Labor Union: The Story of a Bradley Dad

By Dimitri Kaasan

pregnancy-dadAt the time I knew the many benefits that Bradley preparation offered my wife, Suneeta, and our baby. I knew, for example, that Suneeta had a better chance of delivering the baby without interventions because she had trained to work with her body, not against it. Since we would make our birth preferences known to hospital staff-as the Bradley class had encouraged-I knew that our baby would be set on Suneeta’s chest right after birth, allowing our newborn to form an immediate bond with its mother instead of being hustled out of our sight to be bathed.

What I couldn’t have anticipated at the time were the direct benefits the Bradley Method offered me as a father. Yet today, almost a year after the birth of our son, Sol, the skills and insights I gained through Bradley training are still a reference point for me-not just for the way I father my son, but also for the way I partner with Suneeta, and advocate for my family as a whole.

Husband-Coached Childbirth and Its Alternatives
The Bradley Method is the philosophy and set of techniques taught by the American Academy of Husband-Coached Childbirth (AAHCC). Its simple aim, through relaxation, breathing, and visualization, is a birth free of the interventions frequently offered to women in the different stages of childbirth: fetal monitors, drug-induced labor, anesthesia, , and cesarean section. The Bradley Method’s other defining feature, the husband’s active participation in the delivery, is critical to this overall goal of an intervention-free birth. Through training, the Bradley “coach”-typically, the child’s father, but really any person committed to the well-being of the expectant mother-plays an active role in the pregnancy; from supporting the mother’s prenatal health and nutrition, to helping her relax and breathe during labor, to communicating her needs to the attending nurse, midwife, or physician at the time of delivery.

As with the label “natural,” other birth methods also claim to be husband-assisted. For example, the Lamaze method-which deserves at least part of the credit for bringing the husband into the delivery room-pushed for this and other reforms by working within the obstetrics establishment. Today, many instructors from other childbirth methods provide classes under hospital auspices, often in the hospital setting. The drawback to fathers here, as Armin Brott and Ross Parke assert in their book, Throwaway Dads, is that “Although [hospital] classes ostensibly welcome men and teach them lots of valuable information . . . many inadvertently reinforce the idea that fathers are peripheral players.”

By contrast, the Bradley Method is still regarded as something of an outsider approach to childbirth. Bradley-trained couples will commonly choose a place to deliver their babies based on whether or not their wishes for a husband-coached, no-intervention childbirth will be honored-even if that means delivering at home or in a .

One Couple’s Story
This is not to say the Bradley Method is totally incompatible with hospital birth. In fact, there are situations where couples may want to experience a natural childbirth in a hospital setting. My wife’s and my situation was, to our surprise, one of these. We were almost certain we would want a midwife-attended delivery, and possibly a homebirth. Then we learned that Suneeta was at risk for : high blood pressure related to labor.

So we decided, tentatively, to avail ourselves of what modern birthing technology had to offer. To offset the anonymity of our (and almost any) large urban hospital, we visited as many OB staff as possible, with the intention of choosing the one with whom we felt the most comfortable to do our regular prenatal check-ups. Our choice-and first surprise-was that this person was an old-fashioned . The second surprise was that our choice of was a he.

But after we met with Dr. T (as I’ll call him), Suneeta and I were of one mind. I remember walking into the hospital lobby with her after our first meeting with Dr. T, marveling aloud at his demeanor. His energy was so reassuring, so nurturing, so . . .

“Feminine?” asked Suneeta.

“Yeah. I guess so,” I said. “Feminine.”

On a crisp November morning, the big day announced itself with mild in Suneeta’s lower abdomen. Thanks to having practiced our Bradley exercises, I felt prepared. I grabbed the little notebook I’d been saving for the occasion and began jotting down the spacing and duration of the contractions. Hoping to keep the contractions moving along, we took our customary walk that afternoon. Suneeta’s contractions were strong and close by this time, so I grabbed our little purple camping chair so she could stop and sit through them on the walk.

By sunset we were at the Bradley Method’s “3-2-1” point: contractions three minutes apart for two hours, lasting one minute each (a point too close to actual delivery for comfort, by hospital standards), and by eight that evening Suneeta was ready to head for the hospital. On the drive there, I pulled the car over several times to help her breathe through her contractions. She moaned in the darkness as the emergency lights ticked and flashed. In the back of the car, amid piled pillows and luggage, the baby seat rested open: a cupped hand.

The intake nurse-a grouch-measured Suneeta’s . Despite the strength of her contractions, she was only three centimeters dilated. “Be ready for a long night in the hospital,” the nurse said. Her words felt more like a jinx than advice. Suneeta vomited. But soon she mustered her strength, walked herself into the birthing room, and, following my whispered cues, settled into a cycle of deep abdominal breathing.

After about 20 minutes, she groaned, “I feel like I need to push.” I called the labor and delivery nurse, who was skeptical that pushing contractions could have come so soon. She measured Suneeta’s cervix just to be sure. If the intake nurse had jinxed us earlier, this measurement lifted the jinx. “Nine and a half centimeters,” she announced. It was time to push.

The on-call OB walked into the birthing room. It wasn’t Dr. T. I contained my disappointment. Don’t panic, I thought to myself. We knew this might happen. But my disappointment soon soured to irritation, beginning with his offer to rupture the bag of waters. “No, thank you,” I said, massaging Suneeta’s cramping leg. “We’d just like the labor to progress by itself.”

Still, his offers persisted, at intervals, for the rest of Suneeta’s labor: “I could break the bag of water now.” “Something for the pain?” “?”

“No, thanks,” came my decline of his offers, each time firm but polite.

Then, not three hours after we’d walked into the hospital, the baby’s shoulders were delivered. Then the cry: a boy. Overcome, we cried, too.

“More deliveries like that,” quipped the doctor as he passed our newborn son into Suneeta’s outstretched arms, “and I’ll be out of a job.”

Paternity vs. Patriarchy
In the days that followed our son’s birth, I wondered how things might have been different if we had not taken the Bradley classes. What if we hadn’t refused the interventions the doctor offered, or waited out the early stages of labor in the comfort of our home? What if, as the father, I had taken a back seat the day Sol was born? No doubt I would have felt the same indescribable love for him. But preparing for the birth was, for me, a way of expressing that love.

I also remember feeling a debt of gratitude toward Robert Bradley and the other mavericks who had paved the way for this sort of birth experience. Strange, really, that such a common-sense notion-birth is a natural process in which the father has a critical role-should make a maverick of anyone. But both the practice and discourse of childbirth in this country have long consisted of a handful of independent-minded activists and practitioners pushing common sense against the current of the obstetrics mainstream.

This trend was evident as early as the Depression Era. It was 1933, for example, when one of these independent thinkers, natural-childbirth forerunner (and sometime Bradley colleague) , published his seminal Childbirth Without Fear. In that same year the inception of the country’s first national health insurance program, , brought unprecedented numbers of expectant women out of the home and into the hospital to deliver.

From there, the “technocratic,” hospital-based model of obstetrics only gained momentum. In the years following World War II, with the mania for technology that often seizes nations at war, the “scientific management” of perinatal care ruled the day. Hospitals routinely put women under to deliver their babies, and actually encouraged the bottle-feeding of newborns in order to precisely monitor their milk intake.

All the while, an astute farm boy from Kansas named Robert Bradley was noting a simple phenomenon: farm animals deliver their young unassisted, yet rarely have complications in birth. The fact seemed increasingly lost on the animals’ human counterparts. In the early 1950s, Bradley, by then an at the University of Minnesota Hospital, drew inspiration for no-intervention childbirth from his early farm experience. He also began his long fight for the right of fathers to enter the delivery room.

Bradley was at first derided by the medical establishment as “Barnyard Bradley”-it was years before his approach gained any legitimacy in the mainstream. And although advocates of natural childbirth won important victories in the post-war years-such as a 1950 Life magazine article that familiarized many Americans with Dick-Read’s techniques-the technocratic model of childbirth prevailed.

In 1965, with the rate of cesarean deliveries at around ten percent of all births, Bradley published Husband-Coached Childbirth, which advocated no-intervention birth. Perhaps boosted by the counterculture movements of the 1960s, scores of expectant mothers and their partners began forsaking hospital deliveries for natural and homebirths. Still, it wasn’t until 1974, when the American College of and endorsed the presence of fathers at childbirth, that Bradley’s efforts to include fathers were officially redeemed.

During his three decades of practice, Bradley attended an estimated 22,000 births, and 94 percent of his patients experienced intervention-free, unmedicated births. Since then, thousands of women using Bradley’s methods have enjoyed no-intervention births at rates close to those of the good doctor. Meanwhile, thousands of men have become fathers in the most involved and exhilarating of ways.

However, the rift between mainstream and countercurrent childbirth practices continues, and if Robert Bradley were still with us he would find reason to be both appalled and encouraged. Women are undergoing C-sections at an unprecedented rate of 24 percent-increasingly without compelling medical reasons. And yet, even as today’s medical-insurance complex becomes less personalized and more technocratic, and even while the medical establishment continues to subtly alienate fathers, more couples than ever are giving birth using the Bradley Method.

So things are getting worse . . . and they’re getting better. What accounts for the contradiction? My guess is that, like Suneeta and me, many couples are still choosing to have their babies in the hospital setting; but they’re doing so better informed about their options, and more ready to assert them. Hospital by hospital, doctor by doctor, couples are sending a clear message to the medical establishment: a woman’s instinctive competence at birthing, together with her partner’s loving support, makes most interventions unnecessary.

The Ritual Purpose of Birth
These unspoken messages-and, as a consequence, the way a couple interpret the birth experience-can be nearly as important as the outcome of the birth. This is especially true in today’s dehumanizing hospital culture. That’s why what our attending obstetrician said about being “out of a job” carried so much meaning for Suneeta and me. Although he made the comment in jest, he was in some way conceding that the interventions he’d offered weren’t needed to bring our son into the world.

To accept those interventions would have brought a radically different meaning to our birth experience. In Birth as an American Right of Passage, Robbie Floyd-Davis writes that hospitals impose meanings on the birth experience through the various procedures women undergo in the delivery room. While she argues that each procedure sends a different message to expectant mothers, the overall message is that the doctors’ and the hospital’s convenience matters more than does the woman’s wholeness in childbirth.

If, as Floyd-Davis argues, hospital birth is a “male dominated initiatory right of passage,” then men have a critical role in turning technocratic ritual on its head. Indeed, she observes that “Hospitals can fail [their] socializing purpose when couples achieve natural childbirth in the hospital, placing science and technology at their service.” By aligning himself with his partner rather the attending obstetrician, this is precisely what the Bradley Dad does.

Men and Women as Allies in Birth and Beyond
It’s fitting that men challenge the roles assigned them by medical institutions, since their roles are already dramatically shifting in that other venerable institution-the American family. The 2000 census, for example, revealed that the single-father-headed household is among the fastest-growing types of family. Change is also afoot for men in that other revered institution: the American workplace. The ranks of at-home fathers are increasing, as is the amount of time working fathers are taking for paternity leave.

As our understanding of fathers’ social roles evolves, so, too, does our understanding of the nature of fathering. Today many scholars and experts are questioning the myths that stymie active fathering, including those founded on biological arguments related to pregnancy and childbirth (see “For More Information” at the end of this article). Part of the message in the research is that that men and women need each other’s complementary gifts in parenting. Childbirth-as Bradley would certainly agree-only underscores the fact. As Brott and Ross maintain, “the husband’s experience [of childbirth] is closely tied to that of his wife.”

But it’s not books or studies that convince me that men are getting this message. It’s talking to other fathers-men such as Chris Holden, an elementary-school principal and one of the guys sitting around the table that day in our Bradley class. “I learned that there were so many different ways I could help,” Chris told me of his Bradley training. He cited the fact that he was their son’s primary caretaker for the first few days following his birth. (Three hours of hard pushing had made his wife, Kelly, at first too exhausted and sore to attend to their son.) But the enduring value of the Bradley Method, say other dads, was the partnership skills they practiced in class. “The most lasting lesson,” Chris reflected, “was how Kelly and I were really able to work together on Max’s issues after he was born.”

Another former classmate, legislative aide Dave Greeman, agreed that the experience made him a better parenting partner to his wife, Anne. “I’m more involved than had I not taken an active part in Claire’s birth,” he said. The payoff for Dave extended beyond practical matters of sharing responsibility. “I feel a very strong emotional attachment to Claire,” he told me six months after his daughter was born. “I feel like she’s more ours.”

Bradley Dads: Family Advocates in the Making?
Floyd-Davis offers this caution regarding fathers in the delivery room: Hospitals will readily co-opt them toward their pro-intervention bias. The abundant and daunting expertise, technology, and authority hospitals exude can dissuade even the well-prepared father from the couple’s “no-intervention” preference. Chris admitted as much: “Going in [to the birthing room], I felt like I was gearing up for war or something. I think, without the class, I might’ve thought a lot of what they were offering Kelly was normal. I just wouldn’t have been prepared for that.”

What if more men were to take the question “Is what they’re offering us normal?” and continue asking it as their children progressed through childhood? Could the healthy skepticism fathers cultivate in Bradley training extend beyond the newborn phase? Could fathers-like so many mothers-assume more of a gatekeeping role on behalf of their families? From the meeting halls of the local PTA to the aisles of the local grocery store, could the “mere” experience of childbirth remind fathers that no practice, policy, or product should be taken for granted-no matter the seeming authority of the institution that offers it? I might be out on a limb here, but I think it could.

In her conclusion to Birth as an American Rite of Passage, Floyd-Davis offers the prospect that, “as an individual within society shapes birth, so shall they shape life.” If this is true, the Bradley Method of Natural Childbirth could offer a lifelong reference point to the fathers of our society, and so to society as a whole.

Bradley, Robert A. Husband-Coached Childbirth (fourth ed.). Bantam, 1996.
Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. Birth as an American Right of Passage. University of California Press, 1992.
Dick-Read, Grantly. Childbirth Without Fear. Harper & Brothers, rev. ed., 1953.
Dowd, Nancy E. Redefining Fatherhood. New York University Press, 2000.
McCutcheon, Susan. Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way. E. P. Dutton, 1984.
Parke, Ross D. and Armin Brott. Throwaway Dads. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Pruett, Kyle D. Fatherneed. Free Press, 2000.

Freelance writer Dimitri Kaasan has worked as an evaluation consultant for socially concerned organizations and philanthropic institutions. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Suneeta, and their son, Solomon.

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