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Welcoming a Grandchild, Right in the Delivery Room

When my granddaughter was born, my own role was very clear: Keep a packed bag handy. Head for Brooklyn as soon as my daughter, Emma, called to say she was on the way to the hospital with her husband. Move into their apartment for the duration to walk and feed Pearl, their sweet ancient Labrador. Wait by the phone.

Being assigned to canine care was perfectly fine; I was glad to be useful. It never occurred to me that I could actually be in the delivery room when this baby arrived, and it didn’t occur to my daughter to invite me, or anyone else.

Emma wanted a quiet, private birth with her partner and their nurse-midwife. Her own birth 30-some years earlier had been much the same.

But I’m learning that many grandparents — mostly mothers and mothers-in-law, but some fathers and fathers-in-law as well — are indeed present for the big event.

Carol Kerton, for example, was on hand to welcome her first grandchild in a hospital in Sacramento eight years ago. “It was an awesome experience,” said Ms. Kerton, 60, who lives in South Beach, Ore. “After that, I wanted to be there for all of them.”

And she has been, for the births of all five of her grandchildren, most recently of twin boys. She has clasped her two daughters’ hands, fetched water for them, held their legs when it was time to push. She served, with permission, as the chief photographer and videographer. “It’s become a family event,” said her daughter Caitlin Schut, 31, the twins’ mother.

ImageDeana Hendrickson, her daughter Lisa Peicott and grandson Joseph. Being present for Joseph’s birth was “a wonderful experience that I never want to repeat,” she said.
Credit…via Deana Hendrickson

When Lisa Peicott, 33, planned for her first baby’s birth, “I wanted my mom to be in the room,” she told me. “I was scared, and my husband was a little squeamish. But she’s been through it, so who better to walk me through it?”

Thus, Deana Hendrickson, 61, was with her daughter, son-in-law, his mother and an aunt in Los Angeles in November when little Joseph was born. “A wonderful experience that I never want to repeat,” said Ms. Hendrickson, who found it difficult to see her daughter experience pain.

Nonetheless, if her daughter has another child and wants her to be present, “I’ll be there again,” she said.

Andrea Clay, 72, a nurse and emergency medical technician in rural Edison, Wash., deserves some sort of meritorious service award for attending not only her two grandchildren’s births, but her great-grandson’s in July. “I was really honored and grateful,” she said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.”

Not many generations back, most births were like this, family affairs. As recently as 1940, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, 44 percent of American births took place outside of hospitals, generally at home. But childbirth swiftly became a medicalized phenomenon; by 1969, only 1 percent of births took place outside of hospitals.

Women and their advocates have fought for years to have partners or other support people in hospital delivery rooms, to avoid unnecessary procedures and to gain more control over childbirth.

Now, though there’s no data on how commonly this happens, it’s noncontroversial to have grandparents — or aunts, sisters and friends — present, said Dr. Samuel Bauer, chief of women’s and children’s clinical care at Beaumont Health in Michigan.

“We tend to let everybody in,” he said. (About 18,000 babies are born in Beaumont Health hospitals annually.) Support during labor, he pointed out, has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain.

So, “it’s really up to the mother. Who does she want and, sometimes, who doesn’t she want in the room? There’s no restriction on what the patient wants.”

There’s a key question: Whom might a laboring mother choose to include, and might exclusions cause hurt feelings and jeopardize family ties?

“If I invited my mother, did I have to invite my mother-in-law?” Ms. Schut wondered. “I realized no, this is really my decision. I can set boundaries.” Her mother agreed to accept any verdict, which eased the pressure.

Personally, I think accepting any verdict about who attends the birth sets a good precedent for grandparenting in general. Get used to it: We are not in charge, and we don’t get to make demands.

Ruth Zielinski, who directs the nurse-midwifery program at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and attended her own two grandsons’ births, has come up with some principles of what she calls “birth etiquette.”

When grandparents and other family members enter the delivery room, “the vast majority of the time it’s a very positive experience,” she has found. (However, some hospitals still restrict the total number of participants, she added.)

But she urges women to ponder: “Who do you feel comfortable with? Who do you think will be helpful?”

And she cautions future grandparents to consider: “If you have the privilege of being at a birth, what should you do or not do? Why are you there, and what is your role?”

Herewith, a few of Dr. Zielinski’s birth etiquette advisories:

  • Wait for an invitation to the birth, and don’t be miffed if one doesn’t materialize. Nobody is entitled to be present. Besides, as one grandmother pointed out, “Babies don’t remember who was in the room.”

  • If you’re included, support the mother’s choices. If she wants to labor unmedicated, fine. If she wants an epidural, ditto. If she wants to give birth in a tub, O.K. If she decides that the room is getting too crowded, leave.

  • It’s not about you. The labor room is not the place to recount your own delivery or to joke that ha-ha, despite the mother’s saying that she will never do this again, she will. “This may not be the time to talk about that, or to talk at all,” Dr. Zielinski said.

On the whole, however, “witnessing the moment of birth is transformational, for the woman and for the family,” said Elise Erickson, part of the nurse-midwifery faculty practice at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “I see the love and pride in the grandmother’s eyes. I see the tears.”

Happily, it turned out that I did get to spend a little time with Emma before she delivered. She needed to have labor induced, on a summer day when every pregnant woman in Brooklyn seemed to have headed for the maternity floor at about the same moment.

So Emma and her husband, Jay, bounced in and out of the hospital, waiting for a bed, getting sent home, being called back. Still no bed. Around 4 a.m., Emma told Jay to go home and get some sleep.

I awoke a little later in their guest room — shortly to become the baby’s room — and thought of my girl alone in the hospital. I texted: Would you like some company until Jay returns? She answered, Yes, please.

For a few hours, we chatted and read and did the Times crossword puzzle and snacked. (You can eat during early labor these days, I learned.) We walked slowly up and down the halls to stimulate contractions.

It was a final mother-daughter moment before we became mother-daughter-granddaughter. I hope I was of some comfort.

Then her husband arrived, and I went home to walk Pearl and wait for news.

Paula Span writes the New Old Age column in the Science section of The New York Times.

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