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.