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COUVADE is the name given to various ritual acts performed by a husband during his wife's pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum period. In their most extreme form, couvade customs are said to involve the male's mimicking of or experience of pregnancy symptoms and labor pains, followed by his postpartum recovery. Meanwhile, the woman's actual physical experience is given minimal attention, and she continues her regular activities with little interruption. This extreme form of couvade seems to be more hypothetical than actual. The term couvade is more generally used to refer to symbolic behaviors engaged in by men during and immediately after their wives' pregnancies and deliveries.

Since in most, if not all, societies men's activities are affected to some extent by their wives' pregnancies and deliveries, it might seem reasonable to conclude that some form of couvade is universal. However, that usage would make the term so broad that some other term would then be needed to refer to the more specific and more demanding practices engaged in by men in certain tribal societies. One of the most recent discussions of couvade suggests that the term not be used to refer to activities such as giving a birth feast or helping the wife with daily chores during pregnancy. It is suggested that a mild form of couvade is involved when the husband keeps food taboos during the pregnancy or postpartum period. A more intensive form of couvade would involve behavior changes in the postpartum period, such as work taboos and restrictions, or staying close to home for varying lengths of time. The most intensive form of couvade involves ritual seclusion of the husband during pregnancy or the postpartum period, sometimes with his wife and sometimes in his own household or the men's house.

These kinds of behaviors are fairly widespread among small-scale societies, with a concentration of such practices in South American and Caribbean societies. However, theoretical discussions of couvade also rely on reports of the practice among the Ainu (the aboriginal tribal inhabitants of Japan) and among some Pacific Island groups.

A condensed summary of couvade among the Kurtachi, a people of the Pacific Islands, provides a specific example of couvade. During delivery, husband and wife are secluded in separate huts. This seclusion continues for six days, during which the man keeps food taboos, ignores his normal subsistence chores, and does not handle sharp tools. After three days he is allowed to see the child, and gives it medicine to make it strong. On the sixth day he ends his couvade by again entering the wife's seclusion hut, this time carrying a large knife with which he pretends to slash the infant.

Couvade among the Black Carib has also been studied and analyzed somewhat extensively. Their couvade observances vary in length from two days to a full year, with three months being the most typical duration. Various work taboos are considered an important part of couvade, as is a taboo on sexual intercourse, both marital and extramarital. However, food taboos play almost no part in Black Carib couvade.

A superficial approach to couvade would involve rather commonsense interpretations. Many men practicing couvade customs might be likely to see these practices as helping to protect the infant from harm, and ethnographers studying couvade could well see these practices as promoting the bonding of the father with his infant. Within a psychoanalytic framework the institution of couvade might be considered an expression of womb envy, of men's attempt to participate more directly in, or even to usurp, the essential birth-giving task of females. However, the need to protect young infants, to promote the bonding of fathers with their infants, and to defuse cross-gender envy of males, who unconsciously long for more direct participation in the birth process, exists in all societies. Yet only some societies practice couvade as defined and described by most anthropologists. Thus most recent students of couvade seek the rationale of couvade in other, less universal, factors.

By and large, these analysts find the rationale of couvade in specific features of a lifestyle's social structure. One hypothesis regarding couvade has made more refined use of psychoanalytic analysis. Proponents of this hypothesis have suggested that couvade can result from "low male salience," a combination of factors especially involving arrangements in which the mother sleeps with her children while the father sleeps elsewhere, or is absent altogether. It is hypothesized that the absence of significant contact with the father and the absence of other male role models, combined with such intense contact with the mother, promotes a cross-gender identity that encourages the male to engage in vicarious childbirth observances. Advocates of this explanation of couvade also stress that although other societies may also exhibit "low male salience," they do not have strongly institutionalized couvade. These societies, it is claimed, cope with "low male salience" by means of rigorous and demanding male puberty initiation ceremonies. Through these rigorous initiations, young males are supposedly swayed from any cross-gender identification and take on a kind of masculine identity that relieves them of tendencies toward couvade. It has been pointed out that few if any societies practice both intensive couvade and intensive male puberty rituals.

Alternative theories of couvade stress other causal factors that explain the presence of couvade in some but not all societies. It is claimed that in societies with weak fraternal interest groups a man has no reliable legal or economic means to claim paternity rights to a woman's children. He cannot rely on a loyal kin group to back up his claims to the child, nor can he refer to large economic exchanges or binding legal agreements made prior to the marriage and childbirth. Therefore, he engages in a ritual behavior to establish his claims over the child, and this ritual show gains for him a communal consensus regarding his paternity claims. According to this hypothesis, couvade is a form of ritual bargaining rather than a magico-religious attempt to influence biological processes or a ritual expression of unconscious psychodynamics. However, it would also seem that such political expressions cannot occur without some religious or psychological predisposition toward them.

Couvade seems best explained by looking to varying hypotheses rather than by focusing on only one factor as the sole rationale for these practices. It may be worthwhile to recognize the impulse toward couvade as universal, even though that impulse does not always result in the specific practices associated with "the couvade." Males are universally interested in the genesis, birth, and survival of infants whom they perceive as important. Thus, in varying degrees, males in all societies could be expected to experience some pregnancy symptoms or observe some pregnancy taboos, become involved in the childbirth process, and engage in special behaviors in the immediate postpartum period. Although the term couvade refers to specific male childbirth practices in some societies, the institution itself is the expression of a universal impulse rather than a strange practice limited to some small-scale societies.

See Also



Theoretical discussions of couvade stressing psychodynamics are found in Robert L. Munroe, Ruth H. Munroe, and John W. M. Whiting's "The Couvade: A Psychological Analysis," Ethos 1 (Spring 1973): 3074, and Ruth H. Munroe and Robert L. Monroe's Cross-Cultural Human Development (Monterey, Calif., 1975). Couvade as a political ritual to establish paternity rights is discussed in Karen Ericksen Paige and Jeffery M. Paige's The Politics of Reproductive Ritual (Berkeley, 1981). All these theoretical papers cite more descriptive literature concerning couvade. A typical ethnographic account of couvade is found in Allan R. Holmberg's Nomads of the Long Bow: The Siriono of Eastern Bolivia (Garden City, N.Y., 1969).

Rita M. Gross (1987)

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