Fathers need ... Labour Pains 101

2009-10-22 00:00

A WEEK ago, a colleague and I were invited to arbitrate on an issue that left us angry and shocked. From what we learnt, the argument between husband and wife about having a third child had been going on for a long time. When the man realised his wife was adamantly against having another child within a year of her second birth, he left and went to stay with a girlfriend as “punishment” for her refusal to yield to his demands.

The insensitive demands made by this man’s actions left me convinced that men need to experience intimately not only the joys of a new child, but also the labour pains that go with it. This means being present in the labour ward to understand why women might not be willing to go through the same experience again so soon. Such an approach could be called “Introduction to Labour Pain and Delivery 101” for men.

Why do I say this? Eleven months ago, I went through an experience that totally changed my views on pregnancy and mothering. When my wife checked into the hospital with labour pains, I asked the nurses to allow me to sit next to her to see her through the experience. The excruciating pain that made her squirm in the bed sent me into a panic.

For hours of torment, I watched her in bewilderment. At 8 pm, she was wheeled into the delivery room with me in tow. Watching her as she gave birth, I felt guilty for being responsible for the pain she was going through.

When the nurses held the baby and announced he was okay, I smiled. However, my wife was too exhausted to react to the happy news. After it was all over, I vowed that I do not need another baby. By being close to her during this tough time, I too felt the labour pains, hence my vow not to add another child.

After the birth of the baby, we agreed that I would do much of the care responsibilities during my three weeks of paternity leave. When I resumed work, my tasks would be bathing and feeding the baby in the evenings.

The three weeks paternity leave were very tiring. When I went back to work, I had to arrange to be home early to carry out my responsibilities. This was another enlightening experience for me.

While the duties enable me to bond with the baby, they have made me appreciate another thing: the burden of looking after a baby. It has convinced me beyond doubt that if we ever desire to have a second child, then it has to come after three years to offer my wife sufficient rest and recovery.

I strongly believe if other men went through a similar experience, they would not take all the work that goes into children’s birth and care for granted and demand that their wives have a certain number of children. These demands by men are partly to blame for the high maternal and mortality rates being experienced in many African countries.

In Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Kenya, the maternal mortality ratio of over 1 000 deaths per 100 000 live births is one of the highest in the world. Closely spaced pregnancies or the high numbers of children per woman delivered by unskilled midwives are to blame.

Likewise, in these countries the control of women’s fertility by men results in delayed decision-making on where the woman will deliver, by whom, the means to take her to hospital during emergency times, and the number of children she should bear.

Families will delay or refuse to take a woman who needs emergency medical care to a well-established hospital because the husband may refuse to pay the bills. Meanwhile, as they delay, the woman loses her life and maternal mortality rates soar.

In most cases, demands made by some men turn a woman into a factory whose sole function is to churn out babies, with little regard for her health and development. If she dies, it is considered to be God’s will and he moves on to another wife.

This control is also the source of physical, psychological, emotional and verbal violence meted out against women by men or extended families who hold the notion that a woman’s reproductive rights can only be exercised with the permission of the husband.

Besides maternal deaths, such control of women’s fertility usually denies them the breathing space to pursue their careers or engage in other demanding productive work.

The problem in a majority of sub-Saharan African countries is they lack family laws or guidelines designed to ensure men understand and respect the reproductive rights of women.

There is no deliberate move by governments in sub-Saharan Africa to link abuse of women’s reproductive rights to the high maternal and child mortalities in their countries, particularly when addressing the Millennium Development Goals.

This has to change. One of the places to start is at the antenatal clinics and labour wards, which need to formulate guidelines that make it mandatory for men to attend antenatal classes and to be present in the delivery room when their partners are giving birth.

After birth there is a need to have post- natal classes for couples to guarantee men share and understand the burden of bringing up a baby, especially in the first year. Only after this will they start appreciating why a woman will decline to have another child or want to wait for along time before conceiving again.

• Arthur Okwemba is a Kenyan journalist with the African Woman and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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