Q: My wife is pregnant and I’ve started putting on weight too! I’ve also been having nose bleeds and headaches. I’m excited about being a parent and helping care for our new infant, but I’m afraid there is something physical going on. What’s wrong with me?
A: In a word, there’s nothing wrong with you. Given that you’re not actually pregnant, most of what you’re going to go through while your wife is expecting will be psychological. But as you’ve found out, there are some occasional physical symptoms too. In fact, somewhere between 25 and 90 percent of dads-to-be in this country experience couvade syndrome (from the French, “to hatch”), or “sympathetic pregnancy.” The symptoms are pretty much the same as those your wife has probably been complaining about for a few months: mood swings, food cravings, weight gains. But some are a little stranger-especially for a guy-such as toothaches, headaches, itching, nosebleeds, and sometimes even cysts.
Couvade symptoms usually start cropping up sometime around the third month of the pregnancy, taper off for a bit, then pick up again in the month or two before the baby is born. They almost always “mysteriously” disappear as soon as the baby’s born.
No one really knows why men get these symptoms but there are lots of theories. The first is that as men, we’re programmed (socially or biologically, take your pick) to try to protect our families and shield them from harm. Since we can’t really do much to minimize the discomfort and pain our wives experience during pregnancy, our brains come up with the unique idea of trying to ease their pain by taking some of it on ourselves. This is particularly true for expectant dads who feel somehow responsible for having “gotten her into this in the first place.”
Another theory is that some expectant dads who develop couvade are feeling jealous and left out and are subconsciously trying to get people to pay a little attention to them. It’s also possible that expectant dads’ physical symptoms are a kind of way announcing to the world that they’re the father.
Some recent research has shown that there may actually be some hormonal reasons for men’s pregnancy symptoms. You know all about how expectant mothers’ hormones change over the course of the pregnancy, right? Well, one fascinating study found that pregnant women’s husbands’ levels of the same hormones (which men have too, but in smaller amounts) move rise and fall parallel with their wives’ levels. This may explain why most expectant dads find themselves paying more attention to children in the months before their own are born.
Some psychologists have also speculated that couvade symptoms may be the expectant dad’s subconscious way of showing his wife that he’s serious about being with her. After all, it’s easy to lie about loving her and wanting to be a good dad, but it’s a lot harder to fake a cyst or a nosebleed.