April 17, 2004


Gentlemen, please read on.


The business of parenting begins long before I see the couple in the hospital, probably before they even decide to start a family. So it's reassuring to hear officially that Canadians are spending so much more time with their kids than our parents did with us.


Even more noteworthy is that Canadian men are leading the parenting pack, devoting a full 80 minutes of focused time each day to their children (reading to them, putting them to bed, initiating the official Sunday stroll), according to a recent Globe report of a study by Dr. Anne Gauthier at the University of Alberta.


But the real stunner is that dads are doing more chores -- about 30 minutes a day -- which means that moms get more kid-focused time as well.


This isn't the only change taking place, however, in the world of moms and dads.


There's been a distinct shift in the atmosphere of the delivery suite I work in since the SARS outbreak of last year. Before then, deliveries were family affairs. Throngs of relatives would arrive for the show, relegating the novice mom to the position of backbencher in her own delivery. Often, there was little attention paid to the labour and a lot to whatever families do when they gather.


All that changed with the restrictions placed on hospital visits in the wake of the SARS crisis. Suddenly, the halls were eerily quiet; the couples ensconced in their rooms. Dads instantly became the only ministering aid, for the whole time, alone.


Who knew that the men would became mainstays, instantly and superbly?


Couples came in without the benefit of prenatal classes. "We've seen the videos," was their response to staff when asked about childbirth preparation.


Being alone together in the hospital elicited a strange pioneer spirit in them. The dads worked much harder at helping their mates do the actual work of labour. (And it's the long tough labours that everyone remembers -- the 36 hours of contractions that seem to go nowhere for so long; the two to three hours of hard pushing, the exhaustion at the end of each run of holding and bearing down, the quick respite, the pushing again, the drenching sweat.) And they were awed as much by the work they witnessed as by watching the head of their infant emerge into view.


I have seen many a father almost as tired afterward as the mother. Certainly his emotions can run as high, his jubilation momentarily surpassing hers from the sheer relief of the job done, the prize won. Then he'll look into her eyes with an awe that indicates new appreciation for the grit she has displayed.


The journey a couple make during their brief time in the hospital is intense. A new dad will always find his role in the labour room when a problem needs to be discussed. This is the rational element of the task at hand -- information has to be obtained, choices examined. This role is clear. If there is a hint of fear or the threat of an ominous outcome, it's contained by dad, and essentially shelved because a unified decision is necessary.


They can't go forward as parents if they're not a true couple -- one reason why many churches and faiths now have mandatory courses for couples contemplating the battered institution of marriage.


My husband and I were required to take one because I was a divorcee, and the Anglicans weren't about to risk any contribution on my part toward the venture failing again. He was then a 43-year-old "marital virgin," but that raised no eyebrows whatsoever. The truth is, the courses are designed to offset the one in three marriages in which the husband will physically abuse his wife, or the almost half of all marriages that will end in divorce.


Parenting, on the other hand, has absolutely no requirements. Hey, anyone can do it. Except most couples vow they'll do it differently than their parents did.


But precious little time is given to exploring how to be the caring, attentive parents these new mothers and fathers aspire to be. One of the services offered for expectant couples at the Sunnybrook and Women's Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, apart from the basic childbirth preparation course, is an infant-care workshop. It explores a range of issues about newborns, areas of controversy such as circumcision, styles of parenting, division of tasks.


And yet, despite all the unknowns, when that precious moment arrives and the newly minted parents are holding their newborn in their arms, everything is possible.


While SARS is gone, its restrictions remain. This year, the same strict rules around visitation still apply, and now couples accept unquestioningly that it is their show and theirs alone. The prenatal classes are up and running again in the hospital setting, the tours mark the territory and dispel the initial anxieties. But there is a subtle realignment of who's in charge -- and what role each parent is prepared to play.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.