August 30, 2005

Must — should — the man witness childbirth?

Here's an interesting piece in Slate about how harshly people reacted to the news that witnessing childbirth destroyed some men's sexual attraction to the woman who had given birth. Since men can't control whether they feel sexual desire or not, shouldn't women want to hear what the real facts are, even if those facts interfere with the sentimental birthing room dreams they have in mind? It's much more important to preserve your future sex life then to try to live up to some idealized picture of childbirth. If having your partner in the room really does endanger that sex life, women should think clearly about whether they want to take that risk.
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 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.
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.

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...


Deena said...

Times have changed in another way: It used to be that a woman had plenty of female family near her when she gave birth. That's not always the case now. It is better to have the husband gone and no one with her at all?

Also, birth is dangerous. The person you bring with you may have to make decisions on your behalf, or help you make decisions in a stressful time. I think many women are most comfortable with having their husbands fill that role.

Maybe, as the article you quoted suggests, there is a middle ground. There's no reason he needs to closely examine what's going on below the waist. Perhaps a well-placed sheet is the answer.

Crank said...

Word to the wise father-to-be: stay up at the head of the bed. Is that such an unacceptable compromise? All the dad can do is offer moral support, anyway.

Goesh said...

If you're gonna' dance, you have to pay the fiddler, or so I was raised to believe. Any man who won't be on hand for the birth of a child he has fathered when he can be there, ought to have his, well, you get the drift of where I'm going with this....

leeontheroad said...

concern for heathiness

I think you're right: an adequate number of Heath bars does not a family make.

(says the one so likely to post typos)

Pogo said...

Re: "The wedding is not the marriage, and the childbirth is not the family."

I couldn't agree more. As the saying goes, First the ecstacy, then the laundry. It seems to be such a defining moment for some people, but I think far too much weight is put on the male participation factor. Superfluous isn't the word for it.

I remember our first baby. I spent 50 hours with my wife in her labor room (I kid you not). I only left 3 times to go to the adjacent bathroom. Two minutes tops. Afterward, my wife said, "You left! You left me here alone!" Uh. Sorry.

Face it, some men are bad at "support". They'll kill a mouse or a bug, and even give their life for yours. But they shrivel up at the thought of deliveries or the resultant baby with poopy diapers. If he can't take it, make him go fix something, and show love that way.

DoctorB said...

Why "the man"? What "man"? Do you mean "The Man"? Perhaps, "the father"? Is there an implication or fault, or wrongdoing, in your characterization?

Ann Althouse said...

Doctor B: I wrote "the man" because the woman's current partner might not be the person who impregnated her and might not be her husband either. Just looking for a neutral term.

dbp said...

Hi Ann,

I cannot say how typical my wife is, but I know that she would think I was a total wimp had I shown any hesitation about attendance in the delivery room.

It turns out that there was a practical benefit to my presence at our first two children's births: Our 3rd came quickly and at home--I am sure that having seen it done, made me better prepared to stay calm and deliver our last daughter.


Joan said...

I'm with Crank -- no need for Dad to be watching the baby crown and all, unless he's planning on catching it.

My husband was an excellent labor coach for all 3 of our children's deliveries, but I know that it isn't always the case. I don't regret that I never watched my own kids being delivered (the delivery rooms had mirrors in strategic places, so I could've watched if I wanted to.) I've seen other women give birth on TV and in the labor-prep class and you know, it's pretty cool and all, but I don't really need to see it again.

And I can completely understand how seeing it can change anyone's perception of and attitudes towards the mother's genitalia. It can happen to women, too, the switch from "woman" to "mother", with no room for sexuality. Usually it wears off after a little while (once the physical traumas have healed up), but I'm sure there are cases where it doesn't.

jeff said...

I'm not a parent, but my sister has three... my bro-in-law has been there for all of them.

Obviously witnessing the first two didn't cool his ardor any...

Charles said...

Have two, present for both. The doctors actually shoved me up at the head to talk to the wife. Don't see the big deal. I was kinda grossed out by the afterbirth part. Could have done without that.

Maybe guys just aren't as tough as they used to be? Seems like this also coincides with the attempted feminizing of guys.

Pogo said...

Re: "Maybe guys just aren't as tough as they used to be? Seems like this also coincides with the attempted feminizing of guys."

I have to disagree, Charles. My father in law fought in WW2 and Korea. Tough old man's man type. But he simply could not stand even discussing medical stuff. Especially not childbirth. No. Way.

I attended all three of my children's births. My father-in-law was a far tougher man than I'll ever be.

The shift is a cultural one, as the article points out. Modern Western culture likes to think it can dissolve or disregard all cultural institutions it cannot find a ready argument for. The separation of men from birthing had a purpose, maybe one no longer needed, but I see some of its wisdom. But it wasn't PC, so out it goes.

Diane said...

Personally, I say that the men who can't stand to see the birth-giving process should simply not have children in the first place. That way the woman doesn't have to face giving birth without someone holding her hand.

I also think the lack of sexual attraction can be directly attributed to our shying away from bodily functions.

I know so many women who are reluctant to talk about their periods, or other "Female issues" with their mates. It saddens me, because I've always believed the reason that we have husbands is to give us someone to lean on durring these times.

When we allow men an open pass to cringe at the word "period" or "yeast infection", can we be surprised when they are afraid to associate childbirth with sex? When we pretend that we don't pee or fart, can women blame a man for being rudely awakened by the realities of childbirth?

I blame the women in these particular relationships for not preparing their men.

Ann Althouse said...

Diane: What about women who can't stand it? I think a lot of us would absent ourselves from the experience if we could. Just because we have to be there doesn't mean someone else does too.

IrishLad said...

I got to catch my baby! It was awesome, and scary. To me, what was happening "down there" didn't seem to have much relationship with what "down there" was all about 9 months earlier.

In my marriage, the problem wasn't MY ardor. My wife seemed to have some concept that, because the baby came out there, it had become a holy site and should be treated like a shrine. Her idea of worship was not the same as mine.

After a few times when I was able to romance (or convince) her to try my way of worship, she came back to normal. She just had a change of perspective, and needed it gently changed back. I would think that a woman could have the same type of success with a man who's view of the "shrine" has changed. It takes a little work and willingness and maybe some creativity, but it's worth it. It may be that, if that signals the end of the sex life, there is something else going on as well that may not be particularly healthy or useful in the relationship.

amba said...

Diane: when you're a woman and you have to help your ill and incontinent husband pee into a urinal the first time, that takes some getting used to, too. (And you do get used to it.) When the damn thing isn't ready for action, sometimes you can't even find it. Men know how to deal with theirs, we know how to deal with ours, and we gingerly approach each other because who/whatever created us said we had to, and even had to want to, but pretty it's not. (I'm always amused by straights who are disgusted by what gays do, as if what straights do were so dainty.)

Sorry, folks.

LDM said...

May'haps I would'st temper my heated rut
if I could'st excrete a watermelon from my butt
Alas! Wifey ha'th deemed me a lecherous mutt
when birthing found me on the golf course verily to drive and putt

Finn Kristiansen said...

I agree with those who suggest the appropriate compromise is to be in the room, but stay up top. I don't think any woman would have a problem with that.


Thanks for the gratuitous straight people comment. What is it that we are disgusted about when it comes to gays?

I would think that most disgust usually comes from straight guys when viewing gay males, and imagining how repeated anal intercourse might feel, and what sort of bio damage it might do unrestrained. Straights, for whatever reason, are more accepting of female homosexuality and never really define it as disgusting (which partly explains the fact that female lip locks are now the norm in many movies and tv shows, however unrepresentative of gay life such glam smooches might be).

Childbirth can be nasty, but natural to the vagina, and anal can be nasty (and fun), but not necessarily natural or helpful to the derriere function.

Please explain what you meant so us straights can learn to amuse you less, or alternately, give you a more fulfilling amusement with less effort.

mcg said...

I watched my daughter's emergence from about the same vantage point as my wife did. That was quite enough. And it was also quite amazing.

And frankly, the length of time I had to wait before I could, um, be with my wife again was more than enough to erase any remaining uneasiness I might have had. I mean, I was a bit jumpy, if you know what I mean.

I do think people need to relax about this. Deena, Crank, Ann, Pogo, and those who agree with them: I share your perspective.

bill said...

My wife wished for a 1950s style birth: cigarettes and martinis until labor starts, once at the hospital you’re unconscious for three days, and when you wake up they hand you your baby.

While I was there for the hand-holding, we both laughed at the doctor when she asked if I wanted to cut the cord. No, that’s what we’re paying you to do.

We had a friend loan us an Enya CD for a tranquil birthing. Ha! Our daughter was born to the Pogues! A birth is painful and messy, and after 18 hours of contractions and with the epidural running out, a drunken Shane MacGowan is perfect for those last couple of pushes.

mcg said...

(I'm always amused by straights who are disgusted by what gays do, as if what straights do were so dainty.)

I'm disgusted by some of the things that gays do, yes---but equally so when straights do those exact same things.

Dainty has nothing to do with it. Masochism, yes.

Brendan said...

As I understand it, interest in sex dissipates anyway after the kids arrive. Whether you're at the foot of the bed or not, the kids are gonna get ya.

Joan said...

Brendan, it's not so much interest in sex that dissipates -- it's opportunities for it. There's also the problem of the mismatch of available energy and free time!

mcg said...

Assuming I've had enough sleep, my interest in sex hasn't waned. The problem is with that darn assumption.

MrsWhatsit said...

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" -- what a wonderful book! I too read it for the first time at 9 or 10, and over and over again later on. In fact, now that you've reminded me of it, I think I'll go read it again.

brian said...

Since men can't control whether they feel sexual desire or not...

Wait...can women?

This is completely off topic, but isn't there a logical extension of the above statement to support the notion that homosexuality isn't a choice? I've seen a few discussions of this idea here before, but if you believe that arousal is innate shouldn't the cause of arousal also be innate and hardwired?

Ann Althouse said...

Brian: I have no idea what component of sexuality is innate. Presumably, a lot. But very little of it is voluntary, I would think. I didn't mean to suggest that women could control whether they felt sexual desire. But only men have the option of not witnessing childbirth, which was my question for discussion. I think both men and women ought to want to know what interferes with their sexual feelings.

We know many couples have impaired sex lives after a child is born. I would think couples would want to try to figure out things they could do to preserve their relationship. Philosophical or political ideas about who should do what in the birthing room should be subordinated to more practical information about sexuality. Couples planning for childbirth should be told the pros and cons of having the man present.

Right now there seems to be just an assumption that being in the room is what good men do. That's not very rational. I think people should think things through better and have good information, not a lot of ideology and social pressure.

As to homosexuality, I think it's pretty clear that people feel what they feel, whether it's inborn or a result of some life experience. If we knew that some particular life experience increased the chances that a person would become gay — then it would be something like the childbirth question under discussion.

But clearly, if we knew a man's witnessing childbirth impaired his sexual feeling for the mother, we'd end the current recommendation that a woman's partner accompany her through her experience. Wouldn't we?

somross said...

I love childbirth. I loved being pregnant (three times), I loved labor, I loved delivery, I loved nursing. I am sad that at 53 I won't have any more pregnancies or labors or deliveries or hours nursing. It shocks me that I'm old enough to be a grandmother, with children who are 28, 24, and 20; I feel much closer to being a new mother than to being a grandmother. My husband was a terrific coach and we got better at it every time. If so many men were disturbed by watching childbirth (for more than a short time), wouldn't that mean a huge number of men were not sexually attracted to their wives? (Is that the implication?) I thought a larger problem was women who were more enamored of their new babies to the exclusion of their husbands.

Ann Althouse said...

Somross: You're lucky you and your husband felt that way. People with your experience are most likely to talk about it and set the ideal, which other people feel bad about not meeting. My point is mostly that people -- men and women -- don't have to put so much stock in their ability to deal with this physical task.

Some people are better at sleeping through the night or digesting their food or running long distances. But a lot of us aren't. I don't think it's very important. If you can't love your children and take care of them well enough, you should feel bad about yourself, but not revelling in pregnancy and childbirth -- so what? Just get through it and do something else that you're good at. That's my advice.

Freeman Hunt said...

I do not yet have children though I am excited about having them in a couple years. It will not hurt my feelings if my husband doesn't watch the actual birth. I would not want to watch it either in the same way that I would not want to watch a surgery.

somross said...

My comment sounded more self-righteous than I meant it to: although I loved all that, I was pretty dreadful at combining grad school and babies (I could never summon the complete energy and attention I was able to give it before) and the unending demands of newborns and toddlers are something I don't miss. I liked nursing partly because I could SIT DOWN. I think I was very surprised to have liked the experience of childbirth as much as I did. I know my mother was bullied in the 50s by her quite well-known OB into gaining no more than 20 pounds, and she found his refusal to use anesthesia not much fun without any Lamaze-style training. (A bit of trivia: one of her friends, who lives in the same retirement home, had William Carlos Williams as her GP in the 1940s. I think he delivered one or more of her children but I'm not sure.)

Tom T. said...

There's an aspect of the male reaction to childbirth that's not really being discussed here: Guilt. A man watches the woman he loves spend several hours in terrible pain, all arising from a sex act nine months earlier. It doesn't seem that shocking that some men might react by thinking, "I did this to her; I put her in horrible pain. Me and my dirty sexual desires." Such men might then have a hard time recapturing sexual desire, not out of a loss of attraction, but out of fear of putting a loved one through such distress again.

I'm not saying that it's a wholly rational reaction, and I'm not submitting it as a reason for the man to stay out of the delivery room. I'm just suggesting that a man who has problems performing after witnessing childbirth may not necessarily be a pig.

Robert said...

If we knew that some particular life experience increased the chances that a person would become gay...

Seeing "The Wizard of Oz" on TV. There's just something about Judy...

Diane said...

Valid point, Anne, but I have a hard time coming to concrete conclusions from it.

You see, in a case where a woman is horrified and appalled by the idea of giving birth, I don’t see why she isn’t adopting.

While a good and loving wife wouldn’t force a reluctant husband into the delivery room, A good and loving husband shouldn’t leave his wife to face it alone if she asks for him. Especially if she is afraid and disgusted by it. That is why we have spouses, after all. We have them so that we have support through these things.

Certainly, if the man and wife are comfortable with him waiting outside the delivery room then outsiders shouldn’t pressure them. If the wife wants him though, then he should feel obligated to be there, and a woman shouldn’t feel ashamed of wanting him there.

I just keep thinking of all of my “female issues” and the source of strength and support my husband was for me. He held my hand while I had my surgery. He changed bandages, and applied medicines, and he let my cry and talk about disgusting things that my *female* friends cringed about hearing.

I want to weep for women I know whose husbands make faces when they see unused tampons. I suppose if they are happy, it is none of my business. I can’t imagine being happy with a relationship where you don’t share that stuff, but to each their own.

My earlier comments only apply to women who *want* their spouse there.

Ann Althouse said...

Diane: You raise a lot of good questions. I think women want to have children even when they aren't into being pregnant or gung-ho about childbirth. They get pregnant and then do what they have to do. That's the way of the world. Men should offer to be with their partners, but I'm just thinking women might be well advised to decline the offer. If you knew it would impair your sex life, you might want to say no. You don't have to be alone. Maybe mothers, girlfriends, and midwives should be supporting the woman rather than the man. This was the old tradition, and it may have had something to do with preserving the sexual relationship.

lindsey said...

"I want to weep for women I know whose husbands make faces when they see unused tampons."

I make faces when I see unused tampons and I have to actually use them every month. Tampons are gross whether used or unused. It's common sense to make a face at a tampon. F*ck you, tampon! I don't really want to share my bodily functions with my loved ones. I love them too much.

Feminists discover once again that our ancestors did things in certain ways for thousands of years for common sense reasons. I can't help but think of all the women whose marriages and sex lives were ruined due to this stupidity. Maybe when people talk about their sex lives disappearing after having kids this is part of the reason why.

amba said...


To answer you a bit late -- I wasn't referring to ALL straights! Surely you know a few people who react that way, without necessarily being one.

Diane said...

But my husband and I have sex at least five times a week, and he buys my tampons for me. He watches me shave my legs, and we pee with the bathroom door open (we have cats. It’s just easier). This hasn’t killed our sex life. It has made it stronger. I hate having my period, but I can survive it because I can whine loudly too my husband about it, and he rubs my back, brings me chocolate and tells me I’m beautiful.

I used to be afraid to share some of these things with him, as I was afraid it would kill our relationship. Then one day he commented to me about my stubbly legs and I started crying. He wasn’t supposed to *notice* that! He kissed my cheek and made a joke about it, then grabbed my behind to show me that he still lusted after me. Then he asked if I’d stop loving him if he accidentally belched in front of me. Of course not! If he has horrible indigestion then I’d *like* him to tell me so that I can get him medicine, rub his back and listen to him hurt if I can’t make him feel better any other way!

Since I’ve lost my fear of sharing bodily functions with my husband our relationship has improved. I’ve always thought that this is one of the best parts of love: Having someone who can look at those parts of you that are ugly and uncouth and see beauty. Isn’t that why we marry? So that we can have someone to lean on when we are hurting?

Maybe not everyone wants that out of a marriage. Still, I wonder if a few of these women never *tried* to share their bodily functions with their partners. I wonder if these partners were suddenly shocked by seeing a human body in full color after pretending that it was a dainty thing of mystery for so many years. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for a couple of them to try things my way. I could be wrong, though.

Bruce Hayden said...

My view as a guy is that our duty is to do what the woman wants here. The pregancy was a joint venture, and the childrearing should be too.

I was glad I was there for my daughter's birth. Not so much for the actual birth itself - I was somewhat ambivalent there. But everything else.

It was neat being there when my daughter finally arrived. But one thing that I was able to see that her mother wasn't really able to see was that our daughter had some complications at birth that ultimately required a day or so in the ICU (no long term effects, thank goodness). The OB/Gyn detected it right before the birth, and, all of sudden, the back of the birthing room was opened up into exposing all the stuff that the pediatricians needed. Two of them plus two nurses were there by the time that she actually was fully delivered. So, I got to watch what was going on there while the OB/Gyn finished up with her mother. Even got some pictures of that.

In retrospect, I was totally awed by the whole production. The OB/Gyn notified the attending nurses in a calm, clinical, voice, that I almost missed. Only when I replayed it in my mind did I recognize what she had done. This quit
"comment" triggered the call for the pediatricians and extra nurses, etc. All seemingly as a matter of course.

Kim said...

Okay, this is about the biggest bit of hogwash I've read in quite a while.

Just like the marriage isn't just about the wedding and the family isn't just about the childbirth...attraction to one's spouse isn't just about sex. It's about the commitment you make to love and honor them for the rest of your life.

Sex isn't all about what *you* get from it, either. It's an outpouring of your love for the other person which manifests itself in a physical way. It's about *giving*...not *getting*. It's about being there for the other sickness and in health. If you can't handle being there for your wife when she is in the most pain she may *ever* have to endure, then maybe you shouldn't have children--or be married, for that matter!

The people who want to justify that they are no longer attracted to their wife because they witnessed the miracle of bringing a new life into the world are the same people who would also leave their spouse when they become less attractive because of the natural aging process, or a deformity caused by a fire or car accident. It's about commitment, people--and commitment is ALWAYS a choice!