You may have missed the news item just before the onset of the global pandemic in 2019. Bradley Beal, an NBA player for the Washington Wizards had gone public about his shame and mental torture due to his food cravings and weight gain during his wife’s pregnancy.
“I was up at 3 or 4 am eating ice cream when I should not have been eating ice cream,” he told American television station NBC. “That is all because Momma was pregnant and I had the same symptoms.”
Strange? Perhaps, but it does happen. It is known as the couvade syndrome, a condition where a prospective father goes through symptoms similar to those of his pregnant partner. Many men with expectant partners might be going through this condition without realising it.
Pregnancy with all its symptomatic burdens and its glorious process in the creation of new life is something that men will never experience. It is something that women carry with all the good and the bad. However, with the commemoration of Father’s Day, it is fitting to acknowledge men who also experience pregnancy symptoms alongside their wives or partners who are expectant.
Pregnancy despite its many beautiful wonders also comes with a long list of uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms for women. And who can forget the long list of crazy cravings that some women have during pregnancy, with everything from wanting stones, to Coke, to githeri and just about anything you can imagine.
However, research is now finding that it is not just women who experience these symptoms during pregnancy, but some of their partners may also experience some of the symptoms alongside the expectant mother.
For some reason, some men seem to put on what is usually called sympathy weight during their partner’s pregnancy, and experience constipation, gas, bloating, mood swings, irritability, and nausea right along with their expectant wives or partner yet they are not with child.
Well, these men are not crazy or attention-seeking like you may assume, but are experiencing couvade syndrome or sympathetic pregnancy, which happens when a pregnant woman’s partner begins to experience symptoms that mimic those experienced by her during pregnancy.
Some put on weight, throw up in the morning and develop insatiable cravings while waking up in the middle of the night to satisfy them.
Reports in Western countries say the condition could get worse with some men experiencing stomach cramps, back pain, mood swings, fatigue, depression, fainting, and insomnia. While scientists term the condition as “sympathetic pregnancy” in men, it goes beyond feeling the above-mentioned pains.
Social networking site Reddit is replete with experiences from men who underwent the ‘pregnancy’ symptoms, mostly without realising what was going on in their lives.
One anonymous husband wrote: “My wife is having a difficult pregnancy in terms of nausea. Our OB assured us that it is nothing to worry about and can even be a sign of healthiness. Every pregnancy is unique. There is nothing to worry about in the bigger picture, and I do everything I can to make her as comfortable as possible. The strange part is that I am doing it, too. There are days that I wake up violently ill and I cannot keep anything down all morning. I do not feel sick otherwise, just the vomiting. So much vomiting.”
A wife who called herself Bpop said: “My husband had nausea (on and off for a couple of weeks), and he gained weight. He was always the skinny guy and he never could put on weight no matter what he tried. When he was in the military they had him on a crazy diet where he had to eat all these protein bars and tons of extra calories, but that did not work either. When I got pregnant, we joked that maybe he would gain some pregnancy weight too and he ended up putting on 15lbs (6.8kg)!”
Couvade symptoms, according to the Atlantic Magazine, would follow a particular pattern, peaking during the first and third trimesters of the partner’s pregnancy and easing off after the birth of the child.
Couvade comes from the French word couvee, which means to brood or hatch and was coined in 1865 by English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor to refer to some rituals that fathers adopted during their partners’ pregnancies. It relates to a pattern seen in some birds that share equally in incubating the eggs till they hatch.
In the documentary, March of the Penguins narrated by Morgan Freeman, the mother penguin lays an egg after a long trek in a harsh, cold desert. She then transfers the egg to the father to ‘incubate’ as she dashes to the sea to look for food. The father stays on to look after the egg for four months, braving hunger and the biting cold. He is rewarded when the mother returns with some food, both for him and the chick.
How common is couvade syndrome, you may ask? Well, various studies have been done around the world. A study published in the American Journal of Men’s Health in 2019 found that Jordanian expectant fathers experienced high rates of couvade syndrome (59.1 per cent).
In 2010 an Australian National report by Kingston University, St George’s & University of London found that 31 per cent of Australian men are affected by couvade syndrome, while in the UK the incidence is 25 per cent.
Another study in Poland published in the Medical Science Monitor in 2013 found that most expectant fathers (72 per cent) experience at least one of the symptoms of couvade syndrome during their partner’s pregnancy, which includes everything from weight gain to changes in appetite and flatulence.
Couvade syndrome is rare, and few Kenyan men will admit to ever suffering from the condition. In any case, it is not a medical condition whose causes and remedies can be found in the physicians’ textbooks.
Timothy Njau*, a first-time father to a six-month-old baby boy, was tickled when we enquired about this condition in men.
“Does such a man also wear a bra?” Timothy asked sarcastically. Prodded further, Timothy says: “You need to ask me about the current health of my pocket. I think I was sick financially and I will take a long time to recover.”
Jane Njeri*, a local journalist who is expecting her first child laughed off the idea too, terming it a first world problem. “I think men in Africa are tough and unlikely to go through such moments. At least mine has not or at least has not told me that he is ‘expecting,’” she says.
When we asked Mary Ndanu, 30, who just started dating what she would make of such a thing happening to her future husband, she first brushed off the idea.
“What? Ati we both throw up in the morning? Eish, that would be too hard to take. I suppose it would be too much for me to deal with my pregnancy, and then deal with his, which is not even real. He would have to get hold of his life,” says Mary.
Dr Simon Kigondu, an obstetrician gynecologist with Excella Healthcare says though he is yet to meet a man in his practice who had couvade syndrome, it is possible, especially for new fathers who have great empathy for their mates to go through such changes.
“I think it is more psychological and perhaps out of sympathy for their mates. The more such a man is close to his partner, the more he may exhibit deep feelings that mimic what she is going through. Such a man may not come to the hospital presenting any tangible symptoms and this is perhaps an area we need to do further research on,” says Kigondu.
Faith Gichanga, an organisational counsellor concurs with other professional findings of couvade, adding this is no different from the empathy a person may have for a sick person to the point of feeling “similar symptoms”.
Unfortunately, Faith says men may not come out and admit to such intimate feelings for fear of being ridiculed and labelled as weaklings, especially in Africa where men are conditioned not to show their inner feelings in the open.
“If such men are suffering from the condition, they are suffering in silence. Men rarely open up on many issues that are close to them let alone such a rare issue. From an early age, society has conditioned them not to cry, for example. In addition, the topic itself may put them off fearing the derogatory phrase commonly in use today, “umama” to refer to a man who exhibits soft emotions,” says Faith.
In any case, Faith says people rarely talk about a subject that is not widely known. She alludes to a particular case where a lady would pull off her hair when under intense anxiety, but never connected her actions with what she was going through inside.
It would seem that some men feel their partner’s pregnancy more than others — and leaves one wondering whether it means they are better dads for it, unlike fathers who do not experience sympathy pregnancy.
However, Emily Kariuki, a clinical psychologist who for the last 11 years, has run Emiwell Counselling Services advises that it does not mean that men who experience symptoms alongside their pregnant wives are better fathers or partners. She says that couvade syndrome is a personal experience and research is still being done on its causes.
“It is worth noting that couvade syndrome is not a recognised disease; it has not been recognised as either a medical or mental health issue. Also, the causes of couvade syndrome are not fully understood, though several theories exist out there. A lot of research still needs to be done,” says Emily.
“Theories are many about the cause of couvade syndrome. It could be an escape tactic for some men if their wives become demanding during pregnancy. Also, it could be a result of male empathy for their pregnant partner’s pregnancy. These usually occur because of the way people attach and become close to the point where they share each other’s experiences, and so when their partner is pregnant, they begin to share in their symptoms. Again, it is not a common experience and is rare.”
According to Emily, it can be driven by empathy for someone you love or have a special bond with or even someone you are near within a close environment. She advises there is no magic pill for the syndrome. Fortunately, this is always a temporary phenomenon and once the baby is born, symptoms usually disappear.
Emily also notes that apart from experiencing similar pregnancy symptoms like women, men too can experience a form of depression akin to postpartum depression or baby blues like some women may experience after having their baby.
“This still also requires more research as it is still yet to be fully understood. However, society needs to recognise that when a woman is pregnant and eventually has a baby, it does not only affect her, but the man also experiences a lot of change both emotionally and mentally and as a result, some men can easily experience depression.
My advice is that as a woman if you notice some changes in your husband or partner after having a baby, or as a man, if you notice changes that are beyond your control in you then seek help just as women who have baby blues seek help.”
Health experts in Kenya are eager to conduct more studies in this area. However, their success will depend on whether Kenyan men will open up and own up to being ‘expectant’.