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Mamma Mia!

Why a husband’s supportive presence in the delivery room may not be such a great idea after all.

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In a recent bulletin-board discussion on UrbanBaby.com, one new mom asked others to rate their husbands’ sex drives. “Low before, none now!” said one. “LOW!!!!!!!” cried a second. “Poor me!” Another wrote that she felt like Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company, always begging Stanley for sex, and one new mom responded, “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Roper. I am also Mrs. Roper.” It’s common knowledge that moms of infants take a little time to regain an interest in sex, but what isn’t so well known is that it’s sometimes new dads who are doing the begging off. Many are uninterested for the same reasons as their wives: exhaustion, fear of waking the baby, space problems, stress. But some say it’s being in the delivery room that changed their perspective, making it hard to think of their wives as sexy.

“During childbirth, it doesn’t look like a vagina,” says my friend Glenn, 43, an architect. “It looks like a papaya. There’s this very round thing that’s not supposed to be there sticking right out. It’s like one of those Alien movies. Then the baby comes out and it’s blue. It’s not gross or beautiful. It’s just weird.”

More upsetting than the birth, he says, is the afterbirth: “The doctor put a bedpan on the floor and I heard this splat. It sounded like a piece of meat going down on a stainless-steel counter and looked like a giant piece of liver. I tried to block it out, but now you’re reminding me again. I’m screwing up my sex life just talking about this.”

After his daughter was born, he says, he and his wife both had less interest in sex. Part of it was energy level, but the birth experience itself “took some of the mystery away.” Sometimes when they did try, she lactated (common for breast-feeding mothers) and he recoiled. But as their daughter got older, they returned to their old practices. “The vagina becomes this childbearing apparatus,” he says, “but then it quickly reverts to the vagina that you know and love.”

Men’s mixed feelings about the delivery-room experience may come in part from the modern pressure to be involved. In the forties, men sat in smoke-filled waiting rooms, nearly as out of the loop about the delivery as their wives, many of whom were unconscious from beginning to end. I was born in the early seventies, and even my dad, who had taken Lamaze with my mom, left for a few hours in the middle to watch Monday Night Football at a nearby restaurant.

“If an area that’s zoned for recreation gets rezoned for business, it never gets zoned back.”

These days, the man’s presence in birthing classes and the delivery room is a given. Many men wouldn’t dream of not being there but find that when they’re actually in the room, they’re redundant. “I kept feeding her ice chips,” says Barry, 34, a screenwriter and the father of two toddlers. “I was like the semi-retarded guy at the factory that you just have to keep busy.” Henry, 37, an ad executive, says he struggled hard to be there without actually watching. “The secret is to have as much equipment in the room as you can, so you’re really like a D.J., or a Spielberg, and can distract yourself,” he says. “I had a CD player and a video camera, but I taped it very tastefully because I’m squeamish and knew other people would see the tape. I kept the camera up at the mound of the belly.”

He says he enjoyed being in the room but didn’t feel he had much of a choice: “I think all this emphasis on the men being present is way overrated. It’s become a trend that you can’t buck.” Despite all his distractions, he had trouble looking at his wife the same way after the delivery. “Now the woman you’re sleeping with is someone’s mother,” he says. “You see her as this nurturing being as opposed to the sex kitten you married. So there’s definitely a psychological shift.”

Barry, the screenwriter, says he made a concrete decision beforehand to stay by his wife’s head. “My strategy was simply Once you look, it’s all over,” he says. “If an area that’s zoned for recreation gets rezoned for business, it never gets zoned back.”

His wife, for her part, didn’t mind where he was as long as he was supporting her emotionally: “The doctor kept saying, ‘Why don’t you look?’ I said, ‘I’m going to stay at the face.’ She kept asking and asking, and finally my wife yelled, ‘Leave him alone! He’s staying at the face!’ ” Though some moms would be terrified to go through the experience alone, others actually prefer it. As with anything else, the presence of men complicates matters. One mom of two, Lucy, 36, banished her husband soon after she started labor: “My husband is the kind of guy who gets freaked out very easily, and I didn’t want to have to be worrying about whether he was okay when I was giving birth.”

For men who are nervous about the experience, the best solution may be to be involved throughout the pregnancy. “My wife’s OB/GYN suggested we do perineal massage in the last two months to prevent tearing,” recalls Jonathan, 37, an attorney. “She lies down on the bed, you put a towel down and get some oil. It was the most awkward, nonsexual thing I have ever done in my life.” Still, he thinks his prenatal involvement prepared him for the delivery room. “If you’re paying attention and you’re an active part of her pregnancy, it won’t be that surprising. Everything is larger and wider, but if you’re having sex in the last trimester, you know that anyway.” Of course, there’s a limit to male curiosity—though some might not realize it until it’s too late. Emily Shapiro, a childbirth educator, recalls one client who watched his wife’s C-section: “He kept peeking even though they didn’t want him to. He said, ‘I saw parts of my wife that I hoped never to see in my lifetime.’ ”

If men say that childbirth, even natural childbirth, is an anti-aphrodisiac, some may just have a case of sour grapes. As Henry, the ad exec, points out, “When you’re not having sex, you’ve got all that time to think about why you’re not, so you can come up with a thousand reasons. But believe me, if your wife is ready to have sex, all those issues go right out the window.”


Related:

  • Archive: “Mating
  • Articles by Amy Sohn
  • From the Jun 12, 2004 issue of New York
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