Imran Khan's baby boycott

Today, men rarely miss their children's birth. Sara Maitland ponders paternally correct behaviour
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The Independent Online
Imran Khan didn't. And the fact that he didn't made front-page news.

Didn't what?

Didn't attend the birth of his son.

Brave man. He's supposed to. It's the new orthodoxy. Like any orthodoxy it is beyond rational discussion - it just is so. The claims have been extravagant - "shorter and easier labours, healthier mothers and babies, improvements in the marital relationship and subsequent parenting". How odd, then, that while paternal attendance at the birth goes on increasing, the breakdown in marital relationships of those with small children also continues to be increasing. (It might also be mentioned that sociologists point out that the research on which claims about the supposed benefits of paternal attendance have been based depend on "shaky methodology".)

I'm not against it, myself; but I am curious as to who made this the Golden Rule.

Maybe it was mothers: they certainly like it. For one thing, labour is often intensely boring: they don't tell you this in advance, but someone, anyone to chat to is a good thing. Also partners tend to stay put. While medical personnel may have to rush off to deal with a more exciting case, you can keep your partner glued to your side. He can hardly get excited about someone else's breech twins. When you are in labour your labour is, quite reasonably, the most interesting thing in the world. Your partner, once you have got him there, could hardly have the nerve to pretend otherwise. (Though actually mine did want to go and watch the TV news in the middle of my first labour - Nixon was about to resign; it was even more exciting than triplets - but that was all right because I also wanted to. So did the mid-wife. We all adjourned to the empty father's room, and I filled in the deleted expletives.) Anyway, the point is that having someone around is a real help: it probably doesn't have to be the father, but he is emotionally more bribable than anyone else.

Additionally most women have heard horror stories, both about labour itself (you will be insane with pain, you will agree to anything) and about the weird interventions that obstetric staff are supposed to be eagerly poised to commit (you will be forcibly drugged, you will be left alone, strange experimental procedures will be carried out on you, your baby will be stolen and swapped for an alien). Some of these fear, though not all, are perfectly reasonable. You may well feel that you will need an advocate - lawyers are expensive, and usually not willing to co-operate unless they are pretty sure something sue-able will occur.

There is another reason why mothers like it. At the risk of breaking female solidarity, I can confess that some of it is revenge. Punishment. A female plot, actually. Men hate pain: they dodge it like the plague and regress into infancy if they have a teeny-weeny cold. But once in labour we've got them bang-to-rights. "Why should he get off scot-free? That's what I say," said one unusually frank woman in an interview about why she wanted her husband with her (quotations in this article are from Fathers in the Politics of Maternity Care, ed Garcia, Kilpatrick and Richards, Clarendon, 1990).

Then there is the optimistic and exciting possibility that it will be great, and the mother genuinely doesn't want her beloved to miss such a treat. She wants to share and to show off.

Finally, she has been there promised that he's more likely to change nappies later if he's there. The research may be methodologically shaky, but anything is worth a go.

Mid-wives like it too. One reason is that women behave better. "Labour wards used to be full of screaming women. They made a terrible noise. But now that the husbands are there that's calmed them down. They're a lot quieter now ... " Hmmm: quieter because the mother-about-to-be, lapped in marital bonding and deep spiritual communion, feels less pain? Quieter because she feels she can't disappoint the enthusiastic spouse, energetically supporting her panting? Quieter because she can get regular attention without having to scream for it? Quieter because demands mediated through rational male-discourse feel "quieter" to hard-pressed staff than in-between contraction appeals from exhausted, emotionally fraught and suffering women? Who knows?

Men who have done it have to like it. They put peer pressure on the neophytes. Tough men brag about how they bore the upset of watching a Caesarean; new men advertise their sensitivity. How many other events allow a man to be tough and tender?

With all these pressures, it is not surprising that the trend, once begun, took hold so quickly.

My husband did it, too. On the first occasion, a difficult labour was made delightful by his support and wit. The second, a 15-minute scramble at home gave him no choice - it was him or no one. Both occasions gave me great joy, and I would not want to have done either of them without him. But for centuries happy, healthy babies have been born without their father's presence, and I sort of admire the Khans for resisting all these pressures and suiting themselves. After all, international sportsmen act as role models for young men.