Not long ago, I had the privilege of attending a beautiful, natural, and very lengthy birth. I attended as a backup doula and, having not met the couple in advance, knew only little about them and their needs. Joining them after their labor had already begun, I had no benchmarks for their interactions or mannerisms outside the birth arena.
But this experience gave me the unique opportunity to observe their changes as labor progressed. And what became clearer and clearer as the birth progressed was that the dad was going through a series of "stages" just as much as his laboring wife was.
I quickly realized that this process was not unique to the couple I was with that day, but is actually quite common, even normal. The stages are not all that different from the stages the laboring mother goes through; they are complementary, another part of a whole. And even though they are not marked by intense contractions or hormonal changes, they are no less real for the shifting emotions and other changes they convey.
From what I have observed, these labor stages go something like this for most dads:
Early First Stage - While mama is getting excited and starting to time contractions, eager with the anticipation that this might be the "real deal," dad is starting to feel that excitement, too. Could this really be it? There's a buzz in the air -- a current of electricity running between them, and dad is flitting around doing all sorts of menial tasks and chores with a hum of nervous energy.
Active - Mama is getting down to work now, and dad realizes that this is serious business. It's so serious, in fact, that he's going to do whatever necessary to look busy. All the nervous energy left over from early first stage needs to be channeled somewhere, and often this means that dad has his face buried in some electronic device or another. He's probably texting his own parent with the latest contraction-by-contraction update. The laboring mama is not pleased with this, taking it as a sign of inattentiveness. But really, it's often just a sign that dad hasn't found his rhythm yet. Don't worry... there are still a few stages to go! He'll get there in his own time. You can't rush nature!
Transition - Things were going along smoothly enough, but al of a sudden it seems like the bottom has dropped out. Mama is shaking, feeling nauseated, and nearly overrun by super-strong contractions. Something is definitely changing! And dad feels it, too. His earlier nervousness is replaced by the sudden, serious awareness that this baby is going to arrive soon. As he watches is partner fight through what is likely the most intense experience of his life, he becomes a new kind of partner to her, walking alongside her down the rocky path that will bring them both to parenthood. This is consistently my single favorite moment with dads at births, and it is breathtaking.
Second Stage - Mama is ready to push, and bring her baby into the light. And dad has found his rhythm, too. Standing alongside her, holding her hand or her leg, stroking her hair, or just being present, he has accepted his new role as dad and is ready to meet the child he helped create.
Third Stage - Mama and dad are together, in love with their new arrival. The pride on both their faces illuminates the entire room, and breathes fresh life into all who are present. Sometimes dad cries, sometimes he laughs, always he loves. His real work is just beginning, and he couldn't be happier about it.