Becoming a dad: A photographic journey

This blog post was published on Thomson Reuters Foundation on 15 June 2018: http://news.trust.org/item/20180615113009-035p2/

Exeter, England, March 2018. Almost 2 pm. The bright red numbers of the digital clock on the wall left no room for doubt. The snow was falling harder and harder outside and I knew I was running out of time. Tamzin was in full labour, switching from the birth pool to the delivery bed, her husband and mom at her side, the attentive and efficient nurse helping her to breathe. It was all perfect and ready, except it wasn’t. “Please baby, please, please, now”, I kept repeating to myself for the four hours I was in the room with them. But no, baby wasn’t in a hurry, like me. He didn’t have to get on a train and try to evade a monster storm — or stay and be snowed in for days and miss the next flight to Thailand. I barely made it in time for the train — a two-hour trip turned into a 10-hour ride in the blizzard. And I missed the birth. And the photo.

When I was approached to be part of the “Dads in the Delivery Room” project, a photo essay exploring the emotions and cultural traditions around fatherhood spanning five countries around the world —  Mexico, UK, Thailand, Guinea-Bissau and Turkmenistan —  I had no idea how difficult a task it would be. Being a mother myself and having had my husband with me during the whole process of our son’s birth, I thought this was a common event. Of all countries and people I met and photographed, only twice could I witness the father in the actual delivery room, not waiting outside, or in a special waiting room, or the hallway, or the restaurant across the street. Or not there at all.

A man looks down at the sleeping infant swaddled around his chest.
© UN0204073/ZehbrauskasPaul Barnes does skin-to-skin contact with his son Archie, born prematurely on 23 January 2018, in the neonatal unit of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, in Exeter, Devon, England,

Birth giving, I realized, is still very much a women’s affair: sisters, mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law; they are always present and ready to help in any way they can. Fathers are almost a second thought. In Zongolica, a small village in the mountains of Veracruz, Mexico, I found them pacing nervously outside or sitting in the small emergency room waiting area. Once the mother was ready to give birth, they would be called by the security guard and allowed inside, where a doctor would bring the newborn to briefly meet his dad. Later they would be reunited, the three of them, in the shared hospital room. The lack of resources, especially no paternity leave, makes it even more difficult for them to skip work and be present.

On the other side of the world, in Turkmenistan, fathers do take the central stage. Not at the moment of birth, but right afterwards: they are the ones who walk out of the maternity ward carrying the baby in their arms, family members and friends as witnesses, as they pose for the local photographers, all ready to record every moment. The celebration includes cars decorated with balloons, banners and stuffed animals, in which they proudly drive the family home, where a true banquet awaits.

A man picking up a newly born infant with both his hands as hospital staff around him look on.
© UN0203803/ZehbrauskasJumphon Parkmnoi, 27, learns how to bathe his three-day-old baby girl Kanyaluck with the help of a nurse, at the Regional Health Promotion Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the new fathers attend classes where they learn how to bathe and change the baby before leaving the hospital. One of the breastfeeding classes though, meant for both mothers and fathers, didn’t count with one single dad: they were all busy at work.

Cultural and economic differences apart though, in all countries I witnessed true manifestations of joy, pride, commitment and care.  The inclusion of fathers in the process of birth giving, supporting and caring both for mother and the baby is a timely issue that should be discussed in all levels of society. Hopefully, this photo essay will help to shed a little more light on it.

 

Adriana Zehbrauskas is a Brazilian documentary photographer based in Mexico City. She recently travelled with UNICEF to Thailand, Mexico, UK, Guinea-Bissau and Turkmenistan to capture fathers in the delivery room experiencing their first precious moments with their newborns.

A photo-essay capturing these moments can be viewed here

 

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