For French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the timing couldn’t have been worse. His poll numbers had hit rock bottom. The euro was in crisis. And the flailing reelection candidate had given himself 10 days to curb the problem. All while his 43-year-old supermodel wife, Carla Bruni, was going into labor.
With Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, blowing up his cellphone—and his wife’s contractions getting closer—Sarkozy had a choice to make, and fast. Should he stay by his wife’s side? Or should he take off for Germany, part of an emergency meeting to, as the French press has framed it, “save the euro”? In the end, the euro got 10 days and Carla Bruni got 30 minutes: Sarkozy spent half an hour with her while she went into labor, then took off for Frankfurt. Three hours after his new daughter, Giulia, was born, Sarkozy returned to the maternity clinic. He told the press the couple were “profoundly happy.”
Nobody knows for sure what was going through Sarkozy’s mind when he left for Germany that night, or whether his wife of three years even cared. What we do know that his handling of the euro crisis will be crucial to his reelection prospects, and that pollsters thought the birth of a child might help "soften" the president's brash image. Yet in an age of super-parenting to the max—where men are seemingly expected to do everything but breastfeed—many women are baffled by how on earth Sarkozy got away with it.
“Seriously, if I were giving birth and my husband left me alone, I would give him a much bigger crisis than the eurozone one to deal with,” says one Parisian lawyer.
“I mean, I would kill my partner,” says Jennifer Block, the author of Pushed a book on childbirth and maternity care.
“I would have murdered my ex-husband had he left while I was in labor,” says Andy Kopsa, a New York writer. “In fact,” she adds, “I nearly killed him for falling asleep between one of my contractions at about hour 14.”
Sarkozy may be an old pro at this whole birthing thing (he's on his fourth child and third marriage). But a father's presence in the delivery room remains a touchy subject. Bodily fluids, muscle contortions, the masculine fear that the sheer vision will kill the spark of marital bliss—giving birth (or being present during it) is no romantic stroll around la tour Eiffel. There are scholars, in particular French obstetrician Michel Odent, who believe the experience can be so traumatic that men should not, under any circumstances, be in the delivery room. And indeed, medical experts say that a father in panic can be counterproductive, increasing the anxiety of an already stressful, not to say strenuous, situation.
But in America, a politician might not get off so easily. Barack Obama has been applauded for putting off state matters to attend his daughters’ soccer games. And he’s gushed about their births. When Malia, his eldest, was born, the president described her “big, hypnotic eyes that seemed to read the world the moment they opened.” (Have you melted yet?)
“I think the difference between France and the U.S. is that in the U.S. you all expect your president to be in love with his wife and therefore to be there,” says Charlotte Ronconi, a 29-year-old Parisian. “In France most people know that their relationship is based on her wanting power and his wanting a supermodel looking like his previous wife, so nobody is really surprised by his not being at her side as a sweetly in love husband.”
Or, perhaps, it has something to do with history—and the fact that dads in the delivery room wasn't always an option. For centuries, men were not involved in birthing in this country—period. Women labored in groups, with female neighbors, midwives, aunts and mothers around for womanly support. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that hospital births became the norm—yet even into the 1960s, men were often relegated to the waiting room while women were put under. (Remember Betty and Don Draper?)
There are no easily referenced data that track French versus American delivery room trends, but scholars say that, in a matter of a few short decades, male involvement in birth—in the Western world as a whole—has gone from choice to holy expectation. As Block puts it: not only do we expect our partners to be there, we judge them harshly if they’re not—a remarkable shift from even just a few decades ago. “It’s now cemented as a part of our culture that if a father’s not there, you ask, ‘Well, why not?!’” says Tina Cassidy, the author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born. “If our president were expecting a baby, I think we’d expect him to be there—no matter what was happening in the Middle East. Marriage, death and a baby’s birth—these are like the three times in life when you have a legitimate reason not to show up to an important event.”
The Sarkozys, of course, may see it differently. They tend to keep their personal matters private, and their politics up front. Indeed, Sarkozy and his office have kept silent throughout Bruni’s pregnancy, and despite high interest: Sarkozy is the first French president—and the first French head of state since the Emperor Napoleon III—to become a father while in office.
But should it really matter? Sarkozy was there before the birth. He was there after. And he was back at the clinic the following morning (though, some have noted, without a bouquet in hand). And nobody knows for sure whether it mattered to Bruni in the first place. “This happens all the time,” says Nancy Stone, a midwife who splits her time between Germany and France and is studying French home birth. “I don’t think you’d expect anybody from the military to come running out either. There are just certain professions where you can’t expect the person to be able to rush to the side of their wives.”
Or maybe we’re all just hypocrites. “I find this whole obsession with other people's birth journeys, or whatever you want to call them, to be a little odd,” says Helaine Olen, a journalist who writes about parenting. “Especially in light of the fact that we don’t support so many other things in this country--we don't have universal preschool, we don't have paid maternity leave ... And for the record, if the euro crashed because Sarkozy wouldn’t leave his wife’s bedside, I would be really angry.”