Exhausted. Nauseated. Achy. Irritable. Sleepless. No, it’s not the pregnant woman—it’s her husband.
For every man who’s claimed to his swollen pregnant wife that he “feels her pain,” there’s a woman who’s probably retorted, “I hate you and this is all your fault.” But these offers of support aren’t empty platitudes; some men are so sympathetic during their wife’s pregnancy that they begin to experience the symptoms right alongside her, giving a whole new meaning to the statement “We’re pregnant.”
The medical name for sympathy pains, couvade syndrome, was coined in 1865, but writers and historians have recognized the phenomenon of sympathetic pregnancy for hundreds of years. In cultures across the world, expectant fathers have performed certain rituals before and during their wife’s labor. In Greece, Thailand, China, and the Basque province of Spain, as well as in many North and South American Indian tribes, fathers were expected to sequester themselves away from the rest of their village, imitate labor pains, or even feign illness and be waited on by their wives during labor and delivery. The term couvade, which comes from an old French word meaning “to brood” or “to hatch,” was first used to describe these strange rituals of impending fatherhood.
In modern societies, these rituals are no longer observed, but couvade syndrome is still used as the diagnosis for the many men who claim to be experiencing the symptoms of pregnancy right along with their wives, such as morning sickness, food cravings, aching limbs, mood swings, depression, and loss of appetite.
There’s much debate in the medical community about exactly what couvade is. The diagnosis is included in neither the DSM-IV, the diagnostic manual for psychiatry, nor the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases. Estimates of how many men experience symptoms of couvade range widely, from as low as 16 percent all the way to 90 percent (according to one CNN study). Some men experience it at the beginning of pregnancy, some do at the end. Some men have only mild nausea or weight gain, while others go so far as to mimic actual stomach pains while their wife is in labor. These varying statistics and lack of hard evidence have led professionals to debate whether couvade is even a medical condition at all, or if it’s a psychiatric one.
Is It All in Your Head?
Some psychiatrists, especially those who specialize in psychoanalysis, claim that couvade syndrome is an expression of a man’s anxiety or ambivalence about his partner’s pregnancy. They believe it could be a way for men to publicly demonstrate paternity, a way for them to release jealous feelings about their own inability to carry a child, or a means of soliciting positive attention at a time when they feel overlooked or neglected. Many believe that couvade is a response to modern views on parenting, which demand much more effort and attention from fathers than previous generations of men offered. What better way for a man to show that he’s supportive and nurturing than to experience the uncomfortable effects of pregnancy right along with his partner?
There is some evidence to suggest that couvade is rooted in biology. A few studies have shown that men with pregnant partners tend to have higher levels of female hormones, like estradiol, in their blood. While the studies’ implications are inconclusive, they seem to suggest that bonding and preparing for the arrival of a baby could trigger the release of hormones meant to create a stronger father-child relationship.
Of course, couvade could also simply be a physical problem. Pregnant women tend to eat more, so their husbands may indulge, too, and therefore become susceptible to weight gain, mood swings, and insomnia. Fleeting emotional symptoms like depression, irritability, and mood swings are all considered normal behavior, but during a partner’s pregnancy, they could seem more profound or distressing than usual, prompting the men to seek help.
100 Percent Cured
Whatever the true cause of couvade is, it’s generally considered a psychosomatic disorder, and most doctors who see men with the syndrome believe it’s closely related to anxiety. Even if the symptoms are real, these patients’ minds are what create them, whether they’re responding to fears about fatherhood, to ambivalence, to excitement, or to other emotions altogether. After all, few times in life are as stressful as the impending arrival of a newborn. Weight gain, irritability, and many of the other symptoms attributed to sympathetic pregnancy are more or less natural reactions to the difficult life changes and transitions that the father-to-be is undergoing (not to mention the woman, of course).
Some research has suggested that first-time fathers and men who had distant or ambivalent relationships with their own dads are most at risk for developing couvade syndrome, but there’s really no way to know who will be affected. There’s also no treatment for those who suffer from it, other than to try to relax and relieve any anxiety. There is, however, a surefire cure, and it doesn’t even require any effort on the part of the man: not surprisingly, 100 percent of cases of couvade syndrome clear up immediately following childbirth.