When Emmanuel Morin’s wife, Sheryne, went into labour for their daughter’s birth a few years ago, the couple was far from alone. Crowding the small Ottawa delivery room were “both sets of grandparents, both sets of siblings—and their boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses—plus Sheryne’s cousins,” the 32-year-old Ottawa consultant explains. More than a dozen family members came out to support them. “Sheryne’s father wasn’t even there for her birth,” Emmanuel chuckles, adding that his dad missed his birth, too. But both were determined to witness their granddaughter’s first breaths. (Sheryne’s father paced throughout and required multiple cigarette breaks; the stress of seeing his daughter in such agonizing pain was clearly tough to handle.)
Just a generation ago, dads had to fight their way into delivery rooms in Canada. But over the past decade, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, expanding birthing support circles to include mothers, sisters, in-laws and best friends. For some families, birth is becoming a shared rite, like weddings and graduations—albeit one requiring a whole new level of trust and intimacy.
Sheryne was naked in a birthing tub. Emmanuel, who’d climbed in with her, was scooping membranes and mucus from the water while his brother-in-law filmed from above, chronicling the scene. Staff at Ottawa’s Monfort Hospital brought in extra chairs to accommodate them all. Their family was largely well-behaved, says Emmanuel, though some, toward the end, did start second-guessing decisions made by the midwife or the doula.
Hospital policies are changing rapidly to accommodate birth’s newly inclusive approach. B.C. Women’s Hospital, on Vancouver’s West Side, actively encourages the participation of family and friends, allowing larger groups for low-risk births. And some new hospitals and birthing centres are even designing “family zones,” with added space near the mother’s head, allowing for large groups—though others, such as Calgary’s three urban hospitals, limit the numbers of visitors to two.
But as delivery rooms become less sacrosanct, some new parents are being pressured to extend invites to friends and family, giving rise to a new category of unwanted guest: the labour crasher. Indeed, on parenting websites, some of the most popular threads involve trading tips on keeping uninvited relatives out of the delivery room. On the parenting website BabyCenter, one woman recounted how her (uninvited) mother-in-law was discovered hiding in the delivery-room bathroom. Another recalled hers barging in to her C-section prep; somehow, she ended up holding the baby before the baby’s mother did. Another had to ask her mother to exit the birthing suite. She threw a fit and screamed hurtful things before storming out, leaving mom-to-be in tears just as she began pushing. And when one woman began crowning, her doctor let her reach down to touch the baby’s head. Her mother-in-law happily shrieked, “My turn!” and reached to feel for herself until the doctor managed to block her hand.
Winnipeg midwife Julia Allen has had to ask mothers-in-law or close friends to wait in the cafeteria for a few minutes, telling them mom needs her privacy. But these are rare exceptions, says Allen. She thinks the opening of the delivery room is a “fabulous” development, and always counsels patients to bring more than just their spouses for support. “Thirty-six hours of labour is too much for one person to handle alone,” she says.
Winnipeg’s Lauren MacMillan is thankful she chose to include her mom when she gave birth to her son six months ago. Initially, Lauren’s wife, Dayna, wanted the birth to be an intimate moment between them. They didn’t ask Lauren’s mom, Cheryl, until they arrived at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, when Lauren was in labour. In the end, having her in the room “didn’t take anything at all away from the experience,” says Lauren; in fact, it made it all the sweeter. Emmanuel Morin agrees. His daughter entered the world surrounded by the people who love her the most; everyone in the room had the chance to hold her in her first 30 minutes. “It was an unforgettable experience,” he says—for all involved.