After my son was born I stayed in hospital for four nights. I spent the night in a private room at the teaching hospital where my son was born and three nights in a four bedded bay at the local community hospital. For all four nights my husband was given the opportunity to stay although in the end he only stayed for the first two before I sent him home to sleep and prepare for a job interview that he attended when our son was four days old.
Throughout my pregnancy I suffered from severe depression and my specialist mental health midwife and I spent a long time discussing things that could be put in place to make the birth and the first few days as a new mum that bit easier to cope with.
One of the things that was really important to me was the possibility of my husband being able to stay overnight with me and our little boy on the postnatal ward.
I put this idea to my midwife, fully expecting to be told that there wouldn’t be space or that it was against hospital policy but the answer was actually the complete opposite. Both my midwives and both hospitals were happy to accommodate my husband staying for as long as I was in hospital and they even had reclining chairs for partners to sleep on.
The relief that came with knowing that I wouldn’t be left alone overnight to look after a new baby with my mental health in such a fragile state was such that it never occurred to me to question their decision.
Apparently I should have.
On a recent discussion on a popular parenting site I was shocked to discover the sheer number of women who are vehemently against partners being allowed to stay overnight on the postnatal wards. It wasn’t so much their reasons that confused me but why there seems to be such a discrepancy between what new mothers say that they want and the care that the hospitals set out to give them.
On Father’s day last year the maternity unit at Guys and St. Thomas NHS hospital proudly announced the delivery of reclining chairs so that new fathers could stay overnight for the first time. The new chairs were installed in response to patient feedback and recommendations made by the Royal College of Midwives.
Yet in the same year, when the human rights charity Birthrights proposed a campaign to ensure that all women would be able to have their partner stay with them and their babies overnight throughout their stay in hospital, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Not only that but the minority who did wish to have a partner stay with them (often for valid health reasons) were condemned as selfish and thoughtless.
When I tried to put my reasons across for wanting my husband to stay I was told that I should have paid for private maternity care (we can’t afford it), that I should have paid for a private room (when there weren’t any) or that I should have had a home birth.
Although no one could have known, if I had delivered our son at home he would likely have died from complications that occurred shortly before he was born.
As with every argument there are two sides to be considered. On the one hand there are the women who don’t want partners (theirs or anyone else’s) to stay overnight for reasons ranging from feeling that the ward is overcrowded to feeling in a vulnerable state after having giving birth. It is a completely valid reason to not want to see anyone other than the people who have to be there when you are bleeding, emotional, struggling to get up and about and trying to establish breast feeding. There are also the women who, for cultural and religious reasons do not want to be around strange men but this is such a complex and controversial topic that it would require a whole new post to discuss in any detail.
However, it is also entirely acceptable to want your partner with you for that first night and all the nights afterwards to help you and to bond with your new baby if you feel that’s what you both need. Partners are expected (and expecting) to take more of an active role in looking after a new baby than ever before and yet there still seems to be the school of thought that having partners stay on the post natal ward is invading a sacred space that should be reserved for new mothers and their babies.
In a world where stay at home fathers and full time working mothers are becoming more and more common we are moving away from the traditional model of the mother being in charge of childcare and the father being the breadwinner. It seems strange, therefore, to expect the mother to be given the majority of the opportunity to learn about and bond with the new baby while the father is sent home so that his continuing presence doesn’t upset the new mothers in any way.
Clearly there are men who cannot be trusted around women and becoming a father does not change that. There are women who have suffered abuse, who are afraid of men or who are in abusive relationships where being able to spend a few days in hospital without their partner might just give them the opportunity to reach out for the help that they need to break free. As a nurse myself I have seen this first hand on the various neonatal units I’ve worked on and some of the stories I’ve been told first hand by these women have been heartbreaking to hear.
Steps to keep these vulnerable women safe need to be made but surely it should not be at the expense of excluding all partners from staying overnight, especially when there are women who need their partners to stay just as much as other women want them to leave.
At work we don’t have the capacity for either mothers or their partners to stay overnight in the neonatal unit but we do have 24 hour visiting for all parents and shared accommodation next to the unit where parents whose child is very sick or who are a long way from their local hospital can stay. Although the rooms are private in many cases the bathrooms are shared and the parents bump into each other on the way to the kitchen or the television room.
In many cases the mothers have delivered their babies very recently and are still bleeding, struggling to walk, emotional, leaking milk and all the other less than desirable bodily functions that come with having recently been through labour. They are also often attempting to establish breast feeding or are expressing every 2-3 hours. These are all reasons that have been given for banning partners from staying overnight on the postnatal wards and yet I have never come across any mother who has expressed a wish for partners being banned from the shared accommodation or asked to leave the unit because there are new mums trying to express or feed.
It seems that both the women who feel they need their partner there to support them are just as much in the minority as the women who have been abused or are in abusive relationships and yet the general consensus seems to be that the latter group should take priority. I don’t feel that this should be the case and that both groups should be treated equally and although I am not alone in my opinion I seem to be in the minority.
I did not write this post to try and prove that my opinions are right and that all other opinions are wrong, more that we need to try and work out how postnatal wards can be set up and run so that everyone receives the care that they would like. For example, the possibility of having one shared bay for women who do not want partners to stay and one bay for women who do. From what I’ve seen in most hospitals each bay tends to have a dedicated patient toilet which would negate the issue of newly delivered mothers bumping into men in the corridor on the way to the toilet (something which many women seem to find a particular issue).
Clearly we are never going to make everyone happy, as evidenced by women who claimed to still be unhappy with partners staying on the postnatal wards, even if they and the new mother were in a side room with an en-suite. But there has to be a way to balance the needs of women who want their partners to stay and those who don’t.
There will always be times when the needs of the many have to outweigh the needs of the few but maternity care should be this way and in terms of accommodating mothers and their wishes regarding partners, it doesn’t have to.