A Father’s Heart - men and pregnancy loss
Paul and Louise * tried for two years to become pregnant. Escalating tension as each month went by finally turned to joy when a test confirmed the long awaited pregnancy. Then came the shock of a miscarriage. Louise was inconsolable. Paul, wanting desperately to ease his wife’s distress, felt totally numb and then retreated into anger.
‘I blamed myself,’ says Paul. ‘I remember thinking I don't ever want to put her through this again, as if it was my fault for wanting a child so badly. I was afraid that if we tried again the same thing would happen. I also felt a lot of anger. Why me? – that sort of stuff. I just wanted to be a dad – it didn’t seem too much to ask.’
Five years on and with the benefit of hindsight and some counselling, Paul realises how little permission he gave himself at the time to grieve the loss of his baby. A male’s role as protector and problem solver is great when others need help, but when their own grief is overlooked our dads – and their relationships - can suffer. Paul initially threw all his emotional resources into helping Louise, leaving his own grief unattended.
‘I didn’t have time to think about my feelings. I put them on hold and certainly no one ever said to me Paul, how are you doing? Everyone was more concerned about Louise. After the first shock I went into action man mode. I took Louise for a weekend away. I painted the bathroom. I built a pergola. I worked longer hours. Anything but talk about it. I felt so churned up I had to be doing something all the time. Our marriage got very rocky.’
These are common reactions. When a man experiences emotional distress, he may automatically reinforce the messages learned in the playground that ‘big boys don’t cry’ by denying his pain. Others may think he is strong or coping well but it may also signal to his partner that he is unaffected by the loss or doesn't care.
For some men it’s difficult to openly express sadness and permit themselves a period of mourning. Often he flings himself into his work as a means of avoiding pain and frustration. He may be uncertain about what to do and say in the face of his partner's pain.
Powerlessness and helplessness are common, also guilt that he cannot ‘fix’ this problem. A sense of failure may lead him into isolation. He may feel he has to be the strong one who props up his partner. Those around him may not think to give him ‘permission’ to acknowledge or express his feelings.
What about the man who is already a dad? He knows a lot more about pregnancy and childbirth so it's likely his bond with a new expected baby will kick in much earlier and possibly on a deeper level. His existing child is a ‘measuring stick’ for future children, something on which to base his hopes and dreams for the new child: Perhaps it will be a boy this time... I can show him how to play football ... We’ll have so much fun together ... I wonder if he will sleep as well as our first ...? and so on.
He uses the relationship with his other child to form the basis of his emotional connection with the new baby. If the previous pregnancy or pregnancies have been uneventful he will naturally invest readily in the new one. The possibility of losing this current pregnancy may not occur to him at all.
This was certainly the case for Will whose fourth child was stillborn. After three straightforward pregnancies and plenty of experience helping to look after babies and toddlers, Will was stopped in his tracks by the unexpected loss of their daughter. ‘We already knew we were having a girl. We had three boys and we were all so excited. I had her room ready – everything pink and white. In my mind she was already my princess. When our little girl was stillborn, life came to a crashing halt. I had no answers for the boys, no way to fix things. I was her father. I should have kept her safe. That’s how I felt.’
Grief associated with abortion can be even harder to deal with, given that the topic is politically loaded and layered with taboos, yet grief reactions for both men and women are valid, no matter what led to the initial decision to terminate.
At 18, Martin’s girlfriend became pregnant. Once over their shock, they decided to go ahead and for Martin to be involved in raising their baby. However, her parents insisted on an abortion. They quickly made the arrangements and wouldn’t allow Martin to see her, telling him to forget all about it and get on with his life.
‘I couldn’t,’ says Martin. ‘Not a day went by that I didn’t think about what might have been. That was the end of our relationship too. I lost so much all at once.’
Martin carried his grief in silence for 27 years. In counselling Martin, now 43, acknowledged that since the abortion he’d found it difficult to maintain a loving relationship. His need for control made it hard to connect emotionally and he realised this came from his feelings of being totally helpless so many years ago.
‘I got married at 25 but it only lasted a few years. I found it hard to trust. We had a little girl but I couldn’t connect with her. I was always anxious about her safety but I got angry with her very easily too.’ Attending counselling enabled him to acknowledge his other little one whose memory he couldn’t forget. His relationship with his daughter has changed – it’s no longer driven by fear and the need to control but is one of spontaneity and fun.
With abortion choice considered primarily a woman’s issue, men such as Martin can become forgotten, left to struggle with profound feelings of helplessness, unresolved anger, guilt and acute sense of loss. The male who has said: ‘I’ll support you whatever decision you make’, may feel he has no right to express that he wants the pregnancy to continue.
Men have described feeling the ‘bitter anger’ that comes from not being able to stop an abortion. They struggle with a sense of helplessness and an inability to protect their child. On the flip side is the sense of guilt and shame some men report when they’ve insisted that their partner have an abortion.
Just as women’s grief is triggered by certain events, sounds and anniversaries, so too is a man’s. He may find himself fascinated by children around the age of his lost child, without connecting this response to the abortion.
At certain times of the year he may feel very unsettled or angry. This may coincide with the date of the abortion or the baby’s due date. He may think he’s not entitled to grieve and may push his emotions down to get on with his life. However, he’s often left struggling with symptoms like depression, anxiety, abuse of alcohol or drugs, even suicide.
A father’s heart needs as much healing as a mother’s after a pregnancy loss. The wellbeing of men, their partners and families are all in the balance.
Many men suffer in isolation after pregnancy loss whilst putting on the brave face society seems to demand. Counselling and support is available from Open Doors. This includes Remembrance Services for any pregnancy loss (miscarriage, termination, ectopic pregnancy, IVF, stillbirth) and Rachel’s Vineyard weekend retreats for post-abortion healing.
by Anne Neville and Alison Campbell Rate
*All names and identifying details are fictitious to protect client privacy.
Anne Neville (R.N., R.M., Dip. Psychotherapy, Dip. Marriage and Family, Dip. Interpersonal Relationship Therapy, Accredited Grief & Loss Counsellor with N.A.L.A.G., Clinical member of CAPAV, Clinical Counsellor PACFA Reg. No. 21127) Director of Counselling, Open Doors
Alison Campbell Rate Executive Director (Hon.) Open Doors
Burke K, Wemhoff D & Stockwell M, Redeemimg a Father’s Heart: Men Share Powerful Stories of Abortion Loss and Recovery, AuthorHouse 2007