The XX Factor

The Decline of Western Civilization: “We’re Pregnant” Edition

Judith Leavitt has written a history of fatherhood, specifically about the evolution of male participation in the process of giving birth. In a review of the book in the Wall Street Journal , Jonathan Last reports the less-than-shocking news : The 20th century saw men becoming more and more involved with the process of pregnancy, and less and less commonly banished from the premises during the birth itself. This has culminated, Last explains, in “all manner of idiocy,” from fathers who videotape the birth to fathers cutting the umbilical cord. Commence axe grinding:

Ms. Leavitt quotes one doctor’s argument from the mid-1960s: “As the charm of woman is in her mystery, it is inconceivable that a wife will maintain her sexual prestige after her husband witnessed the expulsion of a baby-a negligee will never hide this apparition.” Another doctor concluded: “On the whole, it is not a show to watch.” We all laugh at how benighted such views are. (Even if there is, just possibly, some truth in them.) Yet today it is socially acceptable to father a child without marrying the mother or to divorce her later on if mother and father actually do bother to get hitched. And at the same time there is zero tolerance for a husband who says: “No thanks, I’ll be in the waiting room with cigars.” Ms. Leavitt’s fascinating history suggests that childbirth is just one more area where our narcissism has swamped our seriousness.

And thus, as it so often does, sad-sack nostalgia for a lost era of male privilege passes for high moral seriousness. Note that the book under consideration would appear to have nothing to do with the subject of out-of-wedlock births. Last would just like to point out that it’s “unserious” to demand that men assume involvement beyond smoking in the next room, because, hey at least they’re in the vicinity. Not like those other fathers! How much do you pregnant broads expect? This is the rhetorical equivalent of your kid saying he shouldn’t be forced to go to school every weekday; after all, some kids in Afghanistan never go to school. Presumably, a serious defense of Last’s position would sketch some actual arguments in favor of male exile from the maternity ward. But it’s surely easier to change the subject and yearn for a Mad Men -esque division of labor.

Photograph of pregnant woman from Stockbyte/Getty Images.