Jump in a time machine with me as we travel back and visit Mary Tudor, one of the queens of England who took the throne in 1553. She is the famous face of pseudocyesis (meaning “false” and “pregnancy”). Her legacy includes believing she was pregnant and experiencing symptoms of those beliefs. That same marvel was described by Hippocrates in 300 B.C. Pseudocyesis is explained as “a condition in which a woman firmly believes herself to be pregnant and develops objective pregnancy signs in the absence of pregnancy.”*
On the other side of the pancake is couvade syndrome—pseudocyesis with a penis.
Developing into the doting-dad status holds the potential for a spectrum of holistic transformations. There are the more recognizable and collectively accepted adjustments like anxiety or task-oriented nesting (cue the honey-do list). We have all heard the familiar phrase “sympathy pains,” BUT there does indeed exist a weightier and controversial phenomenon termed Couvade syndrome.
Couvade syndrome is classified as “the biological, psychological, and social impact of pregnancy on an expectant father.”* Contained within this disorder is a host of symptoms. The percentage of partners in pregnancy who have reported this occurrence ranges from 11%-65%.** That’s a lot of folks running around having pregnancy symptoms and not being pregnant! The frequent indications are morning sickness, abdominal problems, a departure from normal eating habits, insomnia, mood swings, fatigue, weight gain, anxiety, toothaches, headaches, and labor pains.
As a woman who has been pregnant and birthed six times, I want to throw the bullshit flag and strip them of the “right” to claim these nuances. The Mayo Clinic borderline agrees with me. Their long standing statement reads, “While some research suggests that couvade might be common, it isn’t a recognized mental illness or disease.” (I think a link or reference to this website would be appropriate here. And probably needed.) The etiology is unknown, but many speculate hormonal changes and anxiety as the influence for the compassionate symptomology. As an open-minded and trained health professional, I have to dispose of bias and acknowledge the possibility of validity. So let us explore.
Here are a few of the charming troubles Couvade partners may experience:
- Número uno on the list is tummy troubles: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and indigestion. Those are all so much fun that I can see why men want in on that deal.
- Let’s talk indigestion. The “chill” hormone progesterone that plays a huge role in keeping the uterus relaxed also goes rogue and relaxes the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach. That makes way for acid to steal its way back up. Makes sense for a woman; it is unexplained why a man may experience this. My hope for you is that your home has two toilets.
- Another common symptom for men is weight gain. Depending on a woman’s BMI, her healthy weight gain goals can range from 15-40 pounds. Poor diet choices, like indulging in Chick-fil-A waffle fries (YUM), can add to unhealthy and unneeded weight gain for mommas. Same holds true for our male counterparts. In addition, men are known to have added water weight from swelling of hands, feet, and ankles. Take advantage of them understanding the discomforts of edema, and play a game I call massage parlor. He can tend to your achy feet then you take a turn rubbing his. Winner winner, chicken dinner!
- Mood swings. Imagine being in the beautiful waves of Hawaii. Big, powerful, massive, gorgeous waves. One moment you are full of delight as the cool water washes over you and tickles your skin. Then, all the sudden, you are pounded by a force pushing you down, and you lose footing. It’s terrifying. You feel out of control and can’t catch your breath. Tears flow. Emotions are wild. You finally stand and walk to the beach, angry that no one helped you, and then you start laughing when you realize you are flashing innocent bystanders because you lost your top in the chaos. That’s what five minutes of pregnancy can feel like. Hug each other. Be kind to each other. Validate those feelings because they are real and you are feeling them. And whatever you do, don’t watch This Is Us—you are on a roller coaster as it is.
- Now the one that really gets me…cramping. I understand it. As a midwife, I have found myself on more than one occasion transported back to my own labors, feeling surges as mothers felt them. I even push when moms push. I have a uterus that has worked as theirs are working in that moment. It seems logical. Men explain that their discomfort is felt in their lower stomach where a uterus would sit. Experts point to empathy as the culprit. I suppose there are far worse affairs to bear than an empathic mate.
But…good news alert!!! There is a cure.
Birth. Thank goodness.
After my exploration and research, I still flip-flop on my opinion of Couvade syndrome. On the one hand, the word couvade is a French word that means “to sit on or hatch eggs.”* That evokes in me a National Geographic maternal warmth and excitement. Like I’m stepping inside of March of the Penguins, where poppas tackle this enormous role in parenthood. That’s beautiful.
THEN I flop. In a world where women are so often overlooked, it can be frustrating that one of the biological strengths we hold, creating and giving life, is being high jacked. I want to scream, “NO SIR! Let us at least own this one. This is our sparkle, our RITE and RIGHT, and you may not steal the spotlight.”
After a bit of reflection, my hesitant, nurturing spirit kicks in, and I shift again. I envision the empathy and sympathy that must be involved. Perhaps instead of putting the negative spin in our pockets, we can grab hold of the partner who is in this with us because perhaps, just perhaps, they really do care THAT much.
What do you think about the Couvade syndrome? I’d love to hear your thoughts below on this controversial subject. (I myself have flip-flopped on my opinion about Couvade 7,364 times just while writing this so I expect this topic to be a bit heated. That’s okay.)
*Basil, B., & Mathews, M. (2006). A couvade syndrome variant?. Psychosomatics, 47(4), 363-364.
Mason, C., & Elwood, R. (1995). Is there a physiological basis for the couvade and onset of paternal care?. International Journal Of Nursing Studies, 32(2), 137-148.
**Masoni, S., Maio, A., Trimarchi, G., de Punzio, C., & Fioretti, P. (1994). The couvade syndrome. Journal Of Psychosomatic Obstetrics And Gynaecology, 15(3), 125-131.