When a woman suffers the loss of her baby, the grieving is inevitable. So, should we expect our partners to grieve with us, or be the pillars of strength through an emotional time?
This article first appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of Your Pregnancy magazine.
I was sat in Starbucks in Muscat, Oman, basking in that terrifying glow of fatherhood-to-be, when I got the phone call. Liz, who was nine-weeks pregnant in Cape Town, had had a miscarriage. I know my face turned white as a sheet. I know I almost threw up my coffee.
I know all the patrons were staring aghast at me as I stammered through the call. Within 24 hours, I was back in Cape Town to help my wife grieve.
Research from the British Miscarriage Association suggests that more than 50% of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage or stillbirth, but that almost half of all men whose partners miscarry never speak about their grief with their partner for fear of saying the wrong thing.
This, despite it affecting their own work and sleep. Men, it seems, are expected to return to normal life, with at best clumsy comments like, “Never mind, you can try again,” to tide them through their grief.
Certainly, to this day, not a single person has asked me how I was handling any of my wife’s three miscarriages. Not my male friends, not my mother, not my in-laws, definitely none of my wife’s girlfriends, and certainly not a grief counsellor.
Do I resent this?
No. This is what it means to be a man. Or so I thought. You are the rock against which the waves of her emotion break. Besides, you can’t have a situation where every adult in the house is a teary wreck. My tears seemed like a terribly selfish indulgence, especially when I saw my wife questioning her own value as a woman – a woman whose own womb had betrayed her.
And if the loss of a life within herself wasn’t devastating enough, her mistrust in her own body to do what it is designed to do, soured into a form of guilt which verged on self-hatred.
And suddenly, it seemed, the world was conspiring to inundate us with images of pregnant women – on TV, in movies, in books, on Facebook. Even the emaciated, homeless women sleeping in freezing rain in shop doorways seemed able to carry to term.
- Also see: Misunderstanding miscarriage
How men process grief
As a man, you want to fix things. And, if you can’t fix things, you want to move on. Am I right? Yes and no, according to South African mom Nicole Masureik, who started the support group Born Sleeping, in 2007, after having had a stillbirth. Nicole says men and women process grief very differently, especially when it comes to miscarriages.
The pregnant woman has a much deeper, constant, intimate connection with the life growing inside her, whereas for the man, this is still only a concept, a potential child, she explains.
“Whenever the miscarriage happens, or even if it is a stillbirth, many men feel they must be the stable rock, the provider who keeps the family going. This is a very typical male response, but unfortunately for women it’s the inappropriate response. She wants him to cry. She wants him to feel as devastated as she does. Of course he’s grieving, but this isn’t how men process their grief.
“Women are much more open with their grief. They talk to friends. They lie on the bed and cry. Men tend to be more internal. They keep themselves busy with work or physical activity. They might tell a close mate that they’re feeling down, and the mate will say, ‘Hmmm’, and they’re relieved that’s off their chest.”
Nicole’s partner Graeme Broster points out that after the stillbirth, “Nicole went into meltdown. My grief was less immediate. We had a one-and-a-half-year-old child, and somebody had to cook the meals, and do the school run. My grief had to be put on hold. The difficulty was coming back to that space so I could grieve. It took me about four years before I realised I hadn’t dealt with it, and it was still affecting my life.”
- Also see: How to deal with a miscarriage
Nicole says that while women shouldn’t expect men to grieve in the same way as they do, men should not put expectations on the woman to sweep emotions under the carpet and to move on.
“In the last 10 years I’ve seen changes in society. When we first started this support group, men just didn’t ask for help for anything, certainly not for emotions. More and more, though, men are keen to come and talk things through in our counselling sessions. The next generation of young men are way more in touch with their emotions,” she says.
Joburg clinical psychologist Hlengiwe Zwane says often how men react to a miscarriage depends on several factors, including culture and individual personality, as well as whether the pregnancy was the result of months of planning and struggling to fall pregnant, or an unplanned pregnancy.
“If the couple are saying, ‘We’re pregnant’, you usually find a more collective sense of grief and responsibility for dealing with the loss. I’ve had women come to me who feel their partner doesn’t care. Then, when you meet the man, you realise he does care. He’s acting strong, but hurting on the inside.”
Zwane says the most important thing is to be real with one’s loss, to confront one’s grief and keep the lines of communication open within a relationship. “Speak to your partner. Is she feeling blamed, or carrying the guilt or blaming you? She needs you as much as you need her. Don’t delay or suppress dealing with your loss, as it will lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or drugs.”