Have you ever felt helpless while watching someone you love suffer? Well, that feeling still lingers in me from our birth experience even though it has been four months since our cute little baby was born.
Ashley has written about her perspective on the birth experience, so here I am to add my thoughts from a husband’s perspective and share with you what I think are the most important things to keep in mind as the partner trying to support their significant other during this intense time.
As a preface, I would just like to say that in reflecting on this whole process overall, I do think that we got the best care we could have asked for, in Japan or in the United States, considering all that happened and the more limited options we had (no choice for epidural, etc.).
1. Find a doctor early
There is a shortage of OBGYN doctors in Japan and so birthing clinics will fill up fast. That said, don’t just settle for the first place you find. You and/or your wife/fiance/girlfriend may have ideas about how the birth should be done and while it might be a pain, finding a doctor who will be flexible with your birthing plan will save you from dealing with a lot of stress later. If she wants an epidural, it might be hard to find a doctor or hospital with that as an option, since it seems to be a common belief here is that childbirth must be painful. The earlier you start and the more you look and ask around, the better chances of finding a hospital or clinic and doctor or midwife that/who will suit your needs.
I thought we had plenty of time but when we actually got around to looking for a doctor (8 weeks in or so), most birthing clinics near us were already full. Of course, the places that had openings had pretty strict rules about how things were done. Short visiting hours, strict weight gain rules, whether the husband is allowed to be there for the actual delivery are just a start to the list of things that need to be asked.
Looking back though, these were all blessings in disguise since we were able to find a flexible, English speaking doctor only 30~40mins away by car. They had long visiting hours (some places are only open from noon to 7pm), they allowed me to bring food for Ashley (since their food didn't really fit her palate) and most importantly they were flexible about accommodating our birth plan. The drive was definitely worth the comfort and peace that my wife received.
2. Determine your role
Something I never really considered before we found out we were having a baby but needed to think about really quickly was what role I was going to take in the whole pregnancy/birth process. I knew right from the start that I would need to be completely involved in everything because I would be the one doing most of the communicating in Japanese because I didn’t really expect to find a doctor who spoke English well enough around where we live.
The thing I learned from my experience is that a lot of OBGYN places don’t really involve fathers in the whole process. I went with Ashley to every check-up, but usually was left in the waiting room, brought in to look at the ultrasound and then sent back out while the doctor talked to Ashley in English. Of course there were other fathers in the waiting room, but very few compared to the number of pregnant women there for check-ups. That said, our clinic allowed me to take part in almost everything and let me be in the room during labor and birth, which some clinics and hospitals don't allow.
3. Communication is key
Once you find a doctor you like, the next MOST important thing is communication. Since our doctor spoke English, both Ashley and I were at first reassured that there wouldn’t be as many issues in communication with the doctor. We talked over our birthing plan with them and it seemed that everything was fine.
But then, breakdowns in communication started happening. Ashley went to the doctor and asked for some medicine but somehow came out of the appointment without getting any (Sidenote from Ashley: The doctor had said "Ok" about the medicine, but when we had been discussing it I think he took my asking him if he thought I should use it as maybe I didn't want it, even though that's not what I meant. A difference in English and Japanese is spoken).
Since the doctor spoke English (not fluently but decently), he would communicate with Ashley in English even though I was sitting in the waiting room and I could speak fluent Japanese (Ashley: Even some Japanese is fine for me, and I thought would have made it easier at times...). It was definitely frustrating since I was there so there wouldn’t be communication problems but they still happened.
Another huge communication breakdown happened at the birth. Ashley had been in labor at home for a while and we were told to come in, so we drove to the clinic in the middle of the night. We got there and they checked her out and got her in bed and the head nurse comes in and said, basically, "we’re going to do the birth how we do it and then after that things can go the way you want." So basically, our birthing plan and how we envisioned things would go during the birth was thrown out the window. I didn’t tell Ashley this since she didn’t need more things to worry about.
4. Go with the flow
While sticking to your birthing plan may provide you and your wife/fiance/girlfriend a lot of comfort and feeling of control, if things need to change then it's the partner's job to be the flexible one and deal with things as they come up since she will be a bit preoccupied with actually giving birth.
This seemed to be the theme of our experience. From having our birthing plan thrown out the window to having the doctor do a procedure that we specifically said not to do unless it was an emergency*, it was my job to keep Ashley calm and relaxed (as best as I could) so she could focus on her job, which was to get the baby out.
*I had assumed that if the procedure was necessary the doctor would at least acknowledge our request and say that it was necessary but I guess that was too much to ask in this case. The doctor just came in and did the procedure much to my and Ashley’s horror…
On the other hand, the clinic was also very flexible. After a horrible second night for Ashley having to deal with a starving, screaming baby all night I went to the clinic first thing in the morning to take care of the baby so she could sleep. The nurses told me that not only did they get permission from the doctor to let Ashley to check out a day early, but I could also stay that night at the clinic and help take care of the baby.
5. Prepare as best as you can
If you have never been through the experience, it’s hard to know what to expect. Do as much preparation ahead of time with the knowledge that your practice pales in comparison to the actual experience but at least it will help you know what to do.
I guess I came in thinking very naively about the birth. While I knew it would be painful, I never imagined that it would be to that extent. Even though we probably didn’t prepare as best as we could have, I knew what I had to do during the process and focused on doing that and supporting Ashley as best as I could.
While there were some things that didn’t go the way we wanted and it was a lot more than we expected, we are happy to have our very cute and cuddly now four-month-old baby. While I came away scarred from the experience, the smiles and laughter filling our home now make the memories a bit less painful.
Other dads/partners in Japan, have any advice to share or add?
David Thompson is currently in his fifth and final year on the JET Program, teaching English at a technical high school. When he's not busy trying to convince teenage boys to pay attention in class, he helps coach baseball at the school (officially), helps Ashley with research and checking Japanese for accuracy, and takes care of baby Ai-chan.
You may also want to read:
Giving Birth in Japan: My Experience - Part 1
Giving Birth in Japan: My Experience - Part 2
Giving Birth in Japan: Reflections and Advice