Losing a pregnancy was devastating for both of us. It also made me realize how difficult it can be for many men to grieve loss.
Last summer was the second time in our decade-long relationship that I yelled at my husband in public. I still replay it over again in my head. We met up with friends for a socially distanced picnic. Under a beautifully lit summer sky, we ate pizza and reunited from afar. The conversation began like many during the most unprecedented disruption of our lives. Asking the annoying, but necessary, “So, have you been up to anything?”
We don’t leave our house, I thought to myself. And since we were in the middle of trying to conceive, we had remained on the stricter end of the spectrum. There was one big change to our otherwise monotonous days. But I wasn’t about to share it.
I noticed my husband’s eyes light up as he started talking. The truth was we had seen those two desirable pink lines show up again. Our excitement barely contained. But with the news so fresh, and memories of a traumatic second trimester miscarriage in the fall of 2018 flooding back, keeping quiet felt imperative. Apparently, I was alone in that opinion.
“We’re pregnant!” he exclaimed. His face transformed into a giant smile.
I panicked and tried motioning to him without speech. But my husband has never mastered the art of quietly communicating in a group setting. So, without secret codes or expressions to utilize, or really any thought at all, I yelled out, “Dude, what the fuck are you doing?!”
The glow beaming from his checks instantly vanished. Replaced with a look of confused sadness.
“I…. just wasn’t expecting you to say that,“ I quickly explained through uncontrolled but now quieted anger.
Our uncomfortable friends said congratulations. Also taken aback by my sudden, and extraordinary change in demeanor. I attempted some late composure. Torn between trying to right my wrong, and bubbling with anger at his naivety.
“It’s just that it’s very early to share”, I explained in a low voice, forcing a smile. Towards my spouse however, my sharp tone remained. He mouthed the words, what’s your problem?
Back home, my husband asked for forgiveness. Explaining that his excitement over our news had gotten the best of him, and it was wrong. But, he still didn’t understand why it was so upsetting. I could fault him for sharing without consulting me, but not for just being himself. But admitting it sufficed. In return, I expressed apologies for my outburst, which now felt quite embarrassing.
Shortly after that, at eight weeks, the ultrasound no longer registered a heartbeat. For the second time we learned we weren’t going to be parents anymore. This time way before the bodily changes and baby name lists.
Days later we were returning from the hospital after my procedure. On the cab ride home, he was quiet and kept to himself. He gently placed me on our couch and left to get my requested meal from McDonald’s.
Upon returning, his behavior had gone from quiet to enraged. Usually, a curmudgeon kind of annoyance was reserved for what he considered the unknowing people of the world. I affectionately coined him “LD” (Larry David), and would come to expect some laughable “you won’t believe this” story after returning home. Someone not prepared with a food order or a person who cut him off in line.
Screaming from the kitchen, he relayed that McDonald’s was worse than usual and the pharmacy was closed for lunch. I knew a story was coming. Usually, I’d be curious, even happy to humor him. But this time, I didn’t care.
I’d just had our second baby literally scraped out of my body. And he was sharing unimportant grievances with me. The overlapping of these things felt unbearable.
But this time, he seemed angrier than usual. His annoyances were usually light hearted and funny. But the jovial undertones of his complaints were missing. The tension was palpable. It was contagious too, and soon I was also enraged. How dare he yell about something so trivial while I lay here grieving, and I cried in private, wondering aloud if he cared, or even loved me.
Later that evening, my husband came to me apologetic and defeated. I’m hurting too, I lost something too, he whispered. Before cradling me in his arms, and falling asleep. In that moment, I realized his earlier outburst was his way of channeling his grief.
The disconnect we felt is not uncommon.
“It’s a vicious cycle”, says author Aaron Gouveia. “Many men stay quiet because they’ve been taught that silence equals strength. And then women wonder why they’re not being more supported.”
In his new book, Men and Miscarriage: A Dad’s Guide to Grief, Relationships, and Healing After Loss (co-authored with his wife MJ), Gouveia explains that many couples feel similar after a miscarriage. By going into “protector mode” men will (subconsciously or not) conceal their own emotions, which creates a deafening silence that leads to hurt and confusion. In fact, Gouveia found that only 47 percent of women he anonymously surveyed for the book felt fully supported by their spouse after trauma.
However, he notes that this suppression of emotions is not the same as being devoid of any. “Men’s emotions need an outlet too,” says Gouveia. “If no one asks if we’re okay, it reinforces that our opinions don’t really matter.”
I channeled my grief over our second miscarriage through talking, writing, yoga, and walking. I was in a support group. My husband didn’t use any of these tools. Instead, his grief manifested in other, uncontrolled methods, surfacing as not just anger but anger of the insignificant kind. I’d mistaken it for a lack of empathy. But he was subconsciously crying out to be heard. I was so focused on being supported, that I forgot he might need some, too. My husband didn’t feel as though he could break down like I could. So instead, he raged about McDonalds and outdoor crowds. For him, these things were easier to process than the loss he couldn’t confront.
Gouveia also attributes this rage to those same masculine norms that bind men. A destructive idea of manhood he describes as, “the hand around your neck you don’t even know is there.”
Gouveia himself understands these emotions, having experienced loss as well as the rarely discussed issue of male infertility. (He and MJ have three children, but experienced five miscarriages along the way.) He handled the trauma like many men, by withdrawing and lashing out.
“It’s a toxic anger, mainly due to men being trained by society to use anger as a default emotion,” he explains. “Early on, it’s ingrained that it’s weak to talk about your feelings.”
The hurt behind Aaron’s anger went unrecognized by his wife initially. Just as my husband’s did by me.
Yet, once you realize it, you can’t unsee it. Laying in the dark, quiet of our bedroom that evening, we finally communicated. This time, no words were spoken but I could hear what he was saying.
This was a man who shoved his body into a small, leather chair for three excruciating nights, while he watched over me in a hospital bed. He held my hand while a doctor removed our son from my only five months pregnant body.
He got me Starbucks, without asking for the order, and ran home to feed our puppy at all hours of the night. Always back by my side when my eyes opened again. Making dozens of calls and sending out messages. Trying to shield me from the pain of our reality. We experienced marriage at its absolute realest and he’d been there for every step.
I thought back to that unfortunate night with our friends, reflecting on it with sentimentality. Remembering my husband’s sweet, sincere face while happily and prematurely sharing our news. A deep sadness came over me thinking about his later explanation.
“There hasn’t been anything new to share, nothing going on in my life, this is big! This is everything!“
Those words reverberated through me, taking up real estate in my heart and mind. After two years, two losses, and several surgeries, I finally understood. My husband was grieving that excitement and loss just like me. It was just expressed differently.
The strong guy with a spectrum of quiet emotions had shown his feelings in that transparent moment. But instead of embracing that, I lashed out. Choosing to focus on what he said, rather than what was behind it.
That Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote came to mind: “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and oftentimes we call a man cold when he is only sad.”
For women, and mothers, the pain of losing a child is incomparable. No man could ever relate no matter how sympathetic. Yet, the wounds of some fathers run quiet, but deep. Their grief is ignored, or un-nurtured, due to the ways it can remain hidden. I realize now how important it is to take the time to look for it.
By finally understanding I wasn’t alone in my grief, I was able to give him the space to start expressing his own in more productive ways. Instead of seeing quiet fortitude as lack of concern, I began implementing three simple words that are obvious, and yet, so easily forgotten: Are you okay?
It’s not an overnight fix. But recognizing that support is a two way street is the first step. Once those lines of communication untangled, so did our ability to recognize one another’s needs.
One in four couples will experience a miscarriage, and one in eight will struggle to conceive. Awareness around this once-taboo subject is growing. But as it does, it’s time to finally acknowledge that it isn’t just women and mothers affected.
“Men do feel, and they want to know it’s okay to express those feelings. We’re not being this way on purpose,” says Gouveia, “If we knew that experiencing pain, and asking for help was okay, it would certainly start to make things much better.”
That’s why ensuring men know that their grief not only matters, but is allowed, and is imperative. That acceptance. Combined with patience and support, it can pry open the door for them to walk through it. The best way to get men to open up more about these issues is to actually start including them in the conversations.
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