Is Michel Odent out of touch with modern day birth?

My day started yesterday with being tagged in to a tweet containing this post Dr Odent Says no but is he out of date written by Mark @BirthingforBlokes. This is something I had been considering myself for a few days, having listened to his diatribe on Radio 5 live again about why men shouldn’t be at the birth of their child. Indeed, I wrote about this over four years ago in my blog piece Men at birth good idea or not?

Initially reading Mark’s blog, I thought he was agreeing with my feelings that Odent is becoming out of date in respect to his views on dads at birth. However, it seems that although he feels Odent may be missing something in respect of dads “presence” at birth, he gets what he is saying and doesn’t feel he is out of date.

After some back and forth on twitter, Mark and I will have to agree to disagree. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so this is fine, but it raises for me another very important point.

Before I get started though, let’s be clear: I have the utmost respect and admiration for Michel Odent’s work. What he has achieved in the birthing arena over the years has been ground breaking and must never be forgotten.

So what does Michel Odent say about men at birth? He repeatedly discusses the critical importance of the birth environment, and how the ‘wrong’ person in that space can be seriously detrimental to the birth, evidencing the delicate oxytocin hormone balance which can be easily disturbed. Yes, I completely agree. However, Odent uses this as a reason to specifically argue that dads should not be there, even back in 2008 in an article for the Telegraph he stated there is little good to come for either sex from having a man at the birth of a child’. Generalisations like this are just never that simple.
Yes, some dads, especially those that are unaware and unprepared, can be detrimental to the birth environment. Odent himself in the same article for the Telegraph generalised fathers as motivated by a desire to “share the experience”, the man asks questions and offers words of reassurance and advice’. Yes, this can and does happen. I have always stated that there should not be an expectation that dads should have to be there, or are always the ‘right’ person to be there. However, is it not also possible to enable a father to learn and understand why some actions and behaviours are potentially detrimental? To prepare them for what they might see and hear at birth? To show them what they could be doing or indeed not doing, to be a more positive influence? Indeed, is the kind of potential negative influence which Odent mentions even just specific to dads as birthing partners alone? What about the midwives, doctors, obstetricians, doulas, mothers, sisters, friends, etc. who also have the potential to have this impact? It is not so simple as to say that someone’s sex or their relationship to the birthing woman is what inherently makes them a negative influence in the birth space. It would largely be seen as unacceptable (and rightly so) to state that women are inherently ‘too emotional’ to fulfil certain careers and roles and to discriminate against them on such grounds, so conversely, why is it acceptable to believe, promote and go so far as to try to remove men from the birthing space based on a generalisation about being ‘too anxious’ and interfering?

Odent goes further than this though, and also says that he believes men should not be in the birth space because what they experience is damaging to their sexual partnership, asking if a man is present at birth, will be the effect on the sexual attraction he feels towards his wife over the long term?’  He says ‘There are many things we do in private in order to preserve a degree of modesty and mystery. And, for the benefit of our sex lives, it may be worth adding childbirth to this list.’

It is slightly insulting if not inaccurate to suggest that I (and all the other dads on the planet) can only see their partner in these sexual terms, and can have no appreciation or awe for how amazing she and her body is when she is birthing. Surely I am not the only one to see a conflict between Odent’s views and the positivity of the 2014 campaign led by the Positive Birth Movement about stopping the censorship of images of birth on facebook? How many birth professionals have rolled their eyes at hearing a joke being made about “being at a birth is like watching your favourite pub burn down”? Yet just because Michel Odent says it in other words, it’s OK?

Why do we all create merry hell when somebody is stupid enough to suggest that breastfeeding mums SHOULD cover up, show modesty and not be openly ostentatious? We don’t suggest, and correctly so, that to preserve the view on them as sexual beings, women should cover up. We promote that the primary function of breasts is to feed a child, that they do not only have a sexual function. But, when someone that we admire and respect uses the sexual being and function argument as to why birth should be censored from dads, there is comparative silence?

It also seems that these kinds of statements ignore a lot of the other issues which we know make relationships (sexual and beyond) in those early days more difficult, such as cultural expectations, societal norms, limits/lack of other support, sheer fatigue, a lack of time, financial strains, and so forth. Suggesting that men seeing their partners giving birth is the main contributor to relationship breakdown is ignoring a lot of the other evidence which we know exists, and does little to actually support some of the key reasons for relationship difficulties after the arrival of a new baby. Yes, there will be some couples where one/both of them feel uncomfortable with dad witnessing the birth due to reasons around sexuality or modesty – there is nothing wrong with that as their individual feelings and choice, and their decision for him not to be there is likely to be the best one for them in their circumstances, but it is not a generalisation which should be promoted as true for everyone.

This brings me back to where I began, and the pertinent issue and question it raises for me. Why are we not challenging some of these views? Is it because we agree with them? Is because we feel that if someone was a pioneer in so many ways they must also be right about this? Is it because we are afraid to vocalise an alternative view to someone who is known to be such an inspiration and influence? Another interesting tweet that came in as part of the overall discussion from @ts_maggie. She had been to a conference and heard Odent speak, and said “I was there yesterday and in all honesty was quite disappointed” and (due to of twitters character limitation) went on to explain, “it felt a bit “emperor’s new clothes” to be honest. Telling us to do lower the lights in the room” “and keep voices low etc, this is stuff most of us have been doing forever.” “I think when he started out he was a pioneer but most of what he says now is common practice” “I respect him, but it wasn’t what I anticipated”

I’m sure that Odent has had to challenge people that he had had admiration or respect for, on his journey in advocating the changes he was passionate about. To challenge someone is not disrespectful, it is how all evolution happens. Just because an individual is pioneering and ground breaking in some respects, doesn’t mean we should automatically accept everything they therefore go on to say. The world moves on, society changes and practices need to also constantly adapt and change to deal with that. This does not mean we are or should ignore the original crucial messages which are so pertinent today, as @sagefemmesb said “I still think there is room for messages to be repeated…so much to be done to improve!” I couldn’t agree more.

However, turning a blind eye to viewpoints isn’t helpful either, as ignoring them is a form of endorsing them. When it comes to dads at birth, I do dare to say that I believe Odent is out of date, whether that makes me popular or not (and usually it doesn’t!). His constant generalisations, stereotyping and reinforcement that dads at birth is purely a negative thing, is not pointing towards positive actions and progress. How powerful a message could it be and how much difference could he make, if instead Odent advocated better education and support for dads, so that they in turn can better support their partners and their families?

Woman–centred care does not mean excluding men, and I go so far as to argue that it actually means the opposite. That however, is a whole other topic and if you want to know my thoughts on this subject, you can read my chapter in The Roar Behind the Silence: why kindness, compassion and respect matter in maternity care, which is published 24th February 2015.

3 thoughts on “Is Michel Odent out of touch with modern day birth?

  1. I don’t agree with Odent. My partner was my safe place during the births of both my daughters, if I was afraid, doubtful or just wanted some reassurance it was him I wanted. When I was wheeled into surgery for my emergency c-sect I needed him by my side and despite the panic he tells me he felt at that time I had no idea and his calm demeanour kept me calm. I wouldn’t have been without him. To say that men don’t have a place at the birth would not have been right in my personal situation.

  2. Odent is wrong and making massive generalisations. My wife absolutely wanted me at the birth and my presence at her first birth meant I was able to stop a procedure taking place that she didn’t want.

    As you say Dean, some men would make dreaful birthing partners and should stay away from the delivery suite. Truth is, a mother in law / mother / sister / cousin / grandfather ad infinitum could be just as bad as the biological father!

    As for the remarks about the potential damage to the couple’s sex life, you’re quite right, it reduces women to sexual beings and that’s very insulting. While I know I shouldn’t make light of the situation, I am al;so wondering if this guy has met many men? I think it would take a bit more than (what is usually) a brief hospital visit to switch off most guy’s libidos.

  3. I’ve known Michel Odent for over 30 years, and he’s been saying this for all of that time, so it goes back way before 2008! He and I have debated this often and you are completely right about the need for educating and preparing fathers in ways that help them be the best support for their partners in the birth space. He doesn’t have a construct for well prepared fathers, and it wasn’t an emphasis back in the days when he practiced in Pithiviers, France. Is he out of date? That’s hard to answer since this has been a constant attitude of his over the years. He may be out of step with this aspect of birth, but he’s got his finger on the pulse of so many other elements of birth care.

    I never framed his attitude as sexist, but I can really see the point. As a birth professional and feminist it makes total sense. Perhaps he’s a product of his generation – he will be 85 this year!

    Thanks for this article. I enjoyed reading it, knowing the history behind the concern.

    Namaste.

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