Interview: Judith Walzer Leavitt

daddyThis weekend is Father’s Day (hope you didn’t forget!) and in honor of pops and grandpas everywhere, we have an interview with Judith Walzer Leavitt, author of Make Room for Daddy. Drawing from letters, journals and interviews with fathers, Leavitt investigates how the role of the father changed from the 1940s to the 1980s. Once banished to the waiting room, men moved from the waiting room to the labor room in the 1960s, then on to the delivery and birthing rooms in the following decades. Make Room for Daddy provides insight to the changing trends in modern American childbirth through the fathers’ chronicles, supported by medical literature and hospital records.

Leavitt is Rupple Bascom and Ruth Bleier Professor of Medical History and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her book illuminates how the father-to-be and father have changed over the 20th century with images from television, films and magazines to illustrate the times.

UNC Press interviewed Leavitt. An excerpt of the interview is below:

Q: Why have men been omitted from traditional histories of childbirth?

A: Historically, childbirth took place at home. The birthing woman was attended by her female family members, woman friends, and a midwife. Then, beginning in the late eighteenth century, male physicians began to attend urban middle class women in their homes. This trend to have medical birth attendants increased during the nineteenth century. Husbands waited outside the birthing room. Because men were excluded from the birth itself, historians — including myself — also ignored them when writing about the event. When childbirth moved to the hospital in the twentieth century, men still were not allowed to be with their wives. They waited in hospital waiting rooms, sometimes called stork clubs, while their wives labored and delivered without them.

Q: As a historian, why do you feel the subject of men and childbirth is significant?

A: As it turns out, despite being excluded from home and hospital birth rooms, laymen historically have been very involved in their wives’ births. Emotionally they eagerly followed events inside the rooms and worried about outcomes. They also often had specific tasks — like the classic image of men gathering wood for the fire to boil water — and sometimes kept journals or wrote letters that today make it possible for historians to reconstruct events.
But even more important, childbirth is a central concern of all men and women because the event constitutes the basis for our very existence. Today, most partners of birthing women do participate in labor and deliveries and understand how joining together for this life cycle event is central to the couple’s relationship and family building.

Q: Who do you hope will read this book?

A: I hope men and women of all ages and family configurations will find this history of men’s participation in childbirth a fascinating and riveting story with meaning for their own lives.

You can read the full interview here. Leavitt was also featured in a radio interview on WUNC’s The State of Things, which can be heard here.