Much has been written about women’s experience of pregnancy and postpartum, most of it exploring negative reactions ranging from clinical depression to postpartum psychosis and infanticide and most of it attributing negative reactions to the unique physiological changes that women experience during pregnancy and parturition.  But studies show that fathers also experience emotional, social and physiological changes in response to a mate’s pregnancy and to the presence of a newborn in the home.  

Couvade:  The male experience of pregnancy.

Anthropologists have long observed that men exhibit symptoms strangely reminiscent of pregnancy when their partner is pregnant.   In some cultures, men may even go through a false labor and mock delivery in a highly ritualized form.  Anthropologists refer to the male experience of pregnancy as “couvade”, a name derived from the Basque French word “couvrir,” which means to hatch or to cover.  Before about 1960, Westerners regarded couvade as a deviant phenomenon, something experienced by “primitive” men and only severely neurotic or psychotic Western men [1] [2] [3].   But in 1965 an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry noted that gastrointestinal symptoms among men whose wives are pregnant is actually quite common, so common that the authors concluded “it is best not to regard the couvade syndrome as a psychiatric diagnosis” [4].  Since then, more research has appeared corroborating the observation that normal, non-psychotic, Western men do experience a wide range of somatic symptoms coincident with the pregnancy of an intimate partner. [2].  Contrary to popular belief, and likely because of it, men’s experience of pregnancy is widely overlooked and misattributed.  In a 1982 retrospective study, researchers examined medical records from a large HMO (an HMO with 36,000 members) [5].  They selected a random sample of 300 pregnancies and then pulled the chart of the male partner looking for evidence of “couvade’s syndrome.” Their operational definition of “couvade” was simply that the man had sought medical attention while his partner was pregnant for symptoms that he had not sought medical attention for before she became pregnant and had not sought treatment for after she delivered [5].  Using this definition, fully 22% of the expectant fathers in this study’s sample met criteria for couvade syndrome. These men had twice the number of medical visits during their wife’s pregnancy; they complained of twice as many symptoms; and they were significantly more likely to be prescribed medication.  Moreover, it was especially interesting that medical staff never once noticed the connection between a man’s health complaints and his wife’s pregnancy, and in fact, the records rarely mention the man being an expectant father at all [5].  Medical professionals do not expect to see men in this role, and they don’t stand to make a lot of money on it, so they don’t make the connection.   Expectancies shape research questions and the interpretation of research results.