Midwifery, Philosophy, and Fathers at Birth

The Influence of Phaenarete

Midwifery, Philosophy, and Fathers at Birth

A few years ago I was looking into a wide variety of ancient western sources searching for any mention of fathers at pregnancy and labor. I was also researching modern books that claimed to prepare fathers for birth. It so happened that I came across several stances on the issue of men’s inherent knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth. These stances brought to light a strong paradox that must be addressed: whether or not men are truly ignorant on these matters. One aspect of the paradox that I encountered a lot was the implied assertion that men were clueless and that they had to have things explained to them in simplified ways. The other aspect is that men can birth ideas in a similar fashion.

An example of the first aspect is in the very first paragraph of The Caveman’s Pregnancy Companion: “The doctor just made it official: you and your partner have a baby on the way. As a guy who hasn’t been down this road before, you’re probably a little slow to grasp exactly what it means to be ‘expectant’. What it means, caveman, is that the mom-to-be will be expecting much more of you.”(The Caveman’s Pregnancy Companion, David Port and John Ralston. Sterling Publishing, New York 2006.) Even though this is obviously a humour book and these kind of statements must be taken with a grain of salt; the fact remains that the author’s attempt at humour has some basis in popular opinion.

Even in a book that attempts to take a higher road there are comments like this: “How Men Have Babies is about male empowerment because the most important thing Dad can do is to assert himself now, expressing opinions with attitude and conviction even if they have no basis in fact and you have no idea what you’re talking about (author’s italics.)” (How Men Have Babies, Alan Thicke. Contemporary Books, Chicago 1999;)

The other side of this paradox presented itself in a dialogue written by Plato called Theaetetus. (Plato, Complete Works,  John M. Cooper {Editor}, D. S. Hutchinson {Editor.} Hackett Publishing Co. {May 1, 1997.}) It is generally considered to have been written during the middle period of his writing career. The two principal characters of Socrates and the namesake of the dialogue, a young Greek man, are engaged in the discussion of the nature of knowledge. This dialogue does indeed cast what Plato views as midwifery in a very negative light. However we must try to learn what we can from this ancient source for the better understanding of our paradox.

What I found important for this discussion was not the long winded diatribes by Socrates, nor the naive exuberance of the title character concerning what knowledge really is, but what Socrates claims as his only skill. Socrates declared that his mother was a midwife, and that his art of discussion is based on that same skill. Throughout Socrates occasionally compares his method to the art of midwifery: “Have you then not heard, you absurd boy, that I am the son of a noble and burly midwife, Phaenarete?…And have you also heard that I practise the same art?”

Socrates says that he delivers thoughts and ideas from men, as midwives deliver infants from mothers. He asserts that it is the duty of all philosophers to deliver ideas from men. Interestingly enough, there is an entire philosophical method based on this: In The Symposium, Socrates repeats the words of the priestess or wise woman Diotima of Mantinea who suggested that the soul is pregnant and wants to give birth, but the delivery requires assistance. Thus according to Plato, the role of the philosopher is to assist in this delivery, as would a midwife. From this dialogue comes the word ‘maieutics’, the ‘spiritual midwife’.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maieutics.)

There is some debate how much of this dialogue was really Socrates’ views, or that of Plato himself. Either way, this is how the profession of midwifery is described:

“And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.

“Well, have you noticed this also about them, that they are the most skillful of matchmakers, since they are very wise in knowing what union of man and woman will produce the best possible children?…But be assured that they are prouder of this than of their skill in cutting the umbilical cord.”

Even though our main topic is men’s core understanding of childbirth and labor – we must take this opportunity to look a little further into this dialogue since it offers us some fascinating snippets of perspective. How does men’s maieutics compare to women’s midwifery both then and now?

“So great, then, is the importance of midwives; but their function is less important than mine. For women do not, like my patients, bring forth at one time real children and at another mere images which it is difficult to distinguish from the real. For if they did, the greatest and noblest part of the work of the midwives would be in distinguishing between the real and the false. Do you not think so?

“All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. But the greatest thing about my art is this, that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture, or a real and genuine offspring. For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom, and the reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a true reproach; and the reason of it is this: the god compels me to act as midwife, but has never allowed me to bring forth. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul; but those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom the god is gracious make wonderful progress, not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth. But the delivery is due to the god and me. And the proof of it is this: many before now, being ignorant of this fact and thinking that they were themselves the cause of their success, but despising me, have gone away from me sooner than they ought, whether of their own accord or because others persuaded them to do so. Then, after they have gone away, they have miscarried thenceforth on account of evil companionship, and the offspring which they had brought forth through my assistance they have reared so badly that they have lost it; they have considered impostures and images of more importance than the truth, and at last it was evident to themselves, as well as to others, that they were ignorant.”

When comparing Socrates’ summary of real midwifery to maieutics, I cannot but help to ask two very important questions. The first is that if Western logic relies heavily on Greek philosophy, how much intellectual disconnect from the processes of birth can there really be? This dialogue shows that men can understand and empathise with birth and midwifery from a rational standpoint. Not only did Socrates show no discomfort at delivering an idea from Theaetetus, but the young man in question showed no awkwardness at being ‘delivered’ either.

Like any human experience, birth is similar to a multi-faceted gem. The facets of this gem are aspects and understandings. There are at least three of these facets that fathers can understand and start to empathize with – the intellectual, philosophical, and physical. Anyone who disagrees with this should also have to refute the entirety of Plato, Socrates, and most of today’s philosophical and analytical methods. The totality of birth will always be beyond a man’s grasp, but that does not mean they can’t strive to understand as many aspects as they can.

The second question is: If we were to assume that the career that Socrates presents is accurate, how does modern midwifery today compare to that model? We must take this dialogue with a grain of salt but there may be some truths within it. The main functions listed are as follows: enhancing or calming labor and contractions, easing difficult births, cutting the umbilical cord, causing miscarriages, and oddly enough, matchmaking between ideally suited mates.

What we do see as the part of the skillset of a midwife then as now is the cutting of the cord, the use of herbs and medicines for pain, and methods for managing contractions. I wish that the author had perhaps gone more into some details about the varying ways of achieving those results, as well as cultural rituals that the midwife may have helped the mother with after the birth. On the other hand though it is refreshing to see  how little a profession has changed over two thousand years.

Analysing an ancient source and finding the art of helping bring infants into this world as part of the dialogue evoked some insights. As much as Plato may have poked fun at midwives as matchmakers, one could just as easily make light of dry and tedious old men putting far too much importance on their own trivial matters and discussions. If anything, this may point out how little of birth the philosophers truly understood, or else they would not have been so quick to dismiss it.

Coming back around to the original paradox – I believe that the beginning two claims of ignorance of childbirth and labor compared with the role of a philosopher stated by Plato contradict each other on the issue of men’s inherent understanding of birth. I directly challenge the paradox, as well as both claims in and of themselves. Fathers cannot have it both ways; claiming to be totally ignorant of such matters yet basing a large history of logic and rationality on the very same process. There are indeed many aspects of birth that men can’t understand, as well as the totality of the entire event; but there is more comprehension to grasp than they think. Not seeking this middle ground may unknowingly be patronising to women.

I am not diminishing the main aspects of birth that men cannot empathise with or understand. One can also wonder whether the fact that it is looked down upon subconsciously, and sometimes even consciously, had its origin in Plato’s dialogue. Perhaps this is why midwifery has been kept in the underground of society. Yet by the same account it should be at the total foreground since philosophy and reason are built upon its foundations! Perhaps with a fresh understanding of a fundamental cause due to one extremely influential viewpoint, that of Plato – we can challenge modern preconceptions of men’s ignorance and remedy this paradox.

Painting of men talking
Creative Commons CC0.

WW Discourse - Have your say!