An expectant father experiences sympathy pangs
Some articles are not easy to pen. Some admissions are almost too private, too painful to share. But in the interests of my fellow man (and I am using this term in its gendered sense here), I need to confess a shameful secret: I am a couvade syndrome survivor.
I’d never heard of it before I was afflicted, but couvade syndrome is a condition that transcends national boundaries, political persuasion and depth of pocket – anyone with a Y chromosome and a pregnant wife is vulnerable to it. If you, too, are an expecting father, you may be familiar with it. If you are a Cosmo reader you may even be an armchair expert on it. I’m about to have my first child, though, and I’m not a keen Cosmo reader, so I was totally unprepared for the bewildering effects of what is more commonly known as “sympathetic pregnancy.”
You may scoff, but I have to get this off my chest for the sake of all those other Beijing dads with unmanly secrets who need to know that they are not the only ones. For the uninitiated, some studies suggest couvade syndrome affects up to 65 percent of men, though scientific opinion on its origins is divided.
It’s a mysterious illness, but it’s easy enough to diagnose: when my wife was about ten weeks pregnant, I started to experience the first retches of nausea (why do they call it morning sickness when you feel it all day? Expecting mothers out there, I know your pain). And, though I may not have quite matched my wife in terms of frequency of night time toilet trips, my bladder certainly gave hers a run for the money. At times, it felt like the only thing my wife was experiencing that I wasn’t was a craving for pickled plums. What on earth, I fretted, was happening to me?
I might never have understood these unfamiliar symptoms if it hadn’t have been for an older friend and counselor, who, for the sake of his dignity, shall remain nameless. This experienced father explained to me that I was simply suffering from couvade syndrome, and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I shouldn’t discuss my problem in public – most men would only laugh, warned Luis. (Sorry mate, it just slipped out. But don’t you think it’s time we were honest about this, for the sake of our pregnant male comrades?) Agony uncle Luis also offered me some consolation for the ignominy of male morning sickness: the stronger the feelings of nausea, he said, the stronger the couple’s love for one another.
There are plenty of skeptics out there who pooh-pooh the idea of sympathetic pregnancy. “Isn’t physical sickness just a normal reaction to the realization that you’ve committed yourself to months of sleeplessness and a lifetime of poverty?” they might ask, with some justification. “What dad-to-be doesn’t take to the bottle?” they might go on. “With a bladder full of beer, no surprises that you had to get up all night.” If it weren’t for Luis, I might almost be able to persuade myself that these skeptics are right. But Luis swears one of the times his wife got pregnant he started to feel the symptoms before she’d even told him, and I’m inclined to believe him.
Just at the point where I might have considered resorting to Chinese herbal solutions – or prenatal massage – my pregnancy symptoms disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived. In all, my distress lasted almost a week, on and off. (Any women reading this who think I got off lightly ought to bear in mind the mental anguish suffered by a red-blooded male who gets physically possessed by his heretofore unknown feminine side.) Once I was back to normal, I tried to get on with my life and put the unpleasant episode behind me, along with the questions about whether my condition’s disappearance possibly implied that my love for my wife was diminishing as her girth increased.
Recently, however, I was introduced to the phrase tong gan gong ku (同甘共苦):"together in sweetness, together in pain.” This Chinese equivalent to "in sickness and in health” triggered something, and my repressed memories of my brief bout with couvade syndrome came flooding back. With the passage of time – and with a wife who’s just a month away from delivery – I now reflect that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
It certainly put an end to the thought that pregnancy is something that only happens to women – a notion that wives all over have been trying to instill for centuries. Could it be that my sympathetic pregnancy was just part of Mother Nature’s plan – the physical manifestation of tong gan gong ku? And is it possible that Mother Nature is Chinese?