Category Archives: research

How do we get midwifery research out of this heteronormative rut?

So whilst I am here writing posts about how we need to stop thinking that all the pregnant people we are caring/all people accessing reproductive healthcare around pregnancy are automatically women, on the other side of the looking glass I am training in a heteronormative world where we haven’t even got to that thought and are still referring to “fathers” rather than partners when we talk about the non-birthing partner.

I tend to use the word “partner”, with the phrase “partners of any or no gender” tripping off my tongue unless we are talking about something that *specifically* concerns non-birthing partners who are male. In which case I say “male partner”. Some other (student) midwives do this, but many just say father.

This week I went to a lunchtime event where researchers showcased their ongoing or current research around the theme of “involving partners and fathers”, and I had hoped from this wording that this would be a showcase that didn’t centre father’s experiences.

And the presentations were good! Important work is being done! But it is focussing on the experiences of fathers. After hearing the researchers speak, I realised that one of the problems we have – even *if* we talk in terms of partners so as not to centre the experiences of fathers and erase all others – is that so much of the research done into non-birthing partners/non-birthing parents is specifically research into “fathers”.

Researchers set out a hypothesis specifically about some aspect of fathers’ role in pregnancy/birth and then recruit fathers into the study and then publish this research and then there we have it, another piece contributing to the body of work that erases the experience of non-male partners, contributing to the heteronormativity of midwifery care. Another piece of research that because of its design can only be applied to fathers – despite the fact that the experiences of fathers detailed within the study may well also be the experiences of non-birthing partners of any or no genders.

I raised this point at the end of the presentations – my concern that research into partners was very heteronormative – stressing that I didn’t think it was any one researcher’s responsibility to fix, but that by continuing the centre research on “fathers” rather than partners of any or no gender, the problem perpetuates. There were a couple of points in response, the first being that it’s because male/female partnerships are traditional, and pointing to a growing minority of research into the experiences of same sex partners.

I am of course aware that heterosexual relationships are traditional. That’s not a justification for seeing them as the only relationships. Regarding the research being done into the experiences same sex partners;  it’s welcome, of course, but that is a separate point, and doesn’t get you off the hook limiting research into fathers when it could be framed as the experience of any partners. Because whilst I imagine same sex partners do have unique experiences (stemming largely from systematic homophobia?) which should totally be researched so practice can be improved, I bet they also share a lot of experiences as non-birthing partners with the fathers that we see so much (comparatively speaking) research about. And also, do you really think by covering fathers and same sex partners that we have covered everyone? Because I have some thoughts on the (falsehood of the) gender binary that you might find interesting…

Until those researching the experiences of fathers stop and ask themselves – is this really something that needs to be specifically limited to fathers, or can I ask the question more generally of partners of any or no gender – then this problem is not going to go away. If anything it’s going to get worse, as the existing body of work about “fathers” available each time someone embarks on a literature search at the start of a new project is gonna grow and grow.

I’m not a researcher (yet), so I imagine their are complexities to this I may be missing. Like what happens if we say we are studying the involvement partners of any or no gender but then only fathers come forwards to participate – can we still generalise our results? But surely it’s better make a commitment to moving away from heteronormativity, and to tackle these questions as them come up? To at least start ?