by Russell Snyder*

(07.09.1998) A father's role in pregnancy and childbirth is taken very seriously in Finland. After all, it takes two to tango and the father must share the responsibility for bringing a new life into the world. It is very gratifying for a man to know he played an important part in the child bearing process and that his wife was able to rely on his support.

When my wife got pregnant with our first child, neither one of us knew much about what we were getting into. When she got morning sickness I tried to find something she could eat without throwing up; when she got dizzy spells I tried to support her or at least catch her before she fell; and when she had mood swings I tried to be tolerant or at least hold my tongue. We both read lots of books, magazines and brochures about pregnancy and childbirth (she in Finnish and I in English), we attended three parenting classes together, and went on a tour of a hospital maternity ward.

We also spent plenty of time shopping for baby things - and found out that having a baby is not cheap. We prepared the apartment for our future little resident - and got an aerobic workout moving things, building things and taking things apart. And in the evenings we discussed baby names and observed our unborn child kicking and moving around in the womb   good-bye to nightcafĂ©s, movies and concerts.

When the big day arrived I carefully timed the contractions and persuaded my wife that it was time to go (she didn't really want to). I dropped my wife off at the Women's Clinic of the Helsinki University Central Hospital and by the time I parked and returned she was already being attended by a midwife and was wired to a couple of monitors. Soon we went into a modern-looking delivery room and she was examined by another doctor. When my wife complained about the pain and asked for an epidural, an anesthesiologist breezed into the room and effortlessly gave her the injection.

While waiting for my wife to go into labour, my job was mainly to comfort her. When the baby started its journey down the birth canal, I helped the midwife by lifting my wife's leg, but when things started getting messy, I was relieved by another nurse. I spent the rest of the time holding my wife's hand and reassuring her. After the birth, a nurse took the baby and I out of the room. She disappeared momentarily to clean up the baby and then she weighed, measured, and checked it while I helped as best as I could. By the time we got back into the delivery room, the afterbirth and stitching up had been completed. My wife and baby stayed for three nights in the hospital and I spent as much time as possible visiting them. It was a grand day when we were able to take our daughter home, and we were grateful for the good service in the hospital, but we wondered if we might have missed something.

Our second childbirth was somewhat different. Helsinki started directing all its residents to the Helsinki City Maternity Hospital and we arrived at their doors around two years after the birth of our first child. The delivery room there looked like a living room. The soft, dim light made it seem cozy. Our room was tastefully decorated in a light shade of blue - other rooms were available in green, pink, gray, yellow, or orange colour themes. There was also a shower, a stereo and a comfortable father's chair.

When my wife asked the midwife for an epidural she was gently discouraged from having it, which meant a lot more pain. And this time I was encouraged to take a more active role. I massaged my wife's back for long periods and helped her try out various positions with a Sacco cushion, a rocking chair and big pillows. When she went into labour, I worked together with the midwife lifting my wife's leg and encouraging her by saying "Push, push, good, that's it..." while I held her hand at the same time. This was quite a tiring job, so when a second midwife came into the room I was surprised that she didn't replace me. She just let me work until I heard the first cries of our new baby. I didn't leave the room at all this time. I was present for the afterbirth, the stitching up and I bathed the baby myself (under the supervision of the midwife, of course).

The hospital offered us a family room, which meant that I would stay over, eat together with my wife, and spend time getting to know our new family member. Our other daughter could have stayed too, but we decided to let her visit her grandma.

Our room was very pleasant.  It had two beds, a sofa, a writing desk, a picture on the wall and a window with a view. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late snack were served at the cafeteria at set hours; coffee, tea and fruit were available any time day or night. This family ward had a television, newspapers, a play room for kids and a special father's shower. Although this is more of a 'self-service' hospital than the other one and it puts far more demands on the father, it lets him participate and believe that he has an important part to play in the childbirth   something that fits in very well with the father's role in Finland.

It's certainly true that a man doesn't go through all the intense pain and agony of labour experienced by a woman. However, a caring and responsible father can feel confused, stressed, exhausted, worried, afraid, overwhelmed and worst of all useless. I know, I experienced all these feelings during my wife's labour as probably does every modern Finnish father trying to do his part. I remember that all the negative emotions vanished from my mind after listening to the gentle words from my exhausted wife's lips after the childbirth: "Honey, I couldn't have managed without you." That's what every father in Finland wants to hear.

Published originally in Socius 4-97, the magazine of the Ministry of Social Affairs

*Russell Snyder is an American writer and freelancer living in Finland