Brigid McConville: Tales of new fatherhood

Brigid McConville is director of The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood UK and an award-winning writer. Here, she shares stories from her book On Becoming a Mother about the father’s role in pregnancy, childbirth and the early days…

Brigid McConville: Tales of new fatherhood

Whatever happens at the birth; be it beautiful, traumatic, sad, joyous, exhilarating – or all of the above – not only is the woman’s life changed forever, but the man’s is too. When I asked friends and colleagues from different countries about the men’s role they told me about many cultural traditions.

Sometimes men are literally catching the newborn; sometimes they are outside getting drunk. But always they are simultaneously being born into their own new and lifelong identity – as an invaluable provider of love, support and care for both mother and child, as well as someone who never knew that life could be so astounding.

Indigenous people of North and South America
Among the Quechua, an indigenous people of the Andes, fathers are involved directly in childbirth. Traditional art showing labour depicts the woman sitting on her husband’s lap and pulling on a rope, while the midwife kneels in front of them.

People who came to visit during the labour would be served chicha (corn beer) from a pot tended by a female relative. Fathers also hand-knit the chullo, a small alpaca wool hat which he gives to his newborn. If a man can’t knit, he has to find a male friend who can do the job for him.

Among the Navajo and other indigenous peoples of North America, a cradleboard was used to carry and protect the baby on the mother’s back, or in a spot near her work, until the baby could walk. The board was usually made by the baby’s father, a symbol of the shared roles of both parents in raising the newborn.

Canada, First Nations
During labour, First Nations women traditionally used a rope, sometimes made from moose hide, hung from an overhead beam in the cabin or tent. The mother squatted and pulled on the rope during contractions.

When a family was travelling alone and there was no one else to help, the father had to make a shelter for her, help her through labour, then provide warmth and care until the mother and newborn were ready to continue on.

“When we arrived at the birthing centre at 11.15 and the midwife said to me, “You will deliver the baby,” I thought she was joking. How sweet, I said to myself, she is really trying to involve me. But, when it came time for the birth, the midwife was not even in view!

At midday, my wife, Misty, breathed our baby out into the world. I was there in the water as she pushed our baby out, and I caught her in my hands. This wonderful, beautiful creation of love was still asleep! I lifted our daughter, Dusty Rose, out of the water and passed her into Misty’s arms. It was the most incredible moment, and a fantastic privilege.

We woke up Dusty Rose and Misty held her close to her chest. After the first feed, I held my daughter tight to me and just said, “You’re here, Dusty Rose, you’re here.” She had the steadiest gaze and the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. I couldn’t wait to bring Indiana, our seventeen-month-old son, into the loving, peaceful space that Dusty Rose had brought with her, when she came into this world.”

Reg Matheson

The woman’s husband gives her parents two live goats, groceries and toiletries. This denotes his formal request that his wife’s parents look after her until the baby is born

Until recently, hospitals were very strict in their attempt to protect the new mother and baby from infections and visitors, and even fathers were not allowed to visit. Although fathers are now allowed in, the majority still opt not to be there.

Instead, a father celebrates the news among family and friends with music, loud singing and unlimited amount of rakija, a plum brandy. When neighbours, friends and family visit the new father to congratulate him, they rip off the father’s shirt, wishing him and his family good health and long life.

Zimbabwe – the seventh-month request
The birth of the first baby is regarded as woman’s work in the Shona culture. The woman goes back to her parents’ home when she is seven months’ pregnant, so that she can receive their help and advice. Her mother will prepare her for the process of birth and then look after her and the baby. The birth of a baby is a blessing and a joy!

The woman’s husband gives her parents two live goats, groceries and toiletries. This denotes his formal request that his wife’s parents look after her until the baby is born. The goats are slaughtered on the day of the birth and shared with the extended family. The custom is known as kusungira, or the ‘seven-month request’.

In urban areas the father will still present gifts to the parents on the understanding that, when the time of birth is near, her mother will come to town to provide support.

“Even from the moment a woman conceives, pregnancy is a very joyful time in my culture. When he knows his wife is pregnant, the husband will inform his own mother or aunties, and grandmother about it. Later the husband will immediately spread news of the birth to all the relatives.

In our culture, we believe that if a man sleeps with another woman while his wife is pregnant this can prolong the pregnancy for extra months and also harm the unborn child. Our fore grandparents used it as one way to stop the husband from straying at a time when she needs his support most.

If he does commit adultery – and he is caught – some actions are carried out. The wife washes the lower part of the husband’s trouser and drinks some of that water. Times are changing, so of course men are testing this, but it remains true that this is a way to ensure his commitment to his family – and to prevent the spread of STDs and HIV.

No sex is allowed during postnatal period; her husband’s conjugal rights are suspended during this time. She is in confinement so that her husband is not tempted. This lasts until the umbilical cord is dry. She sleeps in the living room, apart from her husband so that he cannot pressurise or force her into sex. This is a good way to preserve her health.”

Sam Senfuka

Naming ceremonies take place on the seventh day after birth in Ghana. “The husband gives the name to the child,” says Georgina Nortey, who lives among the Ga people of Greater Accra.

“The husband gives a fowl, drinks and money to prepare food for a get-together. The attire for the ceremony is white, but it is a very colourful event. There is music and dancing; a lot of people pay a visit to the mother and baby with gifts. It is a joyous occasion that cannot be forgotten.”

Afartanbah: Forty Days and Forty Nights – of Rest
Traditionally, the husband will move out of the house during the forty days after the birth. In the countryside, the family builds a small hut or tent beside the main house for him to live in. In the city, the husband moves in with other family, or stays in the same house but doesn’t share the bed.

The essential tradition is that the husband and wife do not have sexual relations until forty days after afartanbah, and the celebration is treated almost like a mini-wedding. Women will wear their best dresses to look beautiful for the party, and as they welcome their husbands back into the home.

Brigid McConville’s book On Becoming a Mother: Welcoming Your New Baby and Your New Life with Wisdom from Around the World is published by Oneworld Publications. 

Main image: Father and Child by Irene Becker