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What to do when a partner doesn’t want to be involved

I got a call from a new doula recently after one of her first few births (story used with permission). She mentioned she’d done two births so far and both had been quite different from each other and wanted to debrief them. In one she mentioned how the partner didn’t want to be involved and wondered what the best way to handle that would be and if she’d done the right thing.


I love doula work because it’s so REAL. Social masks disappear in birth and it’s like seeing a whole other level of humanity. I remember once at a birth thinking “this has got to be as close to a godlike presence as I’ve ever been”. There is something ethereal about it at times.

When social masks come off we see the ‘real’ people behind the social pretenses. Which can be beautiful….or not. You will see deep into people’s lives, how their relationships are structured, and how they each behave within that structure.

Good or bad?

I used to find myself defining relationships I saw as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Over the years and with maturity I realized that there is no good or bad, there’s just what my social upbringing and culture have programmed me to believe is ‘good or bad’. I now find myself instead ‘noticing’ instead of judging my clients’ relationships. This non-judgmental noticing will help me to better understand how to serve them and it begins in the consultation.

In the consultation I find myself watching how they sit. Are they side by side or across the table? How close to each other? Are they touching? Is one busy doing something else? When one speaks, does the other partner watch intently and nod, hanging on every word, or are they on their phone or off in their own mind?

This is my first opportunity to get a sense for what the relationship might be like. Within the first 5 minutes I have turned to ask the partner what they envision for themselves for this role. We say we involve partners, but if you spend an entire consult ONLY speaking with the pregnant person then you’re not really showing that are you?

It takes all kinds of kinds

pregnant couple - doula clientsWhat seeing hundreds of couples has taught me is that there is no one way to be in a relationship, just like there is no one way to birth or parent.

You’ll see relationships that make your heart feel warm and fuzzy and others that make you cringe. Have you ever wondered why that is? Did you think it was because the relationship was ‘good or bad’? It’s really simply because of your own biases towards what constitutes a good relationship. Of course our egos would like to see everyone in ‘good’ relationships, but because we’re all so different, that will never happen.

How do I work with difficult partners?

Working with partners that you perceive as difficult can be tricky! One thing I’d always like you to keep in mind is that if this couple has been together for a while, it’s very likely that the partner’s behaviour isn’t new to the pregnant person. So while it may at times seems ‘strange’ or even ‘unacceptable’ to you, it may be very expected to the pregnant person. Also keep in mind that may be precisely WHY THEY HIRED YOU!!

We’re not marriage counsellors and that’s not our job! Just support them both in the way that works for each of them.

Side note: If you perceive a threat of violence try to find a time with the pregnant person alone and offer your support. Sending them info or text messages is ill-advised because the abusive partner may intercept them and it could cause more problems. An abused person needs to know there are others who care, but they need to be willing to get help to get away from the situation.

Cultural considerations

In many cultures it’s inappropriate for a partner to touch a labouring person. They may want to, or they may really not want to. But if their culture tells them not to, then find ways of allowing them to be present (if desired) without encouraging touch. Also, please don’t assume because someone is from a certain religion or culture that they aren’t allowed to touch. The question I always ask is “are there any religious or cultural customs that I should know about that may impact how to best support you at your birth”?

Partners who step back

Sometimes you might have a partner who thought they wanted to be involved but once labour comes, thpregnant coupleey take a step back. Labour can be so overwhelming for a partner! Give them specific ways to be involved. Show them a technique and step back to let them try it. But if they keep stepping back repeatedly there comes a point where you need to recognize their emotional or physical struggle. Think of other ways to involve them. Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring a chair close to the labouring person for the partner to sit on
  • Ask them to be in charge of the music playlist
  • Have them prepare the bath or shower
  • Ask them to pull out all the labour items and put on the window sill
  • Do a hand/foot massage and see if they want to do the other hand (foot)
  • Ask them to get ice
  • Ask them to grab a warm blanket
  • Ask them to take notes for the birth story (or for your certification records, lol)
  • Encourage them to get a snack and maybe coffees for all
  • Give them permission to just sit and do nothing (don’t we all forget the value of just BEing?)

When to stop

If a partner repeatedly says no to your suggestions just let them BE. The experience may be more than they can handle and the pressure we sometimes put on partners to be “coaching” is really tough. Another doula trainer once said “for a partner to be at a birth for the first time is like watching football and then showing up to coach the Super Bowl” (wish I could give proper attribution for this, but not sure who originally said it).

Consider also that people who don’t have a very emotionally close relationship will BOTH feel awkward by your repeated attempts to bring them together!

Check-in once in a while to make sure they’re doing alright and ask if there’s anything you can do for them. I know we spend so much time in doula training being taught how to involve the partner, but there are times when the best thing we can do is let them keep the bench warm. Doula work is all about reading the situation and providing the best type of support for that situation.

I feel like there are a hundred other things I want to say, but I hope it gives you some ideas and considerations on how to support partners who aren’t as hands-on!

I’d love to hear your ideas and anything else that works for you.

Good luck my lovely doulas.

#WorldDoulaDomination #DoulaAreForPartnersToo #PartnerSupport

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About the Author

Stefanie AntunesStefanie Antunes has been a Lamaze® Educator and doula since 2002, after the birth of her second son showed her just how valuable it is to be prepared for birth and to have good support around you.

Stefanie is a visionary in the childbirth field. She leads the Discover Birth organization providing a variety of services to expectant parents and training for those wishing to pursue work in the childbirth field. Stefanie is a board member with the Association of Ontario Doulas, former Public Relations Director for DONA International, and sits on many local boards and coalitions to improve our communities. She is a DONA-approved Birth Doula Trainer, runs an Approved Program for Lamaze International and runs two doula agencies Discover Birth and The Nesting Place.

Stefanie is the founder of The Birth Doula Program at the Scarborough Hospital.

Stefanie is a contributing author in the best selling Power of Women United and the book Bearing Witness: Childbirth Stories Told by Doulas. She is a regular contributing writer and blogger, and has done many interviews online and for TV/radio.

Before becoming a doula, Stefanie worked in corporate intelligence, helping large companies keep abreast of their markets and competitors. She now works to bring some of those same skills to the doula profession, helping it grow and prosper, along with its many doula members.

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