Morning sickness, sore nipples and strange cravings are some of the phantom pregnancy symptoms men exhibited when their wives are pregnant, writes Peter Muiruri
For three weeks now, a man we shall call Micah and a prospective father in Kilimani, Nairobi, has been experiencing some sharp pains on the right of his abdomen.
Like many men, the thought of seeing a doctor has not yet occurred to him due to the fact that these pains come and go. Unknown to him however, his wife, Hellen, who is now eight months pregnant has also been having some random sharp pains on her right side as well.
“I got really scared when my wife told me that she has been having the same pains on the same side of her body as mine. I would feel a great urge to scratch myself. The more she spoke about her pains, the more intense mine became. There were times we both found ourselves stretching simultaneously so as to ease the pain. Fortunately, when her pain goes, mine disappears as well,” says Micah.
A mere coincidence? Well, not according to medical researchers in the Western world. Unknowingly, Micah has been suffering from what is termed as the Couvade syndrome, a condition where a prospective father goes through symptoms similar to those of a pregnant partner.
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Couvade is a term derived from the French word “couvee,” meaning “to brood or hatch” and relates to a pattern seen is some birds that share equally in incubating the eggs till they hatch.
“Fathers reported a range of symptoms, including cramps, back pain, mood swings, food cravings, morning sickness, fatigue, depression, fainting, insomnia and toothache,” reported the BBC.
One of the men in the research insisted that the abdominal pain he experienced during her wife’s labour seemed to outrank her wife’s discomfort.
“It seemed like my pain was worse,” he said. “Her contractions were fairly strong, but she couldn’t push and as that was happening my stomach pain was building up and getting worse.”
Many men with expectant partners may not even be aware of this condition as the symptoms are rarely presented to a physician. In any case, a man may not associate such symptoms with his partner’s pregnancy.
While there are no recorded incidents of this condition in the country, it is nonetheless quite common in many lands. According to a report filed several years ago by CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, severe cases of Couvade have been documented, among them a father who experienced chronic abdominal pains when his wife went into labour.
For Mike Dowdall of UK, the phantom pregnancy symptoms went a notch higher. According to a report published by The Sun two months ago, Dowdall not only had serious cases of morning sickness accompanied by cravings, but also had his tummy bulge!
“The exhaustion is worst — but the headaches, heartburn and big belly are not enjoyable either. I now really respect what women go through during pregnancy,” he told the paper.
The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology says that fathers, worried about the massive impending life change, eat to comfort themselves, or simply eat more because she is eating more. Any mood swings could be connected to the weight gain.
“When you gain weight, you have more fat tissue, which converts testosterone into estrogen. The increased levels of estrogen may be responsible for mood swings and nausea,” writes Michele Hakakha, a gynecologist in Beverly Hills, USA.
And while Micah’s case has not been that dramatic, what he has gone through was enough to give him sleepless nights.
While some of the doctors we talked to seemed unaware of this condition that may be affecting Kenyan men in silence, few did admit that this could be a psychological feeling in which a man overly sympathises with his pregnant partner.
“A woman undergoes quite some physical, emotional and psychological changes during pregnancy that also affects the couple’s sex life. In such cases, men are confronted with an issue they know little about and lack the proper mechanism to cope with such changes. They thus devise their own methods of coping with the situation such as joining other men in local pubs,” says Dr Alfred Murage, a gynaecologist and obstetrician.
Dr Murage says the situation is a bit different in Western countries where men are more involved in their wives’ pregnancies and may relate more with their inner feelings.
According to Prof Koigi Kamau, a practicing gynaecologist in Nairobi, some men may greatly get concerned about their wives’ pregnancies that they exhibit such symptoms.
“Such men may become sad when the woman is sad. This may be so, especially if the two are close emotionally. It is more of a sympathetic reaction that has no medical basis since any diagnosis will not yield anything. That might explain why we have no such recorded cases here,” says Prof Kamau.
Any physical discomforts, the doctors say, can only be as a result of what the woman is going through. For example, an expectant woman may have problems sleeping in a certain position, perhaps turning every now and then. Anyone sleeping next to her will obviously lack some sleep at one point in the night.
Such sentiments seemed to be echoed by a number of men we interviewed. James, a father of two for example, says it is normal for a man to go through some anxious moments when his wife is pregnant, especially with the first child. He only remembers being worried over the life changing development.
He says: “I remember being overly anxious about the sudden change in our lifestyle. I was very concerned about what she was going through. Such anxiety, however, is good for it helps a man prepare for the eventuality. Of course men try to act “normal” although they are apprehensive on the inside.”
For Chris, a father of one, he was more worried about labour complications that, however, did not translate into any tangible physical issues.
“I was more concerned about her undergoing a safe delivery than anything else. Of course you get affected by her rollercoaster of mood swings during the period. This is no different than working under a moody boss,” says Chris.
Other doctors attribute such a condition to the different ways in which a man sympathises with what his wife is going through.
“Some women too have what are termed as phantom or false pregnancies where they go through the entire process of ‘getting pregnant, morning sickness, nausea to the point of imagining themselves in the labour ward’ – all this in their minds. A similar phenomenon can also occur in men,” says Dr Okello-Agina, a Nairobi gynaecologist.
Local medical experts say more studies need to be conducted in this area in order to ascertain the prevalence of this condition. However, this depends on whether Kenyan men will come forward and present their feelings.