Friday, October 10, 2014

Dads and Miscarriage: An Opportunity Lost

‘As soon as you see that little line on the pregnancy test, you already have hopes and expectations and are planning for the future… but a miscarriage? It’s almost like an opportunity lost.  Especially from a man’s perspective – you see that vision of the future disappearing and there is nothing you can do about it.’ Dave, aged 37.

In 2010, my friend Jessica* was pregnant with three different babies, and she miscarried all three. I was also pregnant at the time, and caught up in my own glorious experience of carrying a new life. I was oblivious to the pain she and her husband Dave were experiencing.

However, this story today is not about Jessica or me. It’s about Dave. It’s also about another friend, Peter, whose wife Abbie underwent a termination when they discovered their baby had anencephaly. If men tend to be backgrounded in the pregnancy process, when it comes to miscarriage and pregnancy loss, they are practically invisible.

In light of the upcoming International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, on October 15th today – with permission - I am sharing the Dads’ side of the story.

Dave and Jess*, both 37, always wanted more than one child. But they’d had a tough pregnancy and first year with their son Josh, so they decided to wait a couple of years before trying again. 

When the time came, Jess quickly fell pregnant, but by about six weeks she had realised something was wrong and she lost the baby shortly after. It happened again. And again. ‘After the third miscarriage, it was a sign to start going down the IVF path’, Dave admitted.

Each miscarriage presented its own difficulties, both physically and emotionally.  Obviously, Jess had the worst of it physically. She had a chemically induced termination; a surgical D&C procedure; and a ‘natural’ miscarriage.  There was nothing easy or natural about any of them.

There was little Dave could do to help. ‘There was nothing I could do at home’, said Dave. ‘It’s one of those things that you feel a bit on the outside. You don’t get to experience the highs and lows of it, but you have to be as sympathetic as possible.  But unless the experience is happening to you, you can’t ever put your feet in that person’s shoes’.

Peter (34) agreed with this sentiment. His second child was diagnosed with anencephaly at 13 weeks gestation. This is a congenital condition involving malformation or absence of the brain.  

Although they could have continued with the pregnancy, the prognosis for the child was early death, typically hours or days even if it were born alive.  Peter and his wife Abbie, 35, made the difficult yet understandable decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Like Dave, Peter often felt secondary to the process. ‘I can understand that a man wouldn’t have the physical connection’, said Peter. ‘I think a lot of people just think that guys will just soldier on, but this day and age I think we’ve changed… and I do think men get a bit gypped.  Not during the process because we have to take care of the person who is holding the baby physically, but afterwards – psychologically…’

Both men agree that the focus is – and should be – on the woman, but it is short-sighted not to see that the husband can also be badly affected. 

‘You learn that the IVF process is not about the guy and nor should it be,’ said Dave. ‘But you feel extra to the process, effectively removed from any involvement in the pregnancy.  I did everything I could to support Jess, but you very much get pushed back a lot of the time.’

The helplessness men experience in these situations is understandable.  Once a miscarriage has started, there is nothing that can be done to prevent it.  Medical intervention might hasten or modify the process, but the end result is inevitable. 

And while the physical burden of the miscarriage must be borne by the woman, the man is left with little to do. ‘I’m always trying to solve problems,’ Dave explained. ‘It’s a standard male thing.  I think “what can I do to make this right and how can I fix it?” But this is something you can’t fix.  You feel pretty helpless.’

Peter also felt lost in the process of losing his baby. ‘When my Dad died, I was the one who just got on with it, made sure everything was done right, and then I could grieve.  But this time, even from the start, I didn’t know what to do.’

‘The social worker gave us numbers of people in our area if we wanted to talk, and there was a support group for it [anencephaly]’, Peter recalled.  Ultimately however, he decided not to seek out any formal counselling or support services.  

Instead he found that friends and family readily approached him offering support and their own stories. ‘The amount of work people who have come up to me and said “we lost our first”. It really helped.’ Peter and his wife were quite open about their loss, regularly sending updates to close friends and family members about what ended up being a week-long journey from diagnosis to termination.

This contrasted with Dave and Jess’ decision to keep their miscarriages incredibly private.  Even their parents still do not know the full extent of their loss. ‘I found it hard, not talking about it,’ 

Dave admitted, ‘because it’s a pretty emotional thing to go through. Even from a male’s perspective, I’m a terrible communicator at the best of times, so I didn’t speak about it. But it’s something you spend a lot of time thinking about in the background, thinking about what could have been.’

Dave did not even talk much about the miscarriages with his wife, preferring to focus on physical healing. ‘We didn’t really talk too much,’ he recalled, ‘we focussed a lot more on Jess getting better because it was quite a painful and unenjoyable experience to go through.’

‘We chose not to tell people,’ Dave explained.  ‘It’s a taboo subject.’  

Ultimately it was a random encounter at work that provided the one opportunity for Dave to talk with another man about his experience.  A generic question about children led to the discussion of age gaps between offspring. Dave then frankly admitted that Jess had experienced multiple miscarriages.  

The other man was quick to admit that his wife had just experienced her first miscarriage. ‘I found it – not quite liberating,’ said Dave, ‘but a weight off my chest.  A problem shared is a problem halved.’

The decision by both Dave and Peter not to seek formal counselling for themselves is not unusual. Men are expected to be strong in these situations, and there is a widespread expectation that they will manage their partner’s grief and somehow fix what has happened.  

According to Mensline, one of the free and confidential services offered in Australia, the vast majority of calls received from men are about needing guidance on how to support their partners through a difficult time. Less than 10% of calls were actually from men seeking personal counselling for themselves.  

Guilt is not just a female emotion. When men are unable fix things, the guilt they experience can be overwhelming. At the same time if they don’t express sufficient emotion they can feel guilty about being heartless. Peter explained ‘I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t think about it more.  I don’t know whether I should sit down and dwell on it, or is it enough that I just think about it quickly and then get on with it?’

There is no prescription for how a man should respond to the loss of a child, just as there is no prescribed period for mourning a lost opportunity. What Peter did not realise though, was that he was mourning his child every day. 

‘We are planning on buying a lemon tree, to remind us of the baby.  In the shower there’s a lemon body wash, but I haven’t touched it since. I don’t know why, it’s one of those things, but I think about the baby when I look at the lemon body wash in the shower.’

In writing to the Dads today, and asking their permission to retell their stories, Dave replied to me:

‘To be honest you tend to block the loss from your mind until there is something that reminds you of it (like your email to me now) – no matter how long it has been it still stirs a lot of emotion and sadness that you generally don’t talk about or share. It is good to be reminded and to think about it really – it helps ground you. I think right now the sense of you don’t know what you have got until you have lost it is very real and can be hard to comprehend until you have experienced it firsthand (or really hand in hand).’

Dave and Jess were lucky enough to have a successful IVF round, and then to fall pregnant again soon after their second child was born. Their house is now full with three healthy children, a happy transcript to the years of sadness and loss they experienced earlier.

But as Dave says:
‘The losses impacted us both – however we are the lucky ones that have been blessed with 3 lovely (if not challenging) children – whereas others out there may only know and have experienced loss. 

So what can we learn from these dads’ stories?

Sharing is perhaps the closest thing to a solution the dads can offer. Dave admitted in the course of the interview he had spoken more about miscarriage than he ever had to his wife. ‘But the thing is it’s not discussed, it’s not talked about, it’s not shared,’ Dave said. ‘It’s not something to be celebrated but I guess it’s a fact of life for a lot of people.’

These stories are as profound as they are commonplace.  Miscarriage and pregnancy loss does not affect just the mother, and there will always be more than one side to each story. There may be no shortcut out of the grief, but by allowing these stories to be shared, we acknowledge men’s experience and role in the process.

I want to thank both these special guys who contributed to this article, and even though it is now some time after the event, I know you still have a special place in your hearts for your babies. I am eternally indebted to you and your wives for sharing these stories.

*names have been changed

USEFUL CONTACTS  1300 789 978 
A national telephone support, information and referral service for men with family and relationship concerns
A national service dedicated to helping families who have experienced the sudden death of a pregnancy or child regardless of cause


  1. This is perfect Shannon, thank you so much for sharing it x

    1. Thinking of you especially this week Lauren, hugs


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