Couvade Syndrome: Why do so many French dads suffer from this mysterious pregnancy ailment?

Couvade Syndrome: Why do so many French dads suffer from this mysterious pregnancy ailment?
Photo: AFP
Weight gain, nausea, stomach pains - you might think these pregnancy symptoms are only suffered by women, but French dads-to-be say it's a problem for them too.

The French are known for having words that aren’t translatable. The Local has a whole section on French expressions many of which don’t have a good English translation.

One such example is couvade.

Couvade comes from the French verb couver, which means ‘brood’, ‘hatch’ or ‘nest’.

It is sometimes used in France as a jokey allusion to dads-to-be gaining a bit of extra weight, their own 'baby belly', but it is also used internationally to describe men who suffer from actual pregnancy symptoms.

“I gained 15 kilos and was completely demoralised,” said Francis Guthleben, a French author who has written several books about fatherhood and le syndrome de la couvade, or Couvade Syndrome.

Guthleben was 42 and his wife was pregnant for the third time when he noticed that his body started to change.

“I was really scared,” he told The Local on the phone.

Guthleben decided to write down everything that changed about his body and mental state during the pregnancy. The notes became the basis for his first book Enceint! (‘Pregnant!), published in 2013, the first French written first-person account of a man’s experience of the syndrome.

Couvade Syndrome is mysterious, yet surprisingly common. The most recent study on the topic, conducted by the St George’s Hospital in London back in 2007, found that 20 percent of the French fathers taking part suffered from the syndrome.

Guthleben said he reckoned the number was much higher today.

“Many fathers don’t know that they are living it, are too ashamed to admit it, or don’t dare to talk about it,” he told The Local on the phone.

Writing helped Guthleben see that his bodily transformation came from feelings that he could not name, but enviously saw expressed in the plump belly of his wife.

“I wanted to be round, I wanted to be a mother,” Guthleben said, quoting from his book.

“The man does not carry anything, physically. He carries his child in his head. I wanted to carry the child in a way I could not.”

READ ALSO: What do French women mean when they say they have 'heavy legs'?

Women carry the pregnancy physically, while men “carry the child in their heads,” according to Guthleben. Photo: AFP

For Guthleben, the repressed feelings manifested themselves in extra kilos. Stomach aches, nausea (‘morning sickness’), back pain, mood swings, food cravings, fainting and insomnia are other symptoms related to Couvade Syndrome.

Couvade Syndrome is a controversial topic, not least because it may seem like the man is stealing what perhaps should be the woman’s time in the spotlight, seeing as she is carrying the actual physical burden of the pregnancy.

But the men insist that the pain is not “imaginary,” but “real as a brick”, according to David B. Morris’ book Culture of Pain, which explored the topic back in the late 1990s.

There is no one established theory explaining what causes the syndrome. One theory is that it is caused by the man’s envying of the woman’s procreative ability. Another states that it is the physical evidence of a fear of rejection or exclusion. Yet another claims it comes from the father’s feeling of rivalry towards the foetus, and that Couvade Syndrome is a cry for attention.

But Guthleben said denying the illness did not make it disappear. 

“Isolation is typical behaviour [for men who suffer from Couvade Syndrome], but it creates a gap between the mother and the father” he said, pointing to that he believed men needed to be better included in the entire pregnancy process.

“In French traditional societies, fathers would lay with their wives in bed during the pregnancy,” he said.

Such rituals were helpful in solidifying the role of the man – a role that was becoming more and more unclear and complex, Guthleben said.

“French men today aren't even allowed to take time off work to go to antenatal classes,” he said.

READ ALSO Why do the French love medicine so much?

Guthleben said the country should establish all-male support groups for future fathers.

“We are always focused on the mother during a pregnancy. Never on the father,” he said. 

Albeit a French word, Couvade Syndrome is by all means limited to France. The researchers conducting the study at the St George’s Hospital in London found that in Thailand and China 61 and 68 percent respectively of the men asked suffered from the syndrome. 

In the UK, there has been less interest for the topic than in France, with the most recent statistics dating back to the 1990s, estimating that between 11 and 50 percent of British men suffered from Couvade Syndrome.

In the US, one study found that 52 percent of fathers experienced symptoms of Couvade Syndrome.

Couvade is not new either. There are references to symptoms of Couvade Syndrome dating all the way back to 50BC in Corsica, Cyprus, Papa New Guinea and Ancient Iberia, according to British newspaper the Guardian.

Back then, future fathers would get the same level of attention as mothers. Some would even wear their partner’s clothes and cry out from what they said were labour pains.

Future mothers might cringe of the idea of their partners like that. However Couvade syndrome could have a positive effect too, according to Dr. Robin Edelstein, who has studied such hormonal shifts in expectant fathers at the University of Michigan.

“It could make men more supportive and more invested in their relationship, and more prepared to become a parent,” she told The Guardian last year.


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