Things we didn’t know: Pregnancy is not a “non-event” for men

I’ve been involved in post-abortion healing for 40 years. In the beginning the focus was on the woman and ironically, it continues to be so! It is the woman’s body and the woman’s right to choose and decide. However, in my own life experience, I encountered men who were devastated by the loss of their child to abortion. Because of this, I began to wonder if there might be more to the story than a sort of disinterested male who nods in agreement to an abortion decision.

I love biology and physiology, and over the years I have continued to probe how our bodies work. I have come upon some fascinating material. I would like to share it with you to broaden our understanding of pregnancy from a different perspective.

I discovered in my reading that women continue to carry the cells of all the children they ever conceive for many years and possibly for the rest of their lives. This phenomenon is called “Microchimerism” and there is on-going research on the effects of these cells. One of the findings that was surprising, is that if a miscarriage or an abortion occurs, more cells are retained from those children then the ones who are birthed. The biological memory stays with us. These cells are in our bodies by about 4 weeks into the pregnancy.

At this point there is a scent communication called pheromones (scent molecules of affiliation, perceived by a small nerve at the front of our brain) that the father recognizes as indicating pregnancy and HIS body begins to respond and to change. I had the experience of my husband’s uncle telling me I was pregnant when I didn’t know it and subsequently miscarried. Also a niece’s husband told her she was pregnant when they had been told by doctors that it would never happen, and he was right!

There are slightly different descriptions of what changes and when, but I will work with what I have found most consistently in reading the research. The first thing that happens is that his cortisol rises. That is considered the stress hormone but it is also associated with protection and bonding. Then many fathers experience symptoms of pregnancy with their partner. This is called “couvade” and it is French for “hatching”. There are different estimates of how many partners are affected…from 20 to 60%, and from 69 to 90% with 20% being really sick. Regardless of the statistics if it is “you” it is 100%. Symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, back pain, pseudocyesis (known as “phantom pregnancy”), lethargy, morning sickness, toothache, food cravings, and aversions. He may gain as much as 20% of his body weight while waiting for the birth. There may be some psychological symptoms as well including mood swings, early morning waking, anxiety, poor concentration, distraction, and memory loss.

Exactly how the hormonal changes happen in the man, and how specific symptoms line up seems to be unknown. However, researchers find that fathers hormones change at the end of pregnancy, before birth, and into the post-natal time. Our father gets more cortisol for protection and bonding. His testosterone drops to reduce aggression, and support bonding. In the first pregnancy, his testosterone never returns to the pre-pregnancy level. Anthropologically speaking he went from a hunter/aggressor to a protector/provider. He still has adequate testosterone but it is not too high. (High testosterone levels have been associated with “incompatible non-nurturing behaviors”). His estrogen rises (Yes, men do have some estrogen) which combined with the lowered testosterone makes him more tender and caring and attentive. He gets more vasopressin, which is a predominantly male bonding hormone. And he gets prolactin, the nursing hormone, for 6 weeks or so. He also gets more oxytocin, which is a powerful bonding hormone.  Early research seems to be indicating that there may be brain change that also occurs in the pre-frontal cortex.

Many have written about the grief that follows a miscarriage for men. We must also speak about the grief that follows an abortion in the father. Not only are there emotional changes, but what happens in his body when the process is not completed? (We know in women there can be a rapid follow up pregnancy. I have had men tell me they too desired another pregnancy and acted out accordingly, often with a different partner and sometimes with the same abortion outcome!) There is still so much we don’t know because our society tends to be unaware of the very real biological changes that are occurring in the fathers that are halted with the loss of the child! We need to empower men to understand changes that were happening to them! And we need to acknowledge the pain and loss the father may feel when the child is lost to an abortion! Men are reticent to speak about their pain because from the beginning they were dismissed as mere sperm donors. It’s time to speak the truth about fatherhood and to offer loving support to those who are hurting. It is never a non-event!

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