Should childbirth be a spectator sport?


When did childbirth become a spectator sport? Photo: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock


By Anna Maxted

HOW has ‘crowd-birthing’ become so popular, when being surrounded by family (particularly the mother-in-law…) while in labour would be most women’s idea of hell? About ten seconds after I informed my mother I’d gone into labour for the first time, she and my sister burst, beaming and proud, into the hospital delivery room; clearly having broken speed limits and intending to stay to cheer the child on and out.

Alas, half an hour later, medical staff determined the cord was choking the baby. The obstetrician hustled all onlookers out of the room, and I was sped to the operating theatre. Touched as I was by their love and support, I confess I felt far more comfortable that my husband and I were able to share our son’s first moments in the world, before introducing him to everyone else when I was fully dressed and holding him in my arms.

Many women would clearly think me prudish. According to a survey of 2,000 mothers, published yesterday by video blogging site Channel Mum, there is a new trend for the ‘Birth Entourage’: young women, in particular, have an average of eight people present at some point during birth.

Even more astonishing (at least to us prim old fuddy-duddies), is that after the mother’s partner and own mother, the third most popular birthing partner is the mother-in-law. As one friend declares: ‘I would rather have a lion in the delivery room.’

Former nurse and midwife Clare Byam-Cook, bestselling author of ‘What to Expect When You’re Breastfeeding… And What If You Can’t?’, however, believes that the MIL-supported labour, “is very much the thing!”

“When I was working as a midwife, women would often have their own mother there if she was available, or their mother-in-law if she wasn’t,” she says. “Now, lots of mothers are choosing their mother-in-law to be their only birth partner, full-stop. Not just one of six others.”
While many may still be unconvinced that a MIL on the prowl, pre-birth, is the best policy, Lyndsey Harris-John, 33, is proof that such a choice can herald triumph, not disaster. She invited her mother-in-law, Penny to witness the birth of her first son two years ago, on the suggestion of her husband, Daniel.

Penny (who, full disclosure, also happens to be a midwife) had accompanied the pair, who live in Swansea, to every antenatal appointment. But more importantly, says Lyndsey, “she always treated me like a daughter. It made sense.”
Penny, 60, accepted – with reservations, knowing the couple were counting on her expertise, as well as her loving support: “I was worried I would fail them.

None of us was relaxed,” she says. Inevitably, there was more intimacy at the birth than Lyndsey had bargained for: ‘We’d agreed before that she would stay at the head end, or it would have been weird, but it got to the stage that I was in so much pain I didn’t care.’

Lucian was born after 11 hours, weighing a hefty 9lbs 4oz. “Watching Lucian’s birth was the most spiritually fulfilling event of my life,” says Penny. “I wept with joy. Afterwards Lyndsey hugged me and thanked me for looking after her. But it was she who had achieved something, not me. I was simply honoured to watch.”
Unsurprisingly, not every such birthing experience goes so smoothly. Kellie Wildridge, 29, still regrets her mother-in-law ‘inviting herself’ to the birth of her second child when the contractions began: “She had actually been due to look after my eldest daughter, while I was in labour,” she says. “Instead, my husband’s sister took over while my mother-in-law climbed into the car and came with us.

“By then, I’d been having contractions since the early hours of the morning so I went along with it, partly because I was in pain and just wanted to get to the hospital, but also mindful that my husband might be grateful for her support.”

Kellie felt less thankful: “Having her there dramatically altered the dynamic,” she says. ‘She was trying to offer words of encouragement, such as “You can do this”, but I felt under greater scrutiny. I cried far more than the first time and I’m sure it’s because I simply couldn’t relax. Twice, I had to ask her to step away from my nether regions, where she was looking for my baby’s head crowning.”

Even worse, her presence ruffled other familial feathers. “The situation also upset my own mum,” says Kellie. “Understandably, she felt that if anyone other than my husband was going to be with me in labour, that person should have been her.”

However unusual you might imagine Kellie’s predicament to be, a quick search online reveals page after page of expectant mothers worrying about the ‘etiquette’ of letting their equally expectant mother-in-laws know they won’t be getting front row seats at the birth.

One member of online community Netmums confesses her husband is sulking because she wants her mother in the delivery room, not his. Another reports that her MIL – having witnessed her difficult labour, which required an epidural and forceps – volunteered the opinion that she seemed to have “given birth by remote control.”
In such circumstances, Milli Hill, founder of the Positive Birth Movement – a global network of free antenatal groups – says: “It is okay to be selfish. In fact, it’s important to be selfish. If having your mother-in-law there isn’t going to help you have a good birth, her presence is not a good idea.

“Someone who is anxious or worried can inhibit the mother’s natural hormonal responses to labour, and make it more difficult,” Hill explains. “Birth is not a spectator sport.”

But Siobhan Freegard, founder of Channel Mum, assures me that the rise in MILs as birth partners is not due to pushy mother-in-laws demanding the right to watch their grandchild’s first moments. “A lot of mums have an excellent relationship with their mother-in-law,” she insists.
“There’s a growing phenomenon in ‘nappy valley’ areas of middle class London for expectant mothers to employ a doula – a woman to be there as your support, keep the hospital in their place, and fight your corner,” she says. “In some ways a mother-in-law fits into the role of doula quite nicely. She’s older, wiser, has that authority, and if you trust her, for many it’s a sensible choice; she can support you, and keep an eye on things.”

Byam-Cook agrees: pointing out that midwives are now likely to be busier and less able to be constantly present – meaning that a capable, reasonably unemotional and assertive ally can be a huge advantage for young, vulnerable parents, who may feel intimidated about asking staff for what they think they need.

“A lot of mothers prefer their mother-in-law because she’s not quite as involved as their own mother might be, and is therefore a more balanced, calming influence.”

Byam-Cook notes a further ingenious advantage to the trend: “Men often get stressed themselves during labour, and if his mother-in-law is there, saying ‘keep quiet’, he can feel ousted, or end up arguing with her. But if her mother-in-law is there, the mother-to-be can think ‘that’s the two of them happy – they both have my best interests at heart, and they won’t get too flustered.’”