In today’s Wall Street Journal Jonathan Last reviews Judith Walzer Leavitt’s Make Room for Daddy, a history of how men went from being unwelcome to expected in the delivery room. But Last notes that as men became more involved in childbirth, they became less involved in what came after:
The increasing involvement of fathers in childbirth has been mirrored by a decreasing involvement of fathers in fatherhood. Between 1940 and 1980, the American divorce rate more than doubled. In 1940, 2 percent of babies were born out of wedlock. Today that number is closer to 40 percent. There is something unwell about a society that requires fathers to pretend to find beauty in effaced cervixes, episiotomies, and the bloody show—but then allows them to skip out on the rearing of the child.
Explaining how the dinosaurs once rationalized keeping men in the Stork Club [the hospital waiting room], 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.