The Colgate Scene
September 2000
Table of contents
The pregnant man and why he's important to women
by Gordon Churchwell '81
All of us experience times when the fog of daily existence lifts, and the mysterious universals of human nature become a little clearer. I never expected my moment of epiphany to come while projectile vomiting into my toilet.

     Let me backtrack a little. Four years ago, my wife Julie became pregnant with our daughter Olivia. The first steps of this profound journey did not begin smoothly for me. She treated the news with great joy; meanwhile, my emotions had to be placed on a ventilator. Let's just say that I was a little ambivalent about the situation.

     My growth from hapless, clueless husband to eventually with-it partner and co-parent is chronicled in my recently published book, Expecting: One Man's Uncensored Memoir of Pregnancy (HarperCollins, June 2000). Expecting is two books in one. First, it's a personal account of the emotional experiences I encountered as an expectant father. Writing a book was my reaction to the unexpected intensity of my feelings. I think because of the way the man's role in reproduction is perceived in our society, my initial fantasy about childbirth was out of the 1950s. My psyche anticipated being in a sort of Waiting Room of the Emotions for nine months, reading computer and car magazines and generally remaining unconscious, until the time our OB would come out and tell me I could start feeling something. Luckily for me -- and my in utero writing career -- this was not how it was.

     Mine was, in the beginning, much more the nightmare version of the Six Flags experience. I roller-coastered through feelings of growing isolation and abandonment as Julie seemed to withdraw into her inner world. I felt enormously anxious and protective to the point where I could barely stand it when Julie left the house alone. When I was with her, I insisted on holding her hand when crossing streets or entering crowds, which needless to say annoyed her very much. This compulsion peaked when minutes before our scheduled amniocentesis, I became convinced that, despite our OB's 20 years of education and professional training, only I should be performing this delicate procedure.

     Expecting is also one of the first serious looks at the biology of human fatherhood. Women have known for eons that men exhibit strange behavior during pregnancy, including many of the same symptoms they do. Scientists and psychologists have reported since the early 1960s that men exhibit quantifiable, compulsive behaviors, which they call male "pregnancy careers," as well as manifest sympathetic pregnancy symptoms in large numbers.

     Male pregnancy symptoms? Large numbers? Since the 1960s when the term "couvade syndrome" was first coined from the French word meaning "to hatch," researchers across the world have reported that the incidence of sympathetic pregnancy symptoms in men such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, backache, toothache, fatigue and lassitude, range from the low end of about 25 percent to as high as 65 and 90 percent. In most men the symptoms are subtle, usually some weight gain and unexplained aches and pains. Other men have "mirror pregnancies," having exactly the same symptoms at exactly the same time as their wives. One researcher, Dr. Mack Lipkin of NYU, reported that one in four men actually sought a doctor's care for symptoms.

     That would be me.

     During Julie's first trimester, I noticed that whenever I drank coffee I had inexplicable feelings of queasiness. With typical java-junkie logic, I decided that after 20 years of drinking coffee, I had developed an allergy to it. (I promptly took a prescription antihistamine to compensate.) One morning while halfway through my cup of Illy Café, I got up, hurried into the bathroom and threw up.

     During the third trimester, with Julie's due date three weeks away, I had a bout of fatigue so debilitating that I thought I had Lyme Disease. Julie was running around nesting like the Energizer Bunny, and I was in bed comatose. After several conversations where Julie threatened my life, I decided to go to my GP to have a Lyme test. He told me it was "all in my head," but I made him draw blood anyway. Coincidentally, the same day I attended one of Julie's OB appointments, and wound up telling the OB my tale of woe. After five minutes her laughter subsided, she regained her composure and wrote me out a prescription for Valium. Two days later the Lyme test came back negative. No matter. The symptoms had gone away, without need for sedation.

     New research shows that it's not all in men's heads. A Canadian research team -- which I had contacted while writing Expecting -- recently reported that men have a hormonal response during pregnancy that is synchronized to their partners', including a dramatic drop in testosterone postpartum -- a similar profile to other biparental mammal species. This may be evidence of a "paternal response" that researchers speculate primes men for fatherhood by expanding their emotional capacities. Furthermore, the degree of this hormonal response was strongly correlated to the number of symptoms a man had.

     Why would it be advantageous for a man to throw up or lay around during his wife's pregnancy? I put this question to Donald Symons, one of the founding fathers of evolutionary psychology. His view was that male pregnancy symptoms were part of a communication system that developed over evolutionary time where men advertised to their partners their intention to invest in the child. Women in turn are adapted to monitor their mates for signs of investment. If this sounds all lovey-dovey and pair-bondy, it's not. It's more like negotiation. Raising a child in our ancestral environment required the investment of both parents; however, since men and women do not have identical biological interests and thus have different investment strategies, what took place over the pregnancy, postpartum and first year of infancy was a form of biological hard-bargaining. A recent study on postpartum depression (PPD) conducted by Edward Hagen, a Symons colleague at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, supports these ideas by indicating that the largest component in PPD is the lack of support from the father. Hagen's hypothesis is that PPD, from an evolutionary point of view, is a way for a woman to negotiate more support from the father and the social environment by threatening to withhold her own support from the baby.

     What does all of this mean? One thing I believe is significant is what we think of as "symbolic" behavior has a physiological component. How a man behaves during pregnancy and postpartum has a direct effect on his partner's mental health, her own attitudes toward the pregnancy and the quality of her maternal attachment and care postpartum.

     Eventually understanding the larger picture will have enormous implications for both men and women, especially against the social backdrop of men and women negotiating new roles in parenting. I think we're on the verge of a revolutionary new perspective on men's role in reproduction. Men are not biological bystanders during pregnancy and parenting. The experience of motherhood and fatherhood is far more complex than we know at present, but the idea that they are integrated and shaped by each other over a million-plus years makes a great deal of sense from what is recently being learned.

     One more thing for the record. While Julie was concerned and irritated at times at my symptoms, she also had an enormously happy pregnancy.


Churchwell lives in Cold Spring, NY with his wife Julie and daughter Olivia. He has written for television and magazines, and contributed an essay called "Atalanta: The Riddle of Fathers & Daughters" to Room To Grow (Golden Books, 1999), a multiauthor collection on raising children. He is presently co-producing and hosting a television show on Expecting for the Discovery Health Channel.
Top of page
Table of contents
<<Previous: "A Son's Tale" Next: "In the courtroom..." >>