While one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage in Australia, support for partners in the aftermath of pregnancy loss is still shockingly scarce. Men’s Health talked to men who have experienced miscarriage and know first-hand why that needs to change.
When Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle announced their pregnancy losses in late 2020, there followed – quite rightly – an outpouring of support on social media. Yet, the ensuing discussion and media coverage primarily focused on their loss alone, with little mention of their partners, John Legend and Prince Harry.
That 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage is a sobering statistic, and there’s no denying the toll of this loss on a woman is great. As the carrier of the child, she feels the full emotional and physical impact, and this ordeal can lead to longer-term mental health concerns such as PTSD, anxiety and depression.
But although they may not undergo the dreadful physical aspects of pregnancy loss, their partner is far from immune to its impact. According to research by Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research, while one in five mothers suffer from long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress after a miscarriage, one in 12 partners do too. “It’s really vital to recognise that both parents experience the loss,” says Amina Hatia, midwife at UK pregnancy charity Tommy’s.
“Every miscarriage I’ve ever experienced is like an indelible pain inside me.”
“Miscarriage weighs on you,” says Chris Lawson, creator of the IVFDad podcast. “Every miscarriage I’ve ever experienced is like an indelible pain inside me.”
While studies suggest men’s feelings are usually less intense, they still feel everything from sadness to anger and confusion. Research also shows men are more likely to channel their emotions into harmful vices, such as increased alcohol consumption.
But despite knowing that men are affected, research into the effects of miscarriage remains focused on women, and support for partners in the aftermath of pregnancy loss is still shockingly sparse.
Life in the Unknown
Lawson recalls learning of his and his wife’s most recent pregnancy loss. “We were in the room with the sonographer, and she suddenly stopped talking. We just sort of knew – it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room in that instant,” he says. “She wanted to go and get a second opinion [so] left us in the consulting room, and we hugged each other. Once it was confirmed, it was kind of like, well what happens next? All these decisions need to be made when really, what’s going on in my head is, ‘We’ve just lost our chance’.”
For Chris Whitfield, whose experience of miscarriage prompted him to develop the support platform Miscarriage For Men, the realities of Covid exacerbated the situation. “Going through a miscarriage at any time is bad enough, but going through it during a pandemic makes things a hell of a lot worse,” he says. “My wife had to go into the hospital and find out herself that our baby had passed away, and I had to sit outside in the car, which was horrific.”
Unfortunately, they had to wait a further two weeks for final confirmation, “as it could have been that the baby was measuring smaller, it could have been a number of things,” Whitfield explains. “That’s the hardest two weeks of your life at that point, because you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Inevitably, we went back [and the foetus] wasn’t there. We sat in the car on the way home, didn’t speak to each other, and had no idea what was going to happen next.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
It’s unusual to hear men talking about miscarriage in this way; the topic remains taboo, and, according to Dr Sandra Wheatley, a social psychologist with a special interest in parenting, that’s largely due to gender stereotypes. “It’s just not acceptable in Western culture for [men] to be as devastated about a pregnancy loss as a woman,” says Wheatley. “And it can multiply that burden when they feel they must hide it.”
But this clichéd image of masculinity frustrates Whitfield. “[Some] guys feel if they do talk about stuff and show their emotions, they’re somehow weaker, which is not the case at all,” he states. “If anything, they’re stronger.”
Tommy’s research found 73% of men going through miscarriage feel they have to be ‘strong’. For some, this is tied to upholding a masculine image, but for others, it’s a case of wanting to be a pillar of support for their partner.
“Guys feel if they do talk about stuff and show their emotions, they’re somehow weaker.”
“You almost see your role as a coach: it’s motivator, it’s positive, it’s ‘we can get through this’,” explains Lawson. This sentiment is echoed by Whitfield: “For me, first and foremost, I wanted to make sure my wife was alright, that she was looked after and that I was a shoulder to cry on if she needed it.” But “while you’re doing that, you’re not really focused on your own feelings,” Lawson adds.
Not having a literal connection with the foetus, as the mother does, can also prevent men from asking for help. “They’re not expected to be that attached because they haven’t been physically, and the pregnancy hasn’t imposed its presence on their everyday being,” Wheatley says – although viewing the baby via ultrasound enhances that connection and can subsequently intensify feelings of grief.
“Because you don’t have any of the physical burden, you can feel completely helpless in the situation,” Lawson adds. “It can almost feel like you don’t have a part to play, and that leads you to bury your feelings.”
Supply Versus Demand
While studies have found the desire to put on a masculine front prevents a number of men from obtaining support, another key issue is that it’s hard to find for those who do want and need it. According to a Tommy’s survey, “three-quarters felt there was nothing available for them,” states Hatia.
Whitfield recognises he’s been fortunate to receive excellent support from friends. “I had guys I could ring at 2am and say ‘I’m in a bit of a dark place now and I just need to get some stuff off my chest’,” he says.
However, “I [also] wanted to speak to guys who’d been through this and were presently going through it, to see what they’d done. I couldn’t find that anywhere.”
Demand is clearly there: since launching Miscarriage For Men in March 2021, “the reception has been surreal,” explains Whitfield. “I’ve had over 60,000 visitors to the platform and over 1000 direct messages. I’ve got guys reaching out who had a miscarriage 25 years ago, saying they wish they’d had this platform then.”
And, although it was initially designed to aid others, the process of developing Miscarriage For Men has acted as a form of personal therapy for Whitfield. “By building the website and helping other people, it was helping me deal with my grief,” he notes.
Like Whitfield, Lawson was also able to turn to friends “and they were great” – but discovered these close relationships made their response overwhelming at points. “Sometimes it can almost be unbearable when you see the pain they’re feeling for you, if that makes sense,” he reveals. “I think [this] is part of the reason why we don’t end up talking about it.”
Instead, he found speaking to a counsellor particularly beneficial as it provided a safe external space where he could express his emotions. But despite the benefit therapy has had on both Whitfield and Lawson, men are significantly less likely to access professional mental health support than women.
“The only advice that will apply to everyone is to take it a day at a time and be kind to yourself.”
Why Tommy’s, the Miscarriage Association offers telephone helpline support for people in the UK, Hatia says, “Tommy’s is currently developing an online information hub specifically to support dads and partners through pregnancy and loss” for those of us in other parts of the world. And for those not up for talking, “online communities like Tommy’s Facebook Support Group can help people feel less alone by reading about others’ experiences, even if they don’t feel able to share their own yet,” suggests Hatia.
“Everyone grieves differently and there’s no right or wrong,” she adds. “The only advice that will apply to everyone is to take it a day at a time and be kind to yourself.”
However, if you do feel you need support, it’s important to seek it – as not doing so “can have very far-reaching and long-term effects in terms of mental wellness,” explains Wheatley. For example, “if you have depression once, you’re much more likely to suffer from it again. Anything that can be done to help prevent that occurring in the first place should be prioritised.”
Working Towards Change
Both Lawson and Whitfield believe companies and employers have a huge role to play in encouraging outreach and awareness. “There definitely is some great work to be done around education in the work environment, and for it to be okay to say, ‘I need some time out because we’re going through this’,” Lawson says. “I think if you’re a male worker, you’d naturally assume you can’t take time off unless it’s to look after your partner.”
Having this additional support affirms to men that it is okay to grieve, and they don’t have to throw themselves back into work to try and bury their feelings – something Lawson admits he did and isn’t proud of.
“It’s a moment that I reflect on. I asked [my wife] if she was okay, and she said yes, you can go back to work. It allowed me to carry on blocking it out,” says Lawson. “I didn’t want people to know or ask what was wrong, because that was more painful. I didn’t want them to say ‘Did it not work?’
“Toughing it out and pretending like nothing had happened…was the way I dealt with it,” he adds.
If you are living in Australia and have experienced a miscarriage, SANDS is an independent organisation that provides support for miscarriage, stillbirth and newborn death. You can call them on 1300 072 637 or visit www.sands.org.au.
Whether you’re a bereaved father or grandfather looking for support, or another family member who would like to better understand the grief experience from a male perspective, their male volunteer parent supporters can help.
Support for dads is available by appointment. SANDS’ parent supporters can speak with you by phone or email – whatever makes you feel most comfortable. Please email email@example.com to request an appointment.
The team also run a monthly online support group for dads on the first Wednesday evening of the month from 7pm. A support group facilitator leads discussion amongst a small group of attendees. Dads are invited to share their experiences, but many also choose to just listen, gaining comfort from knowing they are not alone.
To join the online group, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and you’ll be sent instructions and a link to join the group on the night.
Check out more here.
You could also call MensLine on 1300 789 978 or the Bereavement Information and Referral Service on 1300 664 786.
This article was originally published on Mens Health UK.