High Anxiety and Expectant Fathers

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a first time father-to-be, and the entire pregnancy has been going very well for me and my wife. But about two weeks ago, I started experiencing anxiety which was pretty severe at times. I got very scared about me or my wife getting ill or having an accident and dying. My mind went into total freefall mode and I started thinking about all the terrible consequences this would have. Is it normal for someone to experience some pretty heavy anxiety about these issues? I’m over it now, but I wonder whether other fathers-to-be go through the same thing. Also, do you have any advice on how I can keep calm (or at least try to!) for the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy?

A: What a fantastic question. The short answer is that what you describing is actually quite common. The difference between you and most other expectant fathers is that they keep their worries to themselves—and that just makes things worse.

Almost all fathers-to-be have some kind of anxiety (and I believe that those who claim they’re worry-free are simply not paying attention). The most common concerns are financial security, changes in the marital relationship, the impending lack of sex, the loss of free time and personal space, and, as you pointed out, fears of danger to the mom, the baby, or the dad himself.

What this illustrates is that for most guys, the psychological and emotional transition from childless man to father is at least as profound as what women go through. Of course, women have a far greater physical burden to deal with. However, as many as 90 percent of expectant dads also experience some physical symptoms during their partner’s pregnancy. We’re talking things like nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, toothaches, backaches, insomnia, dizzy spells, and weight gain.

These symptoms, which are often called “sympathetic pregnancy” or couvade syndrome (from the French “to hatch”), typically start cropping up sometime around the third month of the pregnancy, taper off for a bit, then pick up again in the month or two before the baby is born. They almost always mysteriously disappear right after the birth.

A lot of researchers believe that these physical symptoms are closely related to the expectant dad’s psychological stress and anxiety. For example, if the pregnancy was unplanned, the parents- to-be are having marital troubles, the dad-to-be is feeling left out or pushed away, or if the pregnancy is considered “high risk,” the symptoms increase.

By far, the most important thing you can do to minimize your stress and anxiety (and all the associated symptoms) is to make sure you get yourself some social support. This isn’t going to be easy, since (a) you’re supposed to be supporting the pregnant mom, and (b) your primary source of support—your spouse—is too preoccupied with what’s going on inside her body to think about what you need. (Nothing wrong with that. It’s just something to be aware of). So find a couple of expectant or new dads and invite them out for a beer and a heart-to-heart. It’ll do you all a world of good.

One final note to our readers. I’m in the process of doing major revisions to my books, “The Expectant Father” and “The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year.” If you’re a new dad or a dad-to-be—especially if you’re a Gen-X, Gen-Y, or Millennial—I’d love to hear about your experiences and your biggest concerns. You can email me through our website, mrdad.com, or directly to armin@mrdad.com.