Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is about four months pregnant and I’m really excited about becoming a new dad. The problem is that I’ve recently put on some weight (which is really weird, since I weigh exactly what I did in high school). I’ve also been having nosebleeds and I’m vomiting a lot (which is also weird, since I almost never do either one). I’m too embarrassed to talk to my wife about this and I’m certainly not going to ask my doctor. But I thought you might be able to help me figure out what’s going on. Got any ideas about why this is happening?
As bizarre as it seems, what you’re describing is actually relatively common among expectant fathers. Men’s psychological experience of pregnancy is just as profound as women’s. But even though men aren’t physically pregnant, they still can—as you’ve discovered—experience some physical symptoms. And we’re not talking about just a few guys. Somewhere between 25 and 90 percent of expectant fathers have a “sympathetic” pregnancy, also called couvade syndrome, from the French “to hatch.”
Men’s couvade symptoms are often very similar to women’s: food cravings, mood swings, and weight gain. Other common symptoms are a bit stranger (but plenty of women experience them too), including toothaches, headaches, nosebleeds, cramps (admittedly, pretty weird for a guy), and even cysts.
Couvade symptoms in men tend to appear at the same time as their partner starts showing—around four months. They may fade after a month or so, but will often reappear a month or two before the baby is born. For most guys, symptoms tend to disappear right after the birth.
So why does this happen? No on knows for sure, but there are plenty of theories. The first has to do with the way that men in our society are expected to be the providers and protectors, keeping our family safe and easing their pain. Unfortunately, in the case of pregnancy, there’s nothing we can do about our partner’s pain. So our brain decides that the next best thing is for us to share it—especially if we’re feeling guilty about being responsible for the partner’s pain in the first place.
Another theory (one I’m especially fond of) is that couvade may be a subconscious attempt by the expectant dad to get people to pay some attention to him. Everyone asks him how his partner is doing, but rarely does anyone ask how he’s doing. It’s as if he’s saying, “Hey, world, she’s not the only one whose pants don’t fit anymore and who tosses her cookies every morning. My life is changing too!”
Interestingly, there may also be some biological reasons that cause men’s pregnancy symptoms. We’ve all heard of the famous hormonal roller coaster that women are on during pregnancy. According to several recent studies, expectant dads’ hormone levels (we all have the same ones, just in different amounts) follow a similar up-and-down pattern as their wives’, rising and falling at the same times. This may explain why most expectant dads find themselves paying more attention to children in the months before their own are born.
Back to the brain, another interesting theory is that couvade symptoms can be the expectant father’s subconscious way of showing his partner that he’s completely committed to being a father and spouse. Anyone can lie and say, “I love you, honey, and I’m going to be a really involved dad.” But it takes a real commitment to put on weight and develop a nosebleed. The brain comes up with some really weird stuff, doesn’t it?
Previously Published on Mr. Dad