Pregnancy can be arduous for the mother, with the father accorded a merely supporting role. But might it be the father, more than the mother, who is susceptible to the cramps, back pain, mood swings, food cravings, morning sickness, and fatigue that come with pregnancy?
The literature about Couvade syndrome might suggest such a scandalous idea! The term “couvade” comes from the French “couver”, which means to hatch, and was first introduced in Anthropology by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1865. He used such term to refer to the child-expectancy habits exhibited by men in various places around the world and especially in South America and the West Indies. These habits, broadly, consisted in men undergoing behavioural changes that would be more characteristic of pregnant women. Tylor concluded that Couvade practices show that:
[There is] a number of distinct and distant tribes deliberately holding the opinion that the connexion between father and child is not only, as we think, a mere relation of parentage, affection, duty, but that their very bodies are joined by a physical bond, so that what is done to the one acts directly upon the other […] (p. 297-98)
In the more recent use of the term, “Couvade syndrome” (or “sympathy pain”) is used to refer to a medical condition in which men present some of the physical and psychological symptoms related to pregnancy while their female partners are pregnant. For example, back in 1964, M.F Conlon and. W. H. Trethowan conducted an investigation with a group of men where “about 11% of all expectant fathers may have some symptoms of psychogenic origin in relation to their wives’ pregnancies”. Moreover, they reported the cases of several expectant fathers who showed symptoms similar to the ones of pregnancy while their spouses where pregnant. For example, they reported an Australian soldier who had a swollen abdomen characteristic of a fairly advanced pregnancy and another man who complained of “labour pains”, immediately after his wife’s admission to the labour ward, and of discomfort in both breasts during her lactation.
But does Couvade syndrome really involve the father rather than the mother undergoing the symptoms of pregnancy? Well, consider the following three cases mentioned by Tylor:
Case 1. The first is about a traveller in China describing that “in one tribe it is the custom for the father of a new-born child, as soon as its mother has become strong enough to leave her couch, to get into bed himself, and there receive the congratulations of his acquaintances, as he exhibits his offspring”.
Case 2. The second case is about a story telling that in the Pyrenees, more than nineteen hundred years ago from now, the women of North of Spain, after childbirth, care for their husband and put them into bed instead of going themselves.
Case 3. The third case is a practice among the Basques of Tylor’s time, where “in vallies whose population recalls in its usages the infancy of society, the women rise immediately after child-birth, and attend to the duties of the household, while the husband goes to bed, taking the baby with him, and thus receives the neighbours’ compliments.”
On the one hand, you might think, even if in the more recent cases the fathers are suffering the symptoms of pregnancy, they are not doing so instead of the mother: she is suffering them too. On the other hand, some of the cases described by Tylor make it sound as though the mother is able to resume her activities rather quickly after giving birth, which some might take to suggest that her suffering was not all that great. However, of course, there could be a different interpretation of the cases described by Tylor. For instance, the fact that women “rise immediately after child-birth and attend to the duties of the household” does not necessarily mean that they are not suffering. Similarly, the fact the men go to bed does not imply that they really suffer.
In any case, what do you think? Could Couvade cases be instances where the father suffers the symptoms we characteristically associate with pregnancy and labour more than the actually pregnant mother does?
Conlon, M.F., (1964), The Lancet, letter to the editor, April 11.
Tylor E.B., (1865), Researches into the early history of mankind and the development of civilization, 2nd ed., John Murray, London.
Trethowan. W. H., and Gonlon. M. F., (1965), Brit. 7. Psychiat, 111, 57.