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Why Do Men Take Maternity Photos?

In a nod of solidarity with his pregnant wife, and because she refused to do it herself, 29-year-old Pennsylvanian Chris Urena has posed for his own maternity photo shoot, where he’s shown mimicking the traditional photos pregnant women usually take, cradling his belly and laughing with self-contained serenity. Metro UK called the shoot elegant, with Urena looking “radiant,” and responses online have been largely positive.

There’s a long history of us laughing at men when they imitate female poses and behavior, but the series, and others like them, also straddle the line between men being enthusiastically, earnestly supportive of pregnancy, and self-portraying as the goofy, dumb dad-to-be who is excited about being a dad but also kind of clueless.

It’s hard to know which came first: the clueless dad or its media portrayal. Equally unclear is if, when men self-portray as goofball dads, they are simply playing out a culturally prescribed role or having fun with it. Either way, books and articles on the subject of impending fatherhood, as well as popular portrayals of soon-to-be dads, have taken the opportunity to talk down to them about their job during the nine months, which mostly consists of being a subservient idiot to her irrational hellbeast.

“Your house is too small, it was always too small, and to suggest otherwise simply proves that your brain is too small,” one typical list of advice to men reads. Likewise, one of the most popular dad-focused books on impending fatherhood, Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad! takes as its premise that a dad’s only job during pregnancy is to not look like the idiot you probably are. “There are approximately 3,712 ways for a guy to look stupid during pregnancy — this book’s here to help you avoid all (most) of them,” the summary reads.

Culturally, it’s not like we give men a lot of options for how to conduct themselves while their lady is gestating. Men are largely treated as an irritating appendage to the process who is one of three things: a well-intentioned idiot, a terrified idiot, or a lazy idiot. And that’s when the pregnancy is welcome!

Older movies from the 1980s and 90s like She’s Having a Baby and Nine Months portrayed soon-to-be dads as hapless, terrified man-children who must grapple with the prison sentence that is fatherhood. (In the former, Kevin Bacon spends most of the film fantasizing about another woman; in the latter, Hugh Grant has a nightmare about being eaten alive by his praying mantis wife.) In the more recent Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s Ben, who by all accounts wants to have the baby, is still guilty of not even reading the baby books. Again, these are willing fathers. It’s hard to imagine what an unwilling one would do.

Looked at in this light, what to make of the male maternity photo shoot? Are they proof, as Brit + Co. wrote of one such shoot from last year, that men are truly engaged in pregnancy now? “It does kind of make you think for a moment,” they wrote, “and hail the modern evolution of maternity where both partners are a part of the picture (literally and in photo albums).”

“I think the dude is amazing,” dad blogger Mike Cruse, who writes at Papa Does Preach, told MEL in a Facebook message about Chris Urena’s shoot. “And I’m not gonna lie, his photos were fantastic. I wish I had the confidence back when my son was born to do something like this.”

Cruse explains that in part, the photos only work because the men are bigger and have bellies, a part of the body positivity movement in an era of dad bod jokes. Cruse admits that depictions of men during pregnancy are not helped by the condescension from books, articles and most media about their role. “Hell,” he adds, “even by doctors and nurses.”

But he thinks it’s up to men to carve out their own role during pregnancy, beyond just packing on 10 or 15 pounds, and if that’s done with a sense of humor, so be it. “There’s definitely a place for us in the process, and it’s ultimately up to us to claim that spot, and that’s the spot of partner and support person,” he says.

The goofy role and the amused response is okay, too, he argues — up to a point. “Dads should be allowed to still be silly, as should moms,” he said. “But when people start stereotyping guys as hapless man-children, or as their wife’s ‘other’ child, that’s when it becomes a problem.”

Goofy style male maternity photos are not new. One has surfaced every so often for the last handful of years, often driven by the same situation Chris Urena, who posted the latest series, faced: the gestating woman wasn’t into being photographed, so the father stepped in to save the day — that was also the genesis given by Reddit user DruishPrincess69 who posted his male maternity series online in 2014. Another soon-to-be father Nick Roberts posed for his own maternity shoot last year as a gift to surprise his pregnant girlfriend at their gender reveal party, using his self-described “fast-food belly” as the stand-in for an expanding uterus.

“If I’m being completely honest, the setting, the occasion, the awful cramps from the double cheeseburgers, it all brought me so much closer to the pregnancy,” he wrote on Facebook. “Now, I’ll never know what being in labor feels like, but I feel in my heart it can’t be too far away from eating A LOT of fast food. I’m truly blessed to have had this eye-opening experience.” He then encouraged others to “feel free to share this album so that the world may see the wonder of a father during pregnancy.”

And last year, Spanish father Francisco Perez did a maternity photo shoot to poke fun at his gut, which he often joked resembled a pregnant belly. In 2016, a German brewer got in on the male maternity shoot thing, running an ad for Bergedorfer Bier (slogan: “brewed with love”) wherein men posed with a loving eye aimed at their own beer guts.

Reactions to those were the same to the letter: this dad posing like a pregnant woman is hilarious.

I ask Cruse, who wrote in 2014 that it was time to retire the stereotype of the clueless dad, if he finds it problematic that men are portrayed only one of two ways about fatherhood: clueless or terrified. Cruse said he believes the shoots are a valid way for men to define the support role as they like, and that even being terrified should be an acceptable portrayal of fatherhood.

“Couldn’t the same be said for moms?” Cruse said, of being afraid of parenthood. “You’re either excited or terrified. I the difference society just automatically assumes dads are terrified. And so what if we are? That doesn’t mean we’re not up to the task. It’s a huge life change. Who isn’t a bit scared? My wife was terrified before our son was born, and so was I. Neither of us ever took care of a child before.”

In one rare bout of side-eye on the shoots, Cosmo’s Hannah Smothers notes in response to Nick Roberts’ maternity photos that it’s funny and everything, but hardly a proxy for the real experience of pregnancy. “I’m no ‘expert’ on the ‘experience’ of ‘pregnancy,’” she writes, “but I do know there are a few differences between slammin’ down some Mickey D’s double cheeseburgers and carrying a developing person inside your body, the key distinction being that cheeseburger bloat can be farted away within a few hours and a baby cannot.”

But men have begun to prove that, at least once the baby comes out, they are more equal caregivers than at any time in history. And in this decade, media has at least begrudgingly begun to show men as competent fathers around the house, even if only after a lot of protest and media scrutiny. A 2014 survey found that 80 percent of dads felt that media portrayals get fatherhood all wrong — largely as “disconnected, bumbling, and incompetent.”

But in response, a number of commercials have started to show fatherhood and the daily care of children as not some heroic move, but rather, an everyday fact of life, increasingly depicting fathers as nurturers instead of idiotic goofs.

Even though the dumb dad stereotype is starting to fade, though, it’s unlikely it will disappear. Advertising professor Frank Dardis, at Pennsylvania State, explained to Healthy Magazine recently that the stereotype is so common because, essentially, it’s a safe, funny way to make memorable content for the assumed viewership of most TV shows and commercials: women.

“I believe that most of the ads showing ‘dumb dads’ are simply trying to benefit from the stereotypical image that has been portrayed for many years in films, sitcoms, stand-up comedy acts, pass-along jokes, and so on,” Dardis told Healthy. “Most people seem to accept it, take it as ‘common,’ and take it for what it is… a joke about something that is pretty fair game in many arenas and always kind of has been.”

But Cruse argues that this is based on the notion that being a dad is not as natural to men as being a mother is to women, something that needs to change. “Society still sees becoming a mom as this just natural ‘thing’ that happens, like a woman gets pregnant and some switch flips, or mom program is downloaded into their brain, and they’re good to go,” Cruse says.

“Newsflash, that’s bullshit. Hell, my wife was the furthest thing from maternal when she got pregnant, and even for a good while after our son was born. It just wasn’t her jam. But me, I was on it. I loved being a dad the moment it happened. And that’s from a guy who didn’t want kids.”