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As well as expressing my attitude to episiotomies and forceps, emergency caesars and epidurals, my first birth plan included lengthy instructions about what to do if my husband fainted. This was added at his insistence, as he was terrified that he'd pass out at a crucial moment, gashing his head on the way down and diverting vital medical resources away from the baby and me.

This wasn't an entirely fanciful scenario, since my husband's fear of blood and gore is such that he once needed medical attention after witnessing me cut my finger. Yet the obvious solution - that he avoid the risk of head injury by staying outside the birthing suite until the gory stuff was over - was never even discussed. And no wonder. A new father can still get away with shirking most of the work associated with having a baby, but there's one thing that is sure to classify him as a certified scumbag, and that's failing to turn up for the birth.

Yet there are those who question the wisdom of this social rule. Prominent among them is Michel Odent, a French obstetrician and renowned natural birth advocate, who went from guru to bad guy when he expressed the sacrilegious opinion that dads were a liability to labouring women, as their presence interrupted the primal workings of the birthing mother's brain. Another dissenting voice is British bioethicist Dr Jonathan Ives, who believes that witnessing labour can interfere with a father's ability to bond with his new baby.

Following this lead, a handful of experts has started using the term ''post-traumatic parturition syndrome'', a high-falutin way of saying that a man was freaked out by seeing his wife pass an object the size of a watermelon.

In most cultures birthing is seen as strictly women's business, and dads are expressly excluded from being present. Until the 1970s, it was much the same in the West. Male obstetricians may have run the birthing show, but the guy who kicked the whole thing off was expected to pace up and down in the waiting room, assuming that he wasn't needed at work, or down at the pub. At this time many doctors considered birthing to be dangerous to the delicate male psyche, with some even suggesting that witnessing a birth might unleash ''latent homosexuality'' in the father-to-be.

This blanket ban on dads only began to lift in the 1970s, thanks to lobbying from the natural birth movement, a handful of dedicated doctors, and some determined parents-to-be. But once the door to the birthing suite was opened, attitudes changed rapidly, so that by the mid-1980s sociologists who were studying the phenomena had trouble finding dads who hadn't attended the birth of their children.

Today, most fathers-to-be try to get actively involved, reading up about birthing and attending prenatal classes. A midwife told me that some men feel so much ownership over the whole process that they start referring to ''our uterus''.

When the big day arrives, the truth is, while mum labours, most dads spend their time standing around, bored, confused about what they should be doing or, in my husband's case, trying not to pass out. So, should we reconsider the idea of men in the birthing room, or give them the option of abstaining, without social condemnation?

Back in the 1980s a group of psychologists undertook a study in which they observed the role male partners played in labour. After the birth most new mums gave extremely positive reports of their partner's performance, remembering them as having been an invaluable support. Yet when these accounts were compared with the observations the researchers had made, it was found that many of the ''invaluable'' dads had done nothing more than sit in the corner reading the paper, probably eating the boiled lollies.

Maybe this provides an insight into the real reason that dads ought to keep attending births. When you're passing that watermelon, you want to think that you're not doing it on your own, that there's someone there, sharing the whole thing with you. Even if he does hog all the lollies.

Monica Dux's latest book Things I Didn't Expect (when I was expecting), is published by Melbourne University Press.