When Hilaria Baldwin publicly shared her first miscarriage, her husband (Alec Baldwin) was quoted as saying, “My wife’s happiness is my prime concern.” The husband of my friend, Jessica, who had a second-trimester miscarriage, echoed this same sentiment: “I think it probably takes time for men to come to terms with the loss, because they feel their first responsibility is to their wife.”
When I pressed further, asking about how he “stuffed down” his own emotions, he made me aware that I had presented this “stuffing down” as a bad thing when, in his mind, it was necessary and beneficial for the relationship: “When his wife is at her most frail, does she want the man to be at his most vulnerable point as well? If so, will the relationship get stronger in the arms of empathy or drown in the sea of instability?”
Maybe he’s right-maybe the relationship does benefit from one person “staying strong.” But I think a dose of vulnerability is helpful too. I wanted to know my husband felt some of the pain I felt, that I wasn’t alone. In general, though, I know that he just didn’t feel comfortable with that vulnerability. As Jessica’s husband told me: “From day one, we are told not to cry on the playground because it shows weakness. Repressing sad or fearful emotions has been instilled in us from the earliest age. We consider ourselves strongest when we can show our protective abilities and overcome our fears and sadness.”
I have empathy for those who carry this weight. It’s no wonder that one study of the psychosocial effects of stillbirth on fathers found that grief suppression (avoidance), employment difficulties and financial debt, and increased substance abuse were all common.
Of course, male partners are not the only ones who feel the pressure to stay strong. Dr. Danuta Wojnar published the first empirical study on lesbian couples’ experiences of pregnancy loss and found that the person who did not carry the baby has a similar response to a man in a heterosexual partnership following a miscarriage: “The response tends to be, ‘I lost her and I don’t know how to get her back’.” Dr. Huong Diep, a licensed clinical psychologist and co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss, says, “No matter how they identify on the gender identity spectrum, there is a sense that they are ‘pushed away’ following a pregnancy loss due to the gestational partner believing that the non-gestational partner cannot share in the same level of grief because they were not carrying the baby.” It’s in this pushed-away state that partners conclude that the best they can do is “be supportive” and “stay strong.”
Frankly, I didn’t give much thought to my husband in the midst of our four pregnancy losses. I was pretty consumed with myself and my own pain. In retrospect, he was definitely suffering; his suffering just was not as obvious as mine. I was the identified patient, the one who went to therapy. But he may have benefitted from having his own therapist. As Dr. Shara Brofman, a licensed clinical psychologist, told the Washington Post, “There’s such a focus on mom and baby, but we’re trying to be more inclusive. Everyone who is taking care of someone needs to be taking care of themselves, too.”
This post was written by Kim Hooper, with content excerpted from All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss.