and walking to the door of their home after Alisa’s sister called to say the baby was on the way.
But he couldn’t quite make it out of the house.
‘I turned around,’ he says. ‘I do think it would have been different if I had been there, I’d have had an [immediate] emotional attachment to him at the time, but I don’t think I’m any less attached to him now because of it.
‘When I tell the story I don’t tell people I wasn’t in the room. If they probe I tell them, but I don’t want them thinking that I don’t want to accept my responsibilities or that I’m a bad parent.’
Midwife Claire says this is why it is important that men and women are prepared for childbirth.
‘My job is to make the birth work for everybody,’ says Claire. ‘I want the couple to have the best possible experience. And in the vast majority of cases it is right for the guy to be present.
‘But for some men it is an awful, uncomfortable place and it is very unfair that there is a stigma.’