Couvade, The Right of Passage for Fathers

08/10/2013 15:20 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Couvade is a now obsolete French word meaning literally 'to hatch'. It was first used in anthropological studies of indigenous populations during the early 1800's. The anthropologists of the time (all men) very infrequently undertook actual fieldwork, and fewer still ever met and interacted with indigenous people. They almost exclusively studied books, artefacts and frequented museums- the geeks of their time. Through the course of this flawed research they uncovered various baffling couvade rituals and ceremonies occurring the world over. From the Aboriginal people of Australia through India, from the two Americas, and, particularly, from the Celtic and Basque countries of Europe, there were a multiplicity of ancient and complex practices. Very few of these rituals were documented correctly or explained in depth, mainly because, couvade, offended the anthropologists' sense of masculinity and deeply perturbed these stay-at-home geeks.

The practice of couvade differed culturally, but the underlying principles were along these lines:

• The prospective father was mentored prior, during and after birth, by the male equivalent of a midwife.

• The prospective father would incapacitate himself by lying down during the last days of his partner's pregnancy.

• He would forsake violence, put down all sharp objects, in some cases he wore loose clothing with no knots.

• He would feminise himself, abstain from meat, become passive, assuming a very still and calm demeanour.

• During the birth he would either be encouraged to, or threatened with, (depending on which continent he lived) the sharing of his partners pain.

• Immediately after birth he would accept the baby and lie with it in his bed. In many traditions he would lie in bed for days, and was fed and showered with gifts.


father and new born son

These pervasive rituals were so foreign and ridiculous to the Victorian male sensibilities they were dismissed, and as a consequence they have been all but removed from our cultural heritage. The practice of couvade is now extinct.

In the modern day study of parenting, couvade has re-emerged It is used to explains how the prospective father can be affected by his partner's pregnancy. There are a multitude of symptoms:

• Up to 60% of men are affected either psychologically or physically by their partner's pregnancy.

• The father experiences a rise in oestrogen and a decline in testosterone particularly during the third trimester, he is feminised.

• Some have morning sickness, nose bleeds, bloating, enlarged nipples.

• Some know their partner is pregnant before they do.

• The majority of men talk of their partner's pregnancy and the sharing of birth and early childhood as being a 'wake-up call'. Many change their lifestyle, friends, job and attitudes.

• The likelihood of 'fatherly bonding' with the baby is greatly increased if he has experienced these physical and psychological phenomena, and if he is active and present during the birth.

As someone who works with men and boys, these two descriptions of couvade, inspire and excite me. Our ancestors knew the importance of having the father bond with the baby as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. The reduction in testosterone shows how this is a biological and evolutionary imperative.

Babies and children need fathers, and we are presently in an absent father crisis. According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, over 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers, the consequences of this are stark. To quote the National Fatherhood Initiative.'Children who live absent from their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents'.

When I work with mothers they almost invariably extol the virtues and practical benefits of having a midwife during birth, and many mothers say they needed tuition in the skills of being a mother. At the same time, the father is often ignored, sidelined and excluded.

If we provided the male equivalent of a midwife for the father, before, during and after birth, then he gains a sense of purpose, is valued and is much more likely to bond with the baby. This can only have a positive effect and increase the numbers of present rather than absent dads in later life. So, the mother, baby, wider family, and community as a whole would benefit from this practice.

Our ancestor knew this, our bodies are even telling us this. Who's listening?