Pregnant Man

NOTE: This post is late in being posted. T & I now have our beautiful baby boy and life sure is different. Lots to talk on that later. That being said, I’ve shifted into fatherhood quite naturally, and it’s amazing how much things change once you have your child in your arms. Amazing, that is, after the shock wears off when you get home and realize that you’re in charge of the thing!

Those who know us are well aware by now that T and I are expecting a baby come October. It’s been quite an interesting ride the past 8 months, and I’m sure this will seem very tiny once our little one is finally here with us. I wanted to share a few thoughts that I’ve wrestled with over the past couple months, particularly with what it means to be an expectant father. There have been plenty of books written about pregnancy, however one thing I’ve noticed they all have in common is a focus on the pregnant mother. Some books have small sections for an expecting father, however they seem to be focused on emphasizing how to support the mother and all the changes that are occurring for her.

I am not saying a husband responsibility to help support his pregnant partner is unimportant, quite the opposite. I am saying that the amount of literature that helps men prepare themselves for fatherhood and how to deal with the changes that occur for us is…lacking. I read a book recently that addressed this topic quite well and has helped me better prepare myself for fatherhood. The thing that I didn’t expect to learn, however, was that there truly is such a thing as a pregnant man.

Enter couvade:

Couvade, which refers to the ritual observance by the father of rest and seclusion when his wife gives birth. Commonly both father and mother of the newborn baby must observe certain avoidances relating to food, physical activities, and contact with potentially magically dangerous substances in order to protect the child from harm.

The Dictionary of Anthropology

Couvade–the imitation by the after of many of the concomitants of childbirth, around the time of his wife’s parturition; it is also called “men’s childbed.” The father may retire to bed, go into seclusion, and observe some taboos and restrictions in order to help the child. Among the theories that have been suggested to account for the couvade is that during this period, the father has to take care of himself to avoid an injury that could be transmitted to the child by sympathetic magic. Another is that the father asserts hs paternity through appearing to share in the delivery. A third explanation is that the after simulates the wife’s activities in order to get evil spirits to focus on him, rather than her.

The Encyclopedia of Anthropology

These two definitions try to describe an anthropological phenomenon known as couvade ritual. It has been seen in many, many cultures around the world through time and represents a “rite of passage” for the father. While the actual details of what happens during these couvade rituals vary wildly, the commonality they all hold is that these cultures have recognized the transition into fatherhood as a significant transformation in a man’s life. In some cultures, a male isn’t considered a ‘man’ until he becomes a father. Rituals were developed in these cultures to mark the period and provide some structure for the man to help understand and navigate his way through the significant changes that are occurring in his life. While many of the couvade rituals are near-laughable in our contemporary North American culture, part of me can’t help but feel they were on to something.

The past 8 months has been a busy one for T and I. We trusted that God would provide a place for us to live and decided not to renew our lease and start looking for a new home. We were unable to find something in time, and were fortunate enough to have friends that let us move into their basement while we continued to house-hunt. After 5 months of looking, we finally found and purchased a house that exceeded our expectations in ways we never imagined it would. However, it needed some fixing up, and we spent nearly 1½ months renovating the interior.

For the first 6 – 7 months of T’s pregnancy, we were too busy to barely even notice that the baby was there, which was a blessing in some ways. One thing that has been difficult at times, though, is that in the last two months of T’s pregnancy we have been working through all the various emotions and challenges that come with expecting a child. For myself, it has meant switching from focusing all my efforts into finding a home for my wife and new child to preparing the place, and myself, for the arrival of this new life. It’s been a lot to manage in the past month and a bit.

In an attempt to cope with the fact that I’ll be responsible for this new life, I won’t get nearly as much sleep as I think I need, that T and I won’t be able to just spontaneously head out for a nice dinner, that hopping in the car will now be a whole process, among many other new challenges to life, our relationship and the wallet, I’ve been looking for some sort of support. Responses have not been very helpful. Ranging from more advice on how to support the mother to “Just wait until the thing is out if you think life is hard now,” I’ve been feeling less than fulfilled with what I’ve been told.

This has led onto a rabbit trail of things that lead to a larger weakness in our culture: ideas of manhood and fatherhood. Now that’s a topic that’s way bigger than this blog post, but the more I think about it and read about it, I think post-feminist-movement North American culture is severely lacking in healthy understanding and role-models of/for men and fathers.

One aspect I will attempt to tackle, however, is couvade ritual in North American culture. The culture surrounding pregnancy has changed rapidly over the past 50 years. The labouring process has, for a very long time, been a woman’s domain, with support roles being filled by female family members or local midwives. Men were hardly ever in the picture; staying out of the way was the best possible course of action for us to help out.

However, things rapidly shifted through the later half of the 20th century. Expectations for men to be involved in the labor process shifted extremely quickly to the point where just over 25 to 30 years, most of the time the expectant father is designated as the primary support for the labouring mother. From a cultural, anthropogenic viewpoint, this is an extremely quick transition. Us men, for the most part, have fumbled our way through it, trying to do a good job but often feeling like we’re failing (at least for the first child).

The modern expectant father is a trendsetter. Culture has not been able to keep up with the shifting expectations for new fathers. With little guidance to go on, every man helping with the labor process is potentially setting new rituals that one day may shape how men are expected to be supportive through the pregnancy process. The complete lack of cultural couvade ritual places men in a difficult place: we have very little support to help us understand and comprehend the changes that occur as we transition to fatherhood, no language to help articulate the challenges we do face during pregnancy, and there exist few role models to help us provide a direction to aim for. North America has very little story for expectant fathers. This makes it exciting on one hand, as each expectant father is writing a completely unique story of his own. However, it also provides extreme challenges to many men; the lack of support can prove a near-insurmountable barrier that severely hampers a man’s ability to prepare, support, and cope with a new child.

There has been a very interesting side-effect to all this which has been dubbed couvade symptoms. Research is still somewhat lacking on this, but the idea (bolstered by my personal experience) is pretty solid. It goes like this:

  • Man learns he is going to be a father.
  • Man has difficult understanding exactly what this mean
  • Man tries to cope with changes in his wife
  • Man has little guidance or leadership in processing significant changes in his life
  • With no other way to express itself, the expectant father begins showing physical symptoms that can often mirror those expressed by a pregnant woman.

Couvade symptoms are a somatic expression of the stress an expectant father feels when he cannot find the words or leadership to express or understand the changes that are in store. I’ve had this myself with trouble sleeping, constipation, and occasional heartburn. Studies have only recently been exploring this in men, and initial results indicate that upwards of 90% of expectant fathers experience some sort of couvade symptoms during their partner’s pregnancy.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling a lot better about everything. A couple weekends ago T and I attended a 2-day intensive prenatal class (my work schedule precludes any regular time commitments). Being in a room with a bunch of people all in the same place, hoping to learn more about what’s coming and how to handle it was quite therapeutic. Combining this with our instructors 20 years experience as a nurse, mother of 4, struggled with the changes with her husband’s attitude proved to be a beneficial experience for me. I understood better what was happening to T, I gained some preparation for what labor will be like, and last but not least, I learned that I was like most of the other men there: eager to help but confused and unsure of what our roles were and how this baby was going to impact our relationships with our wives.

It was this experience that makes me agree full-heartedly with this realization by Gordon Churchwell after his own experience at prenatal classes with his wife:

…as we filed out the door together, I thought about the most horrible legacy of our modern lives and the epiphany I once had during a therapy session. Why is it that we always have to pay cash money for the knowledge that others feel as we do? That we are not isolated, not alone with our fear and our human suffering?

Gordon Churchwell in Pregnant Man

Such is the experience for so many expectant fathers in North America. With lack of any sort of couvade ritual, any sort of role models, any sort of cultural direction for what it means to be a man or a father, we flounder, trying our best to stay afloat amidst all the changes happening to our family, our relationships and our lives while hoping that we can find out that at least one other person feels as helpless and confused as we do.

The good news is that most men struggle with this throughout their partner’s pregnancy, even if they don’t want to admit it. But in that there is amazing opportunity: we have the opportunity to sculpt our rituals. We need to find the strength to listen to the needs and desires of our wives and to struggle to become someone who can be supportive, we need to reflect and be aware of the changes that the prospect of having a child causes, and we need to take all these things and be willing to have the strength to become a role model for others.

Easier said than done, that’s for sure. And let me tell you, having your child and bringing it home…well that’s a blog post for a whole other day! I would say that if you’re a man facing the daunting task of becoming a father, give Pregnant Man a read; you may find comfort in knowing you’re not alone and you may even learn a few things that will help you process all the changes that are happening; I recommend it!