Cracking the Couvade
By Dawn Francis-Pester
As a mother of two, I am well aware of the transformational nature of motherhood. After the birth of my sons I decided to stay close as they slept and breastfed, finding time to reconsider my life goals, my links with nature and society, earning less, living more.
But what about fatherhood? Does modern society give fathers the chance to stop and rethink when a baby is born?
In the 1800s, anthropologists started to document a strange phenomenon seen in other cultures across the world. They described fathers setting aside their weapons and sharp tools, wearing loose clothing, and doing nothing but lying in bed during the last stages of their partner’s pregnancy.
This was far removed from men in our western European culture at the time, who sought to be distant and authoritarian with little emotional response to life or death. In the Victorian age, anthropologists, who were almost exclusively male, were embarrassed and even offended by the tribal birth rituals they encountered, and quick to attach their own meanings and interpretations, often describing men who participated in birth or childrearing as weak or savage.
It was around this time that the word couvade was coined, and this gives us an idea of the attitude of the Victorian anthropologists when confronted by such scenes. Usually referring to hens, the French verb couver meant to hatch or brood, and the phrase faire la couvade meant to be idle. In anthropological terms it was meant as a derogatory phrase, referring to a weak or powerless man, a stark contrast to the symbol of the man as a courageous and virile cock.
Although many anthropological accounts of the couvade were inaccurate, it was generally accepted that the practice limited a man’s activity, diet, and sex life in some way, before and after the birth of a child. In some cultures, the man would actually lie down and be handed the baby straight after the birth, and keep the baby close to his chest for the first few days while the mother collected food.
Some anthropologists believe couvade rituals were established during the transition from maternal to paternal law in various cultures, representing a kind of paternity rite and giving the father social recognition for his parenting role. It is also thought that the couvade was observed less in cultures with strong social preferences for a single partner, or a marriage tie, perhaps because the fatherhood bond was more obvious here. Scientific studies of other mammals also indicate a relationship between hormonal changes and attachment rituals.
The tradition of keeping the baby with the father for the first few days may also have been practiced as the first milk or colostrum was considered harmful or taboo—the baby could be handed back to the mother when later milk was produced. There were further prohibitions that were often been shared with the mother following a birth, such as dietary restrictions. In certain Amerindian cultures, foods were divided into strong or weak, and strong or hot foods were to be avoided by both parents and sometimes the wider family unit following childbirth. It was not uncommon for the father to wear the mother's clothing shortly before the birth. While most anthropologists believe that the couvade is no longer practiced, there are some who ascertain its existence in certain areas of South America and South East Asia.
The Nurturing Network
While the negative aspects of the couvade—restrictions, incapacity, and denial—were well documented by the Victorian anthropologists, men who practiced the couvade also benefited from an immensely powerful and supportive male network. Here the elders were closely connected to the younger male generation, passing on their wisdom and experience and guiding younger men through childbirth as well as other important rites of passage. The elders took the role of mentors, linking physical as well as spiritual developmental stages, encouraging men to prize spiritual strength and courage, and supporting them through life’s changes. The experience would have been similar to the female inter-generational bonding that still exists in our society today, although often a midwife or doula may be more likely to pass on knowledge than a woman’s own mother. The couvade represented a spiritual connection between the baby and father, as well as connecting both parents to a wider social network.
Over the centuries, tribal cultures with their inherent nurturing networks began to break down, as modern society developed. Industrialization brought many social changes, sending men out to work for increasingly long hours away from the family, while children stayed first with the womenfolk, and were later sent off to school. Whatever remained of a father-child relationship, and particularly a father-son relationship was finally broken by the tough authoritarian attitude of Victorian fathers 100 or so years ago.
Nowadays, fathering has a very different meaning from mothering, which denotes an ongoing process of nurturing. In the book Manhood, Steve Biddulph suggests that for some, fathering might be reduced to “two minutes (in the back of a van)!” Fathers are often excluded from the build up to a birth and are later seen as the mother’s helper, rather than an equal parent. Despite gradual changes in paternity leave, society usually expects fathers to return to work as soon as possible following a birth, and prizes men who do this as, responsible.
Not content with encouraging fathers to separate from their babies, society also expects children, particularly males, to separate from their mothers at the earliest opportunity. Women who develop a strong and loving relationship with their sons are often seen as possessive, hindering perhaps their sons’ masculine development and independence, even leading to relationship problems later in life. In his essay “Mothers and Sons: Honouring our Mothers,” Bob Pease describes the way “masculine identity is reproduced by repressing the feminine” in today’s society. He believes it is this very repression—and not an overly zealous mother—that can lead to relationship problems.
The Modern Couvade
Given the modern attitudes toward the male role within society, as well as ambiguity about couvade rituals, it is hardly surprising that in our present age, the couvade is actively discouraged, seen rather as some kind of illness, something to fight. The media occasionally brings attention to a man physically affected by his partner’s pregnancy, reporting symptoms ranging from nausea to weight gain and enlarged nipples. This is known as couvade syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy, but the exact numbers of those experiencing symptoms are unknown, due to a low-rate of reporting. It hardly fits in with our image of the valiant breadwinner, and such a man might be encouraged to quickly suppress any emotions or seek psychiatric help to put an end to such a condition.
But we should be grateful that some will not dismiss the couvade as an illness or weakness, and research shows that the more involved a man is in the birth process, the better he will bond with his child. It is interesting to note that while marriage and the idea of a lifelong partner is less sought after today, men are gradually becoming more connected to birth once more, and while paternity rights are in no way equal to those of women, there is wider discussion of the issue and changes are starting to happen in some countries.
In Britain, author and teacher Nick Clements has been working with men and boys since 1975, drawing on the knowledge and wisdom of indigenous societies, and using these to rebuild, in particular, father-son relationships, creating rites of passage that he believes are “relevant to our modern society.” For Nick, the couvade represents “male completeness that can only be found through contact with his inner female.” This, in turn, is achieved through connecting with nature, and allowing the natural flow of life to occur. He runs workshops, drawing on various forms of creativity, such as drama, drawing, and sculpture to help men (and also women) become more complete, as they get in touch with their emotions and dare to reconnect with others.
Such bonding could be considered a backward journey, as the man returns first to his primary relationships, and in particular the relationship with his father. But after the teenage years of isolation or, in Nick’s words, “individuation” from the rest of society, it is crucial for him to reconnect and understand, or at least come to terms with his own father’s parenting style. This reconnection will help his other close relationships to deepen, allowing him to embrace feminine as well as masculine qualities, developing a closeness and openness with his mother or partner, without fearing a loss of masculinity. Ultimately this will help him to form a close and loving bond with his own children.
Whatever your attitudes toward the couvade practices of old, we can all seize new fatherhood or motherhood approaches to plug into generations of wisdom, and connect more fully with the real priorities in life. Becoming a father or mother can be a quick and easy process, but allowed to listen to your feelings and instincts, it can be a huge and amazing catalyst for change.
Biddulph, Steve Manhood. Stroud, Gloucestershire UK: Hawthorn Press, 2002.
Clements, Nick. “Couvade: The Rite of Passage into Fatherhood.” Juno Magazine. www.heavenandbirth.com/Pdf_files/Couvade%20-%20by%20Nick%20Clements.pdf
Doja, Albert. “Rethinking the Couvade.” Anthropological Quarterly, volume 78, 4. Fall 2005.
Pease, Bob. “Mothers and Sons: Honouring our Mothers.” XY Magazine. www.xyonline.net/mothers.shtml
Eburn, Michael. “Mother’s Little Helper.” XY Magazine. www.xyonline.net/Helper.shtml
Pasick, Robert. Awakening from the Deep Sleep: A Powerful Guide for Courageous Men, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Wynne-Edwards, Kathryn, E. “Why Do Some Men Experience Pregnancy Symptoms Such as Vomiting and Nausea When their Wives Are Pregnant?” Scientific American, June 28 2004.
Dawn Francis-Pester is a freelance writer who lives in London and writes about education, parenting, and alternative living. She can be contacted at www.dawnfrancispester.wordpress.com.