history of fatherhood
An article by Dr Laura King on fatherhood in Britain since the 1950's
This article by historian Dr Laura King assesses how men’s participation in childbirth has changed since the 1950s, and what this might tell us about fatherhood.
Her research project, ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord? Fatherhood and Childbirth in Britain, from the 1950s to the Present’, is taking place at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, and is supported by the Wellcome Trust. Read more about this project, and contribute your birth story now – find out more at go.warwick.ac.uk/chmfatherhood.
From Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em to Smithy in Gavin and Stacey, the father has always been a figure of fun in British comedy, no more so than during childbirth. Whether pacing the corridors, smoking, fainting, supporting his partner or simply being a nuisance, a range of role models for fatherly behaviour grace the small screen. Most fathers want to be more useful than their televisual counterparts, though fears that they will be unhelpful or squeamish were and are common. Likewise, the views of medical staff on fathers’ participation are continually diverse; whilst some merely tolerate their presence, many positively celebrate the helpful input of partners.
Assessing the proportion of men who were present at the birth of their children is not easy. Hospitals do not tend to keep such records, and drawing conclusions about the numbers of men attending home births is even more difficult. Social research can give us some indication here; a study of over 700 Nottingham families by John and Elizabeth Newson published in 1963 found that 13 per cent of men were present when their wives gave birth at home. Yet by the start of the 1980s, most researchers found that between 80 and 90 per cent of men attended at least part of the labour – for example, see studies by Bell, McKee and Priestley (published in 1983) and Lewis (published in 1986). The majority of men continue to attend childbirth; in 2010, a study by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit found that 89 per cent of fathers were present throughout labour and delivery.
What is clear is that the proportion of fathers attending the births of their children has rapidly increased, and this transformation occurred around the 1970s. But has this change been as dramatic as statistics might assume? By looking at the testimonies of mothers, fathers and midwives, we start to get a different picture. For many men becoming a father today, their own father was probably present when he was born. But was he particularly involved? One leading midwife interviewed for this research project described a woman who she looked after in the 1970s. Whilst her partner was there, he ‘literally sat and read the newspaper’. This, she suggested, was a fairly typical sort of involvement in birth in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet by the late 1980s and into the 1990s and beyond, most fathers were playing a more active role in the birth. From responses to a questionnaire I’ve set up on my project website, we can see that parents giving birth from this time put much more emphasis on bonding with the baby – for both Mum and Dad.
What can this historical understanding of men’s role in fatherhood tell us about the situation today? Well – quite a lot. We often assume that fathers in the past were not very involved in family life. But perhaps we shouldn’t judge too harshly. The father who read the newspaper while his partner gave birth wasn’t particularly involved by today’s standards – but would have been considered quite forward-thinking for the time! And likewise, fathers in the 1950s and earlier often delighted in their children and enjoyed fatherhood – yet different norms relating to relationships between men and women, and the roles of mothers and fathers meant they were very unlikely to take any part in the birth itself.
There is so far one consistent finding from this research project into men’s, women’s and midwives’ experiences of childbirth – that, from the father’s perspective at least, we place a bit too much emphasis on the birth itself. For men, this means that they’re often thrown out very quickly after the birth has taken place – because there are no facilities to accommodate them on the post-natal wards. Hospitals that have experimented with allowing overnight stays for dads, such as the Royal United Hospital in Bath, have had very positive results, and many leading midwives support such a move, as it helps the women they care for, encourages fathers to bond with their baby, and relieves pressure on hard-worked midwives and medical staff. Likewise, finding ways for men to get more involved in pregnancy and caring for their new baby are often needed. Such measures could include guaranteed time off for ante-natal appointments and better paternity leave schemes, for example. Perhaps we need to focus less on those hours of labour and birth and more on the whole process of becoming a parent, from conception to childcare.
Dr Laura King, historian of fatherhood and the family
Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick
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