It would be interesting to study how the culture of birth and childbirth is formed among different peoples. We discover a strong similarity of rituals related to the period around birth, regardless of geographical location. Amongst these different ritual practices, one that particularly catches our attention is that of couvade. This term was introduced by the anthropologist Edward Tylor in 1865 and is derived from the French verb “couver – to stay on the eggs in order to make them hatch.” Couvade is a ritual in which the husband of the woman in labour imitates childbirth pains. The man simulates labour, gets into bed, receives compliments in the event of a successful delivery, and takes care of the child by adopting a maternal role. The man-father thus appropriates motherhood by imitating the woman and taking the mother’s place (the “paternal metaphor” at the stage of childbirth).
Far from being an isolated phenomenon, this ritual is widespread in all parts of the world. It responded to major societal needs at one of the stages of its evolution. In the Kuravan tribe in southern India, men consume asafoetida as a fortifying remedy after childbirth, instead of women. This is just one example of the couvade custom of giving post-natal care to the man, who is often bedridden for a few days, instead of the woman.
Among the Caribbean Indians, the woman who has just given birth resumes her ordinary activities on the first day, while the man gets into a hammock, caresses his belly and complains of intense pain. Until recently, the rite of couvade existed among the Indians of California and South America, in the Nicobar Islands, in Celebes and in Borneo.
In Béarn, France, paternal clothes were placed next to the woman in labour to ease the pain of childbirth. A similar custom was found in Belarus and in some Russian regions bordering Belarus until the 19th century. The man whose wife was giving birth dressed in a dress or skirt, covered his head with a kerchief and began to whimper. A curious ritual is described in Russia: the husband lies down with a thread attached to his genitals. When the woman moans, the midwife pulls on the thread, making the man moan. Here we see the rationalisation of the rite (the husband’s suffering being real) accompanied by a real motif in the form of a thread, thus creating a link between the origin and the effect of childbirth. This thread linking the man and the woman makes clear the causal link between the male penis and childbirth. This is probably an act of appropriation of paternity, comparable to the DNA test today.
In a broader sense, couvade includes other phenomena, such as the man’s compliance with various pre- or post-natal prohibitions, but its primary meaning remains the direct imitation of childbirth.
According to one version, couvade is put in place during the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy or from group marriage to monogamy, allowing the father to establish an ownership right over his child. As the matriarchal tradition was tenacious, fathers were led to counter it by going through rites that made them a second mother to the child. As a result, couvade only concerns societies that have become patrilineal, reinforcing patriarchalism by assimilating the maternal and the feminine. From this point of view, radical patriarchalism, the jouissance of the father of the primitive horde, is built on the not-all of the feminine and breaks the framework of symbolic law.
At the time of the transition from group marriage to monogamy, couvade was seen as a “consequence of the reinforcement of monogamy” and the support of the traditional family model.
This ritual has also given its name to a curious phenomenon found in some men, probably in cases of male hysteria: sympathetic pregnancy.
Couvade syndrome is a set of psychogenic and psychosomatic disorders in a male individual who is close to a pregnant woman (most often her husband, more rarely her father or a close relative). The main symptoms are: tiredness upon waking; reduced, disturbed or increased appetite; almost daily nausea and vomiting; constipation or conversely, diarrhea; gastric or intestinal colic; pain in the lower abdomen. These symptoms are accompanied by emotional instability, increased irritability, depression, tension, insomnia, moodiness, acute egocentricity and lack of tolerance. These manifestations usually occur in the third month of pregnancy and peak in the last month or at delivery. After the birth, the imaginary pregnancy syndrome disappears. This set of disorders affects about 11% of the male population of reproductive age. It is notable that all of these men were raised in matriarchal families, dominated by an authoritarian mother, determined to dictate her authority.
The arrival of new reproductive technologies in the traditional family leads to a separation of the couple’s sexuality and childbearing, excluding one or even both parental bodies from the procreation process. The child is no longer a “fruit of love” of a man and a woman, but a product of a biotechnological process. The woman no longer needs to desire a child from her man, while the man no longer needs to ask his wife to “give” him an heir. The child ceases to be a “gift” and becomes a “product.”
This situation leads to the disappearance within the couple of the need for a subject to respond to the unconscious desire of the Other, which will not be without consequence on the evolution of the clinical picture of hysteria. By this, I mean the most mysterious and surprising hysterical symptom which is imaginary pregnancy. This symptom was central to the transference between Dr. Breuer and Anna O. When seized by ‘contractions’ Anna O cried out: “Dr. Breuer’s child is coming.” Dr. Breuer’s response was to flee – frightened. It was this symptom that led Freud to invent psychoanalysis and to construct the theory of transference.
Translated by Jeroen Sollie
Reviewed by Caroline Heanue
Photography : © Laporte Françoise : https://www.francoiselaporte.com/