New Labour: is paternal presence all it's cracked up to be?

Paternal presence at a child's birth has become culturally expected. Should it be?

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He can't understand, so why bother?
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Jonathan Bracey Gibbon
On 22 December 2011 12:26

If there’s one unquestioned human behavioural change that defines the generation gap between war babies, the children of the sixties and rise of feminism, it’s that old chestnut of fathers being present at the birth of their children.

In the blink of an eye in human history, the most vital procedure in the human experience, short of conception, has undergone momentous change with barely a hint of cross examination. Dad is now a fixture in the delivery room. Relatively speaking, for the first time in human history, nothing can stand in the way of a man, in a disposable smock with a camcorder. But when did anybody ask, 'Is this a good idea?'

As recently as the mid-seventies, bewildered men would follow the example of their forebears, bravely pacing in some ante-room, chain-smoking - in a hospital - while mums went through what is still euphemistically called ‘labour’. All too often, when mother and child emerged, the new Dad would inspect the new arrival, greet the in-laws, administer a peck to the forehead of mother and child, and in a trice, was off down to the Rose and Crown to wet the baby’s head with a pint of ale and a slim panatella.

Today, the only male on Earth to behave in such a fashion is Gordon Ramsay.

So what happened to persuade a generation of new mothers, themselves daughters of the post war generation who wouldn't want fathers anywhere near the colourful business of foetal delivery, to suddenly demand the sharing experience?  No other female of any mammalian species allows paternal presence at birth. Under any circumstances. My own mother was such a mammal.

Or could this be yet another step change in our own evolution?

Long before 'New Labour', the emancipation of women coincided with the growth in number of bigger and better hospitals. So by the late 1960s and early 1970s delivery rooms and obstetrics wards could better accommodate fathers in the whole process, and over time, Dad, encouraged by midwives and doctors, gingerly stepped into the delivery room.

In a heartbeat fathers being present at birth was viewed as a positive development, ironically, without either the physical concerns of the mother or baby being addressed in any way. Very quickly, a trend was established as men persuaded each other that attending the birth of their children was a life-changing and unmissable experience.

Conversely, women, historically condemned to suffer childbirth alone, now had the option of 'sharing' the experience. A notion born, it would seem, to inveigle fathers into the physical consequences of their often thoughtless union. Sociologically, this was the flip side to the pill.

For men, to remain uninvolved in the process would be to betray their generation. 'Witnessing' the birth became 'taking part' and a new, fundamental rite of passage was, well, born.

But not everybody was convinced this remarkable transition in human behaviour was a good thing, and chief among them has been world-renowned obstetrician, Dr Michel Odent, founder of the Primal Health Research Center and a veteran of some 15000 deliveries over 52 years.

For Odent, the father has no business being in the delivery room.

After half a century of delivering babies, he is adamant. “Although it may not be politically correct, I would now dare to say that I am pretty sure that the most common reason for long and difficult labours is the participation of the father. This is what I’ve learnt in 52 years of childbirth.” he says.

Odent, who introduced the concept of birthing pools and home and natural births, believes the way we are born has long-term consequences in terms of sociability, aggressiveness or, otherwise speaking, capacity to love.

Dr. Odent is clear that in his experience, “for obvious reasons the husband is not the best person to help the woman to feel secure [during birth] because he cannot interpret what’s happening. He’s too rational. ”

Further, the consequence of overly-stressful births may well store up a generation of psychiatric disorder.

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