The Pregnant Father
Pregnancy can be a very worrying and emotionally intense experience for a man—which is odd when you consider that men don’t get pregnant. Nevertheless it’s true, as Greg’s story shows.
I met Greg because his wife, Helen, phoned me one evening. She was worried about his reaction to her pregnancy. Greg is a kitchen equipment salesman in his mid-thirties who had been very successful in his job, always exceeding his sales quotas and often winning bonuses and trips abroad. According to Helen, he had been a confirmed bachelor and was somewhat taken by surprise by their recent marriage, let alone that he was on the verge of becoming a father. It seemed to be having a drastic effect on his life.
Helen was concerned that Greg seemed unable to cope with the approaching baby. According to her, he had changed dramatically during the pregnancy. She felt that he was not able to acknowledge these changes properly, and wouldn’t talk about them. He also didn’t want to touch her ‘bump’. Greg’s work had suffered as well. His sales performance had declined and he had just received a letter from his firm saying that if he wasn’t able to achieve his sales quota they would fire him.
As I talked with Helen, it transpired that Greg was showing several other unusual symptoms. He came home from work tired and listless, and he complained of frequent headaches. He had become much more clinging, wanting to be cuddled constantly. And despite his increased interest in her, he also seemed to be paying more attention to other women.
Helen was convinced that Greg’s main trouble was his inability to talk to anyone about his problems. She kept asking him what the matter was, but he consistently denied any problem. There was obviously a fundamental difference in attitude between them which would not be easy to bridge. This seems to be a common distinction between men and women today. Women feel that ‘talking things over’ must necessarily be a good thing, and that failure to do so is itself the sign of a problem. Although some men agree, the majority see no need to discuss emotional experiences. Strong silent suffering is still man’s way.
Partly at Helen’s urging, I met Greg a few weeks later in a pub near his home. He didn’t strike me as being weighed down by the burdens of pregnancy. Indeed, he seemed pleased with the opportunity to talk about it, and was very positive about the forthcoming birth and his hopes for his new baby. Nevertheless, despite his openness, Greg’s reaction to Helen’s pregnancy was definitely being expressed in both physical and emotional changes. Greg may have been a little unusual in the number of symptoms he displayed, but many men will have similar experiences during pregnancy.
Many people express surprise that men suffer from pregnancy symptoms, but surely the surprising thing is that they suffer so few. Not only is pregnancy a time of stress and anxiety—with worries about whether the baby will be alright, whether it will be possible to cope financially, and so on—but it is also a time when many men experience major changes in attitude. Looked at in the terms of commitment and style of fathering as discussed in chapter one, most men become more committed and adopt a less traditional attitude towards fatherhood during the course of the pregnancy. The diagram shows the sort of movement (from x to o) made by many men. They start with little commitment to fatherhood and with traditional attitudes, and move to become much more committed and keen on a more active style of fathering.
Not everyone follows this path, of course. I was more committed to fatherhood than many of my contemporaries, although my views were just as traditional as theirs. Some men may even become less committed and more traditional as the pregnancy develops. Nevertheless, both my experiences of talking with men and research findings suggest that a large number of men follow this sort of development. Women also undergo changes of attitude during pregnancy, similar in many cases to those experienced by men. But there is a major difference.
Having a baby is a very direct experience for a woman. Pregnancy lasts nine months and has an obvious physiological purpose, giving the fetus enough time to develop to a viable state. But pregnancy also provides a time of transition and preparation for motherhood. If a woman became a mother overnight, within 24 hours of conception, she would find it very hard to cope with the change in her status. Even with a nine month waiting period the reality of parenthood can be quite a shock!
Pregnancy is also a time a transition for a man, but for him there are no obvious physical changes to mirror the emotional transition to parenthood. There is no way of telling that a man is going to have a baby, even if it is due the very next day. People don’t stop in the street and say, ‘Oh look! A pregnant man. It won’t be long now by the look of him!’ For a man, the transition to parenthood is essentially an emotional experience—something which many men find particularly difficult to come to terms with since we are notoriously ill at ease with feelings; being much more at home with physical and practical things. This is one of the most important lessons of pregnancy because one of the differences between fatherhood and motherhood is just that: while motherhood is direct, based on the mother’s emotional and physical involvement with the child, the father’s relationship tends to be more diffuse, at one remove. The father often has more difficulty in relating to his children just because his relationship is not based initially on a physical involvement.
As a man’s commitment to parenthood grows it is not enough for him to leave pregnancy as a purely female experience. He wants to be involved in it, to ‘get to know’ his baby and prepare for the forthcoming changes. But how is this to be done? The more pronounced the physical signs of her pregnancy, the more alienated he may become, because it is not happening to him. She is the one who is feeling the changes; she is the one everybody makes a fuss of; she is the one who has to change her lifestyle; she is the one who has to undergo the ritual of the visit to the clinic. These experiences may not be pleasant, but they all help to mark out the pregnant woman as someone special; someone undergoing a major life change. And because these are the ways we mark the transition to parenthood, men also need to experience them.
Many societies adopt a ritual strategy which helps the prospective parents get used to the idea of having a child, and become involved with the unborn. For instance, on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, the unborn child is given a name early in the pregnancy. From that time onward, until some weeks after the baby is born, no-one is allowed to call the expectant mother and father by their own names. Instead they must be called by means of the child’s name: ‘mother of so-and-so’ or ‘father of so-and-so’. They are also both obliged to abstain from eating certain foods. In this way the father’s identification with the pregnancy is continually and publicly acknowledged. (Radcliffe-Brown, p.146)
In the West we generally ignore such obvious and public ritual solutions to our problems. So men adopt various other, unconscious, strategies to help their identification with the baby. Some undergo physical changes, which mimic women’s pregnancy symptoms. Others alter their lifestyle, or use the pregnancy as an opportunity to reflect on their priorities in life. Pregnancy is a time of great change and uncertainty for many men, perhaps made worse by the fact that society as a whole does not acknowledge the powerful effect it can have on them.
It seems to me that men in the West are adopting private rituals in order to compensate for the lack of public ritual. The name given to such changes in lifestyle or behaviour, whether public or private, is couvade. This term is used by psychologists and anthropologists to refer to a wide range of such changes which can happen during pregnancy and through to the period shortly after birth.
The most dramatic couvade symptoms are physical. Sometimes they can be quite bizarre and extreme. One 38-year-old man had a variety of symptoms during each of his wife’s six pregnancies. During the first he had morning sickness and also severe and persistent tooth-ache, which led to him having all but eight of his molars extracted. On the day his child was born he was seized by a severe stomach ache. This gripped him for an hour or so while he sat on the lavatory. He subsequently found out that the pain left him at just about the time his baby was born! The symptoms were similar during each pregnancy, with morning sickness, loss of appetite, abdominal pains and toothache being the most common. He was also displayed great anxiety about his wife’s pregnancies—which were all free from complications—and felt very guilty about causing her to be in such a dangerous state (Enoch & Trethowan). Midwifery lore has long associated pregnancy with teeth, and approaching fatherhood with tooth-ache; is this perhaps because the extraction of a tooth is a natural symbol for the birth (extraction) of a baby?
Other men have less severe or painful symptoms, but they are just as real. Some suffer from morning sickness, others put on weight or get severe abdominal pains. Brian Jackson found that the men he spoke to also encountered wind, constipation, backache, “a feeling of fullness in my stomach”, strong changes of taste in food and drink, and new, broken, sleep patterns. Jackson estimated that 34 men, out of the 100 he interviewed, had some physical symptoms—although only seven actually identified these as being related to the pregnancy. Other studies have estimated that as many as 60% of men experience some physical signs of pregnancy.
Why do men display such reactions? Stress is commonly cited as one reason. Betty Parsons is an antenatal teacher. She tells the following story:
Physical symptoms are only the tip of the couvade iceberg. Many men rethink their attitudes to work during pregnancy. Work often provides the core of a man’s existence; he has been brought up to value it above all things. Pregnancy forces a new evaluation of priorities. The prospect of a new life and a new creative responsibility is very powerful. After all, a job is just a job; a new life is altogether more important—especially if it is a part of you.
This rearrangement of priorities has consequences for fatherhood in the months and years to come. It is important not to underestimate its power or seriousness. Greg, the kitchen salesman, nearly lost his job. He didn’t feel that any major change had taken place, simply that his job wasn’t quite so all-important any more. But this small change was enough to send him from super-salesman to below par in a few months.
Paradoxically, there is another common—but quite different—reaction to pregnancy felt by many men. A man may be overwhelmed by the forthcoming financial responsibility. He feels quite unable to cope, especially if his partner will be giving up work after the birth. This too can change a man’s attitudes to work. He may feel the need to work longer hours in order to earn more, and the extra responsibility means that it is now more important to hang onto his job. He must become more conscientious, less able to rock the boat.
A study undertaken for the British Equal Opportunities Commission asked nearly three hundred fathers about work and the impact of children. Only a few had actually changed the number of hours they worked as a result of having a child. Most of these men spent less time at work. The researchers also asked the men whether they wanted to change their hours. One in four would have liked to have worked fewer hours, and one in nine would have liked to work longer. Those who wanted to work less were equally divided between manual and non-manual workers but those who wanted to work longer were three times as likely to be manual workers—a good illustration of the greater amount of financial pressure a baby can put on working class families (Bell et al).
Not all reactions to pregnancy are so weighty. Many men engage in ‘nesting’ activity. They suddenly take an interest in the home; noticing that the place needs decorating. The most obvious sign of all is the preparation of the nursery. Even a very macho man can suddenly fall in love with pastel shades and pretty patterns. Perhaps it gives him an opportunity to explore the ‘feminine’ side of his nature without any risk to his self-image. After all, it’s ‘for the baby’ or ‘for the wife’, not for him; so it’s OK.
Some buy a pet, or start treating the pets they already have as if they were babies; picking them up and cuddling them—even using baby talk to them. Others show a new interest in babies, especially if there are relatives with young children. He suggests more visits to them, and perhaps manages to be there when the baby is being passed around for a cuddle. Inevitably someone will tease him and suggest that he has a turn at holding the baby. Many men have absolutely no experience of how to deal with young children and there are few funnier or more touching sights than to see an inexperienced man pick up a baby. He holds it slightly away from his body, arms tensed, watching intently as if it might either explode or else fall to pieces in his arms. It is a mixture of tenderness, concern and downright panic.
A man’s attitudes and behaviour during pregnancy will obviously depend a lot on his attitude to the forthcoming birth. Perhaps the pregnancy was unintended. For some this will be a happy accident, for others a disaster. Some accept it stoically as a fate to be endured, others acknowledge it joyously as God’s will. Things are different if the pregnancy was planned. Then, sexual intercourse assumed a new purpose; a purpose beyond simple pleasure. The union of seed and egg was intended, wished for, longed for perhaps; and because of this, making love will never be quite the same again.
But whether the baby was wished for or not, most men find that pregnancy changes their attitudes towards sex. Some men find the fact that they have demonstrated their own fertility quite exciting.
This may also be because of a sense of lost opportunities; a feeling that now you’ve burned your boats and are irrevocably committed to your partner. It’s not that most men want to be unfaithful or break off the relationship at this time, but rather that they can feel very hemmed in by the pressures and responsibilities of approaching parenthood. A few may actually translate the thought into the deed, but for most it remains a vague feeling of generalised desire.
For some couples sex becomes better; they make love more often and more intensely. Many women find that, provided that they suffer no serious physical pregnancy symptoms, their own libido increases as pregnancy progresses. Masters and Johnson found that the majority of women in their study experienced an increase of the sex drive at around four to five months of pregnancy. Inevitably, many men find their partner’s increased enthusiasm infectious. There is also a new lack of inhibition for many couples—after all, there is now no need to worry about contraception; no chance of an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy. Many men find the sheath an unsatisfactory contraceptive because it interferes with sensation, but also feel either anxious about the safety of methods such as the cap or guilty about the side effects of the pill or coil. The chance to lay aside all these worries during pregnancy is most appealing.
Lack of worry is one factor; the desire for greater closeness is another. When asked what effect the new baby would have, the most common answer given by a group of men surveyed at one hospital was that it would create a family. But the second most common response was that the new baby would restrict life; that it would mark the end of a carefree existence. Many men feel both of these responses quite strongly. A man may be drawn closer to his partner during pregnancy, not only because he senses the development of a new stage in their relationship—becoming a family rather than just a couple—but also because he senses the end of an old intimacy. He may want to have a last fling with her, a kind of second honeymoon before it is all too late.
But such feelings are not necessarily translated into sexual activity. Masters and Johnson found that 31 out of the 79 expectant fathers they interviewed gradually ceased sexual activity as the pregnancy progressed. Many men are afraid of hurting the baby, or causing a miscarriage, or in some way bringing ‘bad luck’ on the pregnancy.
Most of the baby books are not very supportive: they simply insist that such fears are groundless. There is, they say, no reason at all to stop intercourse unless you notice vaginal bleeding. They treat a lessening of sexual activity as a ‘problem’ which must be cured, instead of accepting the possibility that it is a normal and common male reaction to pregnancy. Because of this a man who ‘suffers’ from this ‘problem’ may feel either stupid or a failure—especially if his partner becomes more physical during pregnancy.
Some men worry that they will hurt the baby in a very direct and physical way. As the fetus gets larger and more active, you can become very aware during intercourse of just how short a distance there is between the tip of the penis and the baby only a few inches away in the uterus. The books, of course, tell us that there is no rational reason to worry. The cervix (neck of the uterus) is closed with a plug of mucus and the baby is wrapped in the membranes, and so is quite isolated from the outside world. Nevertheless, the worries continue. I even heard of a man who worried that the baby would put its hand through the cervix and grab his penis during intercourse! This too may be foolishness, but it certainly isn’t an inducement to passion.
The reasons for male lessening of interest in sex are manifold. I think that in part it is another couvade symptom. By abstaining from normal sexual activity the man ‘marks’ the time of pregnancy as being special, and so involves himself in it more. It is worth remembering that men often see sex as debilitating or dangerous. Magicians and initiates are often instructed to abstain before undertaking a demanding exercise. Soldiers pass on the rumour that bromide is being put in the tea to diminish their sexuality before a battle. Athletes are kept isolated from wives and girlfriends the night before a big competition or during a tour. Whatever the physical reasons, abstaining from sex is one way men have of preparing for some great endeavour. And what greater event could there be than the forthcoming birth of your own child?
A man also has to come to terms with his partner’s new role. She is becoming a mother. Not his mother of course, but because of his own deep involvement the distinctions may get a bit blurred. It is well known that you shouldn’t have sex with a mother, so perhaps its best to lay off for a while until things have sorted themselves out. This isn’t a problem near the surface for most men, though some are aware of it; but it is true that quite a lot of men start to behave in a rather babyish way, wanting to be ‘mothered’ by their partners. Perhaps this is because they find it hard to face up to the responsibility of fatherhood, perhaps because they are ‘rehearsing’ for the more tender and nurturing role they will adopt when the baby comes. Whatever the reason, if a man starts to treat his wife more like a mother figure he may well find it harder to make love to her because of this.
There may be other, even more fundamental, reasons for men to feel wary of sex during pregnancy. There may be some fear, not of the baby, but of the mother. Woman’s fertility has been held in awe by men since the dawn of time. Men have tried to control it, mimic it, and deny it. But still it remains—the one power that we can never have. It is not surprising that some men are a little reticent in the presence of pregnancy. For it is during pregnancy that the power of fertility is most obviously displayed; that the physical differences between men and women are most openly shown. She changes, swells, matures; he stays the same, pedestrian, unable to catch her up. The wonder is not that so many men feel diffident about intercourse during pregnancy, but rather that so many are able to use the experience to develop a new closeness.
Lack of intercourse does not necessarily mean the end of physical relationship. Even though men often fail to distinguish between sexuality and sensuality, many are able to use pregnancy as a time to explore new ways of loving.
These new expressions of sensuality can be a reflection of the move towards a new equality in the relationship and a preparation for the power sharing which is characteristic of the active father.
This new interest in her body is mirrored, for some men, by a new interest in their own. Studies of US airmen showed that they tended to become more health conscious during pregnancy; exercising more, cutting down on smoking, and in some cases drinking more milk! But not everyone finds pregnancy a sufficient excuse for taking better care of themselves:
When we were expecting our first child I borrowed an obstetrics textbook from the local library. It was full of pictures and stories of what might go wrong, so I didn’t show it to Shirley because I felt it might upset her. The book wasn’t actually much help to me, but I read it because I had a great need to know about pregnancy and birth. Many men have a similar need but in my experience they rarely express it until after the birth. There are now several books on the market written expressly for the expectant father. One or two of them are quite useful, although few really address themselves to the father’s needs. Most of them are probably bought by women and given to men.
One of the best ways of preparing for parenthood is to attend antenatal classes. Most hospitals or clinics provide them, as do private organizations such as the International Childbirth Education Association in the US and other parts of the world, the National Childbirth Trust in the UK, or Parents Centres in Australia and New Zealand. Nearly all antenatal courses welcome men to at least one class and many, especially the private ones, include them in the whole course. Yet men rarely go willingly, if at all.
Some men feel that the whole thing is women’s business and simply don’t want to interfere. Others know it’s women’s business because their partners don’t want them to interfere. And there are those who know that they are welcome, but feel that it’s a bit unmanly to sit down with a lot of women and talk about babies. Despite the apparent unwillingness, many men are really quite keen, but worry about possible loss of face. It is here that the excuse, ‘I only came because she wanted me to’ can be so convenient. It provides a way of having your cake and eating it, and this can be important to the man who is still having difficulty in coming to terms with a new involvement in family matters.
Many men are reluctant to attend antenatal classes simply because they feel that the classes will not be relevant to them. And they are often correct. Many hospitals and clinics hold their classes during the day, when it is hard for most men to get time off to attend. But at present, the man who does manage to get there is unlikely to be heartened by his reception. Either he will be resented or he will be matronised (antenatal classes are almost exclusively run by women).
Things are not always so bad, and the discrimination is not usually so blatant, but most antenatal classes are still not really geared to men’s needs. This is especially true of hospital classes, although there are now some pilot schemes under way which seek to provide more directly for fathers’ needs. I know of two British hospitals which are trying to set up fathers’ support groups, although so far they have had a very limited response.
Even the private classes, whilst generally excellent and providing a much more relaxed and intimate atmosphere, tend to treat men as peripheral to the process; without any real needs of their own. This was brought home to me at a meeting I attended about fathers’ antenatal needs. One of the men present was talking about his own experience of antenatal classes. He said that the teacher used to split the class into single sex groups for part of the time, something which he found very useful. Also present was a well-known and respected childbirth educator. She challenged him, saying that she didn’t feel that men-only groups were a good idea. What had he been able to say in the male group that he couldn’t say in the whole class?
He explained that during the pregnancy he had been quite worried about the amount of money his wife was spending on the forthcoming baby. He would not have brought this up in front of his wife and the other women in the group because he would not want to criticise her publicly. But it was good for him to be able to share his concern with other men—several of whom had similar worries. But, said the childbirth educator, hadn’t he asked why his wife was spending so much money? Obviously it was a sign that she was unhappy and in need of more attention from him! Suddenly this father’s perfectly understandable problem was devalued and he was made to feel guilty about a supposed lack of concern for his wife.
I protested about this, and the discussion got a little heated. One of the other antenatal teachers present tried to defuse the situation by suggesting that single-sex groups were not a good idea in antenatal classes anyway. Oh no, said the childbirth educator, single-sex women’s groups are fine! This woman, a sensitive and impassioned champion of humane obstetrics in the labour room, had been in the forefront of advocating men’s increasing involvement in parenting, yet even she seemed to see it as something of a threat.
A generation ago men were not usually directly involved in the months before birth; they watched their wives’ pregnancies as spectators. Now many men participate in pregnancy; they share its stresses and strains and like the pregnant woman they become a little removed from normal life in preparation for their forthcoming change of status. The physical symptoms, changing attitudes, and other people’s new reactions used to be reserved for women alone. It is a measure of men’s increased commitment to involved fathering that they now share in this ritualised process. [Next]
 The word couvade was coined by Sir Edward Tylor from the French verb couver, meaning ‘to brood’. Anthropologists use the term to describe ritual processes, while psychologists use it to describe psychological or psychosomatic symptoms. I am not convinced that there is any point in maintaining such a distinction. As far as I am concerned, couvade symptoms in the West play the same role as couvade rituals in other cultures. They have a ritual function, but are merely expressed in the individualistic idiom which we commonly adopt, rather than in the more collective style characteristic of many traditional societies.
Although some so-called couvade symptoms are clearly pathological, I do not accept that this applies to most of them. As we will see in chapter six, couvade is a perfectly natural phenomenon, given the prevailing social circumstances in the West.