OBJECTIVE: to explore how first-time fathers describe requested and received support during a normal birth. DESIGN: qualitative research design. Ten first-time fathers were interviewed during the first postpartum week. Individual open-ended interviews were used to explore the fathers' descriptions, and the interviews were analysed using qualitative analysis. SETTING: a labour ward at one hospital in a south-western county of Sweden in November and December 2006. PARTICIPANTS: first-time fathers who had experienced a normal birth at the hospital during the study period. FINDINGS: the support described is presented as one main theme, 'being involved or being left out', which included four underlying categories: 'an allowing atmosphere', 'balancing involvement', 'being seen' and 'feeling left out'. KEY CONCLUSIONS: fathers perceived that they were given good support when they were allowed to ask questions during labour, when they had the opportunity to interact with the midwife and their partner, and when they could choose when to be involved or to step back. Fathers want to be seen as individuals who are part of the labouring couple. If fathers are left out, they tend to feel helpless; this can result in a feeling of panic and can put their supportive role of their partner at risk. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: the results of this study could initiate discussions about how health-care professionals can develop support given to the labouring couple, with an interest in increasing paternal involvement.