Voices. I heard voices when the doctor told us our baby was dead.
“Your wife is going to need you to be strong for her,” one voice said.
“It’s going to be hard for her for a while,” added another.
“Time to step up and put those husband pants on,” a third voice challenged.
And like the good man I was raised to be, I stiffened my upper lip, squared my jaw, straightened my shoulders, and quietly set my mind on doing whatever it took to see my wife through this loss.
Still, something felt wrong in my gut. Something was missing.
Is it still the societal expectation that husbands be strong for their wives? Good question. I don’t know. I know a lot has changed in the scheme of social mores, but it seems quite often that much is still the same.
Many social theorists say gender roles in family life have become increasingly equal since the 1950s.1 In the mid-20th Century, husbands typically worked outside the home and provided for their family, while wives kept the home and took care of the kids. By the 1970s, more wives were working full-time, and more husbands shared with the housework and child care. In the years since, women by-and-large have come to fully expect equality both at work and home.1 And yet, modern radical feminists claim the shift toward gender equality still has long way to go, and that more female domination might well now be in order, completely reversing the traditional view of male-female roles in life.
More than a remnant of adherents to the classic view of husband-wife/man-woman roles, however, still seem to operate from an ‘old school’ belief system that is, if not rooted in the Bible, interested in maintaining the more traditional male-female relationships as God intended them to be, but with a bit of a modern compromisorial-twist.
Belief #1 A husband is someone who skillfully manages his household, taking responsibility,
rather than viewing it as primarily a woman’s role.
Belief #2 A husband must show leadership, meaning that when he sees something that needs to
be done at home, he steps forward and deals with it.
Belief #3 A husband is decisive, but not in a controlling way; listening, being understanding, and
Belief #4 A husband must be strong, controlling his passions, especially his anger, and stepping
up, ready to protect his loved ones.
Belief #5 A husband must show confidence, self-discipline, and integrity, dealing with difficulty,
pain and danger directly, despite his fear.2
My wife’s face remained expressionless as the doctor tried to explain what happened. Her stare shot straight through the doctor. Her hands maintained the sweaty clench they had begun earlier in the waiting room.
After untold frozen moments, she finally turned toward me. Our eyes met, and a single tear broke free and trailed unsteadily down toward her now trembling lips. Unable to stem the swelling pain any longer, she dipped her head toward her lap and began to slowly sob. As her head and shoulders shuddered, she raised her hands to cover her face, and then let the flood go free.
I placed my hand on her shoulder as tears began welling up in my eyes. My hands began to shake. My lips began to quiver, but I fought back the tears. I clenched my teeth and swallowed hard, forcing down the scream that so desperately wanted to blast out. I reminded myself, I had a job to do.
Finally, I stood up, reached for my wife’s hand, and whispered it was time to go. When she stood, I put my arm around her and guided her to the door. Her sobbing had swelled to a wail, echoing sharply off the doctor’s office walls. As we left, I glanced back toward the doctor sitting at her desk, with a knowing nod, as if to say, “I got this. Everything’s going to be ok.”
“I had a job to do.”
Bonding During Pregnancy
Typical explanations of the importance of bonding with a baby during pregnancy seem rather one sided. Experts say it is very, very important, but what they don’t say seems as equally important.
“The extent to which a young woman bonds with her fetus during pregnancy is an important determinant of the extent to which she bonds with her newborn baby after childbirth. Women who bond more during pregnancy, also develop a greater bond with their baby during infancy,” explains website, My Virtual Medicine Center, 2009
The overall emphasis of literature on bonding during pregnancy is on the mother, as it is most often referred to as her pregnancy, her fetus, and her baby. Father bonding with baby is largely an after-thought, but not in the sense as being at all important to the progress of the pregnancy, but only to help the dad not feel left out.
“Everyone knows the bond between a mother and her baby is intense, a bond of pure love and necessity. [But] many times new dads can feel left out of the bonding experience, creating tension in the relationship and leading to feelings of inadequacy,” shares Latham Thomas.
Really? Father bonding only helps the father feel like he’s a part of what’s going on? There’s no “out of necessity” impact on the fetus from the father? Was his significance completed at conception?
I had taken my reporter’s pocket tape recorder to the hospital that afternoon to record the baby’s heartbeat. It was the first time I would hear the tiny “lub-dup, lub-dup” my wife had been talking about. She was six-month’s pregnant and had already heard the baby’s heart on earlier checkups. But because of work commitments, I had not been able to go with her.
The checkup that day was no different from any of the others, scheduled regularly and far in advance. It was simply an opportunity for the doctor to see how the baby was progressing and for my wife to ask any questions she had. Since it was our first, we really didn’t know what to expect. Our only concern on this visit was that the baby seemed less active lately. After a period of rapid growth, we just wanted to know if the baby was just slowing down a little, getting ready for the last three-month haul.
I remember the doctor sticking her head out into the waiting room, and with a flip of her hand, motioned for us to follow. She led us down a series of halls to a little examination room, no bigger than a good-sized utility closet. Upon entering the room, the doctor promptly pulled from her lab coat what she called a Doppler. She said it amplifies sound, so she can better distinguish between the baby’s and the mother’s heartbeats.
I took a seat off to one side of the room and began fidgeting with my recorder. I was nervous and wanted to make sure everything was ready and didn’t miss a single sound. We had been trying to get pregnant for the past two years, and I could hardly believe it was finally happening. We were going to be parents.
I wanted to get the first beats I would hear, so I could always relive the thrill of the moment when the doctor said, “That’s it. That’s your baby.”
After moments of small talk and moving the device all over my wife’s stomach, the doctor’s voice fell silent. Her movements became more hurried. She blurted soft commands staccato, “Roll right! Roll left!”
Her questions became more frantic, searching, “Have you noticed less movement lately? Have you experienced any pain? Any spotting?”
My wife’s jaw dropped. Her eyes opened wide, anxiously scanning the doctor’s face for clues for the sudden concern.
The doctor stopped moving the device and looked straight into my wife’s eyes. Long seconds passed. “I can’t get a beat,” she said. “I can’t hear a thing.”
I felt a million miles away. The drama unfolding before me was like so many scenes I had watched on t.v. and at the movies. It wasn’t real, and not happening to me.
Somehow, though, a part of me knew the pain would eventually come and that the reality before me would finally hit way too close to home. The thumb that had been poised for the last several minutes atop the red record button, waiting excitedly to register my unborn baby’s beating heart, numbly slipped off the side of the recorder.
“It’s hard for most women to imagine anything worse than experiencing an unsuccessful pregnancy.”
--Karen Kleiman, MSW
Mental and Emotional Damage
Nearly 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. And as expected, the loss can be totally devastating. Research tells us that a woman is most at risk for mental and/or emotional illness during and after pregnancy than any other time in her life. The risk for depression is great. And even greater after a miscarriage.3
Studies have shown that during the first year after a loss, supportive counseling for mothers is effective in reducing anger, depression, confusion, and seemingly never-ending loss. In the interest of preventing unnecessary mental and emotional damage, it is important to know that the disturbance caused when a woman loses a baby in pregnancy is immanently treatable.
“Giving a woman permission to grieve sufficiently can ease the pain of her loss and promote healing.”
--Karen Kleiman, MSW
But what about the father? No damage to be concerned about there? All I know is I felt pain like I had never before, or since, experienced. I sure could have used some of that “permission” to grieve. Where in the literature does it talk about fathers and their loss during miscarriage? Where does it talk about the importance of getting them help, too?
My wife cried for days, practically non-stop. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t sleep. For the most part, getting up and washing her face, or using the bathroom, was about all she could handle. Nights and days ran together, and there seemed to be no end in sight.
The phone rang off the hook; well-wishers wanting to know how they could help, asking how my wife was holding up, and telling me how lucky she was to have such a strong husband to take care of her.
I assured each and every one that I would do my best to see my wife through this tragedy. I graciously accepted their condolences, as well as their well-intentioned advice about how to help her get on with her life.
A couple of weeks later, I finally realized what was missing in this whole tragedy. It wasn’t until my wife and I went to visit my grandmother one weekend that I realized that my pain had been completely overlooked.
Shortly after arriving at my grandmother’s, I headed for her front door to let her know we had arrived, while my wife rummaged through her belongings in the trunk. My grandmother met me at the front door with a hug and a kiss. Then she held my face in her hands, looked lovingly in my eyes, and then asked, “How is she?”
Before I could answer, my wife came up behind me and then into my grandmother’s arms. They both began sobbing, and then disappeared together into a back room. I was left alone, standing in the entryway, holding our suitcases from the car.
That’s when it hit me. The voices.
“How’s she doing?’ one voice asked.
“She’s taking it hard, isn’t she,” another stated.
“Is she getting enough sleep and enough to eat?” a third inquired.
The voices swirled about and around my head, echoing the same messages in my ears, teasing and taunting me.
“What about me?” I asked of no one in particular. “What about how I am doing? What about my pain? After all, didn’t I lose a baby, too?”
At that moment I understood for the first time that I had unwittingly succumbed to years and years of conditioning by a societal more, taught to me by so many others who came before me, especially those who without blinking an eye believed it was the husband’s role to be strong for his wife, no matter what. It was my role in life as a man.
Like an explosion in my head, stemming from even a few weeks of bottling up my emotions, I realized, “The voices were wrong. They’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
I felt lost, though I still felt I had a job to do. But I wondered, “When being strong for my wife was over, would there be someone who would be strong for me? Who was going to help me get on with my life?”
What I had come face to face with was the fact that fathers suffer the loss of a pregnancy too. I certainly did. And that they need a strong steady hand and safe space to grieve.
My confusion gave way to sadness, then depression. I stood for what seemed like an eternity in that entryway, knowing that my suffering would never really be over. I knew I would have to bury it deep, counting on time to dull its pang, and the ‘busy-ness” of the world to help me forget.
I would never get a turn to really cry.
“…the loss of a child can be overwhelming, to say the least. For many, it seems unending.”
--Stephen Moeller, GRS
Losing my son during pregnancy broke my heart. And I found myself left completely alone with my grief. Wishing I knew then what I know now, I could have had a real recovery from my loss. I didn’t get to hear the well-meaning, but misleading wishes of family and friends, like “Don’t feel bad, he just wasn’t meant to be,” or “You can always try again,” or “Just give it time, and the pain will pass.” My wife did. I got left to grieve alone, but not to really grieve, because I was expected to be a man and set aside all that, and focus on what was most important, helping my wife with her loss.
Real recovery begins with the acknowledgement that something has been lost, and that with help, while what was lost can never be regained, recovery from the grief that resulted is very possible. James and Friedman, in their landmark book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, explain that incomplete or no recovery from grief can have lifelong debilitating effects. 4
You have to find an actual certified grief recovery specialist. It is a must. Real recovery can’t be accomplished by trying to heal yourself, any more than by reading a book. Someone has to lead you down the road to recovery. A trained guide has to point out the steps along the way, so that you don’t get lost.
Step 1—Acknowledge the things you have resorted to in the past to bring relief to your
Step 2—Stop doing them.
Step 3—Examine all the losses you have experienced, prioritizing them from worst to least in
terms of impact in your life.
Step 4—Begin addressing all your “unfinished” business with respect to appropriately dealing
with all your losses.
It was more than a year later before thoughts and feelings about my loss began to fade from my daily consciousness. It’s been more than 30 years now, and I still sigh when I hear Clayton’s name. Every year still, on the day my boy died, although my mind has long forgotten it, my gut remembers, and after a day of silent emotional struggling, it dawns on me by day’s end why.
To date, Clayton is my only son. And doctors still do not know why his brain just stopped developing. But I will be damned if another father has to suffer in silence as I did, as I am sure so many others have before me, and many still do. We all need to get help, no matter how long ago the loss happened. If I can do it after more than 3 decades, you all can.
My recovery could have begun so long ago if only someone, anyone, would have at the very least asked me, “How are you doing, Jeff?” That would have started me thinking about my feelings, and what I could do about them. I didn’t know at the time that my feelings mattered. I didn’t know I needed help.
“Are Men and Women Equal in Relationships?” Karl Thompson, 2015.
“5 Things a Man Needs to Do in a Successful Relationship,” Elliot Katz, 2010.
“Pregnancy Loss and Depression,” Karen Kleiman, 2012.
“The Death of a Child,” Stephen Moeller, 2017.