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The pivotal point in the transition to parenthood


A friend to whom I hadn’t spoken for a long time rang me over Christmas. Once we had exchanged our family news, we reverted – as we always did when we saw much more of each other than we do know – to talking about parent education. My friend has been a birth activist for four decades, championing women’s right to choose where they have their babies and how when such ideas were still very new. She has always felt that antenatal education is essentially about preparing women for labour and birth, and preparing the people they have chosen to be with them. In her classes, she explores both the physical dimensions of birth and the psycho-social and spiritual dimensions. She has always put her energies behind her words, accompanying ‘at risk’ women to clinics to argue for what they want with obstetricians wedded to defensive practice, and supporting them at home births.

She is alarmed that the antenatal education agenda seems to have moved so far away from preparing women for birth. She feels that while it is right to help the mother and father form a deep relationship with their baby in pregnancy, and to help them understand what sensitive parenting means from the baby’s point of view, we have forgotten that labour and birth are also part of the process of bonding and attachment. The relationship between the mother and her baby, and between the father and mother, and between the father and his baby is significantly shaped by the experience of all three during the day(s) of giving birth. And, therefore, as transition to parenthood educators, she argues very strongly that we should not overlook the pivotal point of that transition when the parents make the journey with their baby from foetal life to extra-uterine life.

Coincidentally over the Christmas period, I have been writing a chapter for an e-book to be published this year on the history of antenatal education and found myself highlighting the congruence between Dick-Read’s, Lamaze’s and Bradley’s ‘methods’ of antenatal education for pregnant women and their partners (all of these pioneering obstetricians welcomed men at antenatal classes and at the birth of their babies). Their ideas about antenatal education were very firmly focused on helping the woman achieve a straightforward, relaxed vaginal birth because they believed that this safeguarded her physical and emotional health ready to take up the reins of motherhood with confidence. They did not have a lot to say about the baby’s experience of birth (the baby’s story was left to be superbly articulated by their contemporary, Frédérick Leboyer, in ‘Birth without Violence’ in 1975) but they were acutely aware of the connection between the wellbeing of the mother as she undertook the arduous, life-changing adventure of labour, and that of her offspring.

I’m grateful for my conversation with my old friend. As the focus of so many transition to parenthood programmes shifts to ‘responsive parenting’ and how to help key people in the baby’s life understand what that is and how to embody it, I am going to make sure in 2016 that I don’t lose sight of the critical importance of preparing women and their partners for the pivotal experience of labour and birth.

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