Do men have an obligation to witness the birth of their children?

Though this post first appeared in 2009, the topic of whether men have a responsibility to be present at the birth of their children (if the mothers want them there) came up again in discussion with friends this week.

Are some men just too squeamish to witness their children being born? If so, should we have compassion on that reluctance to be present — or should we ask these guys to grow the hell up?

The latest entry in the “men today have it so hard” sweepstakes is this Jonathan Last piece that ran in the June 4 Wall Street Journal: Present at the Creation. Remarking on the excellent new Judith Leavitt book Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, Last wonders if our contemporary cultural insistence that men be present when the mothers of their children give birth is such a good idea.

Explaining how the dinosaurs once rationalized keeping men in the Stork Club (the waiting room for expectant fathers), Ms. Leavitt quotes one doctor’s argument from the mid-1960s: “As the charm of woman is in her mystery, it is inconceivable that a wife will maintain her sexual prestige after her husband witnessed the expulsion of a baby — a negligee will never hide this apparition.” Another doctor concluded: “On the whole, it is not a show to watch.”

We all laugh at how benighted such views are. (Even if there is, just possibly, some truth in them.) Yet today it is socially acceptable to father a child without marrying the mother or to divorce her later on if mother and father actually do bother to get hitched. And at the same time there is zero tolerance for a husband who says: “No thanks, I’ll be in the waiting room with cigars.” Ms. Leavitt’s fascinating history suggests that childbirth is just one more area where our narcissism has swamped our seriousness.

My head hurts.

Last strains to connect the increased expectation that Dads will be present with an increasing divorce rate (never mind that the divorce rate has been in decline throughout the admittedly brief 21st century). If there’s a need for a case study for correlation without even a whiff of causation, this WSJ piece might be a good place to start. One is left to wonder if Last actually believes that men are more inclined to divorce their wives after witnessing birth; perhaps he imagines that the delicate masculine sensibility is so easily overwhelmed by the sight of the “bloody show” that future marital relations are inexorably damaged as a consequence.

This, in other words, is just another bit of popular sexual “wisdom” from the purity peddlers and the chastity crowd. Last implies that men’s sexual desire for their spouses (or the mothers of their children to whom they are not wed) is contingent upon denial about the bloody reality of how life comes into this world. Women, of course, can be expected to endure childbirth — despite the pain and turmoil inherent in the process — and then turn around and long to do again with their men the very act that ended up putting them through the whole traumatic (albeit, presumably, rewarding) experience in the first place. Women’s libidinousness, in other words, isn’t allowed to be contingent upon some carefully enforced ignorance about bodily functions. Instead of marveling that so many modern women are willing to give birth more than once, to make love with their husbands with the memory of what lovemaking can lead to still embedded in the consciousness, Last worries about the poor lads whose fragile sensibilities might be permanently scarred at the sight, sounds, and smells of a delivery room. This is the myth of male weakness writ large indeed.

My wife gave birth by cesarean section, something that we had both wanted to avoid but which became medically necessary for a variety of reasons that I shan’t explain here. I was in the operating theater as the surgery took place, holding my wife’s hand and praying with her, reassuring her, and doing everything I could to support her. I did look over the curtain at the surgery several times; at one point I saw my wife’s insides laid out carefully on her stomach. I remember the noises, the smells, the vivid sight of viscera. And I saw the moment that our daughter emerged. (It was the anesthesiologist who first called the sex; I was so in awe of what I was seeing come out of my wife’s tummy it would have taken me a while to discern anything.) It was an extraordinary thing to witness. Indeed, it was the greatest and most splendid thing I’ve ever witnessed, and I would have been a poorer man indeed had I been confined to a waiting room away from the two most important women in my life at this most crucial moment.

I wrote very recently against disgust, and the point made there is important here, as well. Relying on concealment and illusion in order to perpetuate a romantic or erotic connection strikes me as dishonest, in much the same way that deliberately ignoring the harm an affluent, meat-eating American lifestyle causes the planet seems indefensible. Love that is based on what is not seen, like consumption that is enjoyed because the cost to the sentient is not calculated, is on some level irresponsible and puerile. If my attraction to my wife is somehow damaged by having seen her laid open during the c-section then my love is a poor thing indeed.

It’s worth noting, too, that the idea that men ought to be spared the visceral realities of childbirth is closely connected to the cultural construct that encourages older men to chase younger women. Wrinkles and gray hair and cellulite are part of growing older, much as swollen bellies and swollen veins and a veritable efflusion of bodily fluids are part of pregnancy and childbirth. A man too delicate to cope with the reality that his partner’s body is changed by childbirth is perhaps likely to be the same sort of cad too delicate to cope with the reality that his partner’s body is changed by age. The man who has a hard time being aroused by his wife after having seen her give birth is the same sort of man, one suspects, who will have a hard time being aroused by her naturally ageing body. Age happens, and all the cosmetics and Pilates classes in the world (I’m a fan of both) shall not prevail against the inexorable process. Babies happen, too. And age and babies change bodies.

The title of Last’s piece is “Present at the Creation.” Far be it from me to throw in my lot with the “life begins at conception” crowd, but it seems pretty clear that the process that leads to new life for humans does tend to begin, more often than not, with heterosexual intercourse. Most men are present for that. And if you’re present at the pleasurable beginning it is not asking too much for you to be present at the bloody (in both common senses) end of the process.

39 thoughts on “Do men have an obligation to witness the birth of their children?

  1. I agree that the argument about spoiling the sexual attraction is bankrupt, but I don’t think that implies men should therefore have to watch the show. It’s one thing to be present and supportive; it’s another thing entirely to see the kid exit. I watched both cesarians my wife had. 9+ lbs and breech meant a struggle trying to extricate my oldest. Had it been my first experience with bodily trauma I can’t say I would have been able to keep my lunch.
    The ob told me many men want to watch, feel like they’re manly enough to handle it, but then find themselves feeling faint from all the blood and gore. If you know blood and gore isn’t your thing, I’m not going to make you sit through it. Be supportive, hold her hand, but watching the baby crown or seeing her viscera laid out doesn’t seem to be a requirement.
    There is a valid reason for the curtain. As my wife’s surgeon told me, the curtain isn’t there to keep men out, it’s to make sure there’s only one trauma in the room at a time.

    • you gotta curtain?!?
      I acted as a human stirrup (sp)
      I held her left leg closer to her chest than the stirrups would go, big 8lb baby….

  2. Why is reasonable to expect a man to see his child being born, but it is unreasonable to expect a woman to see her child being aborted? After all, she was “present at the event” that led to the abortion!

    Maybe it’s because women have dainty eyes?

    • As a young married woman I had 3 abortions because of inability to use standard birth control for medical reasons and the fialure of diaphragm.

      I did see the 5 week embryo, did touch it with my fingers. It was the size of a pea, undifferentiated tissue, nothing appearing babylike at all.

      Women are very capable of facing their conceptus, and more feminist abortion providers should encourage this as mine did.

      I think men are exempt from watching birth just as a woman I want to be exempt from having a porn-filled marketing stream of sexxay pubescent women sexualized to sell cars or furs or other luxury, or just daily essentials.

      But, birth happens in a protected environment and men can easily avoid the REALITY of women’s lives there, but women are forced to view hetero, male-dominant phallo-centric trivializations of female “sexuality” made for, by and about men’s fantasies. Bah.

      NOT a prude, but a strong woman who doesn’t think the phallic-centrist mode of human sexuality especially that peddled by porn profiteers, is relevant to true deep female sexuality.

      Maybe that’s why 23-42% of women report to their doctors each year that we have a disinterest in hetero sex. No, they don’t keep statistics to indicate if those women are self-pleasuring, something that is very sexual but not often recognized that females might want to have auto-erotic and seldom have PIV are not prudes.

  3. When I had my son, also by C-Section, I could pick one person to be in the room with me. This was a tough decision. In the end I chose my sons father, and my mom was a little upset that I didn’t pick her. It’s what I wanted for my sons birth. I’m still glad I chose this even though my son’s father and I aren’t together anymore.

  4. What corn walker said, gud enuf, for both sexes. Personal choice. Not everyone has the talent for enduring gruesome scenes. And no one needs to be hassled for not wanting to lose their lunch, or simply being uninterested in watching over-romanticized biological functions ( or over-demonized procedures.) The duty to be supportive of the person enduring the function or procedure can be carried out with the use of a curtain, as described.

  5. “…it is not asking too much for you to be present at the bloody (in both common senses) end of the process.”

    I agree with the general sentiment of your post but not the mandated conclusion.
    Yes, of course, men are not delicate flowers who need to be shielded, however we all have our individual limits of what we can take. This, as most things do, goes to the desires and agreements of those involved. If a woman desperately wants her man to be there knowing it will make him ill, I question her regard for him. Vice versa, if he holds up some archaic version of “that’s just not a place for a man to be” when he knows how much it means to her, then shame on him. This can be sliced many ways, but I wouldn’t want to shame a man for knowing his limitations just as a wouldn’t want to shame him from NOT being present cause “that’s not what men do.”

  6. Hugo explores yet another obligation that men might have.

    What an offensive person. Hugo has apparently put himself in charge of considering what obligations men have.

    And he doesn’t follow a thing; nothing applies to him. He demands that men only have sex when there is “enthusiastic consent” from the woman – yet he admits in a post that he may have done an ooooopsie and accidently kind of raped a woman. He sees all sorts of protection obligations on the part of men – yet he talks about trying to murder a woman.

    Now he’s got a new possibility for an obligation he can pin on men (and what are his motivations for that?). Here’s the scoop:

    It’s none of his God Damn business. Hear that Hugo? You are finally getting some pushback and some rational opposition to your absolute bullshit, and you are only going to get more. I haven’t seen a bigger manipulative jackass in my 50 years on this planet.

  7. And while I’m at it (LOL):

    What’s this cult that Hugo has developed around his sobriety point?

    Hugo screwed up because of drink and drugs, but he has now arisen as Hugo the Magnificent. Hugo died for your sins and has now been reincarnated as Hugo the Magnificent.

    It’s a truly Biblical story and a story only befitting someone with Hugo’s massive ego.

    The moral of the story is that Hugo can no longer sin – he is Christ-like. But he has sinned since then, and Hugo will likely share some of the details in a new post some day to generate drama – he can’t help it. He can’t help it.

    And why on earth is this guy still an instructor of young women and still being protected for whatever reason at some Podunk Community College? He ought to get a real job and find out what real life is all about.

  8. Hugo really displays the worst things that America presently has to offer – and one of the reasons that America is really going to decline: You only need a big ego today, and nothing else. And Hugo has a big ego in spades. Unfortunately, he also has nothing else in spades.

    The Internet has finally started to notice this. It’s time his Podunk college notices this.

      • Spoken like a true feminist.

        Anything that goes against what you want to think or that makes you feel “uncomfortable” must be banished from your sight. Let men deal with the real world and real consequences, they also have an obligation to create and maintain your fantasy world.

        Just like daddy paying for Cupcake’s tuition and living expenses at PCC while she listens to Hugo’s drivel. Daddy shields her from the real world.

        “Off with his head,” screamed the feminist monster. And men scramble to do what she says – for whatever reason. And women are “oppressed” – LOL.

        • It has nothing to do with what makes anyone here feel uncomfortable, or avoiding consequences.

          It has to do with you being a fucking dick.

        • Reality, this isn’t about not wanting to hear arguments we disagree with. I had no problem with reading your arguments the first several times you posted them. But you’re getting absurdly repetitive. The repetitive personal insults also contribute nothing, and will have the effect of driving away people who do have constructive things to say (including people who have constructive, critical things to say about Hugo’s ideas).

          I’m sure this is a difficult time for Hugo to try to enforce a commenting policy, but I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in that I think there should still be some limits.

        • Reality, I applaud you for displaying something which is rarely seen nowdays – original critical thought.

          There is so much pretense associated with childbirth these days. People like Hugo need to get over themselves and stop shoving their unwanted, pompous opinions in others’ faces.

          And if I see one more black & white portrait of a baby’s head being kissed I’m going to lose it.

      • Men have responsibilities and women have rights.

        That’s what feminists – and lots of women – are comfortable with. They are not interested in fairness, they are interested in comfort.

        And Hugo feeds that. That’s what he is good at. He does it for his own ends, but the girls in his classes don’t care. A few of the negative posters on “Rate My Professor” (most are suspiciously deleted) talk about Hugo treating the few boys in his women’s studies classes with absolute contempt.

        Men have responsibilities and women have rights.

        And Hugo is going to amplify the responsibilities that men have to women, and amplify the rights that women have from society and from the behavior of men.

        Examining reality, examining what is really fair in society given the differences between men and women, examining all of this in a cooperative spirit rather than in the sense of a legal demand letter – that is all foreign to Hugo and to the girl-feminist students who have never been out in the real world. And that is not worthy of being subsidized by tax dollars.

  9. Reality, what’s your idea of a “real job” and a “real life”? If a “real job” isn’t teaching and inspiring young people, and a “real life” isn’t making mistakes and becoming a better person as Hugo has, then I don’t really get what you’re bitching about. If you publicly shared some of the most awful things you did in your past (especially those when under the influence), I’m sure you would have some real doozies, too.

    • Yeah, well, what is he “teaching” them? I guess that’s the point.

      To put it in terms you may understand:

      William Swagforth III, who got a degree in history, and who has never formally studied religion or the Bible, is going to teach a class at Podunk Community College entitled “The Bible and Women’s Subservience”.

      He has mostly male students in this class. The few females are treated with utter contempt – as the subservient beings they are. He routinely cuts them off if any male has anything to say. He has a blog in which he touts female subservience – it’s written in the Bible, so it must be right. Women are there to serve men.

      William is as pompous as they come. He calls himself “Professor”, although his title is “Instructor”. He simply ignores any woman who has a problem with his teachings, and the community college (almost a Bible College) always backs him up. They think the same way he does.

      You are to shut up and serve men. And he gives lots of Bible quotes and examples as to why that should be. Women are physically and mentally inferior to men. Listen to your superiors. Get on your knees and suck some dick, you worthless piece of crap.

      And you would not rail against a dick like that. Yeah. Now you’ve got an inkling of what MRAs feel for Hugo. Feminists hate him for entirely different reasons.

    • Real world:

      It’s interesting that candidates for a teaching position in medicine, law, engineering or the hard sciences are expected to show lots of real-world work before they are considered. There is a reason for that.

      The new “subjects” in colleges – basically “angry studies” – don’t require any of that. It’s all a political opinion.

      Hugo has bragged about not really having any other job than being an instructor at PCC. The problem with that is: He sets up straw men with regard to how evil men are – and how they don’t live up to their responsibilities and obligations – but that doesn’t mesh with the real world. It doesn’t matter, because the girls who take his courses haven’t been out in the real world either, so they believe what he says. They eat it up, in fact, because he tells a tale of awful men and wronged women.

      It all gets a bit sickening, actually. This clown is riding the wave of politically correct bullshit. It wouldn’t have been possible a hundred years ago, and it won’t be possible in a hundred years. But he doesn’t care what reality is or what is fair.

  10. It’s possible to disagree with Hugo’s argument (or part of it, as I do) without resorting to ad hominem.

    I guess it’s true: haters gonna hate…

  11. As a woman who’s given birth to two children, I have to say that when I was in labor I was so scared and in so much pain that if my kids dad had chosen not to look at what was happening below my waist, I frankly wouldn’t have even noticed. Because I didn’t need him there to see “the bloody end.” What I needed was to be able to hold his hand, look into his eyes and hear his voice telling me that I could do it. He chose to do those things and to see both births and it never had any effect on his desire for me.

  12. We have politicians using livestock analogies when discussing birth control and pregnancy, or discussing childbirth without ever mentioning the mother. I wonder how many of them witnessed the births of their children.

  13. Somewhat related: the Discovery Health Network profiled a maternity ward in China. At this particular hospital, fathers aren’t allowed in the delivery room, but they are allowed to watch by video. One woman in labor is seen smiling and waving at the camera in the room to her husband, and he, with a goofy, excited grin, waves back. He tells the nurse (through translation) how much he wants to be in the delivery room with her. “That’s how they do it in America!” But the nurse just shakes her head. “Nah. You couldn’t handle it. Only women are strong enough to handle childbirth.” (Indeed, all of the doctors and nurses in the delivery room happened to be women).

    As her labor progressed, the show shifted back and forth between the delivery room and the husband watching from his monitor. The look on his face was priceless. You could tell how much he really, really wanted to be in the room with his wife. It was sweet and tender to see.

  14. Have to agree with the rest on Reality, Hugo. I have no problem with strong debate and rhetoric around an issue, but he offers neither. It is tiresome to have to skip over his comments on every post while we attempt to discuss the pros & cons on whatever issue you’ve written.

  15. Personally I enjoy Reality’s rants. It’s wonderful that — to paraphrase Edith Wharton — such depths of feeling can coexist with such absence of imagination. Let the fool play on.

  16. I don’t enjoy having to skip over off-topic, repetitive, long and just plain vicious rants in order to get to the cogent, nuanced and reasoned posts. This blog needs a moderator, someone who at least knows how to disemvowel, and some clear rules.
    Back on topic–a person, by the time they are grown, should have an idea of what they can take, in the way of gruesome stuff, and be ready to act accordingly when there’s the prospect of something medical in the future. Researching the specific procedure beforehand will help–some. My own reactions have varied from “cool as the other side of the pillow” to “out like a light”. So I’d advise anyone else to be ready for the possibility of the latter, however strong they think they are–and that’s what the curtain is for.
    I never got to see kittens or puppies being born when I was a kid, and I thought everyone else had. Nor did I get to see a childbirth movie in school, until I went to a Podunk junior college. Our health class had 2 dozen students, led by a dewy-eyed creature scarce older than me, who liked to perch on the edge of her desk. So, after waxing quite soppy-sentimental about what she considered a miracle, she had someone run the projector (this was a long time ago!) and we saw the thing through. I did not lose my breakfast, but I can’t say I liked it much either. Then the lights came back on and half the class had disappeared. The movie did not make it seem miraculous or wonderful; it was another clinical procedure enacted upon a very passive human being. It was not something I wanted to ever see live. I gather there are other movies or vids that can make it seem wonderful, for after all wonder and mystery lurk in most everything, but I decided I don’t need to see those either.
    …Anyway, I gathered up all my late-teens tact and went up to the front. “That was interesting,” I said, “it reminded me of cleaning a fish.” And the teacher came this close to falling off her desk.
    And to this day I wish I, or someone, had yelled “Run it backwards…”

  17. …and here I must apologize to the people of Podunk for using their town name as an insult; a poor trope to copy even in jest.
    Sustitute “small junior college of which part of the staff and faculty were as clueless as the students.” I’ll spare you the rest of the details; they weren’t that funny. –Anyway, if one is that upset by Hugo’s words and deeds, they might be happier seeking out some website, and some school, unclouded by his presence.

  18. If the father wants to be in the delivery room/operating room, that’s great. I was in the room when my mother gave birth to my brother (I was almost 3), and all I remember was a lot of yelling. It’s not magic, it’s birth and great for those who choose to have kids.

  19. The way I see it, I’m going through the most excruciating pain imaginable. And I’m supposed to feel sorry for you, that you have to witness it? Try feeling it, buddy! We all have tough pill to swallow now and again, the least you could do is take part in the only thing human’s do not have the ability to do artificially. As far as what Andrew said above, about a woman asking her partner to witness something that might make him uncomfortable, that it says something unsavory about her regard for the man. I think it says something unsavory about the man’s regard for the woman if, at her most vulnerable moment, he decided to neglect her for his own sake.

    Let’s put this in perspective, since few of the men who comment here seem to see it in the proper context. If you were in a car accident, and you had numerous open wounds, and were bloodied up with broken bones; don’t tell me you wouldn’t want someone there to hold your hand as the doctor’s reset the bones. I think if a woman would be willing to do that for a man (and that depends on the relationship) then the man should have take no issue with witnessing childbirth.

    Of course, what we’re discussing in this regard has more to do with maturity level than it has to do with feminism.

    • P.S: Not checking back for responses, MRAs give me the creeps. Did you notice that they are the most dismissive flamers on the internet? “You feminists” yatta yatta yatta… Hugo you could moderate them from the comments if you wanted, it’s not a violation of free speech as they can congregate elsewhere and this isn’t public property. If you’re curious you could just google: Steve Pavlina Free Speech in Online Communities The Delusion of Entitlement

  20. Yeah, I’m gonna start moderating hard again. “Reality” will not be welcome here again, having said zir peace.

    • Ohhhh, a hearty thank you.

      To respond to M, I agree with you. I wasn’t stating that simple “not wanting to be there because it’s not for me” is any kind of reason to not support a loved one. I was specifically referring to those, and there are many, who would actually become physically ill; vomit, faint, etc., and become more of a problem with their presence than waiting elsewhere. That’s all I meant.

  21. Pingback: Fathers rights in the delivery room « Gucci Little Piggy

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