Men and women can't be equal

'Full involvement in the birth process is simply not an option for men, and no amount of "niche marketing" in doctors' surgeries and maternity clinics is going to make any difference to that'

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The largest ever British survey of new fathers has reported that overwhelmingly they wish to have more involvement with pregnancy and birth, as well as more leave to be able to care for their babies after they are born. The survey, published by the National Childbirth Trust and the pressure group Fathers Direct, is accompanied by a list of recommendations.

The largest ever British survey of new fathers has reported that overwhelmingly they wish to have more involvement with pregnancy and birth, as well as more leave to be able to care for their babies after they are born. The survey, published by the National Childbirth Trust and the pressure group Fathers Direct, is accompanied by a list of recommendations.

These fall into two main categories. First, they make various suggestions as to how maternity services could be made more male-friendly, including niche-marketing information for fathers, health-professional support that is acceptable to men, the opportunity for fathers to stay overnight in hospitals with their families, and the bringing in of more flexible hours for health professionals so that more appointments can be made outside working hours.

Second, they make a few suggestions about how employers could contribute. Fathers-to-be should have a statutory right to paid time off work to attend three antenatal appointments during the pregnancy, and two weeks' paternity leave at a high wage-replacement level.

A nameless 31-year-old first-time father makes an uncompromising demand. "It is about time," he insists, "that the father is included fully in all aspects of pregnancy. Potential fathers are looked upon as idiots and patronised accordingly by the literature, midwives etc. It's about time men were considered equal in these matters."

For him, I have some good news and some bad news. First, men and women are more equal than he imagines as far as some aspects of pregnancy are concerned. Rest assured, 31-year-old first-time father, that pregnant women as well as their partners are often looked upon as idiots and patronised accordingly by the literature, midwives etc.

This all starts at the very beginning, when your doctor finally gets the tests back, thus allowing him to give you the news that you're pregnant. (Yes. I know I'm pregnant. You're the one who needed proof.) He then gets a chart out and tells you the day on which your baby is due. Try explaining that you've worked that out using not a calculating wheel, but a lifetime's experience of how your body works, and the two dates do not coincide. You're coldly told that the date of the professionals is the one which will be "officially" used, with the result that most women go into labour waving calendars and screaming "I told you so".

And the blasted literature. I continue to harbour, for example, a deep well-spring of resentment towards childbirth guru Sheila Kitzinger. She assured me in her book, The New Pregnancy And Childbirth, that I would always, always have milk in my breasts for my baby. Rubbish. It wasn't for ages that I realised that she was wrong and that my baby was in agony every evening because I'd let him swallow air all day long as he sucked away on my over-demanded breasts. After three months I defied Ms Kitzinger, and started giving my boy supplementary formula to assuage his endless hunger, and a dummy to satisfy his need to suck. Nirvana.

Ms Kitzinger's, however, is by no means the silliest advice I've heard proffered in the ideological battle to ensure we all breast-feed all the time. That has to go to the doctor who responded to a friend's complaint that her nipples were gushing blood by assuring her that this was fine as babies could digest blood perfectly well.

Which brings me back to the first of 31-year-old first-time father's demands - "that the father is fully involved in all aspects of the pregnancy". The problem here is obvious. Full involvement means not just cracked nipples but also backache, throwing up, people telling you not to eat that peanut, strangers patting your tummy all the time, weird shooting pains in your thighs and eventual inability to remember the PIN you've been using for seven years.

Full involvement simply is not an option for men, and no amount of "niche marketing" in doctors' surgeries and maternity clinics is going to make any difference to that. The fact is that men are seen as unnecessary adjuncts to antenatal checks because that's what they are. Their urine samples can never give an indication of the possibility of pre-eclampsia, and a check on their weight can never reassure anyone that the baby is growing at an acceptable rate. That's what these appointments are for, and if the foetus could turn up without the mother, let alone the father, then that would be just perfect as far as many doctors are concerned.

That does not mean that men shouldn't be made more welcome at such meetings. They should. It is a good idea for their attendance to be a statutory right. But not because it is possible for them to be more "involved" in the pregnancy, simply because it is positive for them to understand it more. After the baby is born, the whole terrain changes. Men should indeed take a more equal role in caring for the baby and the home. The demands Fathers Direct makes as far as paternity leave are concerned are right but timid. The more men demand the right to take time off work to care for their families, the less women will be discriminated against in the workplace. The goal of equal treatment of men and women as far as their rights to care for their families are concerned are good for everyone - men, women and children.

But still it is hard to believe that men are as committed to such a course as they say they are. In a telling part of the survey, half of the men who took part said they were "completely involved" in caring for their child. But in a comparative study of women with new babies, women were less likely to think their partner as involved as he thought himself to be.

It seems to me that this lack of realistic expectations about what "involvement" or being "fully included" might be, is part of men's problem with pregnant women and new babies. In the stereotypical model, the male feels distanced from the pregnancy, shut out by the mother-baby bond after birth, and only able to start fully engaging with his child when he or she had achieved a measure of independence from her mother.

But also in the stereotypical model, the father-to-be makes no effort to read the myriad books available about pregnancy and childbirth, let alone feel it necessary to listen when his partner reads chunks of it out to him. It is here, in the failure to read girly books about girly stuff, that the male cuts himself off from "involvement" in pregnancy.

The point is that the experience of pregnancy is by definition female, and all men can ever do is hope to understand what that might be like. The information is there, and is available. The idea that the male failure to feel "involved" might be any more than peripherally encouraged by the attitudes of health professionals seems more linked to anger at feeling "left out" than to actually confronting what help is useful and what useless.

Men should attend antenatal meetings to help their partner in her pregnancy and better to understand what is going on and how he can help. That is the way in which men are "involved".

Being the partner to a pregnant woman is never, ever going to be anything more than a supporting role. Neither, as it happens is being pregnant anything more than a supporting role in itself. While Fathers Direct and organisations like it are to be admired for their efforts to reshape the masculine parenting role, they have to accept that straightforward equality is not an appropriate ambition when it comes to pregnancy and birth.

* d.orr@independent.co.uk

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