Dr Emanuel Gracias speaks on the father’s involvement during a pregnancy and the initiative taken up by him to bridge the gap for fathers who are unable to participate in the pregnancy when they are away at work
Pregnancy is often thought of as an exclusively female experience. While that is true biologically, it deeply affects those closely associated with the pregnant woman – in particular the child’s father.
Studies have shown that the fathers’ involvement in pregnancy reduces negative health behaviours in mothers and even lowers the risk of pre-term birth, low birth weight and fetal growth restriction. So what happens when fathers are unable to participate because they are away at work?
In Goa, many seafarers miss out on pregnancy – and sometimes the birth of their children. A system which allows video conferencing allows the fathers to be part of this exciting journey no matter where they are. This concept also allows pregnant women to enjoy the support of their husbands during antenatal visits to the doctor, and for fathers to actively participate in the pregnancy even while they are away.
Coined as Gracias Connect, this initiative took on a new facet during the covid-19 pandemic. Forced by health restrictions to stay away from clinics while their pregnant wives navigated antenatal visits alone, many men took advantage of our unique concept that uses video calling to include those unable to make it to routine check ups.
The idea for Gracias Connect was sparked during my honeymoon two years ago, when my wife and I met dozens of hardworking seafarers on our cruise, toiling 12-14 hours every day, seven days a week, for months on end. In port, they would call home, grasping at snatches of family time. Some happened to be husbands of my patients.
We decided to open up opportunities for parents-to-be working away from home to be part of the pregnancy process through video conferencing during their wives’ appointments. From seafarers to those in the armed forces, frontline warriors in quarantine, those working on the rigs and those posted in other jobs away from their wives, this facility can make an incredible difference to the journey of parenthood.
Typically, pregnant women in Goa attend antenatal appointments either with their mother or mother-in-law. The tendency is that the pregnant woman finds her new – and often overwhelming – experience undermined or dismissed as trivial by the seasoned companion. We often hear phrases such as: ‘We have been through this; it happens’; ‘Stop it, even we had to deal with this’.
With fathers-to-be, the experience is equally new and confusing. They are most often concerned about their wives’ moodiness, irritability, general change in behaviour as well as the constant vomiting, strange cravings and their effect on the health of the unborn child. It helps for them to be reassured by experts, and they are able to adjust their reactions to their wives’ behaviours more intentionally, rationally and patiently.
Distance and the stress of work can put pressure on any spousal relationship. Throw fluctuating hormone levels into the mix and it is a sure shot recipe for fireworks. Pregnancy hormones affect the level of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals which regulate mood. Understanding that the overwhelmed woman on the phone is actually a melting pot of mood swings, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, nausea, strange food cravings and aversions, and sometimes even heartburn and constipation can prompt spouses to be more understanding and offer more leeway in terms of relationship triggers.
With Gracias Connect, antenatal visits enable counselling for the father, often sitting miles away, sometimes distraught with worry about the progress of the pregnancy, any complications that might have cropped up, and the health of both mother and child. It offers them the opportunity to clear doubts that they might have and ask questions that their wives may not want to ask. It is an especially emotional time when they hear their child’s heartbeat through the fetal doppler. This allows them to feel connected to the pregnancy experience even though they may be on the other side of the planet.
The concept is also useful to doctors and hospital staff. Over the course of the pregnancy, these virtual visits by the father help build trust in our expertise and risk management capabilities. This allows us to make quick, life-saving decisions during delivery with the vital support of the father who already has complete confidence in the team. It also offers doctors the opportunity to inform husbands how their wives are being taken care of, and if there are issues of concern that can be alleviated with their intervention.
Being involved as a father is a relatively new behaviour. With the rise of nuclear families and the growing independence of women, paternal participation is vital to the smooth progress of pregnancy and the inevitable concern over labour and childbirth.
Through an initiative like this, fathers can stay involved throughout the pregnancy, feel connected to the process by participating more actively and frequently, and enjoy the excitement of impending parenthood no matter how far away they are from home.
The writer is an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Gracias Maternity Hospital,Margao. Email: email@example.com