Men Becoming Fathers

The issue of men and pregnancy is one that brings many misconceptions. Men in our culture are viewed as sperm donors. Should a pregnancy occur, the assumption is that if it comes to fruition, the male will hopefully assume the proper role of father, but no one seems to understand how this transition happens.

When abortion occurs, the mindset is that it is the turf of the woman alone. It is up to her to make the decision because “it is her body” and therefore her choice. People are always taken aback when men who have been touched by abortion tell of their experiences. They remain puzzled by why a man would be troubled, after all it is the woman’s body that is impacted.

Fairly recent research may change some of the perceptions. While I say fairly recent research, I want to say that primitive societies recognized long ago that men were also being changed by pregnancy. They knew that when a woman was pregnant, her partner could have symptoms of pregnancy. This phenomena is called “couvade,” a French word that means hatching. While the woman was delivering the baby surrounded by other women, in some cultures, men had their own birthing hut and were undergoing a pseudo-labor.

The long and the short of it, is that is a male is in proximity to his pregnant partner he is being biologically changed as well.

Very early in the pregnancy, the woman’s scent changes. The scent I refer to is not body odor but a unique scent communication, called pheremones. These are scent molecules of affiliation, which are perceived by 8 out of 10 humans.

They are perceived by little pits in the septum of the nose, and communicated to a nerve in the brain, called Nerve Zero or the Terminal nerve. It is a small fragile nerve that was discovered not too many years ago. It sits in front of the olfactory nerve which is the nerve we normally associate with scent perception. ( This is the nerve involved with perfume and a myriad of other scents) Nerve Zero is only concerned with the information communicated through pheremones however. Pheremones are not unique to humans, but are present across the animal kingdom. Some of the information men perceive include if this partner is fertile, infertile or pregnant. Chemical contraceptives change the woman’s pheremones, by the way, making her smell infertile.

Males perceive the scent of pregnancy very early in the pregnancy. It is the case, that sometimes, it is the male who tells his partner that she is pregnant, much to her astonishment.

It seems that this recognition of a pregnancy sets off other changes in the male body.60 to 80% of men will experience Couvade, meaning he will experience symptoms of pregnancy with his partner. This has been called “sympathetic pregnancy symptoms” but as we learn more, these to do not seem to be psychosomatic, but biological. And 20 % of these men will be quite ill. They may even seek the attention of a physician who has never learned about this in medical school and so will dismiss them as some sort of virus that will eventually go away. Doctors are not taught to ask if his partner is pregnant.

The symptoms that the father will report include nausea and vomiting. He will complain of headaches, back aches and tooth aches. He will complain of feeling unsettled and anxious and having trouble sleeping, He may also speak of food cravings and possible weight gain up to 6 pounds or so. One interesting point, is that the 20% who are the sickest also have an interesting outcome. When their child is born they are hard-wired to recognize the different types of cries in their offspring..hunger, tired, distress, like the mother. The other men need to learn to discriminate the cries.

But there is more to the story. About 6 weeks before the baby arrives, the father undergoes hormonal changes. His testosterone drops considerably, making him less aggressive and less likely to roam. His estrogen rises, making him kinder, more caring and tender toward his wife. His cortisol, the stress hormone of our bodies rises, but not so much as to put him into a stress reaction, but enough to put him on alert to protect. This hormone is also related to bonding. He gets a great deal of a predominantly male hormone called vasopressin. In sexual intimacy this hormone triggers jealousy of their partner and gives him preference for her. (Friends with benefits and hook up sex still trigger a cascade of bonding hormones that it is impossible to turn off, changing us with each encounter.) It seems that the purpose of this hormone at this time, is to make him more likely to stay in relationship, to bond and provide support to the woman. Close to the time the baby arrives, the father gets prolactin, the nursing hormone in abundance and for about 6 weeks, it makes him extra nice and helpful He smiles a lot and provides extra TLC to mother and new baby. When his hormones begin to return to their pre-pregnant state after about 6 weeks, his testosterone never again returns to its bachelor levels. It appears he is hard-wired for this new role of fatherhood.

It seems that the changes may go beyond hormonal. In the primate kingdom, where the adult males care for their off-spring they develop new brain cells in the pre-frontal cortex, the higher functioning part of the brain. To my knowledge, no one has done brain scans of fathers during the pregnancy and into the early months of infant care. However, there is work being reported on recently that men who spend time with their infants, holding and cuddling them do seem to be developing new brain cells. It has also been observed that if fathers are with their children right after birth, holding them, that the father could then identify his baby soon after birth, if blind-folded by touch. He already knows the feel of the back of his baby’s hand. This is early work and we do not know how extensive the changes are or how long they last. In the primates, the cell changes lasted until the young became independent. That could be the case in the human father as well.

The bottom line is that men are also undergoing biological changes during a pregnancy if he is with his partner. In light of this information, it would seem to be the case that when an abortion happens, the man’s body is also impacted. The changes begun very early may come to a screeching halt if she no longer smells pregnant. What does this mean to the man whose body has begun a biological transition to fatherhood that then comes to a screeching halt? There is still much to be discovered, but clearly men are intimately linked to the pregnancy of their partner!

Additional Reading

Stretch Marks for Dad

Post-Partum Depression for New Fathers 

Lecturer investigates hormonal link to ‘sympathy pregnancies’ in men

Vicki Thorn is the executive director of the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation & Healing, Inc

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