Soccer coach, yes; birth coach, not so much

3 minute read

A Slate column by Meghan O'Roarke discusses the latest trend in male vilification:

A man who doesn't want to watch his wife give birth is a jerk. This was the overwhelming consensus reached by a host of respected blogs after the publication last Tuesday in the New York Times of a piece [don't bother unless you're a subscriber] by a therapist noting an unhappy trend: A number of his male patients have reported that after witnessing their wives have babies they no longer feel attracted to them. "I mean, how are you supposed to go from seeing that to wanting to be with ...?" one husband asked, unable to finish his sentence. It made no difference that these men were patients in search of help, not Neanderthals who'd ditched their wives; the bloggers--many of whom are usually temperate--were outraged. "Would it hurt if I call you a big pussy?" one woman queried, adding, "Luckily for me, I didn't marry a total asshole, so I didn't have this problem." According to one post, a husband who finds his libido gone in the wake of the delivery room merits the same scorn we'd direct at a man who leaves a woman after finding out that she has a black grandparent.

Happily, this is not a problem I have had. After four kids, I have to say that birth has no power to gross me out. And man, would I have been a heel if I missed any of them!

But it's not really about birth, now is it? The premise of half the reality shows on TV is that there are some unusual things (eating worms, letting rats crawl on your face, rappelling face-first down a building) that some people will do and others will be totally creeped out by. Most of these are more scary than watching a birth, but should we really be surprised that some men might prefer to take in 18 holes rather than have umbilical blood spurt onto their noses?

It's a new masculine challenge -- heck, fifty years ago men were virtually absent at the birth of their own children. And that's the bottom line of the new stories about it:

But what was nonetheless striking about the debate was the vehemence of the hostility directed at these men. The bloggers clearly felt that the men's desire (or lack of it) was objectively wrong, like that of a pedophile or a rapist, and ought somehow to be controllable. The animus against these men illuminates how powerful even relatively new cultural norms can be--and how dramatic the conflict is between what we think people should want and what they actually do want.

A new cultural norm, at least for some parts of the country. I watched the movie Nine Months a few weeks ago. When that movie came out in 1995, most people probably thought Hugh Grant's revulsion to all things pregnanthetic was light comedy. I have to say, upon seeing it again now, I just thought he was an ass. Now, there must have been a lot of people then that felt that way (rather than that he was just a terminally clueless man-boy), but the reaction to the movie now must be much more negative.

Tracking down quotes like this one epitomizes why Meghan O'Roarke is my favorite Slate writer:

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."

Personally, I think we should find it amazing that men have made this radical change as painlessly as they have. The kind of direct participation that is possible now for fathers is unusual in a historical and cross-cultural perspective. Yet, most fathers have leapt at the chance to be more involved.