For most of human history, of course, men didn't go anywhere near women in labor, and any expectation that they would is relatively new: In Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, set in the 1940s, a father is sent off to the bar by the household women so he doesn't have to hear his wife's cries of pain. This changed in the 1960s, when a doctor named Robert Bradley put power in patients' hands, reducing the number of Caesarean sections and episiotomies he performed and playing up natural ways of making childbirth less painful. One method, he discovered, was to invite the husband in to have him talk to his wife—a practice popularized in the 1970s. Putting husbands in the delivery room not only coincided with feminism but was intimately wrapped up with the natural childbirth movement and its effort to see the modern body in a more holistic fashion. (Bradley himself was no feminist; he told husbands to enforce a natural-foods diet he designed so that their "statuesque" wives wouldn't pack on pounds.)The ancient tradition of excluding the man might well have reflected deep understanding of sexual happiness. The 1970s feminist idea had some intellectual interest to it, but always seemed off and ideological. And now that view has morphed into the bland present day concern for healthiness.
The idea that childbirth was natural and therefore beautiful wasn't actually embraced by all feminists. Shulamith Firestone insisted that modern feminism shouldn't celebrate childbirth, but hope that science could soon render women's role in it obsolete. She writes, "Pregnancy is barbaric. … The husband's guilty waning of sexual desire, the woman's tears in front of the mirror at eight months are all gut reactions, not to be dismissed as cultural habits. ... Three thousand years ago women giving birth 'naturally' had no need to pretend that pregnancy was a real trip, some mystical orgasm."
Today's women aren't celebrating pregnancy as a mystical orgasm, but they do see having the father in the delivery room as a necessary component of a healthy marriage, one in which both partners contribute equally to collective partnership.
I'd say get the facts and make a sound decision for yourself. And don't focus on the childbirth experience so much. It's like focusing on the wedding and not the actual married life that will follow. The wedding is not the marriage, and the childbirth is not the family. The real happiness is to be found (or lost) in marriage and family, not in weddings and childbirth. Real life is lived in all those ordinary days, not on those big occasions that seem to matter so much when you're starting out.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is emphatically not set in the 1940s; I know you didn't write the paragraph which contained that error, but merely excerpted it. However, I thought you might wish the correction, just the same.
Betty Smith's classic novel opens, if I recall correctly, in 1912 (although it flashes back to a number of years earlier) and extends into--again, if I recall correctly) the early '20s, or at least post-World War I). There was, however, a movie made from the book, and that movie dates to the mid-1940s, so that's perhaps the source of the wrong date.
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" .... aaahhhhhh. That happens to be one of the books which had the greatest impact in my childhood (I first read it around 1970 at about age 9--yeah, yeah, I'm one of those precocious readers--and have re-read it many, many times since) in more ways than could possibly interest you, from history to the developing writer's early mind to issues of class, religion, and poverty etc. Most special to me is that the copy I first read--and still read, despite its falling-apart state--belonged to my maternal great-grandfather, whom I never met, but who belonged to a potato-famine Irish-immigrant family that settled in--you guessed it--Williamsburg, Brooklyn and lived in poverty there before, and during a good chunk of, the time depicted in the book (my own grandmother started school about 10 years after Francie would have, but under depressingly similar circumstances). His annotations in margins and general underlinings are priceless to me.
Sorry for the digressions, but it was so lovely to see this book, mostly unknown to my contemporaries, pop up in your blog! Even in the unexpected context in which it was raised...