Monday, May 21, 2007

When Men Give Birth

Long before the advent of modern anaesthetics, the expectant mothers of Dumfries, Scotland, had the good fortune to experience totally painless child birth. According to a 1772 report, the local midwives had the power to transfer the pains of labour from wife to husband. How they managed this remains a mystery, but the babies 'kindly came into the world without giving the mother the least uneasiness, while the poor husband was roaring with agony and in uncouth and unnatural pains.'

The extraordinary spectacle of husbands suffering more from pregnancy and childbirth than their wives has not, by any means, been limited to one town in Scotland. Known as couvade (from the French for 'brooding' or 'hatching'), the phenomenon occurs in various forms all over the world.

In some African tribes, the men will take to their beds for the entire duration of their wives' pregnancy. The women continue to work as usual until a few hours before giving birth. They believe that men are cleverer as well as physically stronger than women, and are therefore better able to defend unborn children against malign and evil spirits - which is their task during the pregnancy.

The symbolic activity undertaken by fathers is not always so extreme. Some Pacific islanders do no more than separate husband and wife during the birth and for several days afterwards; and during this time the man will avoid certain foods and certain tasks that the islanders regard as 'man's work'.

In medieval Europe a woman would put on her husband's clothes when labour started, hoping to transfer the birth pangs to him. The belief that all fathers feel sympathetic labour pains had a practical use, too. Villagers in the north of England would find the father of an illegitimate child simply by waiting for the mother to go into labour, and then scouring the village for any man lying ill in bed.

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