I wasn’t sure whether to sigh or smile when I read that the 70-year-old water birth guru Dr Michel Odent was advising expectant fathers to leave the birthing business to the midwives (more experienced; less anxious). Sigh, because like more than 85 per cent of British fathers, I will happily ignore his advice when my third child is born this year. Smile, because there is a kind of pathos in hearing an old new dad (his son is three) regurgitating the wisdom of my late father’s generation.
I was born in Middlesex Hospital in 1960, a time when men were still nervously pacing the corridors. Soon after, however, the British trend turned rapidly in the opposite direction, to the point where the idea of separating fathers from the birth process was considered positively unhealthy. Being a birth partner became a rite of passage for today’s western man.
This is an apt illustration of a more general conclusion I’ve been edging towards: that male expectations and experiences have been radically transformed.
I recently met a group of close male chums soon after the death of one of their fathers, and we got on to the subject of the comedy of changing manners over the past generation. Our fathers – born between 1929 and 1940 – were handshakers; we, their sons, are huggers. Our fathers wore their suits without a conscious sense of individual style; we have been “feminised” into sartorial narcissism. They opened doors for ladies, and had more respect for convention, and told different jokes (“pre-ironic”, it was smugly noted).
While few us could claim to be quite as emotionally “open” as our women friends, we all felt we went further down this path than our dads, who avoided talk about relationship troubles, depression, insecurity or sex beyond the level of banter.
The generational difference was even more evident when we got on to the way men relate to women. There may be millions of western men who remain determinedly atavistic, but more important is the number who have adapted to the brave new world of gender relations with relish.
The most obvious area is sex. Unlike our fathers, we aren’t put off when women are as sexually voracious as ourselves. The women friends I consulted took this for granted and also pointed to changes in non-sexual friendships with men. None of their fathers had female friends independent of their wives, and even then the degree of intimacy was limited. “My mother-in-law still finds it quite odd when I go out with male friends without my husband in tow,” said Justine, a 40-year-old social worker. “And she’d find it even more unsettling if she knew what we talked about.”
The changes are no less profound when it comes to men’s relations with children – the terms of this month’s debate on birthing-partner dads providing a neat illustration. The public focus so often settles on the won’t-show, dead-beat dad and the child molester. Against this lot the “new dad”, like the “new man”, becomes a straw figure, blown over by his inconsistencies – yet my own male friends, unlike their fathers, take for granted their duty to play at least some of the nurturing role.
Dr Jonathan Gershuny, of the Economic and Social Research Council, collated the results of three major national, long-term surveys and discovered that men in full-time employment had increased the time spent with their children from ten minutes a day in 1975 to 54 minutes a day in 1995. “There is no doubt about it,” he asserts. “All the surveys show a considerable increase in the time men spend interacting with the children and doing the housework – albeit from a very low base.”
Labour’s Chief Whip, Clive Soley, went further, making the remarkable claim in parliament that, “close to 50 per cent of main carers of children at home in South Wales in the early 1990s were men.”
The kind of man he had in mind was Brian Hick, 48, a former mineworker from Penrhiwceibr who began taking care of his children when the mine closed and his wife went out to work. Today, ten years later, he has graduated from being the prime carer for his children to being the childminder for his grandchildren.
Men like Brian come from a generation that makes this shift a major adjustment. I think it is easier for me and my peers, partly because there is less distinction between boyhood and manhood. Unlike Saint Paul, we no longer feel a compulsion to “put away childish things”, as our fathers did, and whatever the drawbacks of this youth-without-end phenomenon, it does allow us to be in sync with our children in a way that would have been unthinkably demeaning for our paterfamilias dads.
We are now well into the sixth pop culture decade, which should suggest that the generation gap is closing. “This gender relations shift hasn’t stopped,” my 37-year-old friend, David Cohen, said. “I can already see a difference in attitude on these questions between me and my male cousins who are 10 years my junior and have been baked in a slightly different pressure cooker.”
Soon, I suppose, I too will have to worry about getting left behind – that my own equivalent of handshakes and pre-ironic jokes will reveal jaded assumptions about a world that has moved on. Perhaps, like Michel Odent, I will find a cause fit for clock-reversal. Right now, though, writing fresh out of a masculinist millennium and at the start of what looks like a more feminine one, it feels an exciting time to be a man.
Gavin Evans’s chapter on men and pregnancy will be published in”Your Pregnancy Bible: the experts’ guide” by Caroll and Brown later this year