At one time, a woman was conventionally confined not only to give birth but for a month afterwards, her lying-in period, during which she slowly recovered her strength. The end of this period was marked by her churching, her first public appearance, in which she received a blessing on her safe delivery. She was naturally the household’s centre of attention during this period, with her husband excluded, neglected and at rather a loss.
It was considered unsurprising, at least in some circles, that he should take himself elsewhere and find what consolation he could. Descriptions of his activities in reference works vary in their explicitness. One nineteenth-century writer noted it was the time when “the male of the household must make shift for himself”, while another delicately explained that at that time “a certain license in behaviour is excusable in the male”. The 1811 edition of Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was only a little less ambiguous — it was the period in which “husbands plead a sort of indulgence in matters of gallantry”. Put simply, it was a time when the husband was permitted to sleep around.
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, a roving male at this time was known as a gander-mooner and the period as the gander month. The former term appears first in a play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley of 1617, A Fair Quarrel. The latter is found a little later:
I’ll keep her at the least this Gander month, While my fair wife lies in.
The English Moor, by Richard Brome, 1652.
The Oxford English Dictionary surmises it was an “allusion to the gander’s aimless wandering while the goose is sitting”. It has been suggested that this behaviour is similarly the origin of the nursery rhyme, “Goosey goosey gander, whither shall I wander”, but there’s no evidence either way. The usage may also include a hint of an old slang sense of gander for a silly or stupid person. But gander was also a general slang term for a male and a gander party was what we would now call a stag party.