Chapter 6



How to Become a Father

With the birth of the baby comes the birth of fatherhood. The new father can now leave behind the shifting sands and uncertainties of pregnancy, secure in the knowledge that at last his status is secure. We may not know how to behave towards, or even describe, a pregnant man, but surely everybody agrees on what it is to be a father?

In fact things are not so simple. Anthropologists have discovered that fatherhood is actually such a slippery and flexible concept that anybody can become a father, in one culture or another; child or adult, male or female, living or dead!

So in this chapter I want to take a break from the small-scale and introverted world of the delivery room, to ask a simple question, "What is a father?" The answer you get depends on who you ask. In order to explore it, I want to look at the meaning of fatherhood in a variety of cultures, ranging from ancient Israel to twentieth century Africa and the Pacific Islands. But although this digression will take us all round the world, it is crucial to the flow of the book, for it will bring us back to the very labour ward we have just left.

Consider the following story from the book of Genesis about Judah and his three sons Er, Onan, and Shelah:

Judah found a wife for his eldest son, Er; her name was Tamar. But Judah’s eldest son Er was wicked in the LORD’s sight, and the LORD took his life. The Judah told Onan to sleep with his brother’s wife, to do his duty as the husband’s brother and raise up issue for his brother. But Onan knew that the issue would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground so as not to raise up issue for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight, and the LORD took his life. (Genesis 38:6-10 New English Bible)

The meaning of this story is hard to grasp at first. Clearly Onan did something wrong; but what? Many commentators used to think that the passage meant that Onan was masturbating, and that this was his sin. The word Onanism has even passed into the language as a synonym for masturbation—”self-pollution” as Chambers called it 250 years ago. This is not the explanation of this passage however. Rather than masturbating, Onan was probably withdrawing before ejaculation—coitus interruptus. Yet it was not this in itself which caused the LORD’s wrath. The real issue was the issue—or rather the lack of issue.

The point is that Onan’s brother, Er, had died without becoming a father; he had no-one to remember his name or carry on his line. When Er died it became Onan’s duty to get Tamar pregnant so that she could have children who would be Er’s rightful and legitimate heirs. Onan refused because he wanted the children to be his and not his brother’s.

It is hard to see the true meaning of this unless we can throw off our traditional Western ways of looking at fatherhood. Anthropologists have discovered that fatherhood is such a slippery and flexible concept that anybody can become a father in one culture or another; child or adult, male or female, living or dead! Er is one such example. Even though he was dead he would still have been able to become a father if Onan had been willing to donate his seed for the purpose.

Customs like this are still practised today and make very good sense in the cultures where they are found. In order for us to understand them it is necessary to split our ideas of fatherhood in two. We must distinguish between the man who provides the seed, whose biological action causes the child to be conceived, and the man who is the legal recognised father of the child, who will bring up the child and whose name and property the child will inherit. The physical father is called the genitor, the legal father is called the pater. We are accustomed to assuming that the two fathers should be one and the same person, but in many societies people see no reason why this should be so. For instance, if we look at the Bible story in these terms we can see that Onan was supposed to be the genitor while Er was supposed to be the pater—even though he was dead! Surprising though this may seem at first sight, there are actually some close parallels in our own society. But first, in order to explore the consequences further and to look at the reasons why Onan might be expected to behave in that way, consider the Nuer of East Africa.

The Nuer are a group of people who live in the Southern Sudan. They are cattle herders who move between summer and winter pastures many miles apart. They have no central government, no chiefs, or even tribal councils to keep order. Rather, the extended family provides the main way of organising society. The Nuer are patrilineal: family membership is counted in the male line only. Children belong to the family, or lineage, of their father. Marriage between members of the same lineage is forbidden, so inevitably a man’s wives (Nuer men may marry more than one wife) must come from a different lineage. This also means that daughters will becomes the wives of men from other lineages and so will be lost to the family of their father. An in-marrying wife becomes assimilated to the family of her husband and becomes equivalent to one of his kinswomen. Thus it is only sons who are able to carry on the family line. It is very important to a man that his name be continued through his male children. If he dies without sons to remember his name it is believed that his spirit will be unable to rest easily and may return to cause sickness and trouble amongst his surviving relatives.

Marriage among the Nuer is a long process, consisting of a series of rituals, and payments of cattle. The Nuer are one of many societies which practice the institution of bridewealth, in which the groom and his family give cattle to the bride’s family to compensate them for the loss of their daughter and any children she may subsequently bear (which will, of course, belong to the groom’s lineage). Bridewealth has sometimes been thought of as a kind of slavery, where a man buys” his wife from her father or uncle. It is more accurate to look on it as a form of recompense, which will in turn be passed on to another family so that the bride’s brothers will themselves be able to marry and thus have children to continue the lineage. The Nuer also make payments of cattle on one other occasion. If a man is killed then the family of the killer must compensate the family of the murdered man for the loss of his life. Again there is the idea of a payment of cattle as some kind of compensation for the loss of a family member. Indeed, the number of cattle given over in “bloodwealth” should ideally be the same as the number given in bridewealth.

When the final payment of marriage cattle has been made, and the various ceremonies performed, the groom is allowed to consummate the marriage. from this time on he will be the legal father of any child which his bride might bear. But until the birth of their first baby the bride will continue to live with her family in a special hut which her father will build for her. The groom will come to visit her there, but must be very discreet and do his best to avoid contact with her parents. If she turns out to be barren then the marriage will be called off, and the bridewealth cattle will have to be returned by her parents. Not until the first child is weaned will the bride move to her husband’s household and live with him there.

It is common for a man to die before he has a chance to get married. This is a disaster for him, and for his family, since he will have no sons to remember him or appease his spirit. So, despite the fact of his death, he will be married. The usual pattern is that one of his younger brothers will go through the marriage ceremonies, but on the dead man’s behalf. The younger brother will consummate the marriage and will, in due course, take the wife the live with him and help bring up the children. But it is the dead man who will be considered the legal father of the children and it is his name they will remember. The dead man is pater, his younger brother is genitor; and it is the pater who is more important the Nuer.

If a man has married, but dies before having any sons then again it is the duty of one of his close kinsmen—usually a younger brother—to take the widow into his home and raise sons for the dead man by her. In many societies a widow will be “inherited” by one of the dead man’s relatives. She ceases to be the wife of the dead man and instead becomes the wife of the kinsman who inherited her. He will be accepted as the legitimate father of any subsequent children. This is not the custom among the Nuer. They consider that the widow is still the wife of the dead man, not of the relative who now looks after her. This custom, of raising sons to a dead man, is known as the levirate and is found in many societies in Africa.

It explains why Onan in the bible story was so upset and why his crime was considered so bad. He wanted sons who would remember his name, whereas any sons which Tamar would be for Er, not for him. To make matters worse, there was a younger brother, Shelah. The chances were that Onan would not be allowed to marry a wife for himself until Shelah had first been married, as is common practice among the Nuer today. Since Shelah was still young there was a good chance that Onan would die before he was able to marry and have heirs for himself. He tried to opt out of responsibilities (and perhaps imply that Tamar was barren and should be returned to her family) but he was punished for his selfishness towards his elder brother. (The rest of the story in Genesis chapter 38 also makes fascinating reading. Tamar ends up marrying her father-in-law, Judah, and giving birth to Perez who was one of the ancestors of King David, and hence of Jesus himself.)

It is not only the dead who can marry and become fathers in Nuerland. Some women are also able to take wives and become fathers. Such a woman is nearly always barren, which makes her like a man in Nuer eyes. Because she is like a man she is able to acquire cattle when these are given to her family as bridewealth—something normally only allowed to men. It is also quite common for such women to practice as diviners or magicians and they get paid in cattle for these services also. A woman with enough cattle may marry in exactly the same way as a man, with full bridewealth and marriage ceremonies, and when the rights are complete she will get a male relative or friend to act as genitor and perhaps also to help her round the house when heavy work needs to be done.

The woman is the full legal husband of her wife and can demand damages for any adultery practised without her consent. She is also the full father of any children her wife may bear. They will call her ‘father’ and her sons will remember her name when she is dead, and will inherit from her. She will also receive the father’s portion of any cattle given in bridewealth for her daughters. The man who acts as genitor is also not forgotten: he will also get a cow—the cow of begetting—when any daughters are married.

Women are able to become fathers in other societies as well. The Bangwa, who live in the Cameroon in West Africa, have a more complex political system than the Nuer, with a ‘royal’ system of chiefs and subchiefs very like a mediaeval system of princes and noblemen. They are farmers and traders and they count kinship ties through both male and female parents rather than just the male line as the Nuer do. The Bangwa say that women provide the red blood (menstrual blood) and men provide the white blood (semen) when a child is made. During the first two months of pregnancy the womb shakes and mixes up these two bloods, and so both parents have a share in the child. Political allegiances depend more on male links, while the closest family groups are held together by female links.

Powerful Bangwa men marry many wives; this becomes a sign of their prestige and wealth. A famous chief, Asunganyi, who died in 1952 was said to have had over a hundred wives. Since there are roughly equal numbers of males and females in West Africa, just as everywhere else, some way has to be found of enabling men to have many wives. The solution is to allow women to marry at a much earlier age than men. If men marry at an average age of thirty and women at sixteen there will be more marriageable women than men. In fact, even with such a difference there is still a shortage of women in Bangwa and it is common for a father to arrange for one of his adolescent sons to be “married” to a girl as soon as she is born. Bridewealth—traditionally in the form of goats and hoes, but now in equivalent cash payments—will be paid to the baby’s father. When the girl reaches puberty her husband will be able to consummate the relationship and set up a household with her.

The Bangwa also differ from the Nuer in that they practice “widow inheritance”. When a man dies his wives will be inherited by his heirs along with his property. The father of any children subsequently borne by any of these women will not be the dead husband, as in the Nuer case, but the person inheriting the wives—even if he is still only baby of a few months old! Obviously in such a case he will not be the biological father, but his trustees will probably fulfil this function for him until he comes of age. The child will be the legal father of any children born.

The heir is usually a man, but not necessarily. Robert Brain, the anthropologist who lived with the Bangwa for two years, reports that the chief’s sister, Mafwankeng, inherited two of her father’s wives. She decided to give one out in marriage and to keep the other as her own wife. Subsequently she married a young girl to be her second wife. Each of these wives will have a lover who will visit her in secret. His identity should be known to no-one but the ‘husband’ and the midwife who delivers any children of the union. These children will inherit from their female father just as if she were male and she will take the father’s share of any bridewealth paid for her daughters. This kind of marriage is not common among the Bangwa, being mainly reserved to wealthy and powerful noblewomen, but it is not considered strange or in any way deviant. It fits perfectly well into the logic of Bangwa fatherhood.

There are many reasons for studying anthropology. One is simply to acquire knowledge about the ways in which different people behave: to look at some of the marvellous and wonderful things human beings do, and to try to make sense of people’s behaviour. Knowledge for itself is valuable, but there is another reason as well. The results of such study can be used as a mirror to enable us to look at ourselves and our behaviour in a new light. We always tend to think that our own ways are not just the best, but the only ways of doing things. Looking at others shows us that this is not so. This reflection can be particularly useful when, as now, an institution such as fatherhood is in a state of flux.

Until recently it would probably have been true to say that ghost fathers or female fathers were quite without precedent or analogy in our society. Today, in a climate of rapidly changing attitudes towards paternity, this is no longer true. It is now possible in our society for a man for a man to become a father after his death—a ghost father. For instance, there have been several instances of a man, learning that he has contracted a fatal disease such as cancer, deliberately arranging for samples of his semen to be kept in a sperm bank so that his wife may bear his children by artificial insemination after his death. This is still a rather new idea to most of us and we are not entirely sure how to deal with it, but it seems that most people would be happy to treat this dead man as the legitimate father of any such children born after his death. What is not entirely clear is whether this is because it was his sperm which caused conception, or because of his past relationship with the mother and her desire to have his children.

Similarly, it is possible to speak of an analogy to female fatherhood. The Summer 1984 edition of the Men’s Anti-Sexist Newsletter carried the following advertisement: “Donors wanted for feminist self-insemination group. Write to Box 3, Sisterwrite...” While the women of the self-insemination group would probably repudiate the whole notion of fatherhood (see also chapter 11), there is certainly a sense in which they could be said to be practising female fatherhood—especially given the fact that we are no longer sure what a father is, or how he (or she?) is supposed to behave. Our very definitions of fatherhood, once so firm and obvious, are now under fire and looking at the way other peoples think behave and feel can help us to straighten out our own thinking.

Fatherhood is never natural or obvious. I believe, like just about everyone in my culture, that babies are produced by sexual intercourse—though I must admit that I can’t actually prove it. In fact, although I believe that intercourse is necessary for conception, I also know that not every act of intercourse causes conception. Further, I have absolutely no way of telling if or when a sexual act will produce conception.

Despite these serious gaps in my knowledge, I also believe that I personally am the father of three children. Again, I have no certain proof of this. I know that Shirley, my wife, has given birth to three children and I am sure that I played a significant part in their conception. I also think that it is possible to establish with a high degree of probability whether or not a man is genetically linked with his children. But I have had no such tests—nor do I feel any need for them because my cultural ‘knowledge’ (belief) is strong enough to sustain me. Even though I am able to accept intellectually that there is little real evidence for my belief in my own paternity, I have no real doubts about it.

Although we believe, despite the rather flimsy evidence available to most of us, that there is a link between intercourse and conception, this is not true of everyone. There are peoples, in Australia and the Pacific Islands who say that there is no such link.[1]

The Trobriand Islanders are a fishing and gardening people who live on a coral archipelago lying to the north-east of Papua New Guinea. Like the Nuer they reckon descent through one parent only—but in their case it is the mother rather than the father. Since property and power are, in general, held by men this means that a man’s heir is not his own son but his sister’s son. Or. to look at it from the other end, a man will not inherit from is father, but from his mother’s brother. This kind of matrilineal system is found throughout the world although it is not as common as the patrilineal system which the Nuer have. It will be seen that in a matrilineal society a man’s descendants are not his own children, but his sister’s children. The Trobriand beliefs about conception help to confirm and explain this fact.

According to Malinowski, who spent most of the First World War there, the Trobriand Islanders deny that men have any part to play in the conception of children. Instead, they maintain that a baby is born because a “spirit child” has entered the woman. When a person dies, his or her spirit (baloma) goes to the mythical Island of Tuma where it continues its existence in a happy state. Eventually it will get tired of this “life” and decided to be re-incarnated. The spirit will turn itself into a little child and make its way back to the Trobriand Islands. There he or she will enter the body of a suitable woman. There is no remembrance of past lives, but the Trobrianders do say that the spirit child must have belonged to the mother’s wider family (subclan).

There are two native theories about conception. Some people say that the spirit child enters through the mother’s head, others say that it does so through her vagina. The mother’s blood helps to nourish and build up the sprit child, why is why menstruation stops during pregnancy. Although the Trobriand Islanders deny that intercourse has anything to do with actually making babies, it is accepted that it has a part to play. Unless a woman is ‘opened up’ by intercourse, she will be unable to conceive; the spirit will be unable to enter her.

So, apart from the simple act of opening the way, what is the role of the father in Trobriand society? Firstly, it is important to note that a spirit child will not enter a woman unless she is married. Sexual promiscuity is common amongst unmarried women and men, and is not sanctioned or discouraged. Yet it is very rare for an unmarried woman to conceive. Malinowski claimed that there were far fewer children born out of wedlock than would be expected given the high level of sexual activity and the absence of any attempt at contraception. He was quite unable to account for this, and the Trobrianders simply pointed to it as one of the clinching arguments in favour of their theory that there is no link between sex and birth.

Every Trobriand child needs its mother to have a husband—a man who will take the child into his arms and feed it and care for it. Although there is no link of blood between father and child, it is often stressed that they look alike. This is frequently commented on, while any suggestion that a child might look like its mother, or that two brothers (who are related by maternal blood) might look similar is vehemently rejected. It is said that the father “moulds” the spirit child by lying with the mother and being with her during pregnancy. Certainly there are great bonds of affection between father and child in Trobriand society. A man will be stern with his sister’s son, his heir, but to his own son hew will be tender and indulgent. The sister’s son has legal claims on the father’s property, the son has none, yet the father will favour his own son as much as he is able. In the Trobriand Islands no-one is considered to be genitor to a child, but the mother’s husband is considered to be pater, and this relationship is very strong.

An interesting variation on the Trobriand beliefs about spirit children and conception can be found among the Orokaiva of Papua New Guinea. Erik Schwimmer reports that male children are said to be born as the result of sexual intercourse and the entry of a spirit child, whereas female children are born just as a result of the spirit child entering the mother. In the former case, the male spirit child may either have entered the father first and thence from him into the mother, or it may have entered the mother directly. Orokaiva naming customs are consistent with these beliefs. A girl child is always named by the mother or her relatives while a boy child may be named by either paternal or maternal relatives. Nevertheless, the mother’s husband—provided he has paid the full bridewealth—will be pater to both girls and boys, although genitor to the boys only. This somewhat surprising theory allows the Orokaiva to account for the differences between the sexes. Men differ from women by having a special quality (ivo) which is transmitted to male children by the ‘male blood’ (semen) which is transferred to the mother during intercourse (Schwimmer 1969).

The Trobriand Islanders see no physical link between father and child, yet the relationship between them is close and affectionate. The Nuer and the Bangwa accept that a man helps to create a child, but do not consider that sufficient grounds for making him a father. Only if bridewealth is paid for the child’s mother can a man (or woman) become a real father. For other societies the physical link is itself sufficient to create fatherhood.

The Kamano live in the New Guinea highlands. They hold that fatherhood is created by one act of intercourse, demonstrated by the failure of the woman’s period and is unaffected by any subsequent sexual relationship that the woman might have either with the father or with anyone else. The biological link is itself sufficient to make a man a father, and this is not affected by whether he is married to the mother of the child. Adultery seems to be common and this can confuse the issue. If a woman has intercourse with two or more men in the month before her periods stop, the most vigorous man, or the one who has already demonstrated the greatest fertility by siring other children will be taken to be the father. If all other things are equal, then the husband of the woman will be presumed to be the father. However, no amount of love and attention by an adoptive father can cancel or override the physical link between father and son. For instance, Elizabeth Mandeville tells of one old man who learned, during a quarrel, that he was not the son of his mother’s husband, but of her lover. Because of this he left his home and his land and went to live in the village of his biological father—and this despite the fact that Kamano villages are very insular and often hostile to one another.

Where do we, of the developed West, stand? How do we define fatherhood? At first sight we appear to be like the Kamano, stressing the biological link to the exclusion of all else. Like most societies we do distinguish between pater and genitor, but for us it is the genitor who seems to be most important. One casual act of intercourse is enough to make a man (genitor) the ‘real’ father of a child—even if he has no more contact with the mother, and even if another man (pater) acts as father; caring, loving and nurturing that child for many years. Put this way it doesn’t seem right; surely fatherhood is about more than casual copulation? It is a question which has caused adoptive parents much anguish for many years. But there are signs that things are changing.

Although we express the basis of fatherhood in purely biological terms, in practice this has always been a rather uncertain means of definition. The trouble is that you can’t usually tell if a particular child is yours or somebody else’s. This uncertainty can be seen in the jokes frequently made about the new baby looking like the postman or the father's best friend. It is often the new father himself who will make such jokes, perhaps to seek reassurance from others. And he often gets it. According to one study people are much more likely to comment on resemblances between father and child than between mother and child—whether or not they actually look alike. The mother is more likely than anyone to make such comments.[2]

But in general we, like the Kamano, assume that unless there is good evidence to the contrary it is the mother’s husband who must be the father of the child. In this sense the father’s relationship with his children is not a direct one, but is mediated through their mother. As long as marriage is universal and stable this principle works quite well. But if the marriage pattern changes, fatherhood is one of the first things to suffer.

We can see this in two ways. firstly, in English law at least, a man has no rights over his illegitimate child. Even if everyone admits that he is the natural father he has no responsibility in law for the child unless he is married to the child’s mother. He has to apply for a court order before he can have any rights of access or custody. The child’s mother has these rights automatically. The British Law Commission advocated in 1979 that the status of illegitimacy should be abolished and, in consequence, that all fathers should be treated in the same way regardless of whether they are married to the child’s mother. So far no action has been taken on this and it seems as if the proposal is too far ahead of public opinion to stand much chance of being accepted just yet.

The only other option a so-called putative father has is to co-operate with the child’s mother in getting an affiliation order. This is a legal order stating that a named man is the father of a single woman’s child (she may not apply if she is married). It is generally used by a woman in order for a court to make a maintenance order against the man so that he is obliged to help support the child. As such it is designed to help her when the man is unwilling to accept at least the financial responsibilities of fatherhood. Despite this rather unsavoury aspect to it, some men encourage such court proceedings.

Brian is the father of a six year old daughter. He is not married to her mother, Jill, who lives in a city several hundred miles away, but they remain friends and he sees them both regularly. Brian’s fatherhood means a lot to him and his separation from his daughter is a source of regret. He was present at her birth and is very keen to be part of her life. Jill and Brian have never disagreed about access or the amount of maintenance, that he should pay to her so there hasn’t been any practical need for court action. Nevertheless, Brian told me that he encouraged Jill to apply for an affiliation order because it was the only way that his fatherhood could be legally and publicly acknowledged.

The importance of marriage to fatherhood can also be seen when marriage fails. A father still has very little chance of being awarded custody of his children by the courts. Unless a woman has deserted her children, or can be shown to be grossly unfit to have care and control of them, she will nearly always be given custody by the courts. Groups of divorced fathers, such as Fathers United for Equal Justice in Boston or Families Need Fathers in the UK, have banded together to try change things. They try to improve their rights—for instance, by attempting to make sure that the parent without custody will still have his voice heard by the child’s school, and also by pressing for changes in the law and in the way custody is awarded.

There is another side to the way changing marriage patterns are forcing us to re-examine our ideas of fatherhood. Charlie married Maureen fourteen years ago. She had two small children from her first marriage, the youngest under one year old when she met Charlie. Her first husband emigrated soon after her divorce and neither she nor the children have heard from him since. Charlie loves Emma and Jane and they love him and always call him “Dad”. If biology is the sole basis of fatherhood then Charlie is not their ‘real’ father, but they will not accept that. The man who sired them is a shadowy figure who has no real place in their lives. Thousands of men are in the same position as Charlie. When they have cared and loved and wept and laughed with their step-children, sometimes for many years, it seems impossible to deny them as true fathers. Biology may matter, but is it more important than love?

Artificial insemination by donor (AID) provides yet another nail in the dominance of the biological father. More and more couples, usually happily married, are resorting to AID if the husband turns out to be infertile or in some way unable to produce children. Norman had custody of the three daughters from his first marriage. A few months before his first wife left him she persuaded him to have a vasectomy. When he met Jean and they decided to get married they agreed that they would be unable to have any children of their own. After a couple of years Jean realised that although she did want a child of their own, and in particular that she wanted to go through the experience of pregnancy and birth.

Artificial insemination by donor seemed to be the only option to allow this. The three girls would be biologically related to Norman but not to Jean, while the new baby would be biologically related to Jean but not Norman. Nevertheless they were both convinced that this would make little difference and that they would both be true parents to all the children.

In due course Jill became pregnant and gave birth to a little son. Norman was present at the birth and was as proud and excited as any biological father. His name is on the birth certificate as the father—even though in English law an AID child is illegitimate and the birth entry should read “father not known” or else be left blank.[3]

Most AID practitioners try to get round this by telling their clients to continue making love during the treatment, and in particular on those days when the woman is inseminated. This is supposed to make the biological paternity uncertain and keep open the possibility that the husband is the biological father. This is usually quite unrealistic since the whole reason for AID is usually the known infertility of the husband.

Many couples today live together and only marry when they want to have children. Yet in the UK one marriage in three ends in divorce. In the US the figure is even higher. Men are beginning to realise that neither a biological link nor the marriage tie may be enough to create a deep and lasting relationship with their children. When marriage was secure many men tended to take their fatherhood for granted; now it is seen as something which needs to be worked at.

Maureen Green remarks on the upsurge of interest in fathering and the simultaneous breakdown of the family. She sees it as a paradoxical co-incidence, but I think the two are causally connected. Much of the new interest and concern about fathering can be traced directly to this new family uncertainty. In the last chapter I discussed some of the reasons for men’s arrival in the delivery room. But I ignored one of the most potent: a man wants to be present at the birth of his child because it is a ritual declaration of his paternity.

In 1968 Mary Douglas wrote an article about the couvade rituals which men in some societies undergo while their wives are giving birth. She claims that such rituals are to be found in societies where the marriage tie is weak, or is not strongly institutionalized. In societies where there is a transfer of bridewealth there will be little concern about paternity because the bridewealth itself is sufficient to create paternity. But in other societies things are different. Mary Douglas wrote:

Already one notices a new emphasis on the father’s role in the lying-in of the mother, and a new responsibility for the mental health of his children, an emphasis which I would expect to be increasing with the greater ease of divorce.

It is nearly twenty years since that prediction was made and it seems to have been spectacularly accurate.

Other studies have confirmed and extended this insight. Karen & Jeffrey Paige have looked at the strength of support a man gets during his life from his relatives, particularly his brothers. Couvade rituals are most common in societies where a man has little support from his relatives and has to establish his claims by gathering support from other people. Couvade rituals are often quite disruptive to society because the man won’t hunt, or work in the fields or perhaps will only eat certain foods or needs other special consideration. If people encourage him, despite the inconvenience to themselves it is a strong sign that they accept his paternity. Further, his own acceptance of the inconvenience may help to convince others of the correctness of his claim.

The converse can also be true: a man may fail to perform couvades rituals because he refuses to accept paternity. Allan Holmberg gives an example of this among the Siriono of Bolivia. A man went hunting during his wife's delivery although it was his duty to cut the cord. She waited all day with the baby still attached to the placenta. When the husband returned he was eventually persuaded to cut the cord, but he still insisted that the child was not his.

Being present at birth is only one aspect of couvade ritual and is in fact rather unusual when looked at in global terms. Birth is usually considered to be women’s work and men are either excluded or uninterested. So there is nothing especially potent about attendance. A variety of social pressures came together to encourage men into the delivery room and that provided an appropriate event which could be incorporated into a set of couvade rituals.

Birth is actually one of the most heavily ritualised activities in our societies, as we will see in the next chapter, yet most parents are quite unaware of its ritual aspects. When, in 1972, I wanted to be present at mark’s birth I was not aware of any outside pressures—either social or ritual. It was simply something I wanted to do both for myself and for Shirley. Nor was I aware of any uncertainty about my own marriage or forthcoming paternity. But there was no doubt that it did proclaim my fatherhood to the world and I did not mind that a bit. Being Mark’s mother’s husband was not enough for me, and my presence at the birth was a symbolic statement of that fact. [Next]


[1] Although these beliefs were held until recently, the present position is less clear. Now that native peoples have been exposed to missionaries, explorers, and others with Western knowledge and beliefs, it is harder to distinguish between their ideas and ours. There has also been controversy about the exact nature of these beliefs. Some anthropologists maintain that the people ‘really’ know that there is a connection between intercourse and conception, but they choose to deny it because it fits in with their social system. Other anthropologists say that there is ‘real’ ignorance, but point out that we should not confuse ignorance with stupidity and thereby claim that such people are ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. Details of this so-called ‘virgin birth’ debate can be found in Leach” 1969, Barnes 1973, and volumes 3, 4, 6, 7 & 10 of Man—the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

[2] The study of reactions to father/child resemblances is reported in Daly & Wilson.

[3] Most AID practitioners try to get round the problem of legal paternity by telling their clients to continue making love during the treatment, and in particular on those days when the woman is artificially inseminated. This is supposed to make the biological paternity uncertain and keep open the possibility that the husband is the biological father. This is generally quite unrealistic since the whole reason for AID is usually the known infertility of the husband.