The little matter of men: Sheila Kitzinger sells more books on motherhood than anyone, the latest out tomorrow. Dave Cohen, a father, asks - what about us?

Dave Cohen
Tuesday 07 June 1994 23:02

Aquick teaser for this year's 700,000 fathers-to-be: who is the most famous person you have never heard of? Try beside your partner's bed, or under her pillow. Look for a book . . . by Sheila Kitzinger . . . author of the best- selling tome Pregnancy and Childbirth, the woman who has sold more books on pregnancy-related issues than anyone else. Ask your partner and she will tell you that no one has done more to challenge the male-dominated medical establishment and get women giving birth out of the stranded-beetle position than Kitzinger.

You ignore her at your peril. Her views could influence the most intimate aspects of your life: whether your partner will breastfeed for six months or three years; whether the baby will sleep in your bed; when you'll have sex again.

More importantly, knowing that more marriages break down in the period surrounding childbirth than at any other time, you might, as a responsible male, want to read something that will prepare you for the tough times ahead.

A visit to your local bookshop will only confirm that when it comes to childbirth, the role of men is to put up, shut up and be selflessly supportive of their partners.

Published tomorrow is Sheila Kitzinger's new book (her 22nd) in the 'pregnancy-parenting' genre, called The Year after Childbirth. It claims to be the 'first authoritative guide to the 12 months after childbirth that concentrates on the woman (her emphasis) rather than the baby'.

It seems a good time to ask the high-priestess of the natural childbirth movement if she takes the father's needs seriously, too?

Kitzinger ushers me into the kitchen of her Tudor manor home in Oxfordshire. At 65, she has lost none of her energy - she starts writing at 5.30am and packs lecturing, counselling and campaigning into a hectic schedule.

Who's Who lists one of her recreations as 'talking', which she loves to do. Especially about the women in her life, starting with her mother, a midwife and suffragette, who was her inspiration.

On one of Kitzinger's birthdays, she scooped up a whole dole queue and brought them home for tea. 'Mother helped build one of the first birth-control clinics in England. Women would come to our home to talk and as a girl I often sat in a corner and listened in to their marriage, sex and pregnancy problems. It was the best education I ever got.'

Later, she topped that up with a degree in social anthropology at Oxford, where she studied the social organisation of prostitutes (most of whom operated out of the attic above her digs off Iffley Road), hung around with the 'West Indian crowd' and met her husband, Uwe. They had five daughters, including a set of twins, all home births.

Was it wise to have twins at home? Were hospitals that odious? 'Once I discovered I had twins, I went to hospital for antenatal care,' she says. 'I was sitting there among rows of women with vastly swollen legs who looked terribly ill, their bottles of urine and knickers in plastic bags - oh, it was dreadful - when a friend of mine, a woman doctor, came in. She'd had twins at the hospital and the twins had died and she said: 'My God Sheila, what are you doing here?' I said: 'It's twins dear, I've been booked in.' She gasped in horror and shrieked: 'Don't come here - the doctors are all abnormal]' So after my vaginal examination - which left me bruised and bleeding - I never went back.

'Since then, there has been a sea- change on the NHS. It's not uniform and there are many hospitals where the battle has still to be won, but overall it's remarkable - the humanisation of care, the joining together of mothers and midwives, doctors asking themselves searching questions about what they're doing, women reclaiming their power to give birth without medical intervention. Wonderful.'

Yes, and things have changed radically for men, too, I suggest. Men hardly ever used to attend births, whereas today there are few who don't. She nods. I bring up her new book, which includes among its 14 chapters, one called 'Becoming a Father'. But instead of finding empathy for fathers, the pages are full of criticism of men.

'Shopping may mean driving her to the supermarket and letting her get on with it,' it says. Men rarely change nappies, care for the baby by themselves or even give the baby a bath . . . it continues. This chapter, too, turns out to be addressed to mothers.

'That's probably true . . . because I know women much better than I know men. The chapter on fathers is only there because the publisher insists,' she says baldly. 'It's not that I'm against writing about fathers' needs, it's just that I think it probably needs to be done by men, by people like you. You're not looking for a publisher are you? I could introduce . . .'

I laugh. She shrieks. She is generous and shrieks a lot, embellishing her best replies with a jolly slap on her thigh. But men who read parenting books take seriously the writings of the most respected voice in the business. And when the content does not resonate with their experience, they tend to deny their own experience rather than challenge the content.

But although Sheila Kitzinger's book is not for men, much of it is about men. Her general depiction of men's behaviour is, it seems to me, no longer representative. Of course there are feckless fathers. But today the issues are less about who does nappies and shopping and more about finding a way to operate when both partners have exhausted their energy resources.

The latest American research out of Penn State University is salutory: it reveals that three years after the birth of a couple's first baby, half the couples interviewed felt less happy, 20 per cent were happier and the rest stayed the same. Surely, with those statistics in mind, we need to focus not just on mother-baby relations, but on those of the whole family unit?

'You're right,' she says. 'There are deficiencies in the literature and great gaps to be filled. And it needs writing about from the point of view of a man who is among a group of men living very different lives from . . .' Her generation? 'I would love to think it's that simple,' she says.

For much of their marriage, Kitzinger and her husband, Uwe, a former president of Templeton College, Oxford, have lived in different cities, managing to see each other every three or four weeks. He's in London today, and they're meeting for dinner, but he presently works at Harvard in the US, while she lives in Oxfordshire. What kind of a father was Uwe then - traditional or modern?

'He was not the kind of father who changed nappies,' she says. 'As an Oxford don, he always expected his main work to be focused outside the home, on college, and for me to get on with having the children, keeping the house and entertaining his colleagues. The men he mixes with are stockbrokers, members of Thames Yacht Club - not the kind I'm interested in. But I don't think it's fair to criticise individuals. You have to see it in historical perspective.'

Kitzinger appears to have spent her life swathed in the company of women. It's not surprising men's needs were low on her agenda.

In her book, she talks about how women who have been abused may feel an understandable resistance to breastfeeding. How might abused men be affected? I wonder. Some men are very involved dads, yet they may strangely refuse to do things like change nappies. Women denigrate them as shirkers, but could it be that some, maybe just a few, were abused as boys and are still hesitant to trust themselves with their baby's genitalia? If that is the case, surely we need to extend the same gentleness of understanding we offer to abused women.

'Aah, hadn't thought of that,' she says. And the effect of fatherhood on male friendships is not discussed anywhere either. 'Yes,' she says. 'One could write a whole book looking at all the issues I cover and doing it from the point of view of the man. Minus the physiological bits, of course.

'Mind you, have you heard of the Couvade syndrome? Couvade did a study in which he found that a high percentage of men with pregnant wives displayed physical symptoms of pregnancy - like vomiting and backache - which miraculously ceased when the baby was born. Now where's the name of that publisher . . .'

'The Year After Childbirth', by Sheila Kitzinger, is published tomorrow (Oxford University Press, pounds 9.99).

(Photograph omitted)

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