The breeding ritual of emperor penguins, immortalized in the Oscar-winning documentary March of the Penguins, goes something like this: After the penguins mate, Mama Penguin lays an egg and places it at the feet of Papa Penguin. For two months, Papa Penguin incubates the little egg, protecting it from predatory birds and the Antarctic's brutal cold. As a result, he loses nearly half his body weight.
I don't remember March of the Penguins being a comedy. In fact, a lot of people were moved to tears by that movie. But for some reason, the idea of fathers suffering like their pregnant counterparts is a joke to many women. It's like they're flipping us the flightless bird. Allow me to set the record straight: Guys can have pregnancy symptoms, and there's even a clinical term for it.
Couvade syndrome is a condition where the father-to-be experiences pregnancy symptoms like weight gain, nausea, insomnia and mood swings. It's actually rather common. In fact, about 90 percent of men experience at least one pregnancy-like symptom, according to a 2005 report filed by CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, M.D. Severe cases of Couvade have been documented, among them a father who experienced abdominal pains when his wife went into labor. I wonder how that conversation went:
"Honey, my uterus is contracting."
"Yeah? Well, so is mine."
"I've discussed it with patients in my private practice, and they've laughed about it," says Michele Hakakha, M.D., a board-certified OB-GYN in private practice in Beverly Hills. She and co-author Ari Brown, M.D., researched Couvade syndrome for the forthcoming book, Expecting 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Pregnancy. "Pregnancy is a time when women feel they deserve to be waited on, so naturally, they aren't terribly sympathetic."
The pathology of Couvade syndrome is tougher to nail down. Some believe it's a psychological issue. "A lot of men don't feel needed [during pregnancy]," explains Hakakha. "It's a time when they can feel pushed to the side." The Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology states that the symptoms may be "a consequence of the man's envy of the woman's procreative ability."
Others think Couvade is a physical issue. Expectant dads, worried about the massive impending life change, eat to comfort themselves, or simply eat more because Mom 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," explains Hakakha. "The increased levels of estrogen may be responsible for mood swings and nausea." Insomnia may be the result of sleep deprivation (which also contributes to being irritable and moody). "If there's a pregnant woman in the house, you won't sleep well if she's not sleeping well. This can lead to more stress and more symptoms."
What's the cure? "Try exercising together, enjoying a couple's massage, or simply talking to each other and your OB-GYN about it," Hakakha says. "Women should understand that while he's not carrying a baby, he's being sympathetic to you carrying a baby."
Think of it this way: Dad is the penguin, and Mom is the egg and the Antarctic. We must protect you and quietly endure any inclement weather you throw our way. That may not be worth an Academy Award, but could you at least rub our aching feet?