Who knew dads-to-be could get sympathy symptoms when you’re the one having the baby? Believe the hype, says Sarah Ivens, because her partner is feeling prenatal – and she’s losing patience
During both my pregnancies, my husband Russ has been more ‘pregnant’ than me. He moans of aches and pains, puts on weight, and has even insisted his nipples are sore. Clutching his tummy just yesterday, he complained about feeling bloated, said he didn’t feel like himself – then, 10 minutes later, I caught him tucking into a giant slice of cheesecake.
After a couple of weeks of him moaning, I exploded. ‘Never mind you, look at me! I’m 35 weeks pregnant, I’ve put on 30lb, and I can’t even see my toenails any more. Stop whining!’ He looked teary-eyed (seriously?) and told me I couldn’t possibly understand.
Couvade syndrome has become increasingly common, as modern men get more in touch with their feelings
At first, what seemed like attention-seeking made me want to scream, then I learnt there’s actually a name for this condition: couvade syndrome. While it’s not recognised as an illness, some experts believe it to be a psychosomatic condition, while others think it may have biological causes related to hormone changes.
It sounds hilarious, but can actually be very irritating for mums-to-be and cause a great deal of misery for their men. For me, it was a relief to know I hadn’t just married a drama queen. Couvade syndrome has become increasingly common, as modern men get more in touch with their feelings – a study of 282 fathers-to-be at Kingston University showed 55% of expectant dads experience symptoms associated with pregnancy.
I’M PREGNANT. SO IS HE!
These symptoms include nausea, bloating, mood swings, weight gain, disturbed sleep patterns and – in extreme cases – actual labour pains and postnatal depression.
But, as financial worries, health fears and good old-fashioned panic aren’t exclusively female domains, it’s hardly surprising that dads-to-be get stressed.
Although many men would be too embarrassed to admit it, these physical symptoms aren’t uncommon, and couples who have dealt with infertility or pregnancy loss are particularly susceptible.
Laura Grinstead, who’s mum to Pippa, five, experienced this strange behaviour from her partner when she was expecting. ‘In the 16 years I’ve known him, Mike has never been sick,’ she says. ‘But, while I was pregnant, he made numerous trips to A&E for what I felt were totally imaginary problems.’
‘The most prevalent sympathy sign I’ve come across is dads packing on extra pounds,’ says doula Sarah Reinhart. And it makes sense – most mums-to-be indulge in a few extra calories and peculiar cravings, and it seems unfair not to allow men to tuck into the treats, too. ‘It’s not all bad, though,’ says Sarah. ‘Most men I’ve encountered who do this tend to be more attentive to their partner’s needs.’
So, before you mock your man, you might find he’s more likely to head out in the rain for your late-night takeaway if he’s also digging in.
‘James became bizarre when I was pregnant,’ my friend Jenny, who’s mum to Freya, five, and Noah, two, told me when I bumped into her at the chemist while buying Gaviscon for Russ’ heartburn.
‘I wanted to be angry, but he was acting so ridiculously, it made me laugh. We both suffered with nausea, and I’d go to the kitchen for a glass of ginger ale only to find he’d beaten me to it and there was none left.’
Luckily, Jenny had a sense of humour, but I wanted to bash Russ over the head with my well-thumbed copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
‘Couvade syndrome can cause relationship problems,’ says psychiatrist Dr Brian Beckham. ‘The expectant father may feel his masculinity is being diminished but, rather than try to reclaim it, he chooses – consciously or otherwise – to indulge his softer side. His partner, meanwhile, can feel like he is attempting to take attention away from her.’
WHAT ABOUT ME?
Russ certainly tried to pull focus from my aches and pains. Four weeks before I was due to give birth to our son William, now two, we had to rush to hospital in the middle of the night.
‘There’s a lot of pain,’ Russ explained to a nurse. But he wasn’t talking about me. He’d got into a rough tackle during a five-a-side game earlier that evening and was convinced he’d broken his foot. ‘On a scale of one to 10, how much pain are you in?’ the nurse asked.
We’d been told in antenatal classes that I’d be asked this as labour progressed. Russ had been adamant that giving birth would score a five and I wouldn’t need drugs. ‘About a nine,’ my well-built husband winced. ‘It’s bad.’ The nurse shook her head. ‘You wouldn’t believe the number of men we see in casualty with injuries when their wives are pregnant. It’s like they want the limelight.’
This time round, Russ’ ‘pregnancy’ started in my second trimester. By my seventh month, when I was starting to develop a beach-ball bump that put my weak back into a state of shock, he was there with me, relishing every twinge of discomfort. If I was desperate for a pee, so was he. If I needed to sit down, so did he. At our 34-week check-up, he talked more than I did, sharing his tales of sleepless nights.
But I couldn’t tell if he was seriously suffering, or just spotlight-seeking. ‘It is a real psychological condition that reveals the mental and physical anxiety of the expectant father,’ says Brian. ‘All these worries manifest themselves in a new type of behaviour that, on some level, helps to put his experience on a par with yours.’
And, as Brian explains, in more extreme cases, there could even be hormonal changes going on in his body. ‘Some medical studies suggest that any male partner cohabiting with a pregnant woman will experience a decrease in testosterone levels, starting at 12 weeks until several weeks after birth. This helps create a stronger father-baby bond,’ he says.
It’s good to know there’s a reason behind all this weird behaviour, and it’s a positive one. But that doesn’t make it any easier. ‘If it’s getting too much, ask your GP for advice. They will probably advise you both to listen more,’ says Sarah.
Make time to talk about any worries, too – those niggling aches could be a direct reaction to the added financial pressure he feels at the thought of being a family man. ‘And make sure he feels involved,’ says Sarah. Set a weekly date when the two of you sit down together and read about changes you’ll experience. Take him baby shopping or plan the nursery together.
‘Being too hard on him could backfire,’ agrees Brian. ‘Look at it as a sign of closeness. It represents a desire to share this special time with you.’ Hearing this makes Russ’ condition a little more endearing and, I’ve got to admit, it’s nice to have someone to pass the tissues during Call The Midwife. It gives the phrase ‘we’re in it together’ a whole new meaning.
HOW TO COPE WHEN HE’S EXPECTING
- Suggest he comes along to all your check-ups, so he realises just how much you’re going through.
- Hide your chocolate stash.
- You don’t want to have a sugar emergency and discover he’s got there first.
- Make the most of his emotional side. No need to endure Match Of The Day while he’s welling up at One Born Every Minute.
- Remind yourself this syndrome is temporary and not serious. His ‘fatigue’ or ‘swelling’ will pass.
- Grass him up to his mates. He’ll soon get some perspective in the face of male peer pressure.